Premium mixers: reducing waste

01 February, 2024

Taking steps towards greater sustainability has become unavoidable across the drinks industry, with premium mixers no exception. Clinton Cawood rounds up some of the most impac­tful initiatives of recent times.

While the entirety of the drinks trade has begun paying more attention to its impact on the planet, this has perhaps been most pressing for premium mixers, given the prevalence of single-serve glass bottles in the category. There are, however, those that are rising to the challenge.

For the most part, these pioneers are starting with packaging in their bid to become more sustainable. “To put it politely, transporting heavy glass and water can feel quite wasteful,” says Victoria Kumaran, co-founder of UK-based mixer brand Wildleaf. As a result, the brand has plans to introduce a concentrate for on-trade accounts, “reducing the need to transport water and glass, where most of the carbon footprint lies”.

In the meantime, Wildleaf is doing what it can, making use of recycled paper labels and following best practices when sourcing ingredients, Kumaran says. “Beyond that, without having the fire power of a large multinational, it can be difficult,” she adds. “Suppliers of materials are trying to help drinks producers with this transition, but perhaps more top-down regulation is needed for manufacturers to make the change.”

One major player has already introduced significant innovation when it comes to reducing packaging waste. In 2019, Britvic’s London Essence Company unveiled Freshly Infused, a draught system for its premium mixers in the on-trade. The system allows one tap to dispense five different tonics, all infused using “patented micro-dosing technology” – not quite as fun as it sounds, maybe, but certainly sustainable. The company promises “up to 1,000 serves, 96% less packaging, less CO2 emissions”.

For others, a move away from glass to alternative formats is a feasible way to reduce their impact. Among these is UK water and mixer brand Marlish, which changed four of its mixers from glass to 15cl cans last year. “Although the concept of sustainability is not a new phenomenon, the transition from buzzword to ‘must-have’ has been a fairly quick one, and the tonic and mixer category is still catching up,” says director Joe Evans.

The brand surveyed 1,000 members of the Craft Gin Club last year on the subject of sustainability. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, more than 80% of respondents said they felt the sustainability credentials of a soft drink or mixer brand are either important or very important, meaning a brand’s stance on sustainability now carries a significant amount of clout when it comes to consumer purchasing habits,” he says.

The change in packaging is just one facet of the brand’s sustainability efforts, which include the installation of solar panels, leading to all on-site production switching to renewable energy last year. “Our innovation strategy is built entirely around sustainability – we innovate in order to continue to be as sustainable as possible,” says Evans.

Chicago-based brand Zing Zang, which produces a range of cocktail mixers, switched from glass to recyclable PET a few years ago. Chief executive Brent Albertson reports there was concern at the time that other premium mixers are generally packaged in glass. “However, our testing showed consumers would accept this change, and our in-market results have supported that,” he says, adding that bartenders have reported a preference for these over bottles that can break when dropped behind a bar. “This initiative significantly reduced our carbon footprint with the reduction of packaging weight.”

Zing Zang has also introduced a variety of sizes for its products, up to 1.75-litre bottles. “This allows consumers to buy the right-sized cocktail mix for whatever their occasion, whether it’s a large party, small gathering, or solo drink, and only open what they want to consume,” says Albertson.

For UK-based The Artisan Drinks Co, the size of the packaging is an important consideration too. “While the rest of the market is in 20cl glass bottles and 15cl cans, we’re the only premium mixer that has 20cl cans – the preferred serve size according to 63% of the UK [Quantitative Gin Survey, Craft Gin Club],” says co-founder Steve Cooper. “These are produced in the UK, meaning that the carbon emissions to produce them, I can confidently say, are the lowest we could make them.”

For Cooper, education about sustainability is crucial. “We are committed to helping the on-trade understand the benefits of the can, from the amount of energy it takes to recycle aluminium cans vs glass to how cans decrease wastage and save a significant amount of cash each year from a simple glass-to-can swap,” he says.

The bigger picture

­There are, of course, many other ways to be sustainable beyond packaging material and size. For new US-based brand Badger Bevs, set up by David Vogel together with bartender Jillian Vose, formerly of bars such as­ The Dead Rabbit and Death & Co, sustainability is about keeping it local.

As Vogel points out, the majority of premium mixers in the country are imported. “By the time these are consumed, they have been trucked to port, shipped for weeks or months on containers, and trucked once again to the appropriate location domestically,” he says. “For Badger, we limit energy consumption by producing in eastern Pennsylvania and transporting product to the major fine-dining markets on the east coast, particularly New York. This also impacts the freshness of the product.”

At Fever-Tree, the brand that arguably started it all, sustainability is about the overall picture, including supply chain and the sourcing of ingredients. “We are continuing to ensure the responsible sourcing of ingredients and supply chain management through carefully curated processes and due diligence, as well as driving further reductions in emissions throughout our supply chain,” says global communications director Ollie Winters. “With increasing focus from consumers, customers and governments, all manufacturers of food and drink products are evolving their sustainability practices, and rightly so.”

All of these initiatives have an impact, both directly and indirectly, says Raissa de Haas, co-founder of Double Dutch drinks company. “More and more brands are taking steps to reduce packaging waste, source sustainable ingredients and generally look at their ESG [environmental, social & governance], which I think is a great movement,” she says.

Double Dutch is doing its part, being entirely carbon neutral and B Corp pending, as well as using recyclable delivery boxes and biodegradable interior dividers. “We hate waste, so we partner with Too Good To Go as well as food banks and Oddbox for stock that is reaching shelf life,” Haas adds.

Further innovation

Sustainability isn’t the only way that premium mixer brands are showing their ability to innovate. This is a category that is inextricably linked to the latest drinking trends, after all.

“While a love for the classics is still prevalent across the vast majority of our markets, we are continuing to see a growing appetite for a range of different spirits and cocktails,” says FeverTree’s Winters. “Tequila and rum are very much on the rise in much of Europe, with cocktails also gaining ground in the UK, EMEA and the US, hence the popularity of our cocktail mixer range that we launched in the UK and US in 2023, and have plans to introduce across many of our European markets in 2024.”

Vogel, meanwhile, is seeing demand for specific flavours, likely a result, at least in part, of the aforementioned rise in tequila. “Everyone wants sparkling pink grapefruit and other citrus flavours,” he says, adding that Badger is releasing a Sparkling Pink Grapefruit variant in March, with Sparkling Blood Orange to follow before the summer. Marlish launched a Sparkling Pink Grapefruit Spring Water last year.

Zing Zang is looking beyond the spirits category to beer for inspiration – specifically the growth of Mexican beers in the US. “With this, we’ve seen the growth of Micheladas as well, but there aren’t good, convenient mix options that combine all the authentic recipe ingredients,” says Albertson. The company’s Zing Zang Michelada Mix launches this spring.

“Asian and South American flavour profiles have become increasingly popular over the past few years, and I don’t see that going anywhere,” says de Haas. “And of course, the move towards everything being vegan, locally sourced and low calorie.”

Cooper at Artisan Drinks agrees: “We are seeing some interesting trends emerging, including more health-conscious and lower-calorie tonics.”

Factors such as these are of particular importance to Wildleaf. “Consumers are looking for new drinking rituals that reflect their increasingly healthy lifestyles,” says Kumaran. “While alcohol has long been the centrepiece of drinking and bar culture, that is starting to shift, and with that the expectation and scrutiny is moving to what flavours and combinations brands are putting out there.”

With considerations such as these, combined with growing pressure to be sustainable, the premium mixer category certainly has its work cut out. Brands like these are proving that they’re up to the task.

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