What’s New in RTD Alcoholic Beverages?

by | Jun 23, 2022

Sales of RTD alcoholic beverages continued to expand in the last year, despite pandemic-related closures of bars and restaurants. International Wine & Spirit Research (IWSR) predicts RTDs will double their market share by 2025, moving to 8 percent of the global alcoholic beverage market (up from 4 percent in 2020). The trend reflects the broadening availability and variety available to a growing audience who is responding to the convenience and taste of a RTD alcoholic drink.

  • A recent survey from Bacardi revealed that more than 40 percent of consumers worldwide plan to drink an RTD adult beverage in 2022.
  • The category generates stronger appeal in the U.S., where 80 percent of adults plan to explore their RTD alcoholic beverage options at retail or online.

What’s fueling RTD alcoholic beverage growth in North America? And what’s next for a category that pushes the boundaries of the alcoholic beverage landscape? The FlavorSum team recently explored the RTD market and consumer dynamics in North America. Here are notable insights about opportunities bubbling up for producers.

‘Craft’ is a Frequent Positioning in RTD Alcoholic Beverage Innovation

About 2 out of 10 RTD Alcoholic Beverages launched in North America in the last year carried a ‘craft’ claim, according to Mintel’s Global New Products Database (GNPD). Is ‘craft’ a compelling point of difference for RTDs?

The claim carries some weight with consumers who link the term ‘craft’ with ideas like independent ownership, small batches, higher-quality ingredients, care with distilling or brewing, and unique flavors. But skepticism (and lawsuits) about the ‘craft’ terminology can dilute the value of the positioning. Checking craft guidelines from the American Craft Spirits Association, the American Distilling Institute, or Canada’s Craft Distillery Policy can help producers deliver a craft beverage that meets expectations.

RTDs can Answer the Call for Healthier Alcoholic Beverages

Healthier alcoholic RTDs have a market: about one in three Americans between the ages of 22 and 44 surveyed by Mintel say they’re interested. In response, RTD innovators are increasingly highlighting their launches’ reduced sugars, carbs, and calories. Sugar-free and reduced sugar claims are rising, represented in 20 percent of launches last year, up from 3 percent in 2018. Low carb callouts occurred on 3 percent of launches, with low-calorie claims showing up on 4 percent. Even if not explicitly labeled as ‘low calorie,’ RTDs often promote calorie counts on the front of the RTD can or bottle. And Innova Market Insights indicate that many RTD launches across the North American landscape target 100 calories or less.

Interest in Sustainability can Affect RTD Brand Choice

Growing concern about how caring for the Earth affects the climate and environment prompts consumers to seek out more sustainable options in all purchasing decisions. In a 2021 Mintel survey, 65% of adults in Canada say that food and drink products’ impact on the environment is increasingly influencing their purchasing decisions. And a study by IBM and the National Retail Federation showed that 7 in 10 North American consumers agree that sustainability or eco-friendliness is an important brand attribute. Alcoholic drink brands can innovate to align with interest in sustainability by leveraging recyclable packaging and organic ingredients.

Spirit-based RTDs on the Rise

RTD innovation starts with choosing the alcohol base. Sugar, malt, and grain neutral spirits form the base for the majority of RTD beverages. But more than 35 percent of North American RTD launches had wine or spirit bases last year, up from 16 percent in 2019. Wine, vodka, and gin represented the top 3 choices, accounting for almost 60 percent of the new product activity, followed by whiskey, rum, tequila, and brandy. The increased use of spirit bases reflects a trend toward cocktail-inspired RTDs. Last year, 27 percent of RTDs launched used a cocktail positioning in the product name, like Gin & Tonic, Margarita, or Mojito, often available in multiple flavors.

The choice of alcohol base has implications for a producer’s business model beyond taste and marketing potential. Formulators looking to incorporate neutral alcohols, spirits or wine bases in their product should consider:

  • Ability to obtain a distilling license
  • Access to a processing facility with appropriate equipment and ventilation (because vapor by-products are explosive)
  • Possible challenges around higher tax rates (vs. sugar or malt bases) and narrower distribution channels (usually wine or liquor stores)

Functionality Claims Dip into Alcoholic RTDs

Consumers are increasingly turning to food and beverages for managing health and are becoming more aware of the ingredients that can help them achieve well-being.

  • Now, some producers are incorporating elements like probiotics and prebiotics in non-alcoholic RTD adult beverages.
  • Immunity is a top concern of consumers, leading some brands in the alcohol space to highlight the immune-boosting benefits of ingredients like vitamin C, B-12, turmeric, or omegas.
  • THC, CBD, and cannabis-infused RTD alcoholic beverages are becoming more available in some regions of North America.
  • Other purposeful RTD alcoholic beverages recently launched included electrolytes, anti-inflammatory antioxidants, adaptogens like l-theanine, superfoods like jicama, and superfruits such as acerola.

RTDs can Fulfill Consumer Desire for Customization and Personalization

Just as brewers develop different beers to whet the appetite, follow a good meal, or fit with late-night sipping, RTD producers can build need-or-occasion-based portfolios. Benefit-based assortments that allow consumers to mix-and-match for different occasions give RTD brands opportunities to build loyalty and market share.

For example, assortments could include:

  • a low calorie, low sugar, lower ABV product as a healthier option
  • a higher ABV, spirit-based RTD beverage for a cocktail-like experience
  • a no-alcohol adult taste profile with a formula that supports relaxation, focus, calmness, or energy

Flavors and More (Complex) Flavors Keep Consumers Trying RTD Alcoholic Beverages

According to Mintel’s GNPD, North American producers launched more than 200 flavors of RTD alcoholic drinks last year. Brands continue to feature singular, core flavors like lime, lemon, mango, raspberry, and strawberry, but these 5 flavors accounted for less than 15 percent of new products.

Flavor combinations such as mango-passionfruit, cherry-acai, or lemon-lime are more common and the direction most manufacturers turn to for innovation. Bases like vodka, gin, and grain-neutral spirits provide versatile palettes for a wide range of flavors. The challenge? Finding the pairings that excite consumers to try a new flavor with the taste that keeps them coming back for another can or bottle.

Fruit (like mango, watermelon, or peach), citrus, and berry profiles have consistently ranked as the top 3 choices for formulators launching single flavors in the past 3 years. Leading flavor combinations introduced since 2019 paired:

  • 2 or more citrus fruits
  • sweeter fruit blends like mango and peach
  • berry and citrus combos such as cranberry with lime
  • berry and sweeter fruit pairings like strawberry-guava

Trending Flavors in Flavored Alcoholic Beverages

Top Flavors (Single or in Combination) RTD Flavored Alcohol from 2017-2021
Top 10 Launched Flavors Top 10 Growing Flavors
Grapefruit Lime (+400%)
Mango Strawberry (+300%)
Lime Peach (+300%)
Black Cherry Mango (+250%)
Lemon & Lime Lemon & Lime (+200%)
Raspberry Moscow Mule (+200%)
Strawberry Watermelon (+100)
Peach Raspberry (100%)
Lemonade Pink Lemonade (+100)
Pineapple Grapefruit (+50%)

Mintel. North America.

Flavors Provide Benefits Beyond Delicious Taste

Choosing flavor combinations starts with defining brand goals including the target audience and selecting the RTD beverage base. While producers can incorporate flavor through raw ingredients or juices, adding flavor ingredients to RTD alcoholic beverages offers several advantages.

When FlavorSum talked with Stephen Rich, Certified Cicerone, Prudhomme Beer Sommelier, and BJCP Certified Beer Judge, he pointed out that flavors:

  • Give brewers and distillers more accurate, consistent dosing
  • Provide a steady supply and easier customizability of unique tastes (or blends)
  • Offer easy, flexible incorporation into the brewing or distillation process
  • Minimize safety and contamination risks
  • Represent a sustainable ingredient that reduces volume loss in RTDs

Achieve RTD Alcoholic Beverage Launch Success

The innovation journey to launch a RTD Alcoholic beverages promises mixology opportunities and challenges for brewers and distillers.

  • North American adult beverage drinkers are eager to explore new brands and flavors, but with discernment and high expectations about taste and performance.
  • Although formulators may have creative freedom with benchtop RTDs, several regulatory agencies in North America set limits on alcoholic beverage brands:
    • The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) regulates the approval of alcoholic beverages in the U.S.
    • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees flavor usage through the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) – Title 21.
    • Health Canada regulates alcohol through the Food and Drugs Act (FDA) and the Food and Drug Regulations (FDR).
    • Provisions of the Safe Food for Canadians Act (SFCA) and the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) also apply to alcoholic beverages.
    • Provincial liquor boards in Canada also regulate the labeling and sale of alcoholic drinks including RTDs and hard seltzers.

Fortunately, resources and suppliers are available to help navigate the formulation and regulatory complexities of RTD innovation, clearing the path to success for RTD brands.

Whether you’re looking to try out a novel flavor pairing, complement flavor notes in your base formulation, or find inspiration for your next launch, FlavorSum is here to help. Check out FlavorSum’s e-book to kickstart your innovation process: How to Master Formulation Challenges in the ‘Wild West’ of RTD Cocktails.


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