The holidays are upon us, and all around people are toasting the season with cups of good cheer. But your customers may be less than joyous if the mixers in their mojitos are made with malathion.
After all, customers who buy organic vodka and gin will want everything else in their cocktails to be organic, too. Or, at the very least, they'll want to be assured their drinks are natural, with no artificial colors or preservatives. They'll want real fruit, not fruit flavor, and they'll be further reassured if it's grown without malathion or other chemical pesticides.
But if your store is in the majority of states that don't allow food retailers to sell alcohol, you might think that cocktails are a category you can't touch. Not so, says Supermarket Guru Phil Lempert. Mixers "make home entertainment baskets larger and more profitable," he says in his Sept. 11 newsletter, Facts, Figures & the Future. Also, he says, mixers "raise a host or hostess's confidence that he or she can create and serve bar-quality beverages at home." And manufacturers are stepping up and creating mixers that any health aficionado would be eager to try.
The pioneer in organic mixers is Modmix, a West Hollywood, Calif.-based company founded by Gretchen Nix, an avid runner and physician's assistant who wanted to reconcile her healthy lifestyle with her enjoyment of an occasional cocktail. "If you choose to have a cocktail, why not have a clean, organic version with your favorite spirit and eliminate those hangover-inducing, candy-flavored liqueurs?" she asks. Modmix, currently available in three flavors (Pomegranate Cosmopolitan, Lavender Lemon Drop and Citrus Margarita), uses raw, unrefined sugar and "nothing unpronounceable" in its ingredients, Nix says.
The product line has been available for six months and only in California, but Nix says the response has been overwhelming. "The Martha Stewart show just requested samples for one of her fall shows—she's doing a week of 'Going Green,' " Nix said in mid-September. She noted that "some well-regarded retailers" in grocery and natural food are beginning to approve the products for their shelves, too. Nix thinks the mixers are natural matches for any high-end spirit. "Organic ingredients provide the best taste and quality, so why not use them to create a gourmet mixer that can be paired with those luxury vodkas, rums and tequilas?"
Matt Baris, co-founder of Altitude Spirits, a Boulder, Colo.-based manufacturer of organic Vodka 14, agrees, and says that's why his company doesn't make any flavored vodkas. "We prefer to encourage our customers to make infusions. We believe you can get a much more natural and rich flavor this way, and it is more in line with the high quality and organic nature of our vodka."
The natural buzz
Other companies make natural, but not organic, mixers. Freshies, based in Denver, uses fresh vegetables and herbs instead of concentrates and dried ingredients in its Bloody Mary, mojito and margarita mixes, as well as its other tropical flavors. "We use juices, literally fresh-squeezed lime juice and fresh-squeezed lemon juice," says sales and marketing executive Steve Barton, whose title at Freshies is Man of Action. "We don't use any high-fructose corn syrup; we use whole sugars. For all our Bloody Marys, the vegetables are hand-chopped; we actually peel our horseradish ourselves. If you use something pre-chopped, you just don't get that flavor."
But Freshies is not ready to launch an organic line just yet. "There has been some discussion of organic [at the company]," Barton says. "Then you get into what market exists for organic cocktails, [and] can we source all our ingredients organically and, if so, what does that do to the price."
While there aren't any figures yet to support (or undermine) the market for organic mixers, the mixer category on the whole is whirring. In his Sept. 11 newsletter, Lempert says sales have risen an average of 7.28 percent over the last four years, to a total of $158 million in the 52 weeks ending June 17, 2006. "These consistent advances have encouraged manufacturers to offer more varieties for specific dietary concerns," Lempert says. "While still a relatively small portion of the entire category—less than $7 million—mixes that are natural, low-carb, no- or low-sugar, low-salt, or low-calorie sell at consistently higher rates than four years ago," he adds, citing ACNielsen LabelTrends as his source.
Barton says Freshies doesn't have a lot of competition yet, other than Stirrings, a line produced by Fall River, Mass.-based Nantucket Off-Shore. Stirrings makes mixers in numerous flavors, ranging from apple martini to watermelon. Paul Nardone, former chief executive of Annie's Homegrown, has been at the helm of Stirrings since 2004. "Certainly his experience and connections with the natural foods world has been a tremendous asset," says co-founder Gil MacLean, who emphasizes that even before Nardone came on board, the company's background was in the natural and specialty food world. "He's been able to gather a team around him … and allow us to develop products that are broadly appealing, yet maintain the integrity of the natural product. … We're able to maintain vibrant colors. Customers don't like to see floating particulates and [boring] colors, which are a problem in some natural and organic offerings," MacLean says.
Cocktails with a little extra
In addition to its more customary mixers, Stirrings offers a line called Essences—mixers that are infused with lavender, rose, basil and rosemary. "They complement some of the more traditional cocktails that might be becoming a little bit tired: Instead of a cosmopolitan, a lavender cosmopolitan," MacLean suggests. "It allows the inner foodie, the inner mixologist, to come out." In addition, the company offers all-natural sodas and tonics with high levels of carbonation, "not something that's going to die out halfway through your gin and tonic," MacLean says.
Not content to ply revelers with just attractive and all-natural flavorings, Stirrings plans to shake up the market with functional beverages. While MacLean wouldn't divulge much, he said to look for a spring launch. "It'll be a dual-function beverage—an item, like the sodas, that is intended to be mixed but is going to have a life of its own."
Stirrings isn't the only company pairing functional benefits with an all-natural cocktail mixer. Zico, an Englewood Cliffs, N.J., manufacturer of coconut water, touts its beverage as not only a great mixer but an effective sports drink as well, owing to its high level of electrolytes.
Packaging can differentiate such products, too. Lt. Blender's, of Galveston Island, Texas, makes all-natural pouched mixers to create margaritas, daiquiris, pi?a coladas and other popular frozen cocktails. Users add their own alcohol, then place the stand-up bag in the freezer for several hours. The alcohol keeps the drinks from freezing solid, and the pouch design allows people to drink as much or as little as they want without waste. Any unused portion can go back in the freezer.
Mixers matched with retailer marketing
With all these clean, bright drink pairings on the market, you might think it's a cinch that their manufacturers would partner with organic spirits makers for a one-two punch. But MacLean, of Stirrings, says it's a difficult endeavor. "For the most part, our distribution far exceeds a lot of the organic spirits companies. We look to do things on a national scale or at least a large regional scale." Even with conventional spirits, such partnerships are difficult, he says. "There are different [liquor] distributors in every state. In order to collaborate effectively, you need broad swaths of distribution matchup—that can be a challenging thing to do."
The truth is, it might be easiest for retailers to do the cross-promotion. "We do partner with liquor stores in several of our markets where we cannot sell wine or beer," says Sonja Tuitele, spokeswoman for Wild Oats Natural Marketplace. At the chain's store in Superior, Colo., customers' receipts frequently bear a coupon for a specific promotion at Superior Liquor, located just across the highway. It would be simple enough to expand on that and offer, say, 10 percent off organic vodka at a nearby liquor store when customers purchase a natural mixer in your store.
If you don't have the shelf space for packaged cocktail enhancers, don't forget that you most likely already have a large cache of mixers—your organic and natural juices and sodas. Vodka 14 produces a list of recipes (available at www.vodka14.com) that could be posted in a store. Pick one each week to feature, and create a happy hour section containing all the fixin's. A produce display featuring organic dried cranberries and fresh oranges and limes will have customers ready to make a cranberry/orange cosmo infusion. Or, your packaged spices aisle could feature cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves for making organic mulled wine. With a little signage and cross merchandising, you can help spark customers' creativity—and keep them from tippling toddies laced with toxic tidings.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 11/p. 22, 24