QSRs Flex Their Creative Cocktail Muscles

It’s a problem that has plagued connoisseurs of fine food and wine for generations that until very recently had no solution: What’s the right wine to pair with a Taco Bell chalupa?

For a flavor so complex and unique, what wine will best complement the dish without overwhelming its subtle umami flavor notes? A light white? A deep red? A flirty rose?

In a year that’s been hard for everyone, a bright and shining light has finally shone down upon all of us, as Taco Bell has officially brought to the world Jalapeno Noir, a limited-edition pinot noir from Queenston Mile Vineyard in Canada’s Niagara-on-the-Lake region. The vineyard has teamed up with Taco Bell to make the wine available for the chain’s latest menu item: the toasted cheesy chalupa.

“I think having this toasted cheesy chalupa with aged cheddar and associating it with a well-known winery is really a special promotion,” Kat Garcia, director of brand marketing at Taco Bell, noted in an interview. “We intended this to be limited-edition, but given the coverage and the interest, we’re very open to acquiring more wine if we can.”

As for why Queenston Mile Vineyard wanted in, company President Andrew Howard explained that wine has an unfortunate reputation for being pretentious and inaccessible. His long-term goal is to make wine less a drink of the elite and more a beverage for the masses. And frankly, if you’re trying to bring wine to the masses, there probably isn’t a better place to start than with Taco Bell.

“Democratizing wine and making it more available is what the wine industry should be doing more of,” Howard said. “Some people will wonder why we’re pairing with a fast-food chain, but I think it’s brilliant. And it makes wine more accessible for people and makes it part of every day.”

But if you’re reading this and frantically searching for your car keys so you can grab a toasted cheese chalupa with a bespoke wine pairing, PYMNTS regrets to inform you that there are two major problems with your plan.

The first is that the wine has already sold out. Within hours of its launch, the masses had spoken in favor of Jalapeno Noir and drank it all.

But even if Taco Bell succeeds in acquiring more, there’s a second problem for our American readers: Jalapeno Noir is only available in certain Taco Bell locations in the Toronto area. And since Canada isn’t allowing Americans to cross the border at present, here in the States we can only gaze wistfully as our Canadian cousins north of the border sip their special wine.

While some might suggest that’s reason enough to attempt to take over Canada, that seems like a bit of an overreaction to get a limited-time promotional drink. After all, the good ol’ U.S. of A has plenty of very weird drinking options all its own.

For example, ever wished you had a margarita that tasted a little bit more extreme? Well, brace yourself for some very good news:

The ‘Dew Garita’ Is for the Seafood Lover in You

This year has seen a lot of firsts – some good ones, more bad ones and many strange ones.

But of all the odd additions that have come along with the year, it might be hard to top Red Lobster’s new drink. The chain has partnered with PepsiCo to introduce the world’s first Mountain Dew-based cocktail: the Mountain Dew Margarita, or “Dew Garita” for short.

What’s in it? Who knows? The recipe is top-secret.

From promotional pictures, it appears to be bright green (which we imagine is from the Mountain Dew). The drink also presumably contains tequila, since it’s a variation of a margarita.

It also involves a lime and has some kind of bright-red powder around the rim. Cayenne pepper? Red bar sugar? Flamin’ Hot Cheeto dust? Nothing is impossible in 2020.

According to Red Lobster, the drink pairs perfectly with the chain’s new Cheddar Bay Biscuits – because, like Taco Bell, Red Lobster understands that drinks are only classy when properly paired with cheese (or things that at least kind of taste like cheese).

The Mountain Dew-based cocktail is rolling out to some Red Lobster locations this month and will be available nationwide by year’s end. And as it turns out, this is just the beginning, as Red Lobster and Pepsi say they will jointly create “a variety of craveable new menu items.” How they’ll ever top the Dew Garita remains to be seen.

Drink a Driftwell to Drift Off

If all of this is making you thirsty but you’re not really into alcohol, there’s good news: There was one more weird bit of food news out this week, once again from Team Pepsi.

Yes, life is stressful at present for nearly everyone, but Pepsi seems to realize that sitting around drinking Dew Garitas until we pass out probably isn’t the best solution for most consumers.

Perhaps that’s why it also announced the launch this week of a new nonalcoholic beverage called Driftwell, designed to help consumers de-stress and relax before bed.

“I think we’re launching this at a time when there’s more consumer interest than there previously was, given everything that’s going on from a macro perspective,” Emily Silver, vice president of innovation and capabilities at Pepsi’s North American beverage division, told CNBC.

The drink’s active ingredient is 200 milligrams of L-theanine, an amino acid found in green and black tea. Some studies indicate the substance helps people sleep better.

Relaxation drinks are at present a smaller category for the beverage industry, and are mostly focused on products that contain the cannabis-derived substance CBD (despite its legally gray status).

“It’s a nascent category, and it’s one frankly that we think we can build from a [liquid refreshment beverage] perspective,” Silver told CNBC.

Driftwell will be available nationwide on eCommerce sites in December and in grocery stores in early 2021. Reports on its taste – or that of the Dew Garita – aren’t yet widely available, but reviews of Taco Bell’s new wine have been very positive.

Whether we’re seeing just a blip in the market for out-of-the-box drinks or the start of a long-term spike in a world where brands try to draw in consumers with quirky products remains to be seen. But it’ll be an interesting thing to watch – and occasionally taste – as 2020 rolls on.

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