Steve Hersh, president of GuS-Grown-up Soda says that the “premium has come to soda.” Beverage categories like coffee, RTD tea and more notably beer, wine and spirits, all have premium segments, and over the past decade or so, the premium segment also has come to the carbonated soft drink category.
“This huge category deserves to have some premium items,” says Hersh.
Compared with the overall volume of traditional CSDs, the culinary-inspired adult soft drink segment is a targeted one, notes Jonas Feliciano, an industry analyst for Euromonitor International, but one that speaks to today’s consumer who is looking for products that are less sweet, lower calorie and skew toward a health and wellness platform.
GuS, a product of Utmost Brands, Inc., based in New York City, first hit shelves in 2003 and is now sold in nearly all 50 states and is expanding internationally, opening markets in Korea, Japan and China. GuS has a range of flavors, all with less than 100 calories per serving. The newest flavor, Dry Root Beer, launched late last year and was added in an attempt to offer consumers more mainstream flavors with fewer calories and with natural sweeteners—in this case cane sugar.
As this niche category becomes more mainstream and as the movement toward artisanal foods and farm-to-table dining continues, handcrafted soft drinks are finding their space in the on-premise as an alternative to mainstream CSDs as well as alcohol beverages. Hersh notes that GuS is on the menu at Thomas Keller’s Per Se, a fine dining restaurant in New York City.
“Beverages have been a key part of these outlets in differentiating themselves,” notes Feliciano.
Pat Dealy, CEO of Twelve Beverage, LLC, has partnered with famed chef David Burke to introduce in 2009 a chef-crafted, all-natural soda, 12NtM (anytime, noon-to-midnight) with the food experience in mind. Burke is the co-creator of the brand’s Blanc flavor (Citrus Ginger) and created a second flavor, Rouge (Pomegranate Black Currant). He is now working on a third flavor, says Dealy, which should hits shelves soon.
“If you think about the beverage landscape and all the cluttered categories, and if you think about the prime meridian being alcoholic and non-alcoholic, there is really nothing in that space at that line of demarcation in the industry that is sophisticated,” says Dealy.
One of the company’s initiatives for this year is to make a big push in high-end hotels, restaurants and bars with the launch of its single-serve 6.3-ounce bottle with 45 calories.
It was this idea of pairing quality food with a quality drink that led to the creation of HotLips Soda. David Yudkin and Jeana Edelman, co-owners of HotLips Soda, also own HotLips Pizza, which has been in business since the ’80s and sources its ingredients from local farmers in and around the area of Portland, Ore. where the company is based. HotLips has fruit sodas such as Marionberry, Boysenberry, Pear and Black Raspberry.
Because the soda is made from fruit, where flavors can vary depending on the harvest, Yudkin says that consumers often compare the drinking experience to drinking a fine wine that is multi-dimensional. “What we get really good feedback on is that there is variation in our soda like there is in wine. People are relating to it like they would wine,” he says.
The company has been working with a farmer who is growing a blueberry-like fruit popular in Asia known for its antioxidant power that will be used to create a new HotLips soda slated for release next year.
Sharelle Klaus, CEO and founder of DRY Soda Co., looked to the on-premise when first launching DRY. Looking for something herself other than a traditional CSD or water to drink when dining out while pregnant, she created a culinary-inspired beverage in her kitchen. Initial flavors were Lavender, Lemongrass, Rhubarb, and more recently Vanilla Bean, Blood Orange and Wild Lime. Finding initial success in restaurants including Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Klaus is also now seeing an uptick in the company’s on-premise sales due to mixologists using DRY for cocktail creations.
“The bottom line is restaurants are really wanting to cater to all of their consumers,” says Klaus. “So, sommeliers are getting that their job is to truly create a beverage pairing that doesn’t necessarily just have to be with wine.”