How to: Create a canned cocktail with the whole world watching

An industry veteran took on a daunting formulation project on a short timeline, knowing that hundreds of thousands of consumers would snap it up instantly thanks to Kylie Jenner's involvement. Here’s an inside look at how she dialed in the flavors, testing and sensory experience.

Nick Collias, Contributing writer

June 21, 2024

5 Min Read
Photo by Travis Rathbone

At a Glance

  • The formulator of the “Keurig for cocktails” designed a canned vodka soda with influencer Kylie Jenner.
  • The most popular canned cocktails co-inhabit a “fruity water” space with seltzers.
  • Dialing in a mass audience experience means prioritizing approachability with an intense and unique sensory experience.

After working in food, beverage and alcohol formulation for more than 20 years, Chandra Richter, Ph.D., found herself overseeing her most unusual project to date in 2023.

One thing that made the project stand out was the aggressive timeline. This canned cocktail, a fruit-forward take on the vodka soda named Sprinter, needed to come together start-to-finish in just around a year.

“It was probably the fastest project I’ve been a part of,” Richter recalled.

But here’s what was even less common: In an ever-more-crowded canned cocktail market, this 12-ounce drink was going to have no problem standing out. Every Instagram post about its launch received well over 2 million likes, and after Sprinter launched on March 21, consumers raced out and bought 140,000 cases in the first month. That had a lot to do with the company’s founder, Kylie Jenner, and her 399 million followers.

Here’s how Richter rapidly dialed in this drink to meet its immense expectations and be ready for summer. 

Flavor and mouthfeel: approachable and soft

Richter’s Ph.D. is in molecular biology, and she was one of the creators of Drinkworks, aka “the Keurig for cocktails.” So, she’s intimately familiar with both the science of drink-making and the challenge of creating cocktails for massive audiences.

She said her team’s vision for Sprinter wasn’t just in competition with other cocktails, but also what she called the “fruity water space,” alongside the likes of Spindrift and other seltzers made with real fruit juice.

“It’s a very similar conversation with just slightly different ingredients,” she explained. “A little bit of sweetness from fruit juice really helps to round things out, balance the vodka and make it a bit softer and more approachable.”

The idea of approachability also guided how they dialed in the carbonation. “We knew we wanted a high level of carbonation,” she said. “But we created a kind of soft mouthfeel. The bubbles clean your palate, but they’re there, and they’re not intense. Cleaning and refreshing, but also soothing.”

Alcohol: not too strong

Depending on who makes it, a vodka soda can be a crushable low-ABV drink or a headache waiting to happen. Richter knew she wanted Sprinter to be, in a word, “sessionable.” It contains real vodka (which means that in certain states, it’s only available in a liquor store), but the alcohol content is a very moderate 4.5% ABV.

“We wanted something that you could have one or two of and still feel pretty good,” she recalled.

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Sensory experience: bright but not overwhelming

The smell and sound of a canned cocktail may not dominate user reviews like the flavor, but Richter says these sensory attributes matter a lot — and she made sure both were intense enough to enhance and deepen the approachable flavor profile. 

“That aroma should hit you in the face, and you should immediately know, ‘This is grapefruit,’” she explained. “It should be recognizable and present, but it shouldn’t be like picking up a candle. You shouldn’t think, ‘This is going to make my whole room smell.’”

She also had a clear idea for the auditory experience: an authoritative crack and fizz announcing Sprinter’s arrival at the party.

“It's not like tasting wine where you're swirling and writing,” she said. “You're opening it way over here [in front of you], and you want that delightful burst. That’s the level of intensity I was targeting.”

Flavor selection: balancing familiar with trendy

Sprinters are only available in a four-flavor, eight-can variety pack, and Richter says the experience blends the old school and the new. But she always had one hard-earned bit of industry wisdom in mind: “A variety pack will only sell as much as its least-liked flavor.”

“Lime and peach are two flavors that are very well-accepted in the U.S. population,” she said. “They’re very far along in their flavor journey. Those are the kinds of flavors that a consumer will grab and say, ‘I know peach.’ There’s low risk.”

Having these proven winners in the box allowed her to go more contemporary with the other two. “Grapefruit and black cherry are much earlier in their flavor journeys and are much more trendy at this moment. We added those to have a little surprise and delight element in the variety pack.”

Testing: done the old-fashioned way

Richter has been part of plenty of traditional lab-based tests — focus groups, two-way mirrors, scoring sheets, the whole package. “I’ve done all that, and it’s great, but it adds a lot of time,” she said. And in the case of Sprinter, time was the one thing the team didn’t have. But what they did have was people.

“We would host little parties where we were passing these white cans out to our friends and families and asking for feedback,” she recalled. This approach also allowed her team to observe how people interacted with the drink: pouring it in a glass or sipping from a can, favoring or responding to certain flavors, and even finishing the drink at all.

“At tastings you often just have these little cups, because you’re tasting a lot of things at once,” she said. “But we wanted them to be able to experience the beverage in its entirety. Because you’re not just going to drink one ounce. You have to like it on ounce 10, 11 and 12, too.”

To Richter’s delight, Sprinter consumers have wholeheartedly jumped in to test the drinks on their own after release.

“People are running their own taste tests where they buy other products on the market and then post videos on TikTok and Instagram,” she said. “It’s been really fun to see that our product is coming out on top of most of those.”

About the Author(s)

Nick Collias

Contributing writer

Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor. 

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