Is There Anything That Gen Z Won’t Drink?

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It’s gonna be a hard seltzer summer … what with Covid’s wake and the Roaring ’20s, drink from home and e-commerce delivery, ready-mixed drinks and all-day drinking, thronged competition and celebrity stampedes, eco-pressures and supply-chain disruption — to say nothing of wellness, cannabis and a demographic landslide as a sober-curious Gen Z comes of age.

In response, brands across the BevAlc spectrum are adopting a dozen or so strategies to harness the vibe shift that’s causing a $1.7 trillion market to tremor.

Cocktails have always combined kick with craft — as Nick Charles instructs us in “The Thin Man”:

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“A Manhattan you shake to fox-trot time, a Bronx to two-step time, a dry Martini you always shake to waltz time.”

But now we see a split in the mixed-drink community. On one hand, cool bars and star mixologists are lauded and awarded as never before. On the other, booze brands are rushing to develop pre-mixed beverages for a burgeoning Ready to Drink (RTD) market. This market has been catalyzed by Covid home-drinking, bar-price inflation, Insta-bait design, gender-neutrality, sustainable packaging, quality ingredients, flavor innovations, lower calorie and strength options, claims to wellness and relentless marketing campaigns.

RTDs cover a multitude of sips, including: “hard” or “spiked” teas, coffees, kombuchas and seltzers; long-drink spirit mixes and complex liquor cocktails; wine spritzers and coolers; and other “Flavored Alcoholic Beverages.”(1) And although the sector was birthed in the ’30s by drinks like Campari Soda, and boomed in the ’90s with Bacardi Breezer and Smirnoff Ice, RTDs are now at a point of seemingly unsustainable saturation.

For example, more than 900 pre-mixed cocktail brands are listed on Drizly, the largest e-commerce alcohol marketplace in North America, which has tracked the following rise in RTD offerings:

Faced with this new competitive attack from young-yet-established market leaders like White Claw, High Noon, Twisted Tea and JuneShine, the RTD brand grab has been joined by old-school liquor names such as Grey Goose, Jameson, Malibu and Cîroc …

… as well as soft-drink leviathans. In the past few years, Pepsi has introduced Hard Mtn Dew and Coca-Cola has launched Topo Chico Hard Seltzer and Simply Spiked Lemonade, and announced the imminent arrival of Fresca Mixed and a Jack & Coke RTD with Jack Daniels. 

That the biggest beverage conglomerates are dancing to the tune of upstart disruptors and craft distillers is notable. But, the commercial impact of RTDs may be nothing to how the sector is upending cultural conventions not simply of what alcohol tastes like, and how it is sold, but when and where it is drunk.  

2. All Day, and All of the Night

Alongside other sin-taxed thrills (smoking, doping, gambling), most jurisdictions regulate where, when and by whom alcohol may be consumed. As a result, booze brands have long sought to smudge the liminality of drinking “permission” by claiming specific moments:

Events · For instance, Woodford Reserve fuels the Kentucky Derby’s mint juleps; Lanson serves up Champagne at Wimbledon; the U.S. Open pours Grey Goose Honey Deuce; and any number of festivals are loci for casual brand discovery.

Celebrations · Not simply Christmas and New Year’s Eve but also Oktoberfest, St. Patrick’s Day, Cinco de Mayo, Bastille Day, Chinese New Year and many others.

Times · From “Martini Time” and “PIMMS o’clock” to 12:01 on the third Thursday in November which, by French law, heralds Beaujolais Nouveau Day.

Recently, however, the industry has begun cultivating an “always on” attitude of ambient consumption which replaces the nervous joke, “it’s five o’clock somewhere” with an unabashed embrace of “day drinking.”

Several brands address ambient drinking head on, including: All Day IPA (“The beer I can have all the time, all day”); Shower Beer (“Specifically made to be enjoyed in the shower”); and Rosé All Day wine (“Catchphrase / Lifestyle / Phenomenon”).

Others, as we shall see, have introduced lower-strength options actually known in the trade as “session drinks.” And nightcap brands like The Glenlivet, Rémy Martin and Hennessy are seeking to extend their opening hours by hijacking Italy’s anytime spritz and aperitivo urbanity, exemplified by Campari, Select and Aperol.

Yet the sneakiest gambit of ambient drinking may be the artful use of the word “water” by alcohol brands like Cutwater Spirits (“Charting the course with adventure in mind”); Funny Water (“The responsible way to behave irresponsibly”); High Water (“Hard seltzers for those with a thirst for life”); Mom Water (“Drinks like water”); and Hampton Water — the bestselling rosé (“Born in France, raised in the Hamptons”) created by Jon Bon Jovi and his son Jesse.

Even as wine aficionados endlessly debate the (de)merits of screw caps and wine boxes, the rest of the industry is seizing on any innovation that can pour its products down consumers’ throats. Leading the charge is the metal can which is used not just for RTD seltzers and cocktails, but for an ever-expanding range of actually palatable wines from makers like The Copper Crew, Companion Wine, Ramona and Underwood.

But cans are only the opener. Reacting to consumer overwhelm, supply-chain constriction and environmental anxieties, BevAlc is experimenting with eye-catching and eco-friendly packaging novelties including: capsule pods (Glenlivet); plastic pouches (Martini & Rossi); paper bottles (Buen Vato); flax bottles (A. De Fussigny); flat-pack bottles (Hardys); molded pulp packs (Veta+); reusable shot-glasses (Twisted Whipz); single-serve Boxtails; and vodka-infused cream WhipShots (“Bougie × Boozy”) from CarbiB.

Such presentational innovation does not stop at packaging. At a time when consumer companies are debranding and B2B identities are evermore anodyne, alcohol labels and bottle design are a beacon of creativity — encouraged by a market sensibility that embraces contrast, character and edge. A glance at the award-winning portfolio of drink designers Stranger and Stranger gives a sense of the range:

The pressure to practice (or at the very least preach) sustainability is as pressing in the alcohol industry as in most consumer-facing sectors. As a result, brands of every size in every segment are promulgating “planet positivity” and “carbon credibility” often with warm words, but occasionally with actual innovation:

Materials · By replacing plastic rings with can-sticking glue technology, Carlsberg’s “Snap Pack” is expected to reduce annual plastic use by more than 1,200 metric tons, or 60 million plastic bags.

Reuse · Flor de Caña runs an annual “Zero Waste Month” which promotes “sustainable cocktails made from repurposed food waste.” In 2021, more than 400 bars around the world participated, diverting 10.4 tons of scraps.

Recovery · Patrôn designed a reverse osmosis system that recovers up to 70% of wastewater produced in distilling tequila.

As ever, the interests of ecology often intersect with good PR. According to the 2022 Footprint Drinks Industry ESG Trends Report (sponsored by Pernod Ricard UK), 56% of consumers consider a drink brand’s “green credentials” before purchase.

Perhaps because so many distillers are pompously precious about their “timeless craft,” alcohol branding has long had a strand of counterpunch humor — from Sammy Davis Jr. adlibbing the groove for Suntory Whisky to “The Most Interesting Man in the World” ads by Dos Equis. Even Guinness, which intellectualized drinking with its Pure Genius and Black and White campaigns, is not above self-parody and approachable humor:

But alcoLOL is now just another gimmick in marketing’s click-bait playbook. In the past few years, Grey Poupon released La Moutarde Vin, a limited-edition mustard-infused white wine; French’s launched a mustard beer with Oskar Blues; McCormick launched Old Bay Vodka; Oreo announced a limited edition Barefoot red blend wine; Cheez-It launched three limited-edition wine collaborations; Red Lobster began cocktailing the Mountain DEWGarita, the first in a series of Pepsi collaborations; Arby’s distilled two French-fry-flavored vodkas (“curly” and “crinkle”); and, in a jump of the snark that was funnier than likely intended, Elon Musk took a shot at Tesla Tequila.

The potential profitability of alcoLOL’s virality helps explain why so many celebrities are no longer content with fronting booze brands (Christina Hendricks × Johnny Walker; Nick Offerman × Lagavulin) but seek also to finance or found them. 

Of course, this trend is neither novel, nor necessarily meretricious. In 1975, Francis Ford Coppola used his “Godfather” earnings to establish an award-winning and industry-respected wine empire. And Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s acquisition of Château Miraval in 2008 helped transform rosé wine into a ubiquitous lifestyle accessory. (U.S. sales of rosé grew 1,433% between 2010 and 2020, according to bw166 research.) 

Now the firmament of star-studded alcohol brands is so crowded that in 2020, the GrapeStars app was launched to help deliver celebrity bottles into fans’ hands.

Often presented as “passion projects,” these bibulous side hustles cover every iteration of grape and grain, including: Heaven’s Door whiskey by Bob Dylan; Indoggo gin by Snoop Dogg; Selva Ray rum by Bruno Mars; Brown Sugar Bourbon by Jamie Foxx; Próspero Tequila by Rita Ora; D’USSÉ cognac by Jay-Z; Crystal Head Vodka by Dan Aykroyd; and Tres Papalote Mezcal by Cheech Marin — to say nothing of wine ventures (of varying credibility) from the likes of Mary J. Blige, Sarah Jessica Parker, Cameron Diaz, John Legend, Dave Matthews, Fergie, Gerard Depardieu, Andrea Bocelli, Sting, Kylie Minogue, Vera Wang, Lisa Vanderpump and Post Malone.

Celebrity’s ability to steal market share means that when fame-fronted booze hits, it hits big. In 2017, George Clooney sold Casamigos, the tequila brand he co-founded in 2013, to Diageo for $1 billion. And in 2020, Diageo found another $610 million to acquire Aviation Gin which Ryan Reynolds co-owned and promoted. Of course, celebrification cuts both ways. Weeks after the 2021 Astroworld tragedy, Anheuser-Busch announced it would (temporarily?) halt production of Travis Scott’s hard seltzer, Cacti. And a $12 million acquisition of Ambhar Tequila was reportedly terminated after sexual assault allegations were leveled against the brand’s majority stake owner, Chris Noth.

7. Please Pink Responsibly

For generations the dominant theme of female-focused alcohol emphasized the spirit of its consumption:

Girls’ Night Out Wines · “Let’s let go of our inhibitions”

Hey Mama Wines · “Mama needs to unwined”

Skinnygirl Cocktails · “#DrinkLikeALady”

Middle Sister Wine · “Wine is the answer. What was the question?”

Spa Girl Cocktails · “The life of the whole damn party”

Indeed, men plucking up the courage to order cosmos or rosé were the subject of op-eds (“Real Men Drink Pink”), features (“Make Way for Brosé”) and opinion polls (“Guys, It’s Time To #DrinkWhatYouWant”).

But recently, the focus has shifted beyond unpinking drinking with gender-neutral branding, to the impact of women on alcohol’s craft. As Mallory O’Meara explores in her 2021 book, “Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol”:

“When did we start roping off certain types of booze with a pink frilly ribbon and condemning them as girly drinks? And why is marking a drink feminine a bad thing in the first place? The truth is, all drinks are girly drinks. Not just because women have been drinking since alcohol was invented, but because they’ve been making and serving it since the beginning, too.”

To cite but a handful of stellar examples, such women include: Bertha González Nieves at Casa Dragones tequila; Dr. Anne Brock at Bombay Sapphire gin; Antonella, Elisabetta, and Cristina Nonino at Nonino grappa; Bénédicte Hardy at Hardy cognac; Joy Spence at Appleton Estate rum; Melanie Asher at Macchu Pisco; and Rita Jammet at LaCaravelle Champagne.

Similar enlightenment is illuminating the contribution made by minority-owned alcohol brands, like Crowns & Hops beer, Zaffa Wines, Stuyvesant Champagne, Black Momma vodka, Gologo gin, Los Hermanos tequila, Equiano rum, Billionaires Row cognac and Uncle Nearest whisky — named after Nathan “Nearest” Green, an emancipated slave who, in the 1850s, taught the art of distilling to a chap called Jack Daniels.

Not everyone got the memo. In 2015, four men (including Josh “The Fat Jewish” Ostrovsky) launched Swish Beverages and released a number of calculatedly controversial wines, including Babe and White Girl Rosé, before selling the company to Anheuser-Busch in 2019. Contrast the spirit of this venture with Black Girl Magic Rosé which is made by two Black female vintners, Robin and Andréa McBride, who established McBride Sisters in 2005 and built it into one of America’s most respected Black-owned wineries.

Nowadays most food and beverage brands scattershot multiple flavor iterations to attract the widest array of taste, maximize shelf-space and hustle for consumer attention with endless marketing “drops.” 

To this rule, alcohol is neither an exception nor a slouch. The hard seltzer brand Truly, for instance, offers 27 different versions (including kiwi mojito, strawberry tea and blueberry acai) and last year launched a “No One is Just One Flavor” campaign with Dua Lipa, “to encourage our fans to keep fearlessly exploring the many distinct sides of themselves.”

Alcohol is being influenced by the internet in a variety of ways:

E-commerce · In addition to the impact of direct-to-consumer sales and subscriptions, companies offering home delivery have revolutionized the customs of alcohol browsing and purchase. These include not only established general and grocery retailers (Amazon, Fresh Direct, Ocado), food-delivery platforms (Grubhub, Seamless, Caviar) and Q-commerce disruptors (GoPuff, Gorillas, Getir), but specialist alcohol apps like Saucey, Minibar, Swill and Drizly — which was acquired by Uber in 2021 for $1.1 billion.

Social media · Notwithstanding the rules, regulations and “responsible practices” governing alcohol’s advertising, social media and online influencers are an increasingly key part of booze branding — whether it’s the Twitter snark of BrewDog, the Instagram curation of Veuve Clicquot or the Facebook clout of Crown Royal’s 1.9 million followers. According to a 2021 paper in the “Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs,” an analysis of the 100 most popular TikTok videos hashtagged #alcohol (collectively viewed some 292 million times), found that 98 expressed pro-alcohol sentiments; 69 conveyed positive experiences with alcohol; 55 contained humor; and 45 included associations of alcohol with camaraderie. Only four showed any negative associations.

Metaverse · If alcohol wasn’t perilous enough IRL, a goldrush of booze brands is also pixelating the metaverse via: augmented-reality labeling (Treasury Estate Wines); digital brand ambassadors (Kinahan’s Irish Whiskey); virtual breweries (Heineken) and distilleries (Jose Cuervo); digital sports (Stella Artois); and any number of NFT ventures (Hennessy, Johnny Walker, Patron, Glenfiddich, Penfolds). 

Trackers · The same app stores that drive alcohol’s seamless delivery also allow the control of its consumption. Dozens of drink-tracking apps have been developed, including: Dry Days (“Change Your Drinking!”), Sunnyside (“Cut back on your drinking with no pressure to quit”), and I Am Sober (“Track your sobriety with a community that understands what you’re going through”).

10. Drink Deep from the Wellness

Alcohol’s embrace of “wellness” is yet another example of dazzle branding — where products elide the harm they cause not by denial but distraction. After all, the World Health Authority estimates that alcohol consumption annually contributes to 3 million deaths, is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease and is the leading risk factor for premature mortality and disability among those aged 15 to 49 years.

Notwithstanding these hazards, “better-for-you” booze claims abound and cluster around: reducing potency, carbs and calories; supporting vegan, gluten-free and ketogenic diets; promoting the purity and transparency of “intentional ingredients”; and emphasizing the purportedly advantageous properties of botanicals, probiotics, superfruits, adaptogens and antioxidants.

Take Ving Vodka (“The world’s cleanest vodka”), which is sugar-, additive- and gluten-free, made from non-GMO corn ethanol without pesticides, fertilizers or herbicides, and infused with lemon peel, sweet cucumber and curly green kale: 

And contrast it with the soon-to-be launched Alcoholic Vodka (“Made from pure Swedish spring water”) which warns, “this product is extremely harmful to your health and can cause a variety of serious diseases … Please think twice before ordering.”

Some brands even seek to associate themselves with sport and activity — transcending passive sponsorship (Guinness × Six Nations Rugby; Bud Light × NFL) to speak directly to consumer fitness. For example: the Zelus Beer Company (“Crafted for you to enjoy after your zealous endeavors”); Protochol spiked protein beverages (“For the bravest of people who flaunt their savagery”); Samuel Adam’s “Boston Marathon” 26.2 Beer (“The kind of brew we all crave after intense long-distance running”); and FitVine Wine — whose logo is a runner grasping a bunch of grapes and lifting a wine glass to his lips.

Even if the trends of alcohol consumption are complex, and sometimes contradictory, brands are looking beyond the calendrical spasms of Dry January, Feb Fast, Sober October and No Drink November to create evergreen no- and low-alcohol drinks.

Targeted at those who abstain or avert (for reasons of culture, religion, health or taste), and those who seek a better balance (for reasons of physical consequence or financial cost), the NoLo sector encompasses a range of options that transcend traditional soft drinks and sodas:

Low(er)-alcohol “session” drinks · Purity Session IPA; Two Days vodka sodas; Saturday Session wines; and any number of low-ABV seltzers, spritzers and coolers

Alcohol-free analogs · Martini’s Vibrante and Floreale faux vermouths; Guinness 0.0; Heineken 0.0; Thatcher’s Zero cider; Pepsi’s Neon Zebra mocktail mixers; Fre wines; and Strykk’s “Not G*n,” “Not R*m” and “Not V*dka”

Alcohol-free alternatives · Jukes wine-adjacent “cordialities”; Ghia (“Over the influence”) aperitif; Casamara Club “leisure sodas”; Curious Elixirs (“Shaken not slurred”), and Seedlip (“The world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirts”) which was purchased by Diageo in 2019

Because NoLo plays into the “life-hack” mantra of “moderation” — where “sobriety” is a hybrid state that advocates occasional quality over quantity binging, alternating strong drinks with softer options and taking alcohol time-outs — it’s little surprise that the sector has been wagon-jumped by wellness-focused celebrity. Witness: Blake Lively’s Betty Buzz sparkling mixers; Katy Perry’s non-alcoholic De Soi aperitifs; Bella Hadid’s “adaptogenic mocktails” Kin Euphoric; Luann de Lesseps’ Fosé rosé; and Budweiser’s first alcohol-free beer, Budweiser Zero, which was developed by Dwyane Wade, inevitably came with its own NFT.

Although between 2020 and 2021, Drizly’s sales of non-alcoholic spirits rose by 600%, non-alcoholic wine by 300% and non-alcoholic beer by 200%, the market is still small. Thus far in 2022, non-alcoholic brands represent just 1.2% of all beer, 0.2% of all wine, and 0.1% of all liquor sales on Drizly.

Indeed a panoply of supercharged beverages is notably emerging at the YOLO spectrum of drinking, like RTDs from Truly Extra (8% ABV) and Four Loko (14% ABV), and high-strength lagers, beers and double IPAs. Suntory has just released a 16% ABV Beer Ball designed to be poured over ice and diluted with sparkling water — in theory, at least.

It’s a curiosity of confluence that the trends of wellness, NoLo and all-day drinking have emerged alongside the increasing availability, legality and social acceptability of recreational drugs. The result is a growing category of “cannabooze” “drinkables” in which psychoactives of varying potency replace (or augment) alcohol’s kick in every iteration of beverage, from wine (House of Saka), beer (Cannabrew), vodka (Aqua Sativa) and aperitifs (Artet) to coffee (Sträva), tea (Kikoko), seltzer (Recess) and soda (Keef).

Assuming favorable trade winds of legislation and taxation, such drinkables could steal a sizeable share not just of the cannabis sector, but of the wider mood-altering market. Hence recent cannadrink investments from such BevAlc giants as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Boston Beer, Molson Coors, Constellation, Heineken and Pabst. 

Of course, the mainstreaming of Mary Jane has only just begun. When in 2020 Gwyneth Paltrow invested in the “social tonic” company Cann (“2mg THC + 4mg CBD”), she called cannabis the “hero ingredient of the future.” Given that corporate investment usually trails cultural shifts prior to hijacking them, she may well be right.

Although all of the above innovations are intended to engage the widest possible audience, Big Alcohol is clearly laser-focused on the next generation of drinkers — if only to avoid a cultural cliff-edge more precipitous than the decades-long decline surfed by Big Tobacco.

Of course, it’s not yet easy to assess or predict Gen Z’s impact. Born between 1997 and 2012, Gen Z is currently between 10 and 25 years old which, depending on the jurisdiction, allows between five and seven years of legal drinking — at least one of which has been spent under lockdowns that shaped the habits of most drinkers, especially those stuck at home with their parents.

That said, a drumbeat of data suggests that Gen Z is at least more alcohol-agnostic than earlier generations, and a jigsaw of anecdata which hints why:

• Greater focus on physical fitness, mental health, clean eating and sleep hygiene

• Embarrassment at the alcohol (ab)use of their Gen X parents and Boomer grandparents

• Impact of alcohol strength and calorie-content labeling

• Expense and opportunity cost of regular, heavy drinking

• Transition from socializing in bars and clubs to drinking store-bought and delivery booze

• General shift in consumption from quantity binges to quality brands

• Acceptance that occasional sobriety need not mean total abstention

• Desire to stay sharp on social media, where drunken uploads live forever

• Attraction of cannabis and hallucinogens as a “cleaner” alternative

It’s anyone’s guess whether such attitudes will persist into adulthood, but if Gen Z (and the gens to come) do prove more alco-skeptic than their forbears then the above twelve steps are deftly primed to cash in. For what could be more appealing to those rejecting their forebears’ “old fashioned” than stylish, diverse, sustainable, ironic, female-friendly, flavor-forward, purpose-driven, metaverse-ready, sober-sensitive, pre-mixed, home-delivered, co-branded, celebrity-endorsed, all-day beverages — which may or may not be alcohol-free or tinctured with THC?

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• ‘90s House and Fashion Are Back — in Time for a 1970s Economy: Andrea Felsted

• Mocktails Are 100 Proof Millennial Market Gold: Amanda Little

• Monster and Constellation Could Mix New Drinks: Tara Lachapelle

(1) There is no universally accepted definition of RTD; some include all pre-mixed drinks, others use the term only for pre-mixed cocktails.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ben Schott is Bloomberg Opinion’s advertising and brands columnist.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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Is There Anything That Gen Z Won’t Drink?

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