As has become something of a tradition among journalists, trend forecasters and marketers alike, the approach of summer means it’s time to declare what the definitive drink of the season is.
This year, the New York Times has announced that it’s the Dirty Shirley — a vodka-laced, red-hued cocktail. And it’s not hard to see why the drink would appeal as the nights get longer and warmer. Essentially a vodka soda with a splash of lemon, lime and grenadine, it’s a juicy-looking drink that can claim the "health benefit" of having fewer calories than other types of alcohol.
“Sometimes these trend [reports] are based on insights, analytics and research. But that’s not necessarily always the case,” says Taylor Foxman, the founder of The Industry Collective, an advisory firm that works with beverage brands. Other times, a drink can find itself being labeled as the top choice for summer for more subjective reasons — perhaps a reporter has noticed people ordering it in the New York bars they frequent, or an influencer of note has been talking about it.
“This is one of the leading outlets in the United States and they’re telling me to try it. So why not? It [forms] this communications halo that makes it bigger than it is — and by default, people then try it and talk about it,” she adds.
Beverages that have been labeled the “drink of the summer” in the past have included tequila seltzer, hibiscus tea, Aperol Spritz and rose wine. 2019 was named “The Summer of White Claw” by the Atlantic, while last year a number of publications including the Huffington Post and New York Times rather unexpectedly claimed the espresso martini — a drink better known for its cozy, rather than thirst-quenching, qualities — was what was on everyone’s minds as summer rolled in.
Interest in espresso martinis has been gathering pace since 2019, says Sean Zoka, the founder of beverage brand Deloce, which launched in March 2021 with a better-for-you canned espresso martini (better in the sense that it contains far more natural ingredients than a vodka Red Bull).
“The perfect storm happened as the pandemic was ebbing and flowing, and when people were going out it seemed like the perfect cocktail to fuel those long nights [after] people hadn’t been social in so long,” Zoka says of the drink’s popularity last summer.
While the timing of Deloce’s ready-to-drink canned espresso martini launch could be considered a mixture of good business intuition and good luck, other brands, particularly those with bigger marketing budgets, will do what they can to position their drinks as the perfect summer time slurp.
When canned sparkling tequila brand Onda launched in 2020, it explicitly positioned itself as something for summer drinking — its Instagram feed is packed with pictures of tropical fruit, beach scenes and coolers. Deloce, too, has leaned on summer-themed imagery, advertising its drinks by way of sunglassed models lounging on rattan furniture. Foxman says this is something that is being seen in the wider beverage space too, with alcohol-free drinks brands like Aura Bora and De La Calle going big on summery motifs in their branding.
“Summer is inevitably when people drink more,” says Jerome Jacob, head of product development at beverage company Global Brands, which counts Hooch and VK among its portfolio. “That has a big impact, and is therefore a key focus for brands.”
Having a product that fits whatever the consumer trends are shaping up to be for the coming summer can help a brand not only shift more of its product, but also strike deals with retailers, bars and restaurants, who will also be looking to maximize drink sales during those hotter months. Zoka says that Deloce is currently in the process of rolling out over 100 Whole Foods stores following last summer’s espresso martini hype, and that the press attention provided an opportunity to approach retailers. As a ready-to-drink cocktail, Deloce can sell itself both as a timesaver for bartenders, and as a way for retailers (who don’t have anyone or anywhere to mix drinks) to get in on the trend.
Bigger brands may launch products specifically for the summer months — in 2020, Jacob says that Global Brands launched a raspberry-flavored version of its Hooch alcopop as a way to piggyback on the enduring popularity of pink alcoholic drinks like rose and gin. To find out what flavors are likely to heat up, they will turn to industry bodies, flavor houses and market intelligence firms to find out what consumers are showing interest in.
But how much of the annual media hype surrounding a select number of drinks actually translates to long-term, increased sales?
Jacob says it’s not uncommon for drinks that are perceived by consumers as perfect for hot days to see sales jump by 25% to as much as 50% during the warmer months. But there tends to be a common formula when it comes to what’s successful — as people seek refreshment, sales of beers, seltzers and ciders tend to do pretty well. “There are simple elements to it,” he says. “It needs to be something that’s light, something that emanates summer.”
Having a national paper label something as "the drink of the summer" can certainly result in a rush of people wanting to try something new — “those types of publications move the needle,” Foxman says, creating an “ecosystem of confidence” where other brands, publications and retailers can echo the same messaging.
Since the New York Times published its article on the Dirty Shirley on May 5th, Forbes, Delish, The Seattle Times and Buzzfeed have all followed up with their own articles — while Bon Appetit has offered its own contrarian take on what it calls “the Trendy Drink Trap.”
Indeed, what’s deemed trendy doesn’t always last, and sometimes won't even materialize into the sales windfall brands are expecting. While espresso martinis were the talk of the town last summer, Zoka says that real peak came that winter. Google Trends data confirms that December, perhaps a more obvious time of year to be hankering after an espresso martini, is consistently when search volumes for the drink rise. Zoka says Deloce plans to expand the range of ready-to-drink cocktails it sells.
Following the success of White Claw in the U.S., new seltzer brands flooded the U.K. market last year hoping to see a similar boom. But they may have jumped the gun — according to industry body The Portman group, 65% of consumers don’t understand what brands mean when they talk about "hard" and "seltzers," both terms being uncommonly used in the U.K.
Still, while media outlets and brands may be the ones pushing the idea of the drink of the summer, consumers are hardly unwilling participants in the hype machine.
“Summer is bloody fun, isn’t it? And what’s more fun than having a drink with your mates, and knowing what the trendiest flavor is?” Jacob says. “That’s why people get excited about it.”