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Is Dunkin’ Spiked Proof That RTDs Have Gone Too Far?

Perhaps you’ve already seen the news: In what seems to be the perfect setup for a sequel to this Saturday Night Live parody commercial starring Casey Affleck, the donut chain Dunkin’ has announced a line of alcoholic coffees and teas, which are now available in a dozen states.

The Dunkin’ Spiked offerings are lightly carbonated, include a moderate amount of booze and a small amount of caffeine. They include several varieties of iced tea and iced coffee, in flavors inspired by the franchise’s popular non-alcoholic offerings. The Spiked line appears to be a play to get the Dunkin’ brand, which is predominantly associated with morning routines, into spaces where alcohol is more socially acceptable.

Perhaps buoyed by the success of hard seltzers and other ready-to-drink (RTD) offerings, Dunkin’ joins a slew of other non-boozy brands looking to expand into boozier territory. This includes Mtn Dew, Lipton Tea, Arizona Tea, Sunny D and Monster Energy.

But will Dunkin’ fans actually convert to Spiked drinkers? Those watching the space have reason to think so. Certainly, Dunkin’ is betting on it.

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“There has been an evolution where non-alcoholic companies aren’t as afraid as they once were, from a public relations perspective, to try this route,” says Jeff Musial, a partner at Brand Elixir Partnerships, by way of explanation. “Barriers have been removed.”

In the 1980s, Musial worked at Brown-Forman Beverage Co.—the makers of Jack Daniels—and recalls that the Coca-Cola Company was wary of being associated with the Jack and Coke cocktail in any way, shape or form. That’s a big change from today: Recently Coca-Cola announced the creation of a subsidiary called Red Tree Beverages, which is tasked with growing Coca-Cola’s alcohol business and partnerships. (It’s separate from the company’s non-alcoholic business, so as not to confuse government regulators.) Meanwhile, Topo Chico—another Coca-Cola product—now exists in hard seltzer form thanks to a partnership with MolsonCoors.

Dunkin Spiked Iced Tea
Image Courtesy of Dunkin’ Spiked

These days, “any opportunity to grow beyond a non-alcohol occasion, companies with a strong brand name can apply that,” Musial offers by way of explanation. Plus, for non-alcohol brands, meaningful growth can be hard to come by, even with line extensions. Going the alcohol route has the potential to move the needle and find “new drinkers who haven’t consumed you before.”

Dunkin’ Spiked Coffee is meant to be a late-afternoon beverage, says Nathaniel Davis, the president of Mass Bay Brewing Company, which is producing the beverages. Mass Bay Brewing Company is the parent company of breweries like Harpoon, Clown Shoes and others.

“These tend to be thought of as a tailgating [product], a pick-me-up in the afternoon,” Davis says. Like cold brew, the coffees are “a late-afternoon play.” The teas, he says, are aimed at wherever refreshment is needed and “plays where beer plays.”

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Despite its central role in the products’ production, Mass Bay Brewing Co. is low-key about its involvement, which is a departure from the co-branded beers Harpoon and Dunkin’ first released a few years ago and continue to produce. These include a pumpkin spiced latte ale, a blueberry matcha IPA, a maple crème blonde ale and a porter. Each is made with either tea, coffee or donuts from Dunkin’, but are firmly in the beer space. The Dunkin’ Spiked drinks, however, are decidedly not beer—they’re malt beverages. Though produced at the Harpoon Brewery in Boston and on offer at the on-site taproom, they’re not designed to evoke thoughts of the brewery. “Spiked is really a separate franchise and brand,” explains Davis.

“We’re playing down Harpoon on the package and with the public,” he continues. “It’s under the division of the American Spiked Beverage Company.” Officials from Dunkin’ declined several interview requests.

The tea-flavored Dunkin’ Spiked offerings dovetail with trends in the hard iced tea category, which is going through a bit of a renaissance. For years, Twisted Tea, the beverage made by Boston Beer Company, has ruled the category with few challengers. But recently, other companies and breweries have gotten into the space, from craft outfits like Great Lakes Brewery and Cape May Brewing to bigger brands like Arizona, Sonic and Lipton.

Dunkin' Spiked Iced Coffee
Image Courtesy of Dunkin’ Spiked

Dunkin’ hard iced teas will come in the flavors slightly sweet, half & half, strawberry dragon fruit and mango pineapple. All are 5% abv and will be available year-round in 12-ounce cans and in mix packs. The slightly sweet variety will also be available in its own 12-ounce six-pack and 19.2-ounce cans.

Dunkin’ may have a harder time in the hard coffee space, which has proved a tough nut to crack. Over the last several years, there have been splashy entries to the category, including a La Colombe collaboration with MolsonCoors and another made by Pabst. Both were pulled from shelves in the last year over lackluster consumer response.

Perhaps Dunkin’ will have better success thanks to its brand recognition. But because it can’t sell hard beverages in its shops or alongside its other ready-to-drink beverages, only time will tell if consumer interest outlasts the products’ initial buzz.

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The Spiked coffee offerings come in original, caramel, mocha and caramel flavors and are 6% abv. Like the spiked teas, they are available in a 12-ounce mix pack and the original is available as its own six-pack and in a 19.2-ounce can.

At the end of the day, the elbowing-in of Dunkin’ and other non-alcoholic brands into the alcohol space is part of a natural evolution in drinks that happens every five to seven years, as consumer tastes change.

Think about the rise of flavored alcohol beverages in the 1980s and 90s, like wine coolers. Then came mixers like Smirnoff Ice and the category ultimately evolved to include hard seltzer, which has been “king of the hill” in recent years. Musial thinks offerings like Dunkin’ Spiked will only become more common.

“It might be the next wave,” he says.

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