Dogfish Head Is Breaking into the Canned Cocktail Market
The famously off-centered craft brewery and distillery is mixing its spirits into ready-to-drink cocktails.
Over the last few years, canned cocktails have had a renaissance (or, ahem, can-aissance). But starting today, the portable mixed drinks market gets a little more off-centered. Dogfish Head, best known for its creative craft beers and spirits, is launching its first line of canned cocktails. The scratch-made drinks—Strawberry and Honeyberry vodka lemonade, Blueberry Shrub vodka soda, and Cherry Bergamot whiskey sour—are made with the same inventive, offbeat approach as the rest of the company's lineup.
"Our passion for making off-centered canned cocktails stems from our passion for making off-centered spirits," says Sam Calagione, Dogfish founder and president.
It's in the company's DNA. When Calagione started in Rehoboth, Delaware in 1995, Dogfish Head was brewing about 12 gallons of beer each day, from three propane burner-heated kegs. The brewery's small output allowed it to be more agile, and experiment with ingredients beyond the standard: water, yeast, hops, and barley. "When we opened as the smallest brewer in the country we committed to making the majority of our beer recipes outside the Reinheitsgebot, using fruits and spices and herbs," Calagione says, referring to Germany's strict regulations mandating beer ingredients, dating back to the 16th century. Beers like Midas Touch, brewed with honey, white muscat grapes, and saffron (ingredients discovered in 2,700-year-old vessels of the King's tomb), and, more recently, SeaQuench, a salty sour made with black limes, exemplify the company's longstanding approach to integrating culinary ingredients and techniques into the recipe development process.
Dogfish tapped into that same philosophy when they started distilling craft spirits in 2002, making Barrel Honey rum, and Analog vodka with milled-in-house malted barley. In 2016, they opened the seafood restaurant Chesapeake and Maine in downtown Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and soon after, its bar program earned it a James Beard Award nomination. It was then that Calagione thought about canning the cocktails.
The same culinary-inspired approach, as well as some personal experiences, led to the first three cocktail flavors. The Strawberry and Honeyberry vodka lemonade was inspired by fruit Calagione first encountered while visiting his high school roommate, now an organic farmer in Maine. On a family trip two years ago, the founder "fell in love with these honeyberries that he was growing—they're like a really ugly, blueberry with an intense flavor." Calagione and his team of distillers experimented with the berries, mixing and muddling them with strawberries and citrus, and eventually nailed down the vodka lemonade. The vodka soda is made with a shrub—a non-alcoholic, tart vinegar drink—and vodka distilled with blueberries, and the whiskey sour uses Dogfish Head whiskey, distilled with tart cherries and bergamot orange, then blended with house-made sour mix.
Canned cocktails have grown in popularity for the past several years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has seemingly accelerated the surge. Consumers are home, looking for zero-prep cocktails that might mimic the normalcy of sipping a cocktail at their favorite bars and restaurants. The ready to drink (RTD) category grew more than 43 percent in 2020, and sales are poised to explode in the next decade. So while Dogfish canned cocktails have been in the works for over two years, Calagione says the current growth makes it more exciting, noting distributors orders are coming in at 62 percent above the volume they expected.
Even with the company's 20 years of research and development, starting with cocktail experimentation in their tasting room after launching their craft spirits, creating the line of canned cocktails had challenges. "The recipes themselves are blissfully inefficient," laughs Calagione. "Even our production methods, frankly, are kind of blissfully inefficient," like the custom spicing pots they use to run vodka through the strawberries and blueberries to make these ready-to-drink cocktails. "It's a labor of love," the founder says. It may be a labor of love, but signs indicate it'll be a popular one. The Blueberry Shrub Vodka Soda just won best ready-to-drink cocktail at the L.A. Spirits Awards, before the cocktails have even hit the market.