Two Dogs – will it be a repeat of the wine cooler?

There’s a touch of deja vu in a new drink from Adelaide. The phenomenal rise of ‘Two Dogs (why do you ask?)’, a fermented alcoholic lemonade now available in Canberra, parallels the growth of California Cooler in the United States between 1981 and 1985.

For Michael Crete and Stuart Bewley, California Cooler turned to gold dust. The concept of Cooler was as old as wine itself. But by 1981 what started as a beachside hobby mixing wine coolers for friends had become a small business. Mixing wine, sugar, water and fruit flavours in a 15 gallon beer keg, the two siphoned California Cooler into hand-labelled, used beer bottles.

Energetically pursuing a huge demand for the new product, Crete and Bewley stunned the American alcoholic beverage industry growing from zero production in 1980 to 7,800,000 case in 1984. During summer of 1985 they accepted a cash offer for the business from the Brown-Forman conglomerate. $55 million down with another $83 million to come was just too good to refuse.

As Cooler sales exploded from 400,000 cases to 14.3 million cases in the U.S.A. between 1981 and 1984, Australian wineries joined the fray here. We can all remember the hoopla as countless cask and bottle coolers hit the market. Most faded as quickly as they burst onto the scene, but the Cooler survives yet, with West Coast the market leader.

Two Dogs’ parallels Cooler in three aspects: its invention by individuals, not corporations, its explosive growth from nowhere, and its combination of tangy fruit flavours with alcohol. But the two are fundamentally different. Cooler blends wine with water, sugar and fruit (or fruit flavours).

Two Dogs’, as I understand it, is fermented much along the lines of ginger beer, incorporating fresh lemon as the flavouring agent.

Duncan MacGillivray, brewer, former owner with Robert Hill-Smith of the Lord Nelson pub-brewery in Sydney, developed ‘Two Dogs’ for his Bull and Bear Ale House in Adelaide last October.

It was one of those accidental things, he says, where an orchadist neighbour wondered out loud what to do with lemons too big or too small for the market. A few experimental brews using the surplus lemons saw alcoholic lemonade on tap at the Bull and Bear. Patrons loved it. And it was not long before MacGillivray found himself supplying kegs of ‘Two Dogs’ to other hotels.

Two Dogs’ became too big for Adelaide and before long folks were woofing it down across Australia as MacGillivray licensed the rights to various small brewers.

It has stepped up another notch now with 25,000 to 30,000 cases a month to be brewed at Patritti Wines in Adelaide and packaged in 375 mL glass six packs at Coopers Brewery.

National distributors, Inchcape, launched the bottled product in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra this week, but it had been available in Liquorland stores for several weeks before the official launch.

There’s bound to be a rush, of course. And there are bound to be look-alike products hit the shelves before long. Competitors, whether brewers, distillers, wine makers or cider makers, naturally wary of any newcomer taking a slice of the declining alcoholic beverage market, won’t sit back doing nothing.

Carlton United’s Matthew Percival views ‘Two Dogs’ as a fashion item just as Coolers and pop wines were in the past. Percival remembers his time at Lindemans when the liquor trade, led by Richard Farmer, killed stone dead the launch of a wine Cooler in tetra packs, simply refusing to touch alcohol dressed up as fruit juice.

Although Percival says calling ‘Two Dogs’ lemonade worries Carlton for the same reason, my guess is a deeper concern is the fear of losing market share to a new product.

In any case I see no foundation for concern about the name. The packaging makes it look like beer and the word ‘alcoholic’ appears in large letters above ‘lemonade’.

With widespread distribution assured and the backing of Liquorland, Australia’s largest liquor retailers, it seems there will be no repeat of the Cooler-in-tetra-pack affair. At worst the name lemonade might disappear, leaving “Two Dogs’ as a memorable brand name anyway. (Or try it diluted fifty per cent — one dog).

Whether it endures or fades depends on its surviving the first flush of novelty. There is a fair chance of that given our hot climate and the refreshing tang of lemon.