CHICAGO — Beverage companies are creating ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails, bringing the bar experience into the comforts of home. Many new selections are low in calories, sugar or alcohol to appease health-conscious consumers, and packaged in single-serve cans, boxes or bottles for convenience.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary dates the term “mixology” back to 1872, defining it as “the art or skill of preparing mixed drinks.” Traditionally the drinks were prepared with alcoholic spirits, which is liquor that contains no added sugar and has at least 20% alcohol by volume (ABV). Think gin, rum, tequila, vodka and whiskey. Today they also are being crafted with wine and even beer. Think Moscow Mule, which combines vodka, ginger beer and lime juice.

Mocktails eliminate the alcohol and rely on concentrated fruit juices and syrups, along with herbs and spices and sometimes seltzer. They often use flavors that mimic spirits, with some flavors designed to provide the drying burn of alcohol on the tongue.

“Traditionally the beverage alcohol industry has viewed the marketplace as wine, distilled spirits and beer,” said Gary Hemphill, managing director of research at Beverage Marketing Corp., New York. “In more recent years, consumers have increasingly sought more variety, new beverage experiences and products perceived as healthier for you. As a consequence, starting in the early 1980s with the introduction of wine coolers and continuing ever since, the market has witnessed an ever-expanding array of alternative adult products.”

Before 2019, spirits did not have many entries in the space aside from a few notables such as Malibu RTD varieties, Mr. Hemphill said. Since then, activity has heated up with both wine and spirits companies moving into the space.

The single-serve adult beverage category — cans, boxes and plastic bottles — had been gaining traction in recent years, as its portable, non-breakable nature made it suited for outdoor events and public gatherings. With such drinking occasions on hold for pandemic safety, retailers have started dedicating more space to the products. In municipalities that have relaxed their alcohol sales laws, the products may now be delivered and are available for curbside pickup.

“In wake of COVID-19, many consumers are unable to experience premium cocktails at bars and restaurants,” said Holly McHugh, marketing associate, Imbibe, Inc., Niles, Ill. “There’s a lot of growth potential for premium RTD cocktails that offer a similar premium drinking experience at home.”

Health-conscious consumers have learned that the single-serve format assists with portion control. Many products are designed to be low in alcohol and calories, further appealing to the mindful drinker.

“Alcohol is undergoing massive transformations in form, function and flavors, largely driven by the popularity of the craft movement, which continues to spill into all corners of the market,” said Scott Helstad, technical services adviser, Cargill, Minneapolis. “The good news is that consumers are all-in on the creative flavor explosion. The top three flavor categories include fruit, brown flavors and spices/seeds.”

Millennials are fueling the growth of lower-alcohol mixed drinks while Generation Z is being called the “sober curious” demographic. For the latter, it’s all about adopting a clean-living lifestyle.

“The movement’s ideals center on individual health and wellness and understanding what is best for one’s self,” Mr. Hemphill said. “Generally, individuals identify as sober curious if they seek to reduce — but not necessarily abstain from — alcohol consumption, not due to a clinical drinking problem or religious reasons, but instead because they seek positive lifestyle and health effects that may be achieved from reduced alcohol consumption.”

Breakthru Beverage Group LLC, New York, considers millennials the most influential —and prolific — buyers of alcohol. The wholesaler said the majority are choosing spirits (41%) as their alcohol beverage of choice, over beer (39%) and wine (20%).

“To millennials, spirits are perceived to be low in calories, which is a perfect choice for this crowd since health and wellness is cited as an important purchase driver,” Mr. Helstad said. “In fact, the company’s trend report says 60% of millennials often opt for a lower-calorie drink.

“They not only want low calories, but low alcohol content, too. In their quest for balance and health, millennials and Gen Z’ers are reaching for no- and low-alcohol options that provide the experience of imbibing but without the possible negative effects.”

Lowering calories

High-intensity sweeteners may assist with lowering calories. Two sweeteners that increasingly are being used are stevia and erythritol, as they are perceived as natural options.

Low-alcohol cocktails and mocktails are two of the last beverage categories to explore the use of high-intensity sweeteners, mostly because many of the drinks are not meant to be overly sweet. The problem is many of them taste flat.

“We know that stevia can modify or enhance the flavor without adding calories or even sweetness,” Mr. Helstad said. “Because it’s being used to influence flavor and not function as a sweetener, it may be possible to declare it simply as ‘natural flavor,’ providing it is below the designated usage level of when it becomes a sweetener.”

This is a result of select stevia ingredients being Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) as flavor ingredients by the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association. When stevia extracts or steviol glycosides are added to a product, the flavor profile may be modified or enhanced, which is why many flavor extract manufacturers include stevia in their ingredients. Stevia is especially effective at bringing out flavors such as cocoa, vanilla or lemon lime.

“All stevia ingredients are not the same, so the maximum addition level for when it goes from being a flavor to a sweetener varies,” Mr. Helstad said. “You must also take into account the stevia that may be present in the flavoring system. It’s important to work closely with your flavor suppliers to know if their ingredients include stevia.”

By using stevia as a natural flavor, it may be possible to reduce the amount of added sweetener. If artificial sweeteners are included in the beverage formulation, stevia’s sugar-like flavor profile may round out taste by optimizing the onset and duration of sweetness.

“Stevia natural flavor works well with erythritol, a natural no-calorie sugar alcohol,” Mr. Helstad said. “The erythritol contributes solids and improves mouthfeel, while contributing some sweetness.”

Another option is allulose, which is only about 70% as sweet as sucrose. It tastes like sugar with a similar sweetness curve, but without the calories, as it is not metabolized by the body. Its caloric value in humans is about 0.2 per gram as compared to 4 calories per gram of sugar.

“Liquid allulose functions like simple syrup,” said Maria Serrano, senior culinologist, Ingredion, Inc., Westchester, Ill. “It has the same texture and flavor as simple syrup and can be used as a one-to-one replacement.”

Recent innovations

Round Barn Winery and Distillery, part of the Moersch Hospitality Group, Baroda, Mich., entered the single-serve canned wine category in 2019 with Flavor Trip Canned Wine Cocktails in four varieties: Cherry Spritzer, Crantini, Peach Bellini and Red Sangria. Raspberry Lemonade was just added to the lineup.

Las Vegas-based Two Chicks has introduced three new RTD cocktails that are spirit based and made with natural essences of fruit and botanicals. Sparkling Vodka CuTea is vodka with peach, cucumber tea and thyme. Sparkling New Fashioned is whiskey, spicy ginger and orange. Sparkling Apple Gimlet is gin, apple and cucumber. The premium RTD cocktails are gluten-free, 5% ABV and less than 100 calories per serving.

Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, identified a gap for cocktail lovers in the hard seltzer market and introduced Social Club hard seltzer. The line is designed to evoke the same flavor profile as its cocktail counterpart, but with the format of a seltzer with 7% ABV. Flavors include Old Fashioned, Sidecar and Citrus Gimlet.

Charlottesville, Va.-based Square One Organic Spirits rolled out a line of organic RTD vodka-based cocktails.

“Our consumer wants a light but complex tasting cocktail, not a hard seltzer with one flavor, and certainly not a flimsy diet version of an original,” said Allison Evanow, founder and chief executive officer of Square One Organic Spirits. “Our unique cocktails feature beautiful packaging and clever names, a craft cocktail experience with less alcohol but more flavor. Convenience doesn’t have to be boring.”