Inside the new wave of Kiwi-made RTDs and the founders behind them

The brands are part of a locally-made surge to hit the market in 2019.
The brands are part of a locally-made surge to hit the market in 2019. Photo credit: Supplied.

Sun-soaked photos of smiling faces featured a new wave of RTDs over summer, the brews commanding attention for their eye-catching designs, perfect for sipping but also for sharing online. 

As if assigning your own Hogwarts house, deciding on a beverage is like picking a summertime tribe - but instead of aligning character traits, preference is based on activity, taste and influence. 

Pals is unmissable with its pastel-coloured cans and cartoons differentiating individual spirits, while animated great white sharks, white rhinos and elephants are the trademarks of Part Time Rangers and their worthy causes. 

The simplicity in bold orange, green or purple text on a white background marks the presence of Wild x Soda and Greenroom Vodkas' diagonally sliced red or green cans with their small lemon or strawberry emblem hints at a festival nearby. 

The brands fit within a surge to hit the local market in 2019, with approximately 50 New Zealand-made flavour options across 17 brands made available just in time for summer.

Premium Liquor general manager Matt Bruce was one of the first to lead the charge in the 'better for you' category - a phrase he coined referring to products with less sugar, natural products and no preservatives. 

Inside the new wave of Kiwi-made RTDs and the founders behind them
Photo credit: Supplied.

His label, Sundown Gin, was released in January 2018 and contains three-quarters less sugar than its mainstream competitor. Now he's taking on Australasia with New Zealand's first line of alcoholic kombucha, Happy Booch. 

"The market at the moment, it's really a good opportunity if it goes well, but there's a lot of brands that come in and out of favour," he told Newshub.

"The easy part is coming up with the idea and the flavour; the hard part is actually getting it to market, paying for it, promoting it and then making sure you get it to the retailer without actually losing money because there are challenges with distribution." 

Bruce says the influx has made the market "highly competitive" as the shops "don't grow in size" and can't create any more floor space to fit the growing interest. 

Spirits-based drinks are not the major contributor of alcohol to the overall consumption in New Zealand, but are the most preferred drink by our heaviest drinking groups, particularly young adult women and men.

Independent Liquor founder Michael Erceg, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005, is known for getting premixed drinks off the ground in New Zealand. During his reign, he created more than 1000 different flavour profiles trying to find the right combination. 

The company was once New Zealand's largest independently owned liquor distributor, creating brands such as KGB, Big Foot, Woodstock and Vodka Cruisers, and is now owned by Asahi.  

Inside the new wave of Kiwi-made RTDs and the founders behind them
Photo credit: Supplied.

Alcohol Healthwatch executive director Dr Nicki Jackson told Newshub it's "not surprising" New Zealand is following an international trend of the alcohol industry moving fast to develop products that appeal to the more health-conscious Millennials or Gen Z.

"The visual identity of these particular products is key to attracting young drinkers - alcohol companies will do everything they can to ensure their products are Instagrammable so that they are actively promoted by their consumers." 

She said the industry is slowly moving to reduce the sugar content in some beverages, but much more needs to be done and much more quickly. The watchdog's stance warns when Kiwis drink less "we all benefit". 

The latest raft of beverages appear to share a focus on reduced sugar while holding their own in flavours, branding and social impact.

Newshub spoke to the founders of some of the brands making the biggest splash to find out their motivation for joining the market, what business sense has it taken to get them off the ground and the factors making them appealing to the consumer who can't seem to get enough.

Pals 

Emerging as a breakout star at the end of summer, Pals became so immensely popular after its launch in October that by early January, stock was exhausted New Zealand-wide. 

Founders Nick Marshall, Mathew Croad, Jay and Anna Reeve had grown keen to expand on their Master of Ceremonies wine range, motivated to fill a gap in the market after noticing a lack of options catering to the health-conscious consumer.  

Marshall told Newshub demand has far-exceeded all initial expectations.  

"It's been an extremely busy three months, a 16-hour workday has become the norm…but we aren't complaining." 

Pals appeals to the consumer focused on wellness with its low in natural sugar, low-calorie, gluten-free and vegan-friendly recipe, using sweetener from apples grown in Hawke's Bay. 

Signing off the flavours was "a hugely time-consuming process", testing more than 50 samples before deciding on the final taste - a common process for anyone trying to make one combination of profiles appeal to many. 

Pals.
Pals. Photo credit: Supplied

The Pals team made tweaks blind tasting against the previous samples until they had "the perfect, most refreshing and balanced mix".

They set out to create a product fun to share with mates - hence the name - with a brand that put their direct market first. 

"If you aren't connecting with your customers then the rest is irrelevant. Our community of pals are more important to the growth of our brand than anything else," Marshall said. 

He says working with the right team has been a crucial part of their success and would advise any entrepreneur looking to make a break into business to put problem-solving first, research the relevant market, balance knowledge with passion and never try to be a better version of anyone else. 

"Dismiss the inevitable fear of failure, this is the biggest hurdle." 

As they continue to grow, Marshall says Pals has supported a number of charities and it's part of their strategy to dig deeper into giving back. 

"We recognise that the more we grow, the greater difference we can make."  

Greenroom Vodka 

Pato Alvarez, Toby Burrows and Mitch Lowe are behind the country's biggest music festivals, but when they're not bringing top international artists to New Zealand, they're busy expanding their business empire. 

After initally floating an idea to make beer three years ago, launching Greenroom Vodka came as a no-brainer assessing that between 60 to 70 percent of their drink sales at shows was vodka-based mixes.

"We didn't have a clue how to start it, but we started doing our research and getting a little bit closer to figuring out who we wanted to work with and what we wanted our product to be," Alvarez told Newshub. 

They were approached by a number of people wanting to collaborate, including Johnny Danger Bennett's former business partner, Daniel Green, but soon enough they realised who was legitimate and who wasn't. 

"He tried to sell us a dream but we worked out there were holes in his approach," Alvarez said. 

The trio went on to pair up with manufacturer Premium bottling and distributor Premium Liquor who proved to know the industry inside out, before honing in on how they wanted Greenroom Vodka to taste and what considerations needed to be taken to create a top-quality product.

"We didn't want to just sell a vodka, we wanted it to be special, we wanted it to be tasty, we needed it to better for our consumer than other options out there," he said. 

"People these days are taking more care of what they eat and what they drink, we didn't want to just chuck any product into the market, it had to be something we were proud of." 

Before going into the brewery, a vigorous process was undertaken at a laboratory to get the recipe right.

Samples were sent out in a cooler with labels and Lowe, Burrows and Alvarez would give their feedback tweaking anything from a flavour profile being too strong to the level of carbonation. 

"We wanted low sugar, premium vodka, natural ingredients and made in Aotearoa... and that's what we were able to achieve." 

Burrows says manufacturing came as a learning curve and pressure to have everything ready for their next run of shows meant working to deadlines but they were motivated by the challenges. 

The three entrepeneurs are collectively dedicated to making a difference with every new idea they turn into a business.

Lowe told Newshub a lot of consideration goes into deciding how to give back, and with the timing of the global standing, doing their part from an environmental perspective stood out as a top priority.

"As we've gone on through the last 10 years, we've learned our business is more about the 'why'," he said.  

"We set out on a mission and learned quickly as a festival it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to be zero-waste, so with Greenroom, we decided it would be this brand that goes into festivals, sells drinks and then contributes to closing the loop with recycling and educating people on waste." 

This summer they were able to spend money on compostable water bottles and trying to help festival-goers be more mindful about where their rubbish goes. 

The drinks slogan 'best served with music' is still at the forefront of the brand, Lowe says he wants to soon be in a position to help the next generation of artists with music gear for kids, setting up studios and helping bedroom producers get onto the bigger stages.

He believes maintaining integrity, giving back while being good to people has helped him as their ventures move from strength-to-strength.

Alvarez says he is goal-orentiated and is always looking at how to move over obtacles. 

"We see it and then we go and get it. I will say to people starting a business never give up on your dreams. But you've got to be committed, you've got to do the hard yards." 

Planning has been hugely important in getting anything off the ground, Burrows says, and recommends gathering as much information as possible before launching into anything. 

"People come to us with a lot of ideas for different things, but you've got to do a lot of business plans to figure out if they're actually viable or if you're wasting time. It takes research to know what's possible," he says.

Wild x Soda 

Andrew Antunovich and Mike Brown love socialising over a few cold ones, but grew tired of drinking heavy beers. 

Becoming fans of vodka and soda with fresh lime instead but soon got sick of heading out to a party or BBQ with the ingredients in hand. The pair craved something as clean in a ready-to-drink can.  

No strangers to the drink industry with their already-established spiced rum brand, Helmsman, they set in motion a plan to make a drink with minimal, natural ingredients. 

Today their Wild x Soda range separates them from competitors as a zero-sugar, no-carb option with each of the three flavours containing just 90 calories in a can.  

Inside the new wave of Kiwi-made RTDs and the founders behind them
Photo credit: Supplied.

"Over a night the drinks can really add up, and so can the amount of sugar consumed - it's about being more mindful and having a better option for people to choose from," Brown told Newshub.

Two months into the label and the Auckland-based pair are "really pleased" having reached their initial targets and expanding store count. 

"It's cool that small guys are getting a chance. There's going to be a taste for everyone." 

A long time has been spent going back and forth tweaking the recipe using friends, industry partners and distributors to get to where they wanted. 

"We knew which flavours we wanted to launch with but because we only have a few ingredients, they all needed to be perfect to make the overall drink taste amazing," Mike says. 

There are still some tiny tweaks to make and on new flavours will be on the way within a few months. 

They credit completing due diligence on the market and competitors to ensure what they were putting out was different from a brand perspective and taste profile. 

Brown says Wild x Soda is big on "making the world a better one" so believe in sustainability, traceability and being a recyclable product. 

Part Time Rangers 

Fresh out of university, William Deane, 20, and brother Oliver, 23, set out to come up with a solution to two issues with their business - a sugar-packed market of RTDs and a poaching crisis in a corrupt environment. 

The starting point of their range was initially developed in their mum's kitchen at their old family home with a $50,000 loan from BNZ, before making a move to an office kitchen to trial fruit juices with various spirits, until one stuck. 

"It is very casual, and not the way that most beverage companies do things, however, we feel the process doesn't need to be over-analysed, as we use real fruit juice, quality spirits, and pure sparkling water - so it's pretty simple," Oliver told Newshub. 

Their first product, White Rhino, mixes gin, lemon juice and sparkling water. 

They claim Part Time Ranger beverages are all-natural, low-sugar and 10 percent of profits go to Rhinos Without Borders, an organisation focuses on translocating rhinos from high-density poaching areas in South Africa to safer, monitored areas in Botswana. 

Rhinos Without Borders has moved 87 rhinos out of its goal of 100 to date, with the last 13 scheduled for around May this year. Oliver says so far they've pledged $75,000 to cover the cost of one of the rhinos and three years of care in its new home. 

The brothers have aligned with more charities as they've expanded their range to help big tusk elephants in Amboseli, Kenya, through Big Life Foundation, and protect sharks and the ocean via Sustainable Oceans Society and Sustainable Coastlines. 

Oliver says they recently enabled the construction of 1km of elephant-proof fencing to mitigate human/wildlife conflict that comes with expanding human populations and farmland with a $19,444 donation.

Through the sale of their Great White Shark Rum, the removal of 15,000 litres of rubbish through Sustainable Coastlines was made possible as well as launching the 'Shark Watch' data collection campaign, and they have begun working on an Ocean Ranger project. 

Going straight from studying to running a business meant making a lot of mistakes at the beginning, but the quick transition forced them to learn on their feet. 

Oliver credits talking to dozens of people early on who helped them build a plan, while others called them were idiots and told them they would get swallowed up by the competition - words they chose to ignore.

For that reason they recommend anyone starting a business to take advice from as many people as possible, act on what feels right, and dismiss what doesn't. 

He says the success of the brand has been fueled by a combination of things, but living in the market they are appealing to allows them to understand their consumer. 

"Another is the community feel of the brand and the environmental conservation that is enabled by drinking the products. Sharing the successes of conservation with our consumers is the best way to show that what they are doing is making a difference," Oliver says. 

"It's easy to be a Part Time Ranger, supporting both wildlife and ecosystems simply through your choice of consumer goods. It's a simple way to effect change, while also having some fun. 

"We won't be slowing down anytime soon."