The Scourge of the RTD (Ready to Drink)
One of the contributors to the decline of the professional bartender is the Ready To Drink Malt Beverage (RTD), aka coolers or alcopops. These beverages are the quick solution to a thirsty crowd and a low overhead, money machine for the bar owner. They come in an amazing array of colours and flavours, mostly synthetic, and are usually carbonated. They are sweet with an alcoholic punch, usually a higher ABV than beer, and they are made so that they won’t offend most people, nor will they impress anyone. The target market is Generation Y and Generation XL, thankfully I’m Generation X and have no interest in a sickly sweet, lightly carbonated, candy flavoured alcopo. But there are many people out there who love them, or at least think they do, and this is a problem to the professional bartender.
An RTD is basically sugar, carbonation, malt alcohol and synthetic flavour. They are generally very sweet and are a stepping stone for a young adult to transition from a can of Coke to an alcoholic beverage. The soothing blanket of sugar makes it easy for young people to transition to their new friend, ethanol. A good bartender use to do this by making a good cocktail that was well balanced and guiding a rookie into the world on drinking.
The RTD is like any light beer, it is designed to appeal to the great unwashed masses. The lowest common denominator rule applies to these products. Budweiser works its magic by tasting very weak, the alcopops do it by covering the ethanol with sugar. With Generation XL, and their insatiable appetite for sugar, moving into the drinking world, these products seems like a perfect fit. Those crazy kids and their sugar lust!
The problem is that RTD’s don’t offer anything good, they are offering an easy method of getting alcohol into a persons system. There is no craft, art or professionalism in doing this. The flavours are koolaide like and taste like things a seven year old would drink. The flavours are mostly synthetic. At one point Scwepps was marketing a Rye and Ginger Ale RTD that actually stated on the package that the product contain no whisky, just “rye flavouring”. Luckily, this product has been discontinued.
Using RTD’s is the equivalent of a restaurant using prepackaged, microwavable “gourmet” food. That actually sounds like a few fast food restaurants I know. Sure food is more complex and certain things can’t be reproduced from prepackaged food, but cocktails still suffer the same fate because they don’t inspire the palate.
As a professional bartender that last thing I want to hear is how great some new RTD is, it just doesn’t fit with the image for me. Worse yet is when some “bar attendant”, who claims to be a bartender, sells 2000 drinks in a shift, and espouses how good a bartender he/she is because their volume is wicked. Bah! Just because you can open a bottle does not make you a bartender, it makes you a bottle opener. Just for review, a bartender is someone who knows how to make all manner of drinks, not just drinks with sexual explicit names. A bar pro is willing to have a conversation with people, not just rush people for their drink order and move to the next customer. And a bartender cares what people drink! The really sad thing to me is that most bartenders can’t be bothered to make a better drink than an RTD. The tips the same, so why should the effort be increased?
Basically, the core talent of a bartender is now speed. How many drinks can you open / make in 60 seconds? Sad but true. This is of course the fault of management, where profits are the key goal. It takes a few seconds to serve an RTD, which means less staff. They don’t go bad, they can be ordered as needed, so inventory costs are low. And best of all, training is non-existent, you just have to doll up some 20 something twinky, place them in front of an ice bin full of RTD’s and away you go!
I suppose that there is a time and place for everything, and clubs that cater to the 20-some-things, who really don’t have any interest, other than getting drunk, in a good cocktail are the place for these products. Let’s just hope they stay there. Hopefully with the increased interest in cocktails, generated by dedicated bloggers and great bartenders, we’ll be able to put a nail in the RTD coffin, deep six them, and chalk it up as aberration of corporate management.