Gentle tippling readers, I want to admit my bias: I’m not predisposed to like canned cocktails. A big part of the pleasure I get out of drinks is making them, whether recreating someone else’s recipe or honing my own. And I’ll admit to having absorbed the “fresh is best” ethos to the point of viewing premade drinks (or RTDs — ready to drink — as they’re known in the industry) with some suspicion.
But when I had family over for a socially distanced backyard dinner recently, I got the appeal: It was great to be able to toss people a can rather than laboring over six separate cocktails I’d have had to deliver up close.
Still, I don’t want the lowered standards of the pandemic to rule the day. When it comes to flavor, can a canned concoction compare with a cocktail you make yourself?
The answer is “sometimes.” It’s a matter of altering your expectations. “I'm not trying to replicate exactly what they're getting in the bar,” says Aaron Polsky, founder of LiveWire cocktails, which is producing several delicious canned drinks in collaboration with well-known bartenders. “The bar is the live performance, right? You don't go see Guns N’ Roses and expect them to put their CD on.”
I tried at least 30 different canned cocktails while researching this story, and I’d by no means covered the waterfront. I also sampled hard seltzers as a point of comparison. Sales for hard seltzers like White Claw and Truly have gone bonkers over the past few years, but the ones I tasted seemed like the beverage equivalent of the art hung in chain hotels, so bland it will offend no one and be forgotten the instant guests leave. In a generous mood I would call their flavors “subtle.”
I’m not yukking your yum. I’m just not the right audience for this degree of subtlety. My favorite cocktail is a Negroni. If a White Claw is a gentle pat on the head, a Negroni is a punch in the mouth.
I was relieved to find that the canned cocktail world provides a much greater range. Consumers may have come to see hard seltzers as the final category of canned beverage after beer and wine, acknowledges Hope Ewing, chief product officer for Vervet, which makes a line of canned cocktails inspired by the diverse L.A. food scene. But that gives Vervet’s team a place to start the conversation: “When they're like, ‘Oh, is it like a White Claw?’ I'm like, ‘Oh, not really. White Claw is a brewed beverage, and we're distilled spirits, and here are the differentiations.’”
Yuseff Cherney, head distiller and co-founder of Cutwater Spirits, which makes a wide range of quality canned cocktails, says some older versions weren’t doing the genre any favors. They “were made with really poor ingredients, poor alcohol choices and very bizarre recipes, very focused on really sweet, overly artificial flavors,” he says. “Our biggest hurdle is getting people to taste our stuff, cause they're almost like shellshocked from the previous brands that they've tried.”
The craft beer world, on the other hand, went a long way toward opening people’s minds. “Craft brewers have shown us that good things do come in cans,” Ewing says.
Many of the better canned drinks I tried represent a new channel for well-known craft cocktail bar talent. Social Hour’s drinks were developed by Julie Reiner and Tom Macy of the beloved Clover Club in New York, Crafthouse Cocktails has Charles Joly (former beverage director at the Aviary in Chicago) behind it, and Polsky was a longtime bartender at Harvard & Stone and is collaborating with other well-known bartenders on LiveWire’s releases.
Craft bartenders tend to think about drinks in a meticulous way. When she and Macy were developing the drinks for Social Hour, Reiner says, they worked closely with the flavor house, getting so obsessive that at some point, the flavor house cut off further tweaks. “Tom and I are very much perfectionists. At the bar, we’ll make a drink 50 different ways before it makes its way onto the menu,” Reiner says. “We’re not about to put our names on something that wasn’t as good, if not better, than what we serve at our bar.”
As it has with bars, the pandemic has put a hurting on some of the markets canned cocktails most appealed to — outdoor concert venues and stadiums, which often ordered big to provide options for those who didn’t want beer.
But some of the ways we’re drinking and socializing now lend themselves to portable potables. “People want to go and meet at the park, where it’s safer to be together, you know?” says Reiner. “I think that is definitely pushing people toward picking up cans. Some of our best accounts are ones that surround Prospect Park.”
Tips for sipping
Adjust your expectations around “fresh.” If you think canned cocktails are unlikely to provide the bright, piercing tartness of a fresh lemon, you’re right. I tried drinks that incorporated citrus (either real or chemical impostors), and some tasted pretty good, but none smelled or tasted like the fresh stuff. Serve them over ice, with a fresh wedge of citrus squeezed in to hide their deficiencies. Generalizing a bit, the less a canned concoction leans solely on fresh fruit for its impact, the more successful it tends to be.
Remember, alcohol by volume varies widely. Most canned cocktails don’t come in the slim white cans that have become a visual shorthand for the hard seltzer category. A few do, though, so be advised: Canned cocktails vary widely in alcohol content, and most tend to be at least a bit higher than that of hard seltzers. Some of them are much higher, so read the labels. If you’re used to session-friendly 5 percent ABV hard seltzers and then switch to an 11 percent ABV canned G & T, you’re going to feel the difference.
Try something you haven’t heard of. A consumer who sees a canned G & T or Old Fashioned has a touchpoint. A consumer who sees a can of an unknown drink doesn’t — which may make them less likely to buy it, but also less likely to compare it to the freshest version they’ve had in the past. And they may find a real gem. LiveWire’s Golden God, Vervet’s Sundowner and Cardinal Spirits’ Maui Mule were all terrific, and I’m pretty sure I’d have thought so even if I’d had the fresh versions before.
16 recommended canned cocktails
(Many can be ordered online depending on the regulations in your area.)
Beagans 1806 Old Fashioned: Whiskey-forward, gently bitter spiced. (20% ABV)
Belle Isle Honey Hab & Pineapple: Bright, light and refreshing. Not very spicy; the habanero mostly hits your nose when you inhale the bubbles. (5% ABV)
Cardinal Spirits’ Maui Mule: Sweet and fruity but with a good spicy kick. (6.5% ABV)
Cutwater’s Spicy Bloody Mary: Good tomato flavor and a decent punch of heat. (10% ABV)
Crafthouse’s Rum Old Fashioned: Rich and boozy, with a hint of cocoa. (29% ABV)
Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock and Rye: Sweet but not cloying, with a strong note of orange and spice. (42% ABV)
Greenhook Ginsmiths Gin and Tonic: One of the better canned G & Ts I tried; the juniper is prominent and the tonic pleasantly bitter. (12% ABV)
LiveWire’s Golden God: Floral, tart, complex; the green tea and elderflower complement each other nicely. (7.5% ABV)
Long Drink Company’s Finnish Long Drink: Gin with grapefruit flavor, crisp, bubbly and balanced (5.5% ABV)
Novo Fogo’s Sparkling Caipirinha Cocktail: A nice representation of Brazil’s national drink; the cachaça comes through clearly/ (8.2% ABV)
Siponey Royale: A sparkling, lightly floral combo of rye whiskey, wildflower honey and lemon. (7.25% ABV)
Social Hour’s Pacific Spritz: Rosé all day, the graduate version, with notes of passion fruit on the nose and palate and a lightly bitter finish. (8% ABV)
St. Agrestis Spritz: Bright, herbal citrus nose, sweet at first sip then nicely bitter at the end. (12% ABV)
Tanqueray Rangpur Lime & Soda: A good one for those who like a more subtle sip; drinks easy with a soft lime note. (6% ABV)
Tip Top’s Old Fashioned: Boozy, balanced, bitter, it packs a wallop. You’ll want it over ice. (37% ABV)
Vervet’s Sundowner: Strawberries on the nose, bright, tart and shrublike, with a back note of herbal red bitters. (8% ABV)
Kin Spritz: Fizzy and lightly bitter, it reminded me a bit of a Negroni Sbagliato.
Sweet Crude’s Mellow Mule: A gingery, herbal brew that packs a nice little spice kick and contains CBD.
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