As an alcoholic beverage category, coolers have a bad rap. They have a reputation as sickeningly sweet beverages favoured by teenaged girls, and are often scoffed at by serious beverage drinkers. But a wave of Canadian companies are looking to change the image of the lowly cooler by taking a page from the craft brewing and distillery movements and making locally produced beverages that are less sweet and naturally flavoured.
This explains why the palate for regionally made coolers – or "pre-mixed cocktails" – has grown, says Denzil Wadds, owner of Georgian Bay Spirit Co.
The company introduced its Gin Smash in May, a new frontier for a business primarily making gin and vodka. It has been such a hit that it sells out every week, Mr. Wadds says, making it a tall order to keep in on the shelves.
Coolers (called "ready-to-drink" beverages by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) garnered $130-million during the 2015-16 fiscal year, a 4.7-per-cent increase from a year earlier, according to internal LCBO statistics.
"Two weeks ago, we had a full stock in 223 [LCBO] stores and we were the third best-selling cooler in the entire LCBO," Mr. Wadds says, "and the first two were Mott's mixed Caesars. I think people are looking for something different."
Georgian Bay Spirit Co.'s cooler is proudly anti-artificial. It pairs gin, natural lemon, lime and tangerine juices with mint, cane sugar and locally sourced water. Sunflower seed extract is used for natural colouring.
The company was trying to target a more mature audience initially. It succeeded, Mr. Wadds says, although many younger drinkers are also buying the product.
London, Ont.-based Black Fly Beverage Co. designed its products well before the local craft curve – 11 years ago.
Rob Kelly, co-owner of the business, predicted a market opening for coolers at time when local, artisanal booze was in its infancy.
"I think we were fortunate we hit a time in the market where consumers were embracing local and independent," co-owner Cathy Siskind-Kelly says. "Because there's so much dominance in our LCBO with large global players, there's an excitement and interest in craft."
The pair designed one product: a fusion of cranberry juice and vodka, a beverage that would become Blackfly's top seller 11 years later. Now, it has 13 flavours and sells its products in every province, except Quebec, and four U.S. states. Last year, it sold 250,000 cases in Canada, Ms. Siskind-Kelly says.
"The idea that we brought to market was to evolve the cooler category and bring a craft Canadian product to market," she says. "What that meant to us was quality ingredients. We use real juices and cane sugar."
Currently, 18 per cent of the market share in the cooler category belongs to Palm Bay (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev's Labatt Breweries), whereas Black Fly has about 6 per cent, says Stacee Roth, spirits director at the LCBO.
During the 2012-13 fiscal year, Black Fly grew 84 per cent, she says; now it's expanding by 43 per cent annually. "They continue to see double-digit growth every year, which is significantly outpacing the rest of the category.
"We had to make sure we livened up the assortment within the brand," she says. "The reality of the ready-to-drink category is that customers are looking for newness all the time. Thirty per cent of our assortment changes every year. It's like the fashion business. It's a bit of a perfect storm, but they've [Black Fly] nailed it."
Social Lite Vodka is another company that has crafted something new– a cooler for health-bent individuals. It markets a sugarless and gluten-free beverage that is also self-reportedly "flying off the shelves."
"The category was invented in the eighties and since then has really been the same," says Neetu Godara, co-founder of the company. "It's been all about low-grade alcohol, high-sugar-content drinks. I think a new wave of innovation coupled with being local is really resonating with people and bringing people back into a category that they might have skipped before."
John Lindley, bar manager at the Harbord Room in Toronto, has been keeping tabs on the local craft market for years. He says the appetite for local spirits has indeed grown, including the cooler category.
"Everyone wants to be proud of their hometown, of course," Mr. Lindley says. "Torontonians are a little more curious about what it is they're drinking, and if you can put a story together with a locally produced spirit, then that just makes them even more curious."