Monday, 29 December 2014

Marks & Spencer cocktails-in-a-can

In October I reviewed the KÖLD line of premixed cocktails, the latest in the cavalcade of attempts to offer instant mixology for people who lack the equipment, ingredients or inclination to make their own cocktails at home.

The trick with such things is how to preserve the more perishable ingredients in the mix—the impressive Handmade Cocktail Company range from Master of Malt simply focuses on old fashioned cocktails (including the Old Fashioned) that lack fruit juices and are high enough in alcohol to be self-preserving. KÖLD sold their mixes in foil pouches, which made me suspect they had been heat-treated after sealing.

Queuing in the small Marks & Spencer branch on Charing Cross station the other day I was confronted by some tins containing the chain’s own attempt at premixes. I scooped up a couple for sampling, a Mojito and a Cosmopolitan.

For those who don’t know, M&S occupies a space in most British people’s hearts as a reliable place to buy underpants, work shirts and the like, but they also do food, pitched as fairly high end, and even have some branches selling nothing but food. The travel outlet at Charing Cross has quite a high bias towards booze, clearly catering for commuters who can’t get through the train ride back to suburbia without a single-serving mini-bottle of Pinot Grigio to dull the pain.*

The Mojito hits you with a mint flavour that has a mouthwash artificiality. It’s not too bad, with detectable lime notes, but a tad thin with a slightly bitter finish. A little like bitter lemon, in fact. But that chemical mint is what dominates. It also seems to coat your teeth. The KÖLD Mojito likewise struggled with the artificiality of its mint flavour: clearly it is not possible to get a fresh mint taste in a premix, but the nation must be crying out for tinned Mojitos as this particular cocktail keeps cropping up.

The Cosmo has a terrifying colour, followed by a bubblegum fruity smell that fills the room. But it’s not actually that bad, with a reasonable balance between sweet and sour and the triple sec (or rather “orange distillate”, as it says on the ingredients list) detectable. I’m not sure I’m really getting cranberry juice, though the label claims it is in there (from concentrate).

As usual with premixes, both these cocktails are unnaturally low in alcohol for what they claim to be (8% in each case, the same as the KÖLD range), but this is apparently because the target market would otherwise be drinking alcopops of the same ABV. I didn’t try spiking them with extra spirit this time, though I’m sure it would have been an improvement. The Mojito did go down the sink, but I did actually end up finishing the Cosmo, which must tell you something.

* I can’t see this range on the M&S website, although I have now discovered that they also sell a different range of classier premixes in 50cl bottles. I seem to recall that there was also a Bloody Mary and a Harvey Wallbanger in the range, along with a G&T about which I have read bad things.

2 comments:

  1. Clayton,
    I have been a keen follower of your blog for a little while now and I always like how informed, in depth and questioning your posts are - congratulations. With regard to premixed cocktails I have yet to find anyone who can produce a satisfactory example, most have some element to them creating a poor taste. Why is it that one can buy alcohol and soft drinks individually and find them perfectly suitable to drink but as soon as they are mixed the end result is a shadow of their former selves?
    Regards, David Schofield.

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    1. Hi David, thanks for your comments. I think the problem is that if you are going to sell premixed cocktails then they are inevitably going to be aimed at the mainstream (rather than esoteric boozehounds), so you're going to choose the most popular drinks. And modern tastes tend to be for long and fruity cocktails. So the manufacturer's problem is how to preserve these perishable ingredients: most people seem to use preservatives, or perhaps they pasteurise the product (effectively cooking it), or just eschew fresh ingredients in favour of flavourings. Like you, I've yet to find a satisfactory result. As I have mentioned before, by contrast the Handmade Cocktail Company products from Master of Malt focus on old-school cocktails which are mostly booze, and so are self-preserving. All of the examples I have tried are excellent.

      You may also find that the market for premixes is one where price is an issue, so perhaps manufacturers cut corners on ingredients for that reason. I noticed that all the premixes I've encountered (excluding MoM) are bizarrely low in alcohol for what they claim to be, typically around 8–10 per cent, which is going to affect the flavour. This may also be a cost issue: duty on alcohol in the UK is based on ABV. The rate for ready-to-drinks is £28.22 "per litre of pure alcohol", so presumably the lower the ABV the lower the duty per bottle. (See https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/rates-and-allowance-excise-duty-alcohol-duty/rate-and-allowances-excise-duty-alcohol-duty)

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