04 Jul 2013 Youth drinking – 20 years on since the launch of the alcopop
It was only ever meant to be a harmless experiment; a bit of fun after a boozy evening. When Duncan MacGillivray started to tinker with 40 crates of lemons and some brewer’s yeast he didn’t plan on becoming the saviour of a global industry, he had no intention of causing worldwide controversy and he certainly didn’t mean to change the consumer behaviour of billions of people.
To some, MacGillivray’s liquid creation revolutionised the alcohol industry and saved many farmers from ruin, to others it was as if Satan himself had offered to bottle-feed a generation of impressionable young consumers.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of MacGillivray’s historic home-brew; the world’s first alcopop – a concoction he named Two Dogs after the punchline of his favourite joke. It begat the genre of booze which today includes bestsellers such as WKD and Bacardi Breezer and is worth around £1bn a year in the UK alone.
Campaigners claim alcopops – or RTDs (Ready To Drink) in industry parlance – were cynically developed to encourage younger drinkers to the market and have subsequently helped fuel a nationwide binge-drinking epidemic. But while the genre has certainly garnered infamy, it has also helped keep a struggling industry afloat and has allowed for two decades of commercial evolution and innovation.
In 1993 when MacGillivray, from Adelaide, Australia, brewed his first vat of fermented lemon juice, there were no plans to fundamentally alter the market. At the time the divorced publican just happened to live next door to a lemon orchard.
“Two Dogs happened by chance,” he explains. “I had a pub. I loved lemons and my next-door neighbour had a load of lemon trees. He asked me round for dinner one night, we drank a couple of bottles of wine and then went for a walk across the bush.”
During the stroll MacGillivray’s neighbour explained that he was having trouble selling his lemons and that many were being left to rot. “I said we should try brewing them and the next morning I was woken early by the sound of his truck in my driveway unloading 40 boxes.”
MacGillivray, a genial father of four, first tried the drink out in his pub. It went down a treat. Word spread and Two Dogs became locally popular because it allowed publicans to capitalise on a loophole.
MacGillivray explains: “At the time most of the pubs in Adelaide were tied to breweries which largely dictated what beer they could stock. Publicans worked out very quickly that Two Dogs wasn’t beer so they could put it on tap without contravening the restrictions of their agreements.
“In the beginning I made it solely for my pub but before long I would have publicans coming to me practically begging, so I started to make more. Eventually all the tied pubs and bars in Adelaide had it on tap.”
After 18 months, 250 pubs in Australia were stocking it and, to keep up with demand, MacGillivray made a deal with Coopers Brewery, which began bottling it.
“We started off hand-squeezing the lemons. Then within six weeks we bought some second-hand juice extractors, but it was a huge amount of effort to keep up with the demand”, he remembers. Initially the drink attracted praise.
“At the time it was the saviour to the lemon-growing market,” says MacGillivray. “We were hailed by everyone from MPs to the press. Then, when there was an orange glut and farmers were throwing them away or feeding them to cattle, we came out with Two Dogs Orange.”
The drinks industry was quick to realise the potential of this new niche market. Younger consumers bought it and at the time, the drinks market was stagnating, beer sales were declining. So a year after MacGillivray made his discovery, Australia’s largest brewer, Fosters, launched Sub Zero – a sweetened alcoholic soda – to tap into the market. And by 1995 dozens of similar drinks had joined it, bottled in garish packaging with names such as Z, KGB and XLR8.
With Two Dogs in bottles and brewery backing, MacGillivray decided to expand and in 1995 the first target was the UK. Merrydown Cider purchased the British rights and MacGillivray sent 40,000 cases on the six-week sea journey to the UK. But had the containers had barely left Australia, before Merrydown reps secured orders for 230,000 cases.
“That’s when I dropped everything, hopped on a plane to the UK and licensed three UK breweries to start producing the stuff to meet the demand,” says MacGillivray. “We had the first bottles out from the UK producers before the shipment got into dock.”
In the UK other producers rushed to launch products which would appeal to the emerging younger market. With few controls on marketing, they soon started to cause concern.
Drinks-industry consultant John Band explains: “Alcoholic soft drinks in the UK were initially aimed at people who previously drank sweet cider or £2.50 sweet white wine – young adults looking to get drunk. The aim was solely to provide alcohol in an easily drinkable format, without any pretence of quality or style. The major brewers and spirits companies mostly stayed out of the fray, because their long-term business models relied on being able to convincingly say that they promoted responsible drinking.”
Alcohol campaigners became increasingly concerned that these niche products were attracting underage drinkers. They had a point. The new wave of booze included products with names such as Spaced Out and Barking Frog as well Moo, an alcoholic milkshake, and shots of alcohol-infused jelly.
Moral panic ensued and the drinks industry was finally forced to act. After pressure from the beverage industry-funded watchdog the Portman Group, several manufacturers, including Sainsbury’s, voluntarily axed offending lines and renamed and repackaged others.
Eric Appleby, chairman of Alcohol Concern says: “The whole alcopops thing came about because at that stage the industry had realised that they weren’t getting the normal flow of drinkers coming through. Young people were more independent and drugs had taken over for a lot of young people as a recreational high instead of drink. The industry knew it had to do something. They will always deny it but it is pretty clear that the whole alcopops thing was about recruiting young drinkers and getting them at an early stage. Young people don’t have a natural affinity for the taste of alcohol – this was a crash course, cutting out the middle man.”…..