The bright product line is perfect for summer sipping. (photos courtesy of the brand)

Real-time data is hard to come by, in this burgeoning category, but the Ohza line of canned cocktails is among the very fastest growing in the space. And there are reasons for this: a relatively modest 5% ABV, real juice, big flavor, and small calories (140) among them. There’s also whipsmart Ryan Ayotte, the company’s young founder and CEO.

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A few years ago, Ayotte and a group of friends had trouble mixing a decent mimosa while on a boat off Cape Cod. Rather than whine about this first-world problem, Ayotte solved it, launching Ohza with the classic mimosa in June 2019. The company developed the market for that one beverage over the course of a year and now boasts three more flavors—a classic bellini, a mango mimosa and, my favorite, a cranberry mimosa.

Most of Ayotte’s working life has been in finance, but an early experience with an outdoor equipment company gave him a taste for the entrepreneurial life. “We made apparel and high-end fly fishing gear—kind of a niche business,” he recalls. “Not a big market, but I got to see everything, hands on. I got to truly see how you come up with an idea and  bring it to market. It was really exciting, which was a clear sign to me that I would love to do something on my own.”

Ayotte says Ohza will do “a couple hundred thousand cases this year,” mostly in the northeast, but with the ability to ship to 42 states the brand is quickly becoming known nationwide. We recently chatted with the young executive about the changing industry, the product’s name, and where Ohza fits in the RTD universe. “Some days are quite stressful,” he notes. “Every day is interesting. And some days are amazing.”

This stuff is delicious, so I was really struck by the low calorie count.

When people are making their own mimosas or cocktails, certainly there are guidelines that people follow. The official is probably a 50-50 mix of juice and wine, but what we found is people are more apt to like a 2/3 sparkling wine, 1/3 juice taste. So less juice saves on sugar. And our wine is bone dry so there’s some nutritional savings there.

And your juice is natural stuff.

On the juice front it depends on how much is in there but we really tried to find something with less sugar than what you would normally get at the grocery store. We tried to find the perfect balance of the right ABV, the juice and wine proportions.

The wine is all out of New York state?

Right now we’re a pretty big purchaser in the area. We source from multiple vintners in the state. The Niagara grape is the base. 

That’s a really unusual varietal.

It’s unique to the northeast region, mostly in New York. At one point when we were out we got some from Michigan.

Ohza CEO Ryan Ayotte says he’s “risk averse,” but his brand’s success speaks for itself.

Did these require a lot of R and D?

We did a lot of in-house taste testing. What are all the different brands of sparkling wine out there, and what are the different juices available, and what are the combinations we like best? What do we like and what boxes do we want to check—and what is the pinnacle example? What is a really good mimosa? How do we get this taste with fewer calories and less sugar?

I know in your first year you had just the classic mimosa.

There are pros and cons of doing that. On the one hand it’s kind of hard to stick out on a shelf when you only have one little slot. People like variety. And while it might seem like someone who starts a business isn’t risk averse, I am actually risk averse. I thought, Let’s try with one flavor and prove it out. I figured if people don’t like our mimosa they won’t like our other flavors. Let’s start there and see how that goes.

It seems like there’s been a revolution in canned cocktails.

Certainly canned beverages are growing rapidly, with seltzer being the biggest driver. Depending on who you ask, some people bucket it in with beer growth, some put it into canned cocktail growth. I tend to not think of it that way, because it’s not spirits or wine, but seltzer has brought canned things into the mainstream. It’s where craft beer used to be.  It used to be only bad beer was in cans and now some of the best beers are found in cans. And that’s here to stay.

How did you come up with the name? Does it mean something to you?

No personal meaning—just fun. We were looking for something related to mimosa, something short and sweet. And not trademarked. So what we thought of was if you just sort of drag out the word like you’ve had a few. It’s supposed to be fun and light. This is about being a fun convenient bubbly brand, so we didn’t want something too serious.

That said, it seems like canned beverages are more serious now. They are just better than they used to be.  

It’s a combination of things. On one hand it was mostly bigger players early on. There weren’t really craft brands dictating what was out there. Bigger players were the only options. And now even the capabilities of manufacturers have changed. It’s a lot easier to get consistent products, and that has helped. But really, people have their eyes more open on ingredients.

People are reading labels.

You cant launch a super sugary wine cooler today because people are going to ask what’s in it, and they will look and see it’s a bunch of sugar and some crap products. It won’t land.  

You’ve got four flavors now. Any plans for more?

We definitely have some plans for new products, both in terms of packaging formats as well as flavors. My hope is that we’ll have another four by the end of next summer. It’s driven by a mix of things. Certainly innovation is a crucial piece to building a brand these days. It keeps you fresh.

Are you selling on-premise as well?

That’s pretty small. Canned cocktails are a hard thing to sell to a bar or restaurant, unless its a big outdoor place, or by the water, or a concert venue. And we have sold to some of those places. But we had a lot of places where we were pitching them the can, and they said, ‘I love the taste, I like the price point, I like the convenience—but I don’t want to serve a canned cocktail. If you put it in a keg we would love to do it.’ So we launched kegs. And that was two weeks before Covid. You can imagine how much traction we got there. 

Still, that’s a fun idea for the future.

We actually reintroduced them to our distributors recently because we’re seeing interest from bars and restaurants again.