White Claw, the canned cocktail that took seltzer’s bubbly popularity, added alcohol, and promptly exploded into American drinking culture will launch in the U.K. next month, according to the Grocer. It’s carbonated water with alcohol and fruit flavouring. It will get you drunk. It will not cure heartburn.
The range of 4.5 percent alcohol cocktails peaked in summer 2019, when it rode the long-cresting wave of fruit-flavoured fizzy waters like LaCroix to tell America that its low-calorie, faintly fruity bubbles packaged in cute, aspirational cans were the perfect drink for a sunny afternoon, evening, and night. Somehow both ironic and unironic, it also crossed the gendered drinking divide. Men loving White Claw inevitably became a toxic cool bro culture meme, but it also sold an aspirational, sunny lifestyle that kicked misogynist notions about men not drinking light drinks to the curb. It also, however, took its cues and its kudos from a wellness industry that wants to treat alcohol as a heath product. It took the U.S. seltzer bubble to the point of bursting.
White Claw has captured the imagination across the Atlantic, but other seltzer brands have had to navigate the fear that the U.K. doesn’t really know what seltzer is. Budweiser owner Anheuser-Busch InBev initially named Mike’s Hard Seltzer Mike’s Hard Sparkling Water, which sounds like a pet project from the Inbetweeners. It made the name-change last month, so it’s too early to say if market confidence or mortal embarrassment was the driver. What White Claw is really looking at is the U.K.’s fondness for canned cocktails, the Diane Abbott mojito energy that powers so many train rides, concerts, and pre-drinks.
Initially it might seem like a drink made for train rides, concerts, festivals, parties, and other large gatherings in which people get pissed standing much less than two metres apart would be stifled by coronavirus lockdown. Now that socially distanced park hang outs with one friend are legal again, that lost market will likely be recouped, at least a little.
But there’s more to it than that. Part of alcoholic fizzy water’s meteoric rise from alcoholic fizzy water to bona fide drinks category “hard seltzer” has been its relatively easy conquering of U.S. metropolitan bar culture, where it’s surpassed pale ale in weekly sales and raked in $1.2 billion in 2019. It’s portable and Instagrammable and newly cool; it fits the bar vibe; it’s an easy swap for cocktails or equally meteoric ultra-light beers, which have captured the U.S. market but not really cracked it in the U.K. The reason for that is also the reason that White Claw’s market domination looks unlikely to replicate itself. Pubs.
Pub culture grips U.K. summer in a benevolently hazy vice, pints of beer and cider ferried across gardens, clinking with pitchers of cocktails. A pint that leads to six in the sun with mates has such dominance over youngish people’s drinking habits in the U.K. that White Claw wouldn’t stand a chance against it — or would at least see its popularity come to a head. Where U.S. session drinking culture was susceptible, “the sesh” is baked in.
But coronavirus has closed the pubs, at least for several months and maybe longer, squeezing a summer of drinking into people’s homes. Pints don’t exist online or at the supermarket, and replacing their essence is a futile, doomed pursuit. This could be a new vacuum for White Claw to fill, and without it, the bubbles may go flat. The U.K. could be about to join the U.S. in learning that “there ain’t no laws when you’re drinking claws,” except the ones against large gatherings and being drunk and disorderly.