Premixed cocktails were the fastest-growing category for spirits in 2021, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. Helping to spur that surge in popularity is Cardinal Spirits. The Bloomington, Ind.-based craft distillery was founded in 2013, began distribution in 2015 and has been in the ready-to-drink (RTD) market since 2017. The company has focused a fair amount of effort to the RTD space during that time, and it has paid off with a number of well-received product developments.
“There weren’t many pre-canned cocktails in the market yet,” says Cardinal Spirits cofounder Adam Quirk about the company’s first RTD cocktails, “so we saw a lot of good traction in the early days. That segment of our business has grown rapidly—we’re pretty well focused on R&D for it.”
The initial three offerings included Bourbon Cream Soda, which uses the company’s Straight Bourbon Whiskey, Madagascar vanilla beans and cream soda; Maui Mule, which is described as “a spicy, tiki twist on a classic mule,” made with vodka, real passion fruit juice and ginger; and Bramble Mule, made with real raspberry juice, hibiscus and ginger. These were followed up with Double Vodka Soda, which uses a splash of cranberry and lime; Bourbon Honey Lemonade, again made with Straight Bourbon Whiskey but incorporating Indiana honey from the family’s hives as well as lemon soda; and Florita Tequila Soda, made with the company’s unique Flora liqueur and citrus soda.
The cocktails are based on the company’s own distilled spirits and are currently available in 12 states and Washington, D.C. Quirk says that he and cofounder Jeff Wuslich are taking an organic approach to growth, and doing so on their own schedule. “It's a lot less stressful than taking venture capital and trying to skyrocket, right? We all have families. So we don't really want to jump on that rollercoaster.”
Consumer Education Through Branding
Taking a ride on a venture capital rollercoaster and getting heavy investment in growth isn’t the only way to build brand awareness. Instead of aggressively going after consumers with advertising or a PR blitz, Cardinal Spirits is using the quality of its product for return business from consumers, but it’s getting that initial on-shelf attention through packaging that displays a unique brand identity.
“I worked with a designer here in town, Ryan Irvin—who’s really good at what I like to call a visual system design—to create an identity that can span across multiple products,” says Quirk.
Cardinal Spirits’ identity for its RTD cocktails starts with the company logo, which draws from nature itself—the cardinal. Paying homage to the Indiana state bird as well as Ball State’s mascot, where Quirk went to school, the cardinal was chosen as the name of the distillery because of its non-migratory nature and bright red color. The triangle used for the cocktails represents the crest of a cardinal, with the goal of “popping” on shelf the same way a cardinal pops in an Indiana winter against snow-covered trees.
With the red triangle placed prominently at the top of each can, the color scheme for each flavor then pulls from the ingredients inside. For example, Bourbon Cream Soda makes use of a copper color reminiscent of bourbon as well as the namesake cream color, while Double Vodka Soda uses white for vodka and pink to represent cranberry. The design of the can is the same, with only the color scheme and script—hand-drawn by Irvin for an organic look—changing with each flavor.
“RTD spirits have been around for a while, but there's been a sort of a revolution for them in the past decade—I’d even say the past five years,” says Quirk. “We always try to educate the consumer before they even buy the product. So we felt that making the colors represent what's inside was a good way to do that.”
An “In-the-Box” Experience
In the spring, Cardinal Spirits came out with a variety pack to introduce a new flavor, Double Vodka Soda, to existing customers by coupling it with some familiar favorites. Instead of a typical pack of four, initial trials included a pack of eight: three Bramble Mule, three Maui Mule and two Double Vodka Soda. “There are plenty of variety packs out there,” says Quirk, “but we haven’t really seen any of the craft brands in the spirits world attempting this. So, if it drives increased sales of the new product, we basically plan to roll out new products in that format in the future.”
The variety pack again puts the triangle to work—extensively in this case. The front and back display the three flavors inside, as well as the quantities, above the name “Cardinal Spirits.” The name’s repeated on the top in a white outline accompanied on the edges by more triangles, but now with different colors. That graphical scheme of triangles in multiple colors is utilized on the ends of the package, but those triangles have gone from a handful to dozens and dozens of much smaller triangles—which looks a lot like a kaleidoscope.
Supply chain issues, high prices, long lead times and material shortages made the process of creating the package prototype difficult, but Quirk quickly points out that it was through no direct fault of the companies he was working with to put it together. He says a new hire has helped to ease the procurement process, but maybe all that was ever needed to ease the problems was getting everyone together over drinks.
Says Quirk, “I always say spirits are the original internet, they make it easier to connect with other people.”