In a sea of canned cocktails, Gay Water wants to stand out.
Launching Thursday is a brightly colored canned vodka and soda beverage that proudly displays who it’s for, instead of backing off from support for the LGBTQ2S+ community as other companies have done in recent months. In other words, where Bud Light has buckled under pressure as bigotry grows against the LGBTQ2S+ community, Gay Water’s creator Spencer Hoddeson wants his new boozy brand to be the antithesis of that.
“The key issue that Bud Light tapped into was the fact that they didn’t understand their core audience and know enough about them,” Hoddeson, a gay man, told CNN about the controversy that began when the Anheuser-Busch beer brand sent influencer Dylan Mulvaney a can of beer. “They just went silent and I think in 2023, you have to be communicating because people communicate themselves if they’re not hearing from you.”
Gay Water, however, is out and proud. The canned cocktail is named after a colloquialism given to the popular mixed drink (vodka and soda) ordered at bars by the gay community. It’s also one of the few openly queer-owned alcohol brands, which Hoddeson said sparked him to create because he wanted more representation in the category.
“We’re creating a brand that creates representation, particularly in spaces where representation is lacking like liquor stores, bars, restaurants and grocery stores,” he said. “Putting a product with the word gay in the title is a representation of itself,” which he hopes reclaims the word from the negativity it’s sometimes associated with.
He thought of creating Gay Water about a year ago while on a vacation with his friend who had got a job within the beverage industry. The two chatted about the limited number of gay people within it, and with Hoddeson burnt out from his traditional day job in tech, started the canned cocktail.
Hoddeson built up a strong social media following on TikTok and Instagram during Covid-19 and is using some of the money from that (as well as from friends and family) to help fund Gay Water. He worked together with a queer designer creating the colorful packaging, which pulls inspiration from ’90s Nickelodeon shows and pop art.
“I wanted to build something that is queer and part of the community, but it isn’t necessarily the rainbows and unicorns that you see all around with pride,” he said. “Gay is an umbrella term and the idea behind the brand is to be as inclusive as possible, which means we want allies, we want straight people to be part of this community we’re building.”
For now, Gay Water is sold largely online (with a few retailers) and comes in four sugar-free flavors — watermelon, lime, peach and grapefruit — at launch. Six-packs with a single flavor cost $18.25 and 12-packs with a variety of flavors cost $36.50.
Although spiked seltzers have cooled off with drinkers, spirit-based drinks, like High Noon, have grown in popularity. And despite the hundreds of brands on shelves (after all, a canned vodka soda isn’t something unique anymore), Hoddeson said it’s “exactly the right time” to join the space.
“When I look at a lot of brands entering the market right now, what they’re missing is the idea of who their audience is and who their community will be rather than what their product is,” he said.
Canned cocktail boom
Sales of premixed cocktails including surged about 36% last year, making it a $2.2 billion industry according to figures from the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.
Gay Water might not have the deep pockets compared to its competitors, like White Claw, but “even at small scale, companies of many sizes are having success making spirit-based seltzers and premixed cocktails,” Bryan Roth, an analyst for Feel Goods Company and editor of the alcohol beverage newsletter, Sightlines+, told CNN.
“There’s lots of space in the spirit-based seltzer category in which Gay Water can play, especially if the brand can offer a cultural or emotional connection that will feel more exciting than the prospect of another pineapple-flavoured vodka seltzer from national or international corporations,” Roth said. “It’s a top-heavy category where niches can be carved out in a fashion similar to craft beer.”
Of course, other drinks use the word “gay,” too, including Gay Beer and So Gay Rosé, Hoddeson noted, which are also trying to reach the queer community and offer them an alternative in the straight-dominated space.
Hoddeon said there’s a lot of “straight-coded brands that try to reach the audience and that’s what Bud Light did. There’s clearly a desire for folks to have queer customers they just don’t know the right way to go about it.”