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Coolers and Such  (May 30, 2007)

I must confess right off the bat that I'm not a great fan of coolers. I know that puts me in a minority, but coolers – whether they be made from spirits, wine or beer – are, to my palate, the Paris Hilton of beverage alcohol. Clever sweet concoctions that fill the role that Baby Duck played for the generation that followed mine – a drink of passage between soda pop and alcohol. (With the Noah's ark of critter wines currently lining LCBO shelves it's interesting as an zoological footnote that Canada can take credit for inventing the critter category with the introduction of Baby Duck in 1973.)

However, judging by the stacks of coolers in LCBO stores at this time of year, river deep and mountain high, they must be selling a ton of the stuff – though not as much as they did in 2003, when Ontarians knocked back 34 million litres of mainly domestic spirit coolers. The name that was on everyone's lips then – and their palates – was Mike's Hard Lemonade.

When I was a kid growing up in England, before I was street legal, I used to drink a surreptitious shandy when I could. Part lemonade, part beer. And that's what the original Mike's Hard Lemonade, manufactured for the United States, was; it even contained higher alcohol than most American beers. Originally based in Denver Colorado in 1999, the company owned by the Mark Anthony Group of Vancouver, relocated to Seattle in 2005. The Canadian version of Mike's has a vodka base flavoured with lemonade and carbonated water.

The owner of the Mark Anthony Group is Anthony Von Mandl, who is better known to wine lovers as the proprietor of Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan Valley. Von Mandl made a fortune from Mike's as well as the importation of Corona beer. But instead of buying real estate or investing off-shore as many entrepreneurs would have done, he ploughed $35 million into the renovation of Mission Hill and its vineyards, creating a showplace for the BC wine industry and a tourist magnet for the Okanagan. So good things can come from coolers.

According to the LCBO's latest figures, spirit coolers account for 16 per cent of business unit sales, and this category contributes 40 per cent more margin per unit than beer. As with beer, revenues are dependent on the weather. If the sun shines, people are outdoors and require cold drinks. The mandarins at LCBO head office must be praying to the weather gods for an early summer if they are to surpass last fiscal year's record profits of $1.2 billion.

Mike's Hard Lemonade no longer holds pride of place as the best-selling cooler. That dubious honour goes to Smirnoff with its popular Smirnoff Ice and Twisted products, which sell an amazing 1,039,000 cases. Next comes Vex (a Vincor company now owned by Constellation) with their fruit-and-berry-flavoured coolers at 433,000 cases, followed by Woody's products (owned by Beverage Brands in the UK) at 420,000 cases, Bacardi rum people with their pineapple and smoothies at 335,000, and then comes Mike's at 298,000 cases.

I canvassed my children as to what was their favourite cooler and both independently said Smirnoff Ice because it wasn't as sweet as the others.

The marketing gurus at the LCBO are aware that coolers are a summer phenomenon, so they have come up with what they call a "de-seasonalization strategy" to market products that have year-round appeal for the party-going generation. In their "Party Zone" they offer cocktails-to-go.

The best thing I can say about the cooler/ready-mix cocktail is that they may lead the young consumer to wine, which, after all, is the healthiest and most civilized beverage there is.

By the way, if you want to make your own wine cooler, here's a simple recipe:

Mix together 3 ounces each of lemon juice, lime juice and pineapple juice. Take a well-chilled bottle of dry white wine and pour it in then, and add a chilled litre bottle of 7UP. That should provide you with enough for 8–10 glasses.




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