NOW IN its seventh year, the Pre-mixed Drinks Challenge saw a record number of entries for 2017, reflecting the dynamism of the category. In 2016 the global category grew 3% (Euromonitor International) proving the format’s appeal is broadening from traditional markets, such as the UK, Australia and the US, to emerging markets.
The popularity of convenience is, of course, more of a long-term evolution of drinking habits – no longer is the pre-mixed format restricted to the long train journey or an in-flight trolley. It is a vast spectrum of ready-to-go products, from high-end bartender-produced bottled cocktails to the supermarket spirit and mixer in a can. The Pre-Mixed Drinks Challenge 2017 exhibited the full gamut of styles.
This year Worship Street Whistling Shop in London hosted the tasting and running the rule over the class of 2017 were Anne Jones and Sarah Hammond of leading premium UK supermarket Waitrose, Dawn Davies of Speciality Drinks, Elliot Ball of The Cocktail Trading Company and Drinks International’s Hamish Smith.
In total seven gold medals (including Supreme Champion), 11 silvers and 24 bronzes were awarded. Though many products shone, one company produced what the panel considered the two best drinks of the day. Bartending duo Thomas Aske and Tristan Stephenson’s Aske Stephenson took home a handful of medals, including Supreme Champion for the Cigar & Coffee Manhattan, of which the panel said: “This drink offered complex flavours of leather, tobacco and coffee giving it dryness, the vermouth giving it brightness. It was really nicely balanced – rich without being heavy. There’s such quality in the ingredients – a great product.”
If that was the most popular pre-mix of the day, the company’s Peanut Butter & Jam Old Fashioned was a close second.
It was a good year for Manhattans and Old Fashioneds at the Challenge this year, with BTL SVC also taking golds for its iterations. Like Aske Stephenson, BTL SVC was another first-timer in the competition, but suitably impressed judges with its range, which also picked up a silver and bronze medal. One company with a rich history in the Pre-mixed Challenge is the Handmade Cocktail Company, which again took gold, this time providing the best Negroni of the day.
But it wasn’t all about big-ticket bottled cocktails, with premium UK supermarket Marks & Spencer winning gold with its bottled Spiced Apple Pie Martini – which judges noted for its balance of spices – and its canned Whisky & Ginger – described as “the best spirit and mixer pre-mix of the day”. Marks & Spencer also took home three silver medals and nine bronzes in what was a thorough examination of its range.
Highlights also included the Rested Cocktail Company’s Gin Martini and Harvard, and the Craft Cocktail Company’s Reggae Rum Punch.
Judges commented that, with some exceptions, there seemed to be a big jump from the low to the high end of the market. They suggested producers aiming to hit lower price points should stick to simple mixes, rather than recreating complicated cocktails.
Mimicking the flavours of perishable ingredients through artificial flavourings seems to be on the wane, but still persists at the more price-sensitive end of the market, judges noted.
Overall the category, led by bartenders and high-end off-trade suppliers, seems to be on an upward, quality-focused trajectory.