Canned cocktails for connoisseurs

Whitebox Drinks is optimistic about demand for quality pre-made cocktails

PROFESSIONALLY-made cocktails for home delivery became a popular option for many bars throughout the pandemic, but the team behind Whitebox Drinks took the concept a step further.

Headed by Ben Iravani, co-owner of Aberdeen bars 99 and Orchid (SLTN’s reigning Cocktail Bar of the Year) as well as Porter’s Gin, together with Porter’s business partners Alex Lawrence and Josh Rennie and Pietro Collina, bars director of the NoMad Hotel in London, Whitebox produces a range of bar-quality canned cocktails from a facility in Edinburgh.

The nine products – including the Pocket Negroni, Freezer Martini and Chipper’s Old Fashioned – are available through the Whitebox website as well as in shops around the UK and venues as diverse as pizza restaurants and independent cinemas. The venture got underway in 2020 with the creation of a pre-mixed Negroni which customers could order online.

“The idea during lockdown was about sending people a bit of cheer,” Ben told SLTN.

“So we created this brand called SendANegroni and we set up an online [business to consumer] service which was to send a cocktail to a friend with a personalised gift message for £10, just to put a smile on their face.

“And that led to us vac-packing and sending out tens of thousands of Negronis across the country.

“Then we thought ‘maybe we can get this into a can’, so we found a can that could hold Negronis and we took the same branding and put it onto the can and they just started going like hotcakes.”

With the Negroni proving so popular, the team realised there may be a gap in the market for bar-quality canned cocktails.

Ben said: “There are plenty of drinks on the shelves with names of cocktails like Margaritas and Daiquiris, but they’re normally low-ABV, they’re not using real spirits, they’re using lots of flavourings. But with us it was ‘let’s do the real, high-strength versions that you’re going to get when you order a really good cocktail in a good bar’.”

Creating cocktails suitable for canning presented challenges, said Ben Iravani.

The original Pocket Negroni was joined by an Old Fashioned and then a Gin Martini, with the team officially branding the operation as Whitebox Drinks in September of last year.

Since then additions have included a Whisky Soda and Tropical G&T as well as original creations the Hippy Fizz (Porter’s Gin, tropical shrub, patchouli, and soda) and the Golden Throat Charmer (Porter’s Gin, fino sherry, lemonade).

The process of creating these products has brought its own challenges, said Ben.

“There’s commercial challenges – cost of goods, bulk liquids – and also creating cocktails that are accurate versions of the cocktails they say they are, because you have to look at shelf stabilities and dilution ratios,” he said.

“It’s not a straightforward process.”

Logistics were another issue, with the company importing a range of spirits and ingredients to use in their cocktails.

“Normally with a typical WOWGR (Warehousekeepers and Owners of Warehoused Goods Regulations) licence HMRC would give you [a licence] to hold spirits, duty-suspended, under bond,” explained Ben.

“They would maybe give you one or two spirits that you can hold under bond and start you off from there if you’re a new business. But for us, doing cocktails, we need to be able to have whisky, gin, rum, tequila. We need wines, vermouths, sherries, ports, bitters, everything.

“That was quite a challenge as well, just to get all the licences we need to make these.”

The headaches appear to have been worth it, however.

From a customer base of around 60 stockists in September, Whitebox is now selling to more than 200 accounts around the UK, with the business in the process of relocating to a larger warehouse in Edinburgh.

There’s success overseas, too, with Whitebox exporting to Denmark and – just in the past few weeks – the US.

And Ben reckons there’s still plenty of opportunity to grow the business further.

“The occasions when people are wanting to drink a cocktail are growing,” he said.

“So we’ve had independent cinemas, licensed cafes, pizza chains across the UK, we’ve had places that do really well on Deliveroo – like burger joints – we’ve had art galleries. So many different types of customers.

“I guess the way of summarising it is people who are a bit more progressive about what they drink.

“I think this is a trend that’s going to continue but we’re still very much in the early adopter phase.”