If there’s one truism that can be depended upon in the marketing strategy of pretty much any international alcohol company, it’s the assumption that the average American consumer either doesn’t know or care much about what they’re drinking. These companies do not exactly hold the rank-and-file drinker in high esteem, and the assumption is pretty much always that the consumer will simply purchase whatever they’re told to purchase without questioning its origin or authenticity. And folks, these companies are rarely disappointed by the results of such cynicism.
This is something that was bugging me recently when I wrote about the influx of new “ranch water” brands on the market, almost all of which are malt-based seltzers trying to somehow capture “tequila” flavor without actually having any tequila in them. This is what happens when a buzzy new cocktail/mixed drink with a marketable name begins to gain wider traction—the term is bastardized until the dominant brand bearing the name “ranch water” has next to nothing to do with the actual cocktail/drink that originated the term ranch water. And guess who’s next? It’s Long Drink.
Long Drink is something we’ve been aware of for a while, and a beverage that I occasionally have around the house, considering that my wife has become particularly fond of this refreshing combination of gin and grapefruit soda. Long considered the national drink of Finland since the 1950s, and also known as lonkero, Long Drink is a cultural staple in Finland that is sold in canned form by many companies, but it was brought to the U.S. in earnest by a company going by The Finnish Long Drink in 2018. Since that time, The Finnish Long Drink has been a rousing success on the U.S. market, selling a premixed cocktail made in the traditional manner, with gin and grapefruit soda. They’re currently available in 15 states, and the $14 million they intend to sell in 2021 is an almost threefold increase in sales from last year. The Long Drink business, in other words, is booming.
The Finnish Long Drink is currently produced in a variety of flavors and sold in 15 states.
It’s only natural, then, that major U.S. players want a cut of the action, and the chance to use their economies of scale and distribution networks to reshape the American consumer’s idea of Long Drink before it ever has a chance to get truly established on a wider level. And just like in the case of ranch water, major U.S. beverage companies like Boston Beer Co. are going the seltzer route with Long Drink, using malt-derived alcohol for their resulting product and removing its authenticity in the process. If you’re a product like The Finnish Long Drink, still pushing into new markets and selling American drinkers on the concept, this is pretty much a worst-case scenario—like a local burger place coming up with some kind of hit new concept, only for the McDonald’s next door to start offering an inferior product with the same name and announce intentions to take it nationwide.
Over at Good Beer Hunting, Kate Bernot—a wonderful alcohol industry writer and analyst that literally everyone should read—recently published a piece that specifically details the marketing push that Boston Beer Co. is putting behind its new Long Drink brand, which is titled Bevy. Specifically, BBC is putting $10 million behind Bevy in an attempt to make Bevy into the next flavored malt beverage (FMB) juggernaut, comparable to the company’s own Twisted Tea or Truly seltzer. Like those products, Bevy is made with alcohol derived from malt fermentation, rather than distilled spirits, combined with natural flavors. It would, therefore, qualify as “hard seltzer” under the still cryptic and ill-defined nature of that product.
You’ll have to forgive me now for the fact that we’re about to do some editorializing, but this trend toward the seltzer-ification of beloved cocktails/mixed drinks smacks of big business cynicism and targeting of the lowest common denominator of consumers, and it deliberately muddies the waters of defining new cocktails that are increasing in popularity in the U.S. In making its instructions to vendors in how they should sell Bevy, Boston Beer Co.’s selling point is supposedly that the product is “a hard citrus refresher, with a great story to back it up,” despite the fact that the company has no respect for that story they reference. If the company actually had any respect for the drink, they’d be presenting it as a gin-based beverage, instead of ripping off that flavor profile in an attempt to do things as cheaply and efficiently as possible. This is effectively how you transform the national drink of Finland into canned pablum, wrapped in vaguely attractive words like “citrus.”
Seriously though, what does “hard sparkling refresher” even mean?
Because lord knows, the market is hurting for a “hard citrus refresher,” right? It’s not as if there are already any grapefruit-flavored malt beverages available out there, right? There’s no way that this is just an attempt to glom onto the term “Long Drink,” while selling a product that is functionally almost the same as the hard seltzers you already produce, right?
Economically, none of this is hard to understand. It makes all the sense in the world for Boston Beer Co. to avoid any reference to gin, because the consumption of gin has been decreasing in the U.S. for years, in favor of vodka, whiskey and tequila—although gin consumption actually rose in 2020 for the first time in a while. But on more practical level, making a seltzer-based Long Drink is simply far cheaper (and subject to less tax ) and more efficient for Boston Beer Co., while also allowing the resulting product to be sold in many stores/states where a product containing distilled spirits would be far more limited. Coupled with the company’s size and distribution network, this gives BBC an automatic advantage, regardless of the quality of the product, which I fully admit I have not sampled.
I should also note that it’s not as if The Finnish Long Drink actually goes out of their way to advertise the gin-based nature of their product either, likely owing to the same American tastes, which are not currently as passionate for gin as they are for other distilled spirits. But although The Finnish Long Drink may not play up the gin angle, they are producing a genuine, gin-based product, and they’re not about to compromise on that aspect. In other words, they’re making a legitimate Long Drink in the Finnish tradition, and have earned the right to call their product by that name. Boston Beer Co.? They’re making something else entirely, but they don’t want you to know that. And I find this inherently distasteful.
Whether American consumers will ever care about this sort of thing, or know enough to care, on the other hand, is another matter. But for those of us who are passionate about spirits, rather than just a pale imitation of spirits, it’s a troubling trend.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.