Why Spiked Seltzer and Hard Soda are Booming

Alcohol-infused flavored seltzer water wasn’t even a thing before the 2013 launch of the SpikedSeltzer brand. So the category’s trajectory in the past year has been remarkable.

Hard soda waters launched in 2016 include Truly Spiked & Sparkling from Boston Beer Co.; Nauti Seltzer from Wachusett Brewing Co. in Westminster, MA; White Claw Hard Seltzer from Mark Anthony Brands in Chicago (Mike’s Hard Lemonade’s parent company); and Smirnoff Spiked Sparkling Seltzer from Diageo. What’s more, beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev acquired SpikedSeltzer this past September.

Part of spiked seltzer’s momentum comes from the recent surge in hard sodas, led by the 2015 launch of Not Your Father’s Root Beer by Small Town Brewery. Best Damn Root Beer by AB InBev and Wild Root from Wild Ginger Brewing followed later in the year. 

The MillerCoors-owned Henry’s Hard Soda brand came out in late 2015 with orange and ginger ale flavors.

But while hard soda taps into nostalgia and enables consumers to indulge in a sweet treat, spiked seltzer is more about modern convenience and healthier imbibing. Alcoholic seltzer has also likely benefited from thriving sales of carbonated bottle water, which “nearly doubled since 2012,” says Casey O’Neill, a member of the Boston Beer Co. innovation team behind Truly Spiked & Sparkling.

Truly Spiked & Sparkling from Boston Beer Co. hit the market in April 2016.

Lighter, Bubbly Fare

The rise of lighter sparkling wines prompted the launch of SpikedSeltzer four years ago. Founders Dave Holmes and Nick Shields (pictured atop) wanted to bridge the gap between the lighter wines their wives suddenly preferred, and lighter mixed drinks such as vodka with soda or juices.

“We wanted a lighter, cleaner drink,” says Holmes. “Something convenient without being an artificial pre-mix. Anyone who’s ever had a bad Vodka & Soda can tell you that those pre-mixes can be pretty bad.” SpikedSeltzer  is available in Cape Cod Cranberry, Valencia Orange, West Indies Lime and Indian River Grapefruit flavors

O’Neill from Truly Spiked & Sparkling says the brand came about as something to “enjoy after hitting the gym. Cocktails were too complicated, wine was too heavy, and we wanted to avoid feeling bloated from light beer.”

Ingredients are important as health-conscious shoppers check the lables.

“Consumers today are looking for more transparency in beverages; they’re drinking smarter,” says Krista Kiisk, Diageo brand director of flavored malt beverages. “We’re very open on our packaging about what it contains: 90 calories, one gram of carbohydrates and zero added sugar.”

Not Just For Women

While women may seem the obvious target demographic for spiked seltzer—with its light, low-ABV profile—producers report that’s not necessarily the case. After all, the health craze is not gender-specific, nor is the rise in people drinking carbonated bottled water.

“Our first-ever sale was to a six-foot-tall, bald biker guy,” laughs Holmes of Spiked Seltzer. While he acknowledges the “huge acceptance” of his product among female consumers, he says that the number of males sipping Spiked Seltzer is significant. And their backgrounds might surprise.

“I know guys on the New England Patriots defensive line who drink it,” Holmes says. “A pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays got his teammates into it. The Bruins are drinking it.” So are the firemen from the local fire department, he adds.

Holmes sees these and other signs of cross-gender appeal through feedback from social media. He believes many men discover the product when their wives buy and bring it home. Sitting in the fridge or in a cooler for a spring/summer party, Spiked Seltzer “does not have a flavor profile that suggests it’s just for women or men.”

Diageo’s Spiked Sparkling Seltzer brand

Low-Cal Cocktails

Spiked seltzers make it quick and easy to create low-calorie cocktails. Especially those that “call for seltzer, tonic, effervescence in general,” says O’Neill, “from a lower-calorie version of a Gin & Tonic to a fruity sangria.”

One cocktail that Truly Spiked & Sparkling promotes is the Truly Bitter, made with ½ oz. Campari, ½ oz. triple sec (or gin for a Negroni version), juice from one lemon or orange wedge, 5 oz. of the brand’s grapefruit and pomelo flavor, garnished with an orange or grapefruit wedge or twist.

SpikedSeltzer promotes a number of cocktails, including the Spiked Cran-Pom Rosé: 4 oz. hard cranberry seltzer, ½ oz. Aperol, 4 oz. rosé Champagne, 12 pomegranate seeds. Tapping into the brown spirits boom, the brand also promotes a recipe for a Spiked Whiskey Sour: 6 oz. hard lime seltzer, fresh lime juice, 1 oz. whiskey, 2 tbsp. sugar, stir to dissolve.

These and other spiked seltzer cocktails are ideal for warmer weather and bars that are “beach- or water-adjacent,” says Kiisk of Diageo. For instance, the rooftop bar above New York’s Metropolitan Museum is serving SpikedSeltzer, Holmes says, as are several other outdoor spaces.

It’s not just the interest in healthier, lower-calorie alternatives and convenience that are driving the hard seltzer and soda trends, however. Many consumers, Millennials especially, have hyper-curious palates, so just being different is reason enough for people to explore these new products.

“We conducted a poll with Nielsen that found that nearly seven in ten (79%) of those who drink alcohol are very or somewhat willing to try new types of alcohol,” says O’Neill.  

Not Your Father’s Root Beers maker Small Town Brewery recently unveiled a new line of flavored malt beverages called Not Your Mother’s.

Sweet New Hard Soda Flavors

The hard soda trend may have started with root beer and ginger ale, but newer flavor extensions continue to appeal to consumer nostalgia for the past and dessert indulgences.

Not Your Father’s Root Beers maker Small Town Brewery recently unveiled a new line of flavored malt beverages called Not Your Mother’s. The three initial flavors are Apple Pie, Strawberry Rhubarb and Iced Tea.

“With their immersive flavors and homemade appeal, Not Your Mom’s fruit- and dessert-inspired brews represent the next generation in flavored craft,” says Gleb Lifshits, CEO, Small Town Brewery.

Not Your Mom’s Apple Pie (5.9% ABV), Strawberry Rhubarb (5.5% ABV) and Iced Tea (5.2% ABV) are drinkable straight from a chilled bottle. Or consumers can serve the Apple Pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream for a twist on apple pie a la mode.

Best Damn Root Beer by AB InBev launched in 2015.

Best Damn Brewing Co. has also kept the flavor innovations coming, including Apple Ale, Cream Soda and Sweet Tea, says Best Damn Brewing’s senior director Kathy Sattler. The hard soda category “is one that we believe has longstanding power,” Sattler says.

Wild Root’s creator Jamey Grosser believes that we’re at the start of the flavor revolution in spiked sodas. “And I think the trend will continue, as long as we get the flavors better and get them right.”

Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or on Twitter @ksswartzz.

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