PepsiCos Pepsi Max Ginger launched in the UK last month

PepsiCo's Pepsi Max Ginger launched in the UK last month

One of the older flavours in the soft drinks market has become one of the category's hottest new trends. Ginger is spicing things up with a wave of new product innovation sweeping through non-alcoholic beverages, from carbonated soft drinks and energy drinks to plant waters, healthful shots, and beyond.

The resurgent cocktail trend deserves some credit for the return of ginger, specifically, The Moscow Mule - a nod to simplicity, with just three ingredients: vodka, ginger beer and lime. The Moscow Mule revival in recent years acted as a counter to the mixology trend, prompting the on-premise channel to embrace the classic drink. In 2015, according to data analytics firm GuestMetrics, Moscow Mule menu placements in the US grew 60%. Indeed, the serve represented over 7% of US cocktail orders that year, putting it in the same league as the venerable Bloody Mary and mojito.

Building on this momentum, Smirnoff brand-owner Diageo christened 3 March as 'National Moscow Mule Day' in the US this year, to honour "the country's most searched cocktail" while crediting Smirnoff with inventing the Moscow Mule back in 1941.

The ginger in a Moscow Mule typically comes from ginger beer, which is brewed (fermented) versus ginger ale, which combines carbonated water with ginger flavour. Ginger beer is non-alcoholic, although it can produce a beer-like head when poured into a glass. The distinctions between ginger beer and ginger ale have eroded of late, with soft drink makers now using the two terms more or less interchangeably.

Sensing change in the air, retailers are opening shelves up to ginger soft drinks, especially premium brands. Last month, Castle Brands announced an agreement to supply its Goslings Stormy Ginger Beer and Goslings Stormy Diet Ginger Beer to all 4,500-plus Walmart stores in the US. The drinks were slated to hit store shelves in March, promoted as stand-alone soft drinks and mixers for the Dark 'n' Stormy cocktail (which combines dark rum with ginger beer). "We are pleased that Walmart has implemented a full store roll-out," said Castle's chief operating officer, John Glover.

Target has also become ginger-friendly. In October last year, Reed's confirmed that its Reed's Ginger Brews were newly authorised at 1,335 Target stores, roughly 75% of the retailer's outlets across the US. Reed's products will augment Target's craft soda speciality set. The retailer has also made space for the Fever-Tree brand and its premium mixers, including ginger ale and ginger beer. Fever-Tree sees opportunities for ginger ale and ginger beer paired with premium dark spirits. Slated to hit the UK this summer are Fever-Tree Spiced Orange Ginger Ale and Smoky Ginger Ale. According to Fever-Tree CEO Tim Warrillow: "The long-term opportunity (for ginger ale or beer paired with dark spirits) is huge", with premium dark spirits "making up 60% of total spirits consumption, compared to gin at just 6%."

The Moscow Mule, then, may be just the first phase of ginger's growth spurt.

CSD giants are also salivating over ginger, partly because ginger has a less sweet, drier flavour profile. PepsiCo made ginger ale a cornerstone of its 1893 craft soda line, launching original and ginger cola variants in the US last year. In Canada, the group's national unit added Pepsi Ginger Cola with real ginger to the Pepsi stable last spring. Advertising for the brand featured a teenager mistakenly shelving Pepsi Ginger Cola in the produce section, alluding to ginger's "healthy halo".

Ginger's reputation as an anti-nausea aid gives it gravitas with consumers. GlobalData's Q2 2015 consumer survey found that 79.7% of consumers globally felt ginger would have a positive impact on health, ranking the flavour eighth on a list of 100 ingredients that consumers were asked to consider. Ginger ranked higher than iconic health ingredients such as almonds, pomegranate, beets, and Greek yoghurt on this list.

The Coca-Cola Co also sees something special with ginger, launching Coca-Cola Ginger in Australia last year. Timed to coincide with Australia's summer, the limited-edition expression was developed, tested, and launched in less than six months. "The recipe we've created is refreshing and intriguing," said Noemie Livain, brand manager for Coca-Cola South Pacific. "Ginger can have warm, aromatic notes" and gives a "surprising yet subtle twist of flavour, which is perfect for summer."

The company sees ginger working especially well with food. "Ginger works with a variety of flavours and is a lovely balance to Asian-inspired food, light salads, and seafood," Livain added. Coca-Cola expanded the ginger extension to Japan in January and will launch the product in Europe this summer.

Coca-Cola's plans put it on a collision course with PepsiCo's Pepsi Max Ginger, which is just hitting store shelves in the UK. The sugar-free drink taps the desire for bigger, bolder flavours and crossover sales potential with cola drinkers. According to Kevin McNair, marketing director at Britvic GB - which distributes Pepsi MAX in the UK - "Of the 16m people buying cola in the UK, 16% of them also buy ginger-flavoured drinks, so the opportunity Pepsi Max Ginger provides for our trade customers in the UK is huge." Ginger's marriage with cola brings caffeine into play, something new Bawls Guarana Ginger leverages as "one of the only caffeinated ginger beverages on the (US) market."

Ginger-inspired flavour innovation could have a lot of room to run. Brooklyn Organics' recently-released line of sugar- and calorie-free Craft Ginger Ales shows what is possible, with flavours including guava, coconut and acai, as well as cola.

Beyond CSDs, ginger's potential seems untapped, based on recent launches in the US. Caliwater Cactus + Lime with fresh ginger cactus water is the ticket to a cleaner Moscow Mule. Functional health drinks pairing ginger with turmeric also show potential. The turmeric ginger variant of Jacob's Raw Cultured Tonic touts the anti-inflammatory effect of turmeric, a benefit also associated with ginger. Suja does the same with a ginger turmeric version of its Suja organic vinegar juice & water drink.

Ginger is also emerging as a player in "wellness shots" – itself a relatively new niche. Ginger Shots is a line of wellness shots combining ginger juice with fruit juice, in flavours like Kiwi Ginger. These cold-pressed, HPP shots are said to be the simplest way possible to add more ginger to the diet and give an "organic blast of wow" when taken. Vive Organic Immunity Boost Wellness Shot also makes a case for ginger. Even yoghurt drinks are getting in on the fun. Chaasi is a new Indian-style Spiced Yoghurt Drink that marries "happy and spice" with flavours like coconut honey ginger that help support immune health.

Ginger's combination of spice, flavour, and function seems tailor-made for today's beverage innovation priorities.