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The rise, fall and rebirth of alcopops

Having faded away after being blamed for an ‘epidemic’ of teenage binge drinking, the alcopop category is back.

Teenaged girls saying cheers together with pink alcopops outdoors relaxing on a summer vacation

*This feature was originally published in the September 2023 issue of The Spirits Business magazine.

In March, the UK’s Office for National Statistics announced its 2023 ‘Basket of goods and services’ – an annually changing virtual shopping basket containing items representative of the goods and services that consumers typically spend their money on. This year, an increasing awareness of our health and environment delivered a blow for the once popular alcopop: it was no longer to be included in the basket. While this move may not have come as a surprise to many, for those with their fingers on the alcopop pulse, it seems the decision isn’t quite as representative of consumer behaviours as many might think.

Alcopops gained popularity in the US in the 1980s when Bartles and Jaymes began advertising its brand of wine coolers. In 1990, the Bacardi Breezer launched in the US market, selling more than four million cases within a year of its debut.

In 1995, WKD Iron Brew became one of the fastest-selling premium packaged spirits in the on-trade.

The alcopop was the birth of the ready-to-drink (RTD) category, and much like Tamagotchis and MSN Messenger, they were big news for those of us in the Y2K generation. There are very few alcoholic drinks that can induce such animated conversation among my Millennial peers as the alcopop. It seems that everyone who grew up in the golden era of the alcopop has a core memory associated with them. The problem for the category, however, is those memories are often from a time before we reached the legal age of drinking.

Alcoholic gateway

When researching this article, I put this question to social media: were alcopops your first ‘real’ experience of alcohol, and, if yes, were you underage at the time? 70% of respondents confirmed this to be the case, due to the lower-ABV, sugar-forward nature of the glass-bottled drinks that made for the perfect alcoholic gateway for the teen palate.

While alcopops’ popularity among alcohol-curious pre-pubescents no doubt contributed to the category’s commercial success, their appeal to minors was a double-edged sword that ended up causing a headache for brands. In a bid to tackle the rising popularity of alcopops among underage consumers, the Portman Group Code of Practice was launched in 1996, but by 2002, The Guardian had reported that teenagers were “gripped by an ‘epidemic’ of binge-drinking” so severe that it had seen consumption almost double in the previous decade, according to research by the Department of Health.

As PR disasters go, this was a big one for the alcopop category, and the moral panic associated with the garishly coloured drinks meant they began to fade from supermarket shelves and the back bars of high-velocity venues. But rather than disappear altogether, the category simply went underground, now finally resurfacing to a new world of drinking cultures, demographics and motivations that are once again allowing it to thrive.

Charlie Leaver, head of brand at Global Brands, which owns 17 products that fall in the RTD and alcopop space, tells me that while the alcopop category was in disgrace, cider-over-ice became the new accessible and refreshing way to drink alcohol. “It was an evolution,” she says, which soon evolved into the cocktail trend that is still going strong today. “In the on-trade, cocktails are everywhere,” says Leaver, “and you don’t just go to a cocktail bar for them – you go to the club, you go to a chain. They are an accessible, easy way of drinking. But neither ciders nor cocktails are suitable for dancing. A 500ml glass bottle of cider isn’t allowed on the dancefloor, and a Margarita – you might as well just throw 15 quid on the floor – so alcopops stayed in nightclubs.”

Rise from the ashes

Much like cider into cocktails, nightclubs have also evolved into a new form of high-energy venue in which alcopops have been allowed to rise from the ashes. “We’d call them vertical-drinking energised bars,” says Leaver, “and the growing trend for experientially-led venues and competitive socialising has again made the alcopop the perfect social drink.”

Alcopops, she says, appeal to people who want an easy-drinking liquid. “That is what unites them – a mindset – people who go out and want an easy-drinking, excessively flavoured, well-priced drink, and they aren’t going to be an unpretentious person. They’re about having fun.”

I ask Leaver how Global Brands deals with the non-legal-drinking-age ghosts of alcopop’s past. Is there a fear history could repeat itself? Thanks to many brands self-regulating, and organisations such as the Portman Group on hand to keep in line those that don’t, she is confident it won’t be a problem for the category again. Furthermore, times have changed since, and the opportunity for experimenting with alcohol at a younger age is less available.

“Now there are no youth clubs; you can’t get into the pub because everywhere implements Challenge 25; and the police won’t let anyone gather in a park, so it’s a lot harder for kids to get their hands on alcohol.” As a result, she says, often going to university or going out for the first time aged 18 is young people’s first experience of alcohol. “That’s why students are a big focus for us,” she explains.

Leaver says Global Brands’ biggest accounts are university student unions. “VK has been the number-one RTD brand for students for 10 years running in the NUS drinks tracker,” she says, noting the brand’s dancefloor-friendly format and affordability. The brand puts a large focus on university-based activations during the year, with freshers’ tours, sampling events, and experiential activations, all of which are aimed at the core 18-24 demographic.

I’m intrigued to know whether Global Brands has found marketing to the Gen Z population difficult, bearing in mind its health-conscious mentality. “While consumers talk about wanting to be healthier, when it comes to booze, they’re generally in a treat mindset, already knowing they’re going to indulge, so they’re not as bothered.” Leaver examines the difference between alcopops’ resurgence, and the struggles the hard seltzer category, with its low-calorie, low-alcohol focus, has faced in the UK. “That is an indicator that Brits, when we’re having a bevvy, want to have a bevvy – we’re fully aware it’s not good for us, and we care more about whether it tastes good rather than ‘is it good for me?’”

Health concerns

Despite this, Global Brands hasn’t ignored consumers’ health concerns altogether. Rather, these concerns have allowed the company to flex its innovation muscles with the launch of its 3.4% ABV vodka-based, zero-sugar range, which has, in turn, given the alcopop category room to expand its growth.

It is this kind of innovation that Diageo-owned Smirnoff Ice has attributed to its growth in the flavoured alcohol beverage (FAB) category. “Since Smirnoff Ice hit the market and revolutionised club culture in 1999, we’ve continued to bring vibrancy and new perspectives to Ice, with limited edition flavour releases,” says Stephanie Jacoby, senior vice-president of Smirnoff. “This spirit of experimentation has ensured Smirnoff has continued to grow as a brand in the past decades, with our key innovations, particularly in the FAB category, seeing double-digit growth in this period. We’re seeing more consumers seeking out exciting and unexpected flavours, so by tapping into this curiosity, we’ve been able to showcase the versatility of our spirit in ways that consumers are really connecting with.”

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