The unprecedented boom of hard seltzers in the last few years has proven just how much room there is for new innovations in the canned alcohol/malternative beverage/mixed drink field, and there’s been no shortage of new companies jumping into that field in pursuit of their slice of the pie. The natural expectation is more American companies looking to grab the next Mike’s Hard Lemonade malternative or flash-in-the-pan like Not Your Father’s Root Beer, but one of the more unexpected concepts making serious headway in the U.S. actually has decades of history in Europe. We’re talking about “the long drink,” aka lonkero, often considered the national alcoholic drink of Finland.
The lonkero has been around since 1952, as the nation of Finland prepared for the 1952 Summer Olympics it was hosting. With a national alcoholic beverage monopoly that still existed as a relic of the country’s Prohibition period (1919-1932), it was recognized that the nation’s inflexible nature when it came to selling booze would likely hinder bars and restaurants when it came to serving a massive influx of tourists and international travelers. What was needed was a simple, prepackaged drink that could be distributed en masse, and Long Drink was the result.
The first two varieties of Long Drink, created then in 1952, were the classic Gin Long Drink, made with gin and grapefruit soda, and a less well known Brandy Long Drink, made with brandy and Pommac, an oak-aged fruit drink. While the Brandy Long Drink faded away into relative obscurity, the gin-based version was a hit, and has become an enduring staple of Finnish culture. Many companies produce riffs on Long Drink in a variety of prepackaged flavors in Finland, but the concept was mostly unknown in the U.S., until a new company by the name of The Finnish Long Drink started selling its wares in the U.S. in 2018. And wouldn’t you know it—growth has been quite strong, mirroring the rise of hard seltzers, as The Finnish Long Drink is now sold in almost 4,000 retail locations in 9 states. With the added benefit of a celebrity spokesman—actor Miles Teller became a fan and eventually bought in as a co-owner—The Long Drink has been well positioned to continue rapid U.S. expansion. Even the likes of the New York Times are writing about its surrounding traditions, like getting “pantsdrunk” in your underwear.
Which makes us wonder: Who exactly is the market for The Long Drink? Is it seltzer drinkers? Those who tend to favor simple mixed drinks like the gin & tonic? People making the jump from the likes of Mikes Hard of Smirnoff Ice? Or some combination of all those things?
The product sounds simple, but that can be deceptive for a few reasons. For one, the fact that The Long Drink is made with actual liquor isn’t typical for this field in the U.S. Most of these beverages are made with either alcohol produced by malt fermentation, or neutral grain spirits. The Long Drink, on the other hand, is made with actual gin, making it more like a canned mixed drink than a hard seltzer.
Also notable is the way the company styles its product, as fun and carefree … but not specifically health conscious in any real way. This runs counter to the focus on calorie count, carb count and ABV seen in many seltzers and low-calorie craft beers these days. The two most popular flavors of Long Drink (grapefruit and cranberry) both weigh in at 5.5% ABV—a bit stronger than the likes of White Claw, and with no mention at all of sugar content or calories. There is a more directly competing version called Long Drink Zero that contains 0 sugar, 0 carbs and 99 calories, but it’s not the flagship product. This suggests that the average The Long Drink consumer isn’t necessarily the most calorie-conscious—they just want a satisfying mixed drink that they don’t have to bother mixing themselves.
With that said, we obtained samples of the two most popular flavors, the aforementioned grapefruit and cranberry. Here’s our thoughts after tasting each.
It can be a little bit confusing to know which version of the Long Drink you’re talking about, as the original grapefruit is simply labeled as “The Finnish Long Drink,” while the cranberry one is “The Finnish Long Drink Cranberry.” This is indeed considered the base version, though, made with gin and grapefruit soda, which would basically make it the Finnish version of the paloma, when you really think about it, simply substituting gin for tequila. It weighs in at 5.5% ABV, squarely in “standard craft beer” territory.
Poured over ice, the drink is spritzy and quite effervescent, and certainly smells legitimately like good grapefruit soda, with slightly herbal, earthy and fruity notes. On the palate, it’s more candy sweet, reminding me strongly of grapefruit-flavored Life Savers candy, although it’s really not as cloying as that might suggest. The sweetness is certainly there, but it doesn’t tip the point into gross artificiality, while you can also detect a very light juniper presence from the gin. All in all, it’s pretty easy to drink, especially over ice, and packs enough of a unique characteristic to make it enjoyable. I drink a lot of non-alcohol grapefruit seltzer, and this reminds me of one of those, further sweetened and cranked up a bit in terms of intensity. Regardless, the grapefruit and gin are a good match together, and I could see myself drinking something in this vein in hot weather in particular.
Tasting it over time, however, one does begin to wonder just how much residual sugar and calories are involved.
Given the predilection of American sorority girls for vodka cranberries, I almost expected this to be a vodka drink rather than a gin one, but the label still says it’s made with “gin and natural cranberry and juniper berry flavors,” so there you go. Like the grapefruit version, this one is also a fairly standard 5.5% ABV, which is a level that sits slightly above most others in the segment. Like the grapefruit, there’s also no reference to calorie counts or carbs involved here.
Putting my nose to this glass, I found myself perplexed not by what I was smelling, but by what I wasn’t. The cranberry version of Long Drink is very subtle on the nose, with only a slight whiff of red fruit. Certainly, you don’t feel like you’ve just opened a bottle of Ocean Spray, which is pretty much what I was expecting. It’s also pretty lightly flavored on the palate, offering a slightly generic berry fruitiness that is slightly sweet—if anything, what it evokes to me more than cranberry is actually apple juice. This one is curious, because it’s just not as vivaciously flavored as I expected it to be, although it is very easy to drink—even moreso than the grapefruit, on that front. It doesn’t read as particularly sweet, though there is a lingering roundness on the palate that suggests sugar. It almost has more the texture of sweetness than the flavor.
All in all, The Finnish Long Drink Cranberry reminds me more closely of the hard seltzers that will probably end up being long drink’s primary competition in the U.S. In the mold of the likes of White Claw, this one has the lower ceiling of flavor and higher drinkability, but I feel like I’m more likely to lean toward the more assertive flavors of the grapefruit version. At least there, volume of flavor is justifying a lack of knowledge about something like calorie count. Here, it feels like they could be revving the engine a bit more.
Still, it will be fascinating to see if Long Drink ends up conquering the U.S., thanks to its easygoing nature and celebrity promotion. In the alcohol industry, stranger things have happened.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.