Next time you're in the off-license, take a good look around. Somewhere hidden away on a neglected corner of shelving, you'll find the remnants of a drinking revolution: the alcopop. It'll probably be a Smirnoff Ice or a WKD, maybe a Bacardi Breezer. Or if the booze gods are smiling, a Red Square Reloaded.
They'll be there alright, huddling together conspiratorially like pissed 18-year-olds at a particularly humourless craft beer festival.
These sickeningly sweet, pre-mixed concoctions were everywhere come the turn of the millennium. Lights on at the end of the night meant wading knee-deep through a sea of Metz, Reef, and Archers Aqua bottles like you were manoeuvring through a ball pit. Fuelled by countless drinks promotions before anyone had even considered that five bottles of VK for three quid might eventually lead to fisticuffs, these 4 to 5 percent ABV drinks managed to position themselves as "the" entry-level accompaniment to every young person's night out. Plus, they didn't taste of alcohol.
Alcopops were here for a good time, not a long time. At its height in 2002, the ready-to-drink (RTD) sector was worth an estimated £1.6 billion. Within three years, it had shrunk by 22 percent amid frequent accusations of encouraging underage drinking. Older revellers, even those just out of their teens, were turned off and the government reacted by significantly raising duty.
Perhaps the most notorious of these original alcopops was Hooper's Hooch, which—at its height—was selling close to 2.5 million bottles a week. Branded as alcoholic lemonade and with two cheery looking cartoon lemons on the label, it was the main focus of ire, quite reasonably, for those who believed alcopops were being marketed directly at kids.
Alcopops were here for a good time, not a long time. At its height in 2002, the ready-to-drink sector was worth an estimated £1.6 billion. Within three years, it had shrunk by 22 percent.
Since relaunching in 2012 with slightly more sombre packaging and a new ad campaign, Hooch has seen rising sales in UK pubs and bars, and with the likes of Smirnoff Ice producers Diageo posting encouraging figures also (though they are reportedly under investigation for artificially boosting sales figures in the US), there have been murmurings of a retro alcopop revival for a couple of years now.
But these brands have little chance against the new alcopops—the flavoured ciders, alcoholic ginger beers, and "speers" (spirit-beers) that now dominate the market.
"Millennials really like sweeter-flavoured drinks but they also want to be seen as sophisticated," says Jonny Forsyth, Global Drinks Analyst at market research company Mintel. "In the UK, most fruit-flavoured 'ciders' have more in common with alcopops than actual cider but do very well because they are packaged as premium-looking bottled ciders. They [alcopops] are too closely associated with the 'sins of the past.' Better to start again from scratch than attempt to shift negative perceptions."
Talking to teens now, it's clear there is still a stigma surrounding these drinks.
"Desperados is my favourite drink. Kopparberg is nice too," says Oliver Kelly, 18.
"They're just really easy to drink and cheaper than vodka. People see Smirnoff Ice and WKD as babies' drinks." Izzy Little, also 18, agrees. "I first started with alcopops when I was around 14. I heard about them because all my friends were getting into drinking and going out to the park until the early hours, which I cringe about now. WKD and Smirnoff Ice are seen as quite immature drinks, definitely in my generation anyway. If you see kids drinking WKD you think, 'Oh they must be underage, how sad,' but in reality, that's what we were doing only a few years ago. You rarely see anyone over the age of 18 with a WKD in a club."
On a wet Monday afternoon, I decide to take a little taste test. Personally, I couldn't get enough of these drinks in my formative drinking years, but as with most people, my palate has changed over time. I rarely indulge in flavoured ciders and the like, finding them too sweet and the colours off-putting.
On flipping the cap off my Smirnoff Ice, I'm greeted by the stench of cleaning chemicals and urine, but it actually tastes pretty good, not unlike supposed "real" lemonade. I'm happily releasing nostalgic, citrusy burps into the atmosphere in no time.
I'm intimidated by the colour of the WKD however, resembling as it does a raspberry ice-pole (i.e. mouthwash blue.) Also vodka-based, the drink smells entirely synthetic and is so sweet it makes my eyes water. The aftertaste is indescribably bad. My quest to source a VK Ice Storm—"infused with glitter"—is sadly unsuccessful.
On flipping the cap off my Smirnoff Ice, I'm greeted by the stench of cleaning chemicals and urine, but am happily releasing nostalgic, citrusy burps in no time.
Simply put, these drinks are no sweeter or less refreshing than their modern counterparts, though in some cases a little cheaper tasting. The main problem, as Forsyth suggests, is that they are just too tarnished. Today's brands spotted a sugary hole in the market and quickly filled the cavity but were a lot cleverer with their marketing. They are still drunk by very young people and underage drinkers.
"Younger consumers, new to alcohol, have always liked sweeter drinks that mask the harsh alcohol taste," says Forsyth.
But by appealing to a broader age demographic, this has gone unnoticed. What's more, numerous studies have shown that the original alcopop boom did not lead to problematic drinking for most.
While the likes of Smirnoff Ice and WKD do enjoy at least some market share, others have long ago departed for the great two-for-one drinks promotion in the sky. Those that are still standing need to consider aping the tactics of some of today's cooler brands.
"In the on trade, brands that are engaging through social media, pop-up bars, and bar takeovers are gaining the most traction, ultimately, creating a 'distribution pull,' giving consumers a reason to drink and the licensee a reason to stock," says Phillip Montgomery of drinks consultancy CGA. "Tapping into this mentality may help RTD brands to drive a resurgence."
Perhaps, but the overwhelming feeling is that the moment has passed. The only thing alcopops really have to offer is a sweet hit of nostalgia and not even at a lower price point—flavoured ciders are cheaper in most supermarkets per litre than say Smirnoff Ice, despite a similar ABV.
Nevertheless, the drinks are an important part of the UK's drinking narrative and should be remembered fondly as such. Maybe alcopops will make a comeback as an expensive cocktail ingredient as stocks plummet. Our tastes haven't matured as much as we'd like to think: I finished that Smirnoff Ice.