Food & Drink

How We Created the Ultimate Pandemic Cocktail Products

These drinks weren’t designed with COVID in mind, but at-home cocktail companies have found their ideas are more relevant than ever.

cheeky cocktails kelvin slush st. agrestis steep't cocktails
Image by Grace Han for Thrillist

When Chloe Aucoin and Alison Nathanson dreamed up a tea bag that could create a bar-quality drink in just two minutes, they imagined future customers using their product for a quick and easy cocktail at home.

But as the pandemic temporarily shuttered bars and left us all without our favorite expertly crafted drinks, Aucoin and Nathanson launched Steep’t Cocktails and found that their idea was more relevant than ever—and they weren’t alone. Other brands that sell premade cocktails or mixers never intended to flourish during a time of unprecedented hardship by making pandemic-proof drinks, but many of these companies are seeing more business than ever and finding what Aucoin called a “silver lining” of the pandemic.

April Wachtel was already in the cocktail mixer business before the pandemic hit but wanted to pivot to offer more customizable options and actually teach people how to make classic cocktails at home. The idea had been in the works for a few months, but when the pandemic hit and bars started shutting down, she knew it was time to move.

“With people's behavior being disrupted in a way it never has in our lifetime, that creates a massive opportunity for somebody,” Wachtel said. “We can choose to be that somebody or we can choose to put the brakes on and, in my opinion, that was absolutely missing the opportunity.”

So Cheeky Cocktails was born. The brand launched in April to offer pre-made syrups, like simple, mint, and honey ginger, and juices, like lemon and lime. From there, you can combine full bottles with a spirit of your choice to make a batch of six cocktails or mix and match them to make a margarita with your lime juice one night and a daiquiri with it the next.

As a former bartender herself who worked under industry leaders like Julie Reiner and repped spirits companies like Bacardi, she was gutted watching the toll COVID was taking on the service industry. So she enlisted the help of other out-of-work bartenders to get her business off the ground. Wachtel intended to develop recipes with the products and post how-to videos online, but she’s added an affiliate program that provides syrups and juices for virtual cocktail making classes and gives the hosts a kick back of the sales to adapt to the times.

"With people's behavior being disrupted in a way it never has in our lifetime, that creates a massive opportunity for somebody."

Another company that pivoted to meet COVID-era needs is St. Agrestis, a Brooklyn-based aperitivo and digestivo company. Louie Catizone, one of the brand’s co-founders, estimated that 70% of their pre-pandemic business came from bars and restaurants pouring amaro, making cocktails with the red bitter aperitivo, and serving the spritz on tap. “So when the pandemic hit and restaurants were ordered to close, things shifted for sure,” he said.

The company was already stocking ready-to-drink bottled Negronis and canned spritzes, but Catizone knew without cocktail bars operating like normal, people would want a way to consume top-notch Negronis (and a lot of them) at home.

He had an idea for a boxed Negroni that would mimic the packaging of Franzia and other boxed wines for a while, and, like Wachtel, decided to act fast and launch the product in July. Catizone said they’ve seen an “insane response” and are now expanding boxed options with limited-release boxed Boulevardiers and Black Manhattans for the colder months.

Kelvin Slush previously supplied frozen drink mixes to hotels and huge venues including Madison Square Garden. Cocktail bars would lean on the product when they wanted to supply popular frozen drinks in the summer months without having to add yet another ingredient to bartenders’ pre-shift prep lists. But as bar staffs were scaled down, the product was no longer just a simple solution—it was vital to keep bars churning out drinks.

“Bars and restaurants are looking for ways to make high-quality drinks easily,” Helena Tubis, the vice president of sales and marketing at Kelvin Slush, said. “These bars are working with skeleton crews so pre-making these drinks and being able to offer something that feels special is more important than ever right now.”

The team has also expanded to sell its product to individuals, even though they never expected to be a household product. Tubis said they only started selling the product on Amazon so people in states without a local distributor could use Kelvin Slush in their bars and restaurants, but when COVID hit, individual orders on Amazon soared.

“There were individual people who were buying it before, but it was usually for an event like a bachelorette party or something,” Tubis said. “But now it's people who are at home looking to do something fun and festive to transport them to a tropical island or their favorite bar.”

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Liz Provencher is an editorial assistant at Thrillist. See what she eats on Instagram.