Way back in 2013, when Crafthouse Cocktails debuted, spirits connoisseurs—present company included—were understandably skeptical. A premixed cocktail in a can? Frankly, the idea brought to mind boxed wine and Bartles & Jaymes. Besides, why settle for canned when you could belly up to your favorite neighborhood watering hole anytime you favored a tipple?
With bars closed from coast to coast, though, the idea of canned libations has become a whole lot more appealing—especially if they’re crafted by world-renowned James Beard Award-winning mixologist Charles Joly, who cofounded the brand with Chicago restaurateur Matt Lindner. Thanks to Crafthouse’s use of small-batch craft spirits and all-natural, gluten-free ingredients (plus skipping the malt base, artificial coloring, and excess sugar), the results are impressive, from an eminently sippable Rum Old Fashioned to a truly refreshing Smoky Margarita. With sales of canned cocktails soaring and bars still quiet, we caught up with the pioneering Joly to get his perspective on the brand and why what they’re doing is so special.
The Ready-to-Drink (RTD) cocktail scene is much more crowded these days. What makes Crafthouse stand out?
Crafthouse was the first on the scene to introduce real prepared cocktails that people could just pour over ice and enjoy. While there were plenty of RTDs out there, they were simply flavored to taste like a cocktail; they didn’t contain all of the actual ingredients we use in the bar. I think we continue to differentiate ourselves by setting the bar for quality. We’ve always meticulously sourced every ingredient, from top-notch spirits that you’d be happy to sip on their own to real citrus juice, handmade simple syrup, etc. We’ve never been concerned with following any trends, and we are in the trenches as actual bartenders and industry professionals seeing what people are enjoying. That’s the best “market research.” I’m working on the balance of every cocktail and constantly tweaking. No offense to people that work in labs, but our palates are out in the real world.
How has the perception of RTD evolved since you launched?
There’s been a massive shift towards acceptance. That said, there is a dizzying spectrum of quality and offerings. On the lowest-quality end, hard seltzers exploded. You’re talking about RTDs that have the lowest-grade mystery alcohol in them—either malt or brewed cane, soft ABVs, and flavoring dumped in. That said, people are absolutely crushing them by the caseful. On the other end of the spectrum, thankfully, you have more quality iterations making their way to market. It does leave a lot for the cocktail enthusiast and average drinker to sift through. I really encourage people to do a bit of homework, look into what’s in those cans and, most importantly, taste and see what you like.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of this project for you?
It’s an entirely different side of the spirits world for me. I’ve done every job in a bar or restaurant, been a buyer, opened venues, done spirits judging, designed my own barware… being on the beverage-producing side at this scale is a new challenge.
I love to democratize cocktails a bit. When you’re not at your favorite bar, you can still have a great cocktail. In places where the expectation for a drink had been low, we’ve helped shift that.
What can we expect from Crafthouse in 2021?
We have a lot happening with our small and tightly knit team. We’ve gotten some new profiles in the hopper, new formats coming, and continued growth into new states. We have no shortage of ideas; it’s all just a matter of balancing what we’re already doing so we don’t lose focus.
What cocktail ingredient or technique are you loving these days?
I’m still a big fan of smoke in cocktails, when done in a judicious manner. I think it’s a great technique, adds aroma, flavor, and striking visuals. I’ll also always love working with tea in my cocktails. It’s such a fascinating ingredient with endless profiles. Especially this time of year, as seasonal produce tapers off, we’ve always had to get more creative and use things that preserve well year-round.
What bars are you most excited to belly up to when we are back to socializing again?
All of them! Every last one. It’s the rooms I miss, the bartenders, connecting with friends and chosen family in different cities. I spent 60 percent of my year traveling and that stopped overnight. I’ve loved spending so much time with my rescue pup, but he’s not much of a conversationalist and doesn’t wear pants—and I always get stuck with the tab.