This August, a couple bar stars jumped into the RTD game. Tom Macy and Julie Reiner (Clover Club, Leyenda) launched Social Hour, a new canned cocktail company with a Gin & Tonic, Whiskey Mule and Pacific Spritz. RTD’S, such as these, seem ubiquitous since the start of quarantine, but the final products are far more complicated than simple ingredient list indicate. Macy chatted with Neat Pour about the multi-year process of creating Social Hour.
How does creating an RTD differ from creating a cocktail for bar service or even from creating a batched cocktail?
Ultimately the tenets to a great RTD and a great cocktail all the same, it’s all about balance and deliciousness. But the process is a very different animal. You’re still creating cocktails, but with different tools. With the exception of the spirit, you aren’t dealing with fixed ingredients like a vermouth, a liqueur, or fresh fruit. You’e building the ingredients – like tonic water – from scratch. So you can manipulate a lot more variables, which sounds great, but it is also maddening because there are a million different paths you can take. For a perfectionist, it becomes overwhelming. And once carbonation on a large scale becomes involved, everything changes again.
How does one go about trying to recreate a classic? Is the goal to formulate a faithful reproduction or to create a riff of sorts? How did you determine which base specs to start the process with, eg. for a drink like a mojito, there are differing opinions specs…
There are a lot of different ways to go about it! If you take a look around at what’s out there you’ll find some bottled version of almost every top tier classic cocktail that exists.
I arrived at our concept by tinkering with carbonating and bottling cocktails. The Paloma at Leyenda was the first big success. I didn’t use fresh juice, but made a grapefruit soda from scratch instead. Not only did it taste amazing, it was shelf-stable, so we could batch a lot at a time.
For us, we wanted to make only RTD cocktails that were as good or better than what we could make in our bars, which meant no fresh juice. Juice going into a can or bottle will need to be pasteurized and it changes the flavor entirely. The craft cocktail renaissance, if you will, is built on the back of fresh bar programs. There was no way we were going to with less than fresh juice.
This was pretty liberating, it eliminated a swath of cocktails as potential options for our canned cocktails. So we looked at drink styles that didn’t have perishable ingredients, like highballs, and eventually spritzes. Spirit-forward cocktails, could be one option, but we chose to go the fizzy and refreshing route – for now at least.
When approaching drinks that are typically served over ice, like the Social Hour line, how does one handle the shift to cans—which are often drank up by default?
It was very important for the drinks to be perfect out of the can and that’s how we judged them. Because we couldn’t count on dilution from ice, this led to us being very cognizant of viscosity, acidity, and carbonation level, which are more variables to adjust and obsess over – and they were! Thankfully, anything that was good out of the can was also good over ice so we were safe there.
The current RTD market is largely polarized between mainstream-targeted, “cocktail-ish” riffs on hard seltzer (like the burgeoning “tequila soda” sector) and cocktail-nerd-targeted, attempts to can conventional “bar cocktails”. Where do you see Social Hour landing on this spectrum; who is your audience and what type of drinks can we expect moving forward?
We are primarily interested in making cocktail-bar quality cocktails like the ones you’d get in our bars. Classics are of interest to us, though I could see us veering more into “riff” territory if we get an idea that excites us.
For us, proof/ABV is an important part of what we are trying to do. A lot of the “cocktail-ish” drinks, which is a perfect way to put it, are 12 oz cans and 5% abv. To us that’s not a true cocktail. It certainly may be tasty, but we are interested in proper cocktail proof and proper cocktail serving sizes.
In the end, what drink we decide to release will all be about execution and whether they can be as good as we want. Some flavors play well in a can – like passionfruit. Others don’t come off as well. There’s a lot of exploring to do.
RTD sales are surging right now. Do you think that this trend is a product of bars being closed or do you believe that RTD’s are more in competition with cooler fare at a backyard barbecue? Do you thinks that there will come a day when RTD’s are commonly served in bars?
I think the RTD trend has been building for years, and the situation with the pandemic has just accelerated the timeline. I still think the space is best at a backyard BBQ though. It’s hard to see RTD’s being a mainstay at bars. But it depends on the bar. There are plenty of bars where certain types of cocktails are too cumbersome to execute. Or they only have 1 or 2 cocktail options. RTDs could change that in some scenarios.
Social Hour uses base spirits from NY Distilling Company. That decision is unusual in the industry; most RTD’s employ unnamed, bulk spirits as a base. Why did you opt to employ a “name brand”?
Transparency is important to us. Not all spirits are created equal and while we want the brand of Social Hour to be about cocktails, we also know that all of our cocktails has a story behind it, and the spirit is a big part of that.
Allen Katz was someone we talked to very early on about this project so we have been collaborating from the very beginning. It was never really a question whether we would disclose that the spirits came from New York Distilling.
Given the current pandemic, many bars are considering hopping into the RTD market to generate revenue. What advice do you have for them?
Oh man. It’s a lot more work that you think! It’s not a side hustle. You’ve got to be all in. There are a lot of regulatory hoops to jump through. Then again, when I started working on this full-time in early 2018 it was a different world. As the market becomes more established, maybe laws will be changes/loosened (like cocktails to-go) that’ll make the path easier for bars to create RTDs in the future. For us, it very much felt like we were blazing the trail at every step.