The last thing Minnesotans want to do during the sunniest months of the year is sit in a dark, musty bar. Bartender Tom Dufek gets it—it’s why he co-founded Plain Spoke, one of the first Midwestern canned cocktail lines.
“Not everybody lives around the corner from some great bespoke cocktail bar,” he says. “We wanted to give people the opportunity to drink cocktails and drink well wherever they may be, whether that’s out on the lake or camping or sitting at home in your underwear.”
What makes Plain Spoke cocktails worth cramming in your cooler? Real ingredients and hard-won bartending experience. “We don’t think using real ingredients should be a novel concept, but in the RTD [Ready To Drink] world, it sometimes is,” Dufek says.
A lot of beverage companies brag about “natural” flavors, but few use real citrus juice. Plain Spoke makes its Moscow Mule and Bourbon Smash with ingredients like ginger, mint, pure cane sugar, and lemon and lime juices, and they don’t use a minuscule amount just so they can slap “lemon juice” on the package, either; each cocktail has ¾ to 1 ounce of real citrus juice.
“The fact that we’re committed to using real ingredients—you can taste the difference between our cocktails and some of the other ones out there,” Dufek says.
Plain Spoke was born out of Dufek's decade-plus experience behind the bar. (He currently manages the bar and operations for Merchant and Lucille in Madison, Wisconsin, but thanks to the company's speedy growth he'll be at Plain Spoke full-time come June.) But the idea really formed when Dufek and his silent partner both got married around the same time. They wanted to serve quality cocktails to guests, but were disappointed with the same old mixer, beer, and wine options.
Dufek, who’d made thousands of Moscow Mules as a bartender, couldn’t figure out why there weren’t better options on liquor store shelves. Everything seemed to be filled with artificial flavors or preservatives. “We just started with the premise that there has to be a better way. There has to be a way to give people that cocktail bar experience that has convenience built into it,” he says.
It took about two years, but the canned cocktail brand launched in 2018. It's named for the plain-spoken nature of Midwesterners, which Dufek knows intimately as a Milwaukee native. “It’s not a flashy place, but it’s a real, authentic place,” he says. “Our idea was always to let our cocktails do the talking. We really wanted to channel that it’s not glitz, it’s not glam ... the product speaks for itself.”
The partners knew they wanted a 200 milliliter serving size (because that’s similar to what’s served at a bar), but they swapped their original idea of bottles for cans, which are lighter, easier to recycle, and keep the cocktails fresher for longer.
They worked with CODO Design in Indianapolis to create the look of the vintage-style can, which will infiltrate around 250 stores in the Twin Cities over the summer. You can find them now in local Hy-Vee, Total Wine, and MGM liquor stores. And this is only the beginning: Dufek’s dream is to mimic breweries, with a core lineup plus seasonal offerings and special collaborations.
But first things first: getting those tasty, 10 percent ABV cocktails into the hands of Minnesotans.
“These things are tailor-made for being outdoors, being on the lake, camping,” Dufek says. “I think that speaks to what folks in Minnesota love to do: get outside.”