I love making complicated cocktails with unicorn-sparkled rims and booze that’s been aging in barrels for aeons, but sometimes I just want to grab something and go. This is especially true in the summer, when the distant call of nature calls for a road trip. My M.O. had been to bottle up a few liquors and make a to-go cocktail. I don’t drink beer and the alcoholic alternatives were all too malty, too sweet, low quality, high calorie, had too many artificial ingredients or too low an ABV. As far as I knew, there was nothing that was convenient and well crafted.
Last year I discovered spiked seltzer, and soon after I learned it’s but one bubbly beverage within a whole category of products called RTD’s or Ready To Drink. RTD’s have been around for decades, but not like these.
You may remember stuff like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Smirnoff Ice. Now we’re awash in brands like Truly Hard Seltzer, White Claw Hard Seltzer, and High Noon Vodka & Soda, all of which I love. But where, I wondered, were the local, craft options?
On inner Washington Avenue in Portland, of course. I recently sat down with local liquor hero Luke Davidson, founder and CEO of Maine Craft Distilling, the only game in town for craft RTD’s, or, as MCD respectfully calls them, Sparkling Craft Cocktails.
Mainer: So, RTD’s have been around before. To what do you attribute their success now?
Luke Davidson: Isn’t it weird? First it was wine coolers and other malt beverages — even Bacardi and Jack Daniels put out some products. They didn’t take off, though. What I think happened this time around is canned beer became craft beer, with pretty labels and style, and it became a culture. … I really think the craft beer movement has brought this trend around, and we just followed in its footsteps.
I noticed the new beverages aren’t as malty or sickly sweet as their predecessors. Do you agree?
Yes, and when we started, we didn’t know what we were doing. We took the recipe from the bar and just made those batches. … We asked many people to sample them and when we would ask which one was their favorite, we thought it would be the sweet ones, but that wasn’t the case. We eventually dialed it all back to be way less sweet, and you see it is more popular. With heart disease and diabetes being prevalent, people are looking for alternatives to super-sugary beverages, and so we are trying to get ahead of that. The latest three products have almost no sugar.
RTD’s appeal to many types of drinkers. What do you attribute that to?
Well, I know, straight off the line, that almost everybody likes beer, at least a little bit. A lot of beer can be filling or just very “beer-y.” There’s a lot of people that are really happy to have an alternative. It’s portable, it’s consumable, it’s a spirit and not beer. So, in essence, we’re imagining exactly the experience of a beer drinker enjoying a beverage in a can. And their ABV is 7 percent [but] some of them don’t taste like they have alcohol in them at all. Our vodka soda is like drinking a really flavorful La Croix.
Spiked seltzer seems to be the biggest seller in this market.
I would say that 60 to 70 percent of the whole RTD space is sparkling seltzers. … My daughter is in college right now, and that’s all they drink. They’re inexpensive and it’s a super saturated market. We don’t want to play in that game, so we’re labeling ours as sparkling cocktails. We’re totally creating the notion of this being, in fact, a sparkling craft cocktail.
Are you doing any collaborations?
I am with a coffee company, so we are going to do a spiked coffee with rum, a vanilla coffee, and we’re probably going to do two or three flavors.
Luke sent me home with all six of their RTD’s. The Cranberry Island Cocktail is thirst-quenching, flavorful, and, even at 7% ABV, incredibly drinkable. The Maine Mule is one of my favorites — the ginger beer has an amazingly spicy bite. Blueshine Lemonade is destined to become a Maine classic. I found both the gin and tonic and the Black Cap vodka and soda well balanced and refreshing, but my absolute favorite is the bold Italiano Orange Spritz, which rivals any negroni I’ve ever had. It’s truly a craft cocktail in a can.