There is an aisle at my local liquor store where, if memory serves, crisp Vouvrays once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with ethereal Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés. The wines are gone now, displaced by a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured boxes, sparkling cans and single-serving plastic bottles containing neon liquids with names like Zoom, Vex, Rev and Chrome Hard Liquor Alloy. The sign on the aisle has been changed, too. It used to read "France"; now it says "Party Zone."
Vodka coolers have solidified their standing as the fashionable party lubricant of our time -- at least among people who don't associate the name Moby with an ocean-dwelling mammal. What began a few years ago as a curious reprise of the failed 1980s wine-cooler phenomenon has evolved into a bona fide -- and huge -- beverage category.
In the past year, more than 20 new vodka coolers have been launched in Ontario. The total number of "ready-to-drink" alcoholic beverages, as the industry refers to them, stands at 75 in the province, 53 of them powered by vodka. Canada-wide shipments have grown from insignificant in 1995 to 8 million nine-litre cases a year and are growing at about 15 per cent a year, faster than any other alcohol category.
The No. 1 brand remains Mike's Hard Lemonade, a Canadian creation launched six years ago. The Mike's brand, backed by a whimsical ad campaign urging consumers to "Grab Life by the Lemons," comprises 42 per cent of the Canadian market for spirit coolers. "We're doing so well it's hard to keep up with demand," says Paul Meehan, director of marketing for Vancouver-based Mike's Hard Lemonade Co. Major competitors include Vex, Chrome, Seagram Country Berry Vodka Cooler, The Original Stiff Vodka Lemonade and the Shocktales line of premixed cocktails from Corby Distilleries.
Aimed more squarely at the rave crowd are such dance-friendly products as Rev and Grüv, which come in easy-to-grip, narrow, unbreakable containers (the former in plastic, the latter in tin).
The rave connection is no accident. The under-35 demographic accounts for the lion's share of the cooler market. Tom Pirko, president of Bevmark LLC, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based adviser to the food and beverage industries, says the new coolers are referred to by some in the trade as "rock and roll" drinks. "They're trying to find a market down there in the transitional phase when people move from soft drinks to alcoholic beverages," he says. "These are not drinks where you start enlisting the interest of pot-bellied men."
And, as with beer, premixed, single-serving coolers offer youth something more than a palatable means for ingesting lots of alcohol. They bestow what Meehan calls the "badge effect." Vodka-cooler consumers, he says, are "proud to have the bottle in their hand. Whereas with a [wine]cooler, they would pour it into a glass."
The huge beer market, in fact, is where distillers are now training their sights. Meehan reports that in the supposedly macho bastion of Australia, more than 30 per cent of the beer market has fallen to spirit-based coolers. The same thing, distillers argue, could happen here, expanding the cooler market to 50 million cases a year from the current 8 million.
Numbers like that have the sharp minds at Smirnoff, Canada's biggest vodka name, salivating. Three months ago, the famous label stomped into the Canadian market with Smirnoff Ice, a lemon cooler packaged to look like a miniature version of the iconic Smirnoff Vodka bottle. It's been a runaway success in test markets such as Alberta, where it's been available since last summer. And the heat wave in southern Ontario has triggered a frenzy for the novelty, with customers in some stores fighting over the remaining four-packs.
"It's doing better than what we expected," says Hasan Imam, vice-president of consumer marketing for Guinness UDV Canada, which makes the product domestically.
The label -- invoking the vodka brand as well as the hottest meaningless descriptive in drinks, "ice" -- no doubt has much to do with it. "That seems to be the right combination of terms," says Bevmark's Pirko. "Smirnoff is chic and fashionable. It sets you apart to drink Smirnoff Ice instead of beer."
The content, it turns out, is pretty good, too. In a comparative tasting of popular cooler brands, Smirnoff Ice ($8.25 a four-pack in Ontario) turned out to be my favourite. It was refreshing and pleasantly effervescent, with a clean, tart flavour suggesting lemon gelato. The pale yellow, almost-white colour also appealed to my grown-up, neon-averse aesthetic sensibility.
In close second was Mike's Hard Lemonade ($8.25 a four-pack), which had a natural lemonade-like flavour. Also good, despite its fluorescent glow, was Shocktales Bolt Vodka Lemonade ($12.95 a 1.14-litre bottle), a non-fizzy drink that's as good as most citrus-flavoured cocktails you'd likely find in a bar that doesn't use fresh-squeezed juice.
As for the rest of the crop, there was much to be desired. Each seemed to remind me of the cloying candy-store treats of my youth. Rev ($8.95 a four-pack) was a dead ringer for blue Mr. Freeze, the frozen Popsicle-like stick. Vex Hard Ice ($10.45 a six-pack) tasted like Fresca.
Grüv ($9.95 a four-pack) was coloured a toxic-looking neon green and had a best-forgotten lemon-Freshie taste. Woody's Alcoholic Lemon Drink ($2.25 a bottle) reminded me of second-rate lemon-lime soda. Least pleasing of the bunch was Chrome Hard Liquor Alloy ($7.95 a four-pack), which tasted of chemicals and had a hot alcoholic finish.