This week Pubpaper is bringing you its “satan” edition, we have reached issue number 666 and therefore we must deal with the devil, so this week I cover the polar opposite of my beloved real and craft ale, the evil incarnate that is Alcopops. They have been with us since the late 1980s and although their popularity has waned over the last 25 years, they are still an important segment of the alcohol market to both their producers and the town centre pubs which deliver a lot of this product to the public.
The wine makers started off the trend with variations on a pre-packed wine spritzer. Technically not an alcopop, which in todays market is defined as a “fruit flavoured alcoholic drink”, but this showed there was a market for such drinks and the first large spirit producer to enter the market was Bacardi with their “Breezer” brand.
However it was post 1993 when the market started to explode for these drinks. Major investments in production and marketing brought us the “Two Dogs” and “Hooch” alcoholic lemonades and Smirnoff Ice was launched by the vodka producer of the same name. Within a few years you also had the “WKD” brand being launched, which currently endures probably the highest public profile within its sector. Other notable examples include Red Square and Vodka Kick and Reef.
Hooch was a particular success in its time, launched by Bass in 1995, it quickly came to dominate the market, at its peak it was selling 2,500,000 bottles a week, taking a 70% share of the sector. This is domination any product in any sector would kill for. Its success however did make it the target for criticism regarding promoting underage drinking. It branded itself using a “Cartoon Lemon” logo and the tasted more like pop than an alcoholic drink.
This sweet flavour meant that the drinker could easily drink a high volume of the product and only later would the alcoholic effects suddenly catch up with them. In 1997 following sustained complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, it was relaunched with “distinctively adult branding”, while also cutting down the sugar content to make the taste more alcoholic. The sector learnt from this and subsequent products used more mature branding and marketing (although those watching the WKD “Wicked Side” series of adverts may disagree) and a taste which doesn’t disguise the alcohol as much.
By the early years of the 21th century, things were not as easy for these Alcoholic Pop products. Across the world, they were being demonised, probably disproportionately, as the cause of societies ills. Several countries increased tax on the sector, Germany added a 0.8 euro duty to a bottle and Australia brought the duty on alcopops in line with mainstream spirits at 70% (although this was revoked in 2009 with the federal authorities having to pay back nearly AU$300 million in duty collected, they then reintroduced the legislature with modified wording).
In the UK they were publicly attacked by the government of the time as “insidious means by which the brewing companies seduce young people into the evils of drinking”. The UK government never introduced laws to increase duty them however. All this caused a decline in sales and the once dominant Hooch was discontinued in 2003. Other brands survived, but many were discontinued.
The brands from the multinationals like Bacardi and Smirnoff had the financial backing to ride out the troughs in sales, as well as having the advantage of not having to source the alcoholic element of their product from a third party. WKD is an exception to this, being owned by Beverage Brands for whom this is their core brand with no affiliated spririts brand, the only other recognisable names in their stable being Merrydown Cider and Shloer fruit drinks. This shows that clever marketing can take you a long way.
Alcopops now share their space with the “pour over ice” apple ciders and perry like Magners and Bulmers, as well as the “fruit flavoured ciders” such as Kopparberg. More people are also drinking real ale and premium lagers now than 20 years ago, reducing their slice of the market further. Into this situation however it has been decided that the time is right to relaunch the Hooch (and Reef) brands with a “new look and taste”.
Molson Coors have acquired the rights to the brands, and are reducing Hooch from its original 5% to 4%, while going back to a fruitier taste, something it moved away from in 1997. They are also aiming it at the “pour over ice’ market, will this have any impact on an already crowded market, no, in my opinion, but then again I not always right about these things.