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1912 – Ready-to-Drink Cocktails

Today, we’re doing a drink post with no drink attached. There’s a reason for this, of course — something beyond us wanting to cut out early for the long weekend, but in truth, that’s as good a starting point as any. Since we’ve been long overdue in discussing things like Bartles & Jaymes, Seagram’s Escapes, and Captain Morgan’s Parrot Bay Frozen Pouches, today will be the day. Like it or not.

But before we kick off President’s Day weekend (let’s wish George and Abe happy birthdays), I’m going to jump back to this past Christmas, when I shared the gift of frozen, pouched love with my family: namely, Parrot Bay malt beverage daiquiris. My reasoning was simple: I needed stocking stuffers and, at 3 for $5, how could I not buy them? As a joke, I also recently smuggled along a 4-pack of Bartels & Jaymes strawberry coolers on a multi-day trip to Disneyland. Since our nights would be spent in a dark, quiet hotel room – a self-imposed womb conducive to inducing sleep in our toddler – we needed something other than books to pass the hours. And since cheap, low-alcohol bottled coolers have been a staple of my drinking repertoire since my white-bread teen years, I’ve always had a soft-spot for them – much like my weakness for equally cheap pop music sung by cute girls (Holly Valance, you know what I’m talking about).

Now, I feel like I need to invoke a bit of Marc Antony and clearly state that I’ve come to discuss ready-to-drink cocktails, not to praise them. At the B&J end of the spectrum, the drinks are little more than overly sweet flavored beer with some artificial colors thrown in. As packaged products go, they really aren’t too horrible, ingredient-wise, but if you’re looking to get your buzz on, the low alcohol (3% to 5% ABV) isn’t going to get you anywhere fast. In fact, rough math dictates that it would take you about three coolers to match the alcohol in one average cocktail (discounting the size of the beverages, the cooler contains .3 ounces of ethanol to the cocktail’s .8 ounces). That’s 750 calories of sweetness for you waist-watchers out there, but on the plus side, sweet, fizzy drinks can increase the speed of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream – meaning you get drunk faster.

As mentioned above, pre-made packaged “cocktails” were among my earliest introductions to the wonderful world of alcohol, which is no surprise given my mid-1980s upbringing in the heart of Gallo country. For most Americans – as well as those in other countries, as we will see – ready-to-drink cocktails hold a certain appeal. Should you not be comfortable with the prospect of mixing drinks, or perhaps you’re hosting a backyard barbeque and would rather spend your time mingling with the crowd – there’s an ease to filling a cooler and being done with it. This is exactly the marketing angle Margaritaville Cocktails are taking with their “Make Friends, Not Drinks” slogan.

In an article posted last year, Jim Beam offered that it was annually shipping over 100,000 cases alone of Bethenny Frankel’s Skinnygirl Margaritas. Compare that to 30,000 cases of Pusser’s Rum shipped worldwide over the same period. Beverage Dynamics published a comprehensive piece on the state of “ready to drink” (RTD), which are single-serving and malt-beverage based, and “ready to serve” (RTS), larger format, premixed spirit-based beverages. Combined, the two categories represent a market of approximately 50 million cases per year, and most people cited in the article see the market expanding, particularly with brands perceived by consumers to be high-end, such as Bacardi and Jose Cuervo. Along with their obvious place as easy party fodder, some see pre-mixed cocktails as perfect entrees into the world of mixed drinks. Michelle Nouvel, brand manager at McCormick Distilling, told Beverage Dynamics that “RTDs also are used as a ‘trial’ by some consumers. They may be unfamiliar with a cocktail and buy the 200 ml size to figure out if it is something they would like.” McCormick, it should be noted, has also begun selling pre-made cocktails into the hospitality business with the rationale that “It saves restaurants money because it eliminates overpouring.”

Of course, as we declared in the title of this piece, we’re still lingering in the year 1912. So, why the discourse on TGI Friday’s Mudslides and the like? For the simple reason that, as the Bible says, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

During the mid 1800s, there was something of a mad rush for soft drinks, cordials, and “flavored beers” as I’ll choose to loosely call them. Ginger beer, Indian tonic water, and Rose’s Lime Cordial all hit the market at around this time. A good part of this was due to the rise of the soda fountain, made possible by the 1832 invention of a process to artificially carbonate water in mass quantities (see Darcy O’Neil’s seminal Fix the Pumps for a complete history of the soda fountain). When the subsequent first patent for a glass-blowing machine was granted in 1899 – increasing bottle production thirty fold – the die was cast for mass distribution of pre-made beverages, be they fizzy soft drinks or something with a little more substance to it.

It’s probably impossible to say when the first “bottled” alcoholic beverages appeared, since jars of beer, wine, and vinegar-based drinks go back as far as recorded history. We do know that Jerry Thomas, in the first-ever cocktail guide (1862), has a recipe for “Bottle Cocktail”. Part of the appeal of bottling for bartenders was no doubt the expeditious and convenient nature of said preparations. Even by Thomas’ time, however, bottled pre-mixed drinks were nothing new. Oxford Night Caps of 1827, one of our favorite resources for drink recipes, contains numerous bottled punches and bowls, and a record of Tavern Charges from Bombay in 1694 makes reference to “punch at two larees the bottle holding two quarts full measure.”

By 1912 – the current year of our story – bottled drinks of all stripes were easily available, including bottled cocktails. The brand which is most referenced and which seems to have been most successful was Heublein’s Club Cocktail, bottles – and later, cans – of premixed cocktails such as the Martini (Medium Sweet or Dry), the Old Fashioned, Side Car, Manhattan, and Daiquiri (per the 1941 Heublein range). The drinks boasted that they were “masterfully mixed and blended from the finest liquors that money can buy”. “Always Ready – Always Right” was the motto. Even better, as many chronicling the recent barrel-aged cocktail phenomena will tell you, Club Cocktails were aged in wood – predating the current fad by more than a hundred years.

Heublein Club Cocktails ad, 1910

We opened our trip to 1912 with a stop aboard the RMS Titanic, and there’s one particular scene that I remember from the film. Rose (Kate Winslet) pulls out her collection of paintings, among which are works by Picasso. We don’t often stop to consider worlds like the opulent staterooms of the Titanic alongside the Cubist work of Picasso or Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, which dates from 1912, or the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, also contemporary to the period.

Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

The Heublein Club Cocktails are also a bit incongruous in this manner, but in fact, Winslet’s Rose could very well have lounged aboard the Titanic, admiring her Picasso as she sipped a ready-to-drink Heublein Martini and contemplated what life would be like in her new Lloyd Wright residence — all while listening to Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

I use Rose here as an easy focal point for my story, but it was exactly a woman of her station who would have been the target market for the Club Cocktails. Author Catherine Gilbert Murdock, in her Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870-1940 tells us that, during the latter part of the 19th century, opium was the drug of choice for women inclined to have a drug of choice. Not only were opiates considered “more genteel” than alcohol, the rising push towards temperance meant that opium use became “exceedingly common among certain classes of people who crave the effects of the stimulant, but will not risk their reputation for temperance by taking alcoholic beverages.” I mention this because once narcotics started to become increasingly stigmatized (again, see O’Neil’s Fix the Pumps), drinks like the Club Cocktails stepped in to take advantage of a growing market. A 1902 advertisement for Club Cocktails featured in Murdock’s book features a wealthy woman greeted by her butler as she arrives home and exclaims, “Before you do another thing James, bring me a Club Cocktail. I’m so tired shopping, make it a Martini. I need a little Tonic and it’s so much better than a drug of any kind.” Hardly subtle on any number of fronts.

The range of ready-to-drink cocktails produced by Heublein reportedly lasted from 1892 (three years before the company launched A-1 Steak Sauce in the US) until at least the mid 1970s. If you’re interested in learning more, here’s a nice history of the line, along with pictures of dozens of bottles, and vintage mini bottles can be regularly found for sale online. Plenty of other brands, of course, have entered the market over the years – from bottled Cocktails For Two to the more modern frozen Parrot Bay pouches. International markets, as well, show a fondness for portability. In Russia, cans of Greenall’s Ready-to-Drink Gin & Tonic are a popular morning drink for hurried workers.

The long and short of all this is, of course, should you be hosting a 1912-themed President’s Day bash this weekend (and why wouldn’t you), feel free to stock the cooler with all manner of ready-to-drink cocktails – after all, it’s more important to make friends, not drinks. If you believe the marketing.