Why aren't there more Australian premium whisky RTDs?
It's a question that we've repeatedly asked and always wanted to know more. And in this feature, specialist spirits judge and whisky expert Luke McCarthy has dived deep into the conundrum of the whisky RTD drought to find us some answers.
Australians have a deep love for premixed drinks, so much so that we’ve become one of the world’s largest per capita consumers of ready-to-drink alcohol. In a way, this is the heartland of premix, and anyone growing up in Australia would be aware of the infamous ubiquity of whisky RTDs.
Cans of Bourbon and cola and Scotch and dry have long sustained devoted followings here, and dark spirit RTDs featuring iconic whiskies and rums still command a huge proportion of the overall spirits market in Australia.
But in recent years, RTDs have started to evolve. Global beverage analysts IWSR tell us that RTDs are currently the world’s fastest-growing drinks category by volume, with the data showing premiumisation is helping to drive the trend. From low-calorie seltzers to bespoke canned cocktails, the pandemic boosted our thirst for high-quality, convenient serves, and everyone from the big international players to the smaller craft producers are now getting on board.
Where does the whisky RTD fit into this equation?
RTDs have been a permanent fixture in Australia ever since Bundaberg and United Distillers Limited (UDL) introduced them in the 50s and 60s. In recent decades, though, international whisky brands have completely dominated the RTD category here. Now, Australian producers are looking to challenge that dominance.
Chief among them is ASX-listed Top Shelf International’s Ned Whisky. The Melbourne-based distillery hit the market in 2015 with Ned Whisky and Cola cans, becoming the first local producer in decades to release an Australian whisky RTD.
As Ned Whisky’s master distiller Sebastian Raeburn says, the project grew out of a simple premise.
'The first premise is that Australians love a convenient premix that they can take to a picnic or a barbecue or the beach. That, and the largest category in spirits in Australia is dark spirit RTDs.'
'So from there, Top Shelf asked the question, ‘Why aren’t people making Australian whisky and cola cans?’ If that’s what everyone drinks, then why don’t we make it?'
Raeburn says it wasn’t long after launching that Top Shelf started to understand why Australian distillers had steered clear of the category.
'For one, you’ve got to invest so far ahead of the curve to lay down whisky that you’re going to sell in two or three years' time. So you have to build your own distillery and start making whisky, and then there aren’t enough co-packers, so you have to build your own canning line. Then there’s not enough whisky being made, so you have to partner with people who can contract distil at their operation with your recipe.'
'And then the weirdest problem, demand outstrips supply, just enormously. Every year, we have to make decisions about what channels we say no to because we can’t supply them all.'
It’s understandable, then, that we haven’t seen many premium Australian whisky RTDs to date. But that changed in August when Manly Spirits Co. released their first Whisky Highball. Manly Spirits produce high-quality single malt whiskies, spirits and even premix gin and vodka serves, but co-founder David Whittaker admits that tackling whisky RTDs was a different ball game.
'It was a difficult process, but the hardest decision was deciding whether or not to do it,' Whittaker says.
'The main issue is probably the base whisky supply. The other one for us is that we’re yet to see whether or not a high-quality whisky highball at a premium price point will resonate with consumers. If they’re used to RTDs at a higher ABV and lower price point, will they switch up to something more premium?'
To create the highball, effectively a riff on a whisky and ginger ale with lime, Whittaker started with some of Manly Spirits Co.’s quality malt whisky stocks – virtually unheard of in the RTD space – and then set out to create a bold, sugar-free experience.
'We wanted to make sure our highball had prominent whisky flavours. So that meant choosing good quality, flavoursome whiskies. We didn’t want it to be insipid, so we’ve elevated the ginger component and just balanced that with lime. It’s got a nice punchiness to it, and it’s pretty full on in terms of flavour.'
Upping the premix game even further is the Melbourne-based Curatif. Established in 2019, Curatif’s canned cocktails now lead the category, taking out a suit of awards in recent international spirits competitions and last year raised $2.5 million in funding from private investors.
Curatif co-founder and managing director Matt Sanger says this is only the beginning of the premix RTD boom.
'Premix cocktails started from nowhere, from a zero baseline, around 2019 when we launched, to do $20 billion dollars in 2020. They now have a forecast CAGR of 20 per cent to become a $140 billion category by 2030,' he says.
'Australia has the highest consumption of RTD per capita of any territory in the world. So when you start looking at numbers like that, and looking at this new emerging consumer who’s more educated from a taste profile point of view, who’s looking for something that’s more interesting and innovative and considered, the sky’s the limit.'
Currently, Curatif doesn’t have any Australian whisky in its range of canned cocktails.
'The challenge, as it is for all things whisky, is with age statements, sufficient stock and the supply chain,' says Sanger.
Curatif has previously worked with Starward on a salted maple Old Fashioned and are in talks with Lark Distilling Co. and Morris Whisky about future collaborations. Sanger is also working with spirit partner Archie Rose to formulate a whisky-based canned cocktail in future.
As whisky stocks rise and the industry grows, Sanger thinks more Australian whisky producers will take up the opportunity that premium RTDs present.
'Although they’re little cans, they do a lot of heavy lifting,' he says.
'The whisky shelf, and it doesn’t matter which retailer you’re in, is a busy shelf. And that’s the big piece, recognising, for any maker, that this is a platform where you can go out and have new consumers discover you. You can take your whisky to places it otherwise couldn’t go.'
Photos sourced from Instagram.