Sensing Momentum, Bitters Brands Seize Moment to Enter RTD Space

When consumers think of modern, sophisticated refreshment, should they be thinking about bitters?

According to a young generation of brands working in the space, the answer is yes. Presented with the opportunity to expand their platforms with products that align with a variety of current trends, the likes of Hella Cocktail Co. and Bitter Love are working to establish sparkling bitters as a new segment of the RTD market.

For Brooklyn-based Hella Cocktail, the journey towards a canned sparkling bitters line was long in the making. The company entered the market almost a decade ago, starting with bitters for making cocktails and later expanding into a variety of mixers and tonics. Now that it is established, co-founder Eddie Simeon told BevNET, Hella can go back to one of its original concepts: showcasing bitters as part of an elevated non-alcoholic drinking experience.

“Before commercializing in 2011, we were making it in our apartment and we loved to enjoy it with club soda,” said Simeon. “We had this dream of creating a bitters and soda pushcart that we could use to activate the brand in parks and recreational areas in New York City during the summer.”

Fast forward to present day and though Hella still doesn’t have the push cart, it instead has something entirely more ambitious. First previewed at Natural Products Expo West 2019, the brand’s Bitters + Soda line is launching this Spring in 8.4 oz. cans in two varieties: Dry and Spritz. Both use the same base of aromatics to provide different experiences; the sugar-free Dry is akin to a few dashes of bitters in club soda, while Spritz, which contains 14 g of sugar, is formulated as a more balanced mixer that pairs well with citrus flavors. Both SKUs contain gentian tincture and are presented as “ready to drink now or with your favorite spirit.”

So what allowed Hella to go “back to its roots,” as Simeon puts it? A confluence of trends have intersected to create conditions in which bitters are poised to transcend their traditional roles as cocktail complements. According to market research group SPINS, which included bitters in its “Top 10 Trend Predictions for 2019,” bitters are contributing “trendy and innovative flavor profiles” to a marketplace where consumers are increasingly sugar-conscious and have more sophisticated palates. When combined with the natural digestive benefits associated with bitters, the result is an on-trend category with momentum and room to grow.

“It’s the right time for people who are looking for plant-based solutions to elevating their drinking experiences to supporting their health and nutrition,” Simeon said.

For Hella, launching Bitters + Soda brings other benefits as well. The product provides another outlet and revenue stream for the company’s core product, while a commercially scaled supply chain and distribution infrastructure are already in place. Meanwhile, the company’s expertise in formulating with bitters gives it a competitive advantage; bitters quickly lose their flavor, meaning the process is more sophisticated than simply adding aromatics to carbonated water. All of those considerations were part of a broader conversation on how to stand out in the highly competitive sparkling category.

“As a small business with a small culture, the question came down to how do we continue the narrative of authenticity and begin to top our toes into the beverage space in a manner that’s uncontested, with as little competition as possible,” Simeon said.

Unlike Hella, Portland, ME-based Bitter Love didn’t take direct inspiration from the cocktail world. Alexandra Noyes and Karen Farrell, two of the company’s four female co-founders, are approaching the category through the lens of health and wellness, highlighting bitters’ digestive properties and low sugar content first and foremost. That comes in part from direct experience; Noyes, now age 43, said she stopped consuming sugar in her 20s and has “seen how my health is different from my peers” because of it.

“The need for less sugar consumption in the U.S. has always been a relevant topic, but now it’s important to the average consumer,” Farrell said. “When you start to consume bitters, you are not only consuming less sugar, but you are convincing your body you don’t need it moving forward, so it’s important for overall health.”

“We definitely want to position it as functional beverage that’s good for digestive health” Noyes added, noting how bitters are used around the world as a pre-meal or post-meal drink. “Bitters are really the base and beginning of digestive function; when you taste bitter, all those digestive receptors start to enliven. Folks are drinking kombucha for the probiotics — but they aren’t the only thing that’s important for your digestive health.”

How sparkling bitters fit on grocery store shelves will be key in determining their commercial viability. With a range of callouts to employ, the question remains open. Lying somewhere between a premium mixer, a sparkling water and a functional drink, Simeon said he would like to see Hella’s Bitters + Soda on the shelf next to Fever Tree, Q Tonics and other premium mixology brands.

Meanwhile, Bitter Love is more firmly targeting the functional/digestive set, alongside kombucha and drinking vinegars. Calling it an “anti-soda,” Noyes said the product is aimed at getting users to switch from carbonated soft drinks, part of the reason why the brand is introducing 12 oz. cans this spring for grab-and-go coolers. The product is currently sold in glass bottles for a suggested retail price of $2.99.

“Our hope is that bitters and soda will earn a reputation as a delicious non-alcoholic drink, and then help us gain entrance to grab-and-go coolers,” Simeon said. “We don’t have any illusions around our ability to logistically deliver a product to a grocery store. That’s why we are trying to cover all of our bases.”