Just last fall, we declared that the future would be canned. At the time, Big Beer had long since ceded dominion over the aluminum vessel to craft brewers, who in turn were competing with hard seltzer—both big (White Claw) and small (Evil Twin)—and a growing, yet at the time insubstantial, crop of ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails. Today, that crop has yielded a glut. With no shortage of zeitgeisty, eye-catching RTDs on the shelves, there’s never been a better moment to parse the good from the bad.
In our recent tasting of more than 70 RTDs, it became clear quite quickly to the panelists (myself, Punch editor in chief Talia Baiocchi, Llama Inn bar director Lynnette Marrero and bartender Jack Schramm) that the proposition of a canned cocktail is not as simple as putting a cocktail in a can. It takes an understanding of how extracts, acids and clarification impact flavor to translate the experience of an à la minute creation into a shelf-stable product. But even the most discerning producers are at the mercy of their respective flavor houses, and can struggle to translate a delicious idea into a drinkable reality. This is no doubt why some brands, even those attached to recognizable industry names, have missed the mark, eliciting tasting notes ranging from “smells like a vintage store” to “literal poison.” Of the dozens sampled, almost all were met with a reaction akin to “This would be better if…”
Perhaps this is, in part, why our winning lineup features a number of RTDs released by spirits producers themselves. For those brands who already possess a deep familiarity with the star ingredient, it’s often only a matter of topping with soda to create something craveable and refreshing that resonates with drinkers.
As the tasting wore on, a notion that was clear beforehand grew glaringly apparent: Certain cocktails are simply not suited to the grab-and-go format. The Mai Tai belongs in its mug; the Mojito is nothing without freshly muddled mint. Conversely, drinks of a spritzy nature fared exceptionally well as did simple mixtures like the Gin & Tonic or Tequila & Soda, despite the feeling that a two-ingredient cocktail might be more easily and economically procured by making it oneself.
Three hours and dozens of cans later, consensus was reached. It’s worth noting that for this tasting we did not include hard seltzer, and in every case stuck to the serving suggestions, opting for the straight-from-the-can pour rather than on the rocks (although many would have benefited from the extra dilution). If instructions called for stirring in a mixing glass, the cocktail was disqualified as it was not, in fact, ready-to-drink. Below is our selection of the cans (and bottle!) that left us wanting another sip.
Luxardo Bitter Bianco Spritz
“This is what I want to drink every day,” said Schramm, of the bianco expression of the famed liqueur brand’s newly released RTD line. A blend of Luxardo Bitter Bianco (the Crystal Pepsi of red bitters) and sparkling water, its decidedly bitter finish sets it apart in a field of cocktails that tended toward the sweeter end of the spectrum.
- Price: $4.99 (250ml)
- ABV: 10 percent
A combination of Angeleno Amaro—a California-made, citrus-forward aperitivo liqueur “in the vein of Aperol”—and soda water, this canned spritz is ready-made for al fresco drinking. Crucially, the central notes of grapefruit and citrus pith taste real. Marrero even deemed it a “restaurant-ready” option. NB: This offering is currently only available in California.
- Price: $20 (six 200ml cans)
- ABV: 7.5 percent
Ramona Organic Dry Ruby Grapefruit Wine Spritz
One of the first breakout hits in the early RTD boom, Ramona now boasts four flavors in its lineup of wine-based spritzes, including blood orange and Meyer lemon. But it was the dry ruby grapefruit expression, a lighter version of the original grapefruit, that impressed our judges, presenting like the perfect poolside option—bright and zesty, but not too assertive.
- Price: $20 (four 250ml cans)
- ABV: 5 percent
In a sea of G&T takes, Brooklyn-based Greenhook Gin’s version was the only one that was not compromised by the format. It was an archetypal G&T on the nose—juniper-forward, full of lime zest and quinine—and on the palate: bold and bracing with plenty of carbonation and an extra dose of lime.
- Price: $19.99 (four 200ml cans)
- ABV: 12 percent
Tip Top Daiquiri
Tip Top enlisted the help of Atlanta bartender Miles Macquarrie (Kimball House) in the production of their six classic recipes—three stirred (Negroni, Manhattan, Old-Fashioned), three shaken (Bee’s Knees, Margarita and Daiquiri). The lineup as a whole was impressive (not to mention adorable, in diminutive 100ml cans), but it was the Daiquiri that stood out as an example of a shaken drink done right in the format. It was balanced with a pronounced rum flavor, almost agricole-like in its grassy funk, with a pleasant tartness.
- Price: $34.99 (eight 100ml cans)
- ABV: 24 percent
LiveWire Rocket Queen
Aaron Polsky’s LiveWire lineup is impressive not only for the complex flavors he and his roster of talented bartenders manage to cram into the can, but for the model he’s established that compensates his featured bartenders for the recipes they create. Of the six flavors currently available, Rocket Queen (developed in collaboration with bartender Erin Hayes) stands out as a crowd-pleasing combo of rum, pomelo, pandan and cinnamon. It tastes like a boozy oatmeal cookie by way of the tropics. Our only quibble was with the size of the can; it felt like too much for one person.
- Price: $19.99 (four 12-ounce cans)
- ABV: 7.5 percent
Salt Point Margarita
Based out of Northern California, Salt Point has been producing canned cocktails since 2013. True to the brand’s name, this Margarita delivered on the salinity, a noted omission in many of the sampled cocktails. While labeled a Margarita, Salt Point carbonates the drink, making it feel even more suited to the can format.
- Price: $17.99 (four 12-ounce cans)
- ABV: 10 percent
According to the brand’s website, Onda was inspired by an obsession with “’90s surf style and tequila soda.” The latter shows in the lineup of their classic collection, four flavors that launched the brand. Of these, it was the lime that won over our judges, with grapefruit coming in a close second. “I’d rather drink this than a White Claw,” said Schramm, noting its leanness, drinkability and the fact that the tequila was actually detectable (which other RTDs that leaned on the spirit either didn’t achieve or achieved by way of low-quality tequila that, as Marrero put it, “smells like college”).
- Price: $65 (24 12-ounce cans)
- ABV: 5 percent
Zuzu Calamansi Lime
An outlier in the tasting, Zuzu’s Calamansi Lime does not recall any particular cocktail. Where most samples we tasted were clarified, Zuzu is notably cloudy, a point they don’t try to hide in their clear glass bottles. With just five ingredients, and a refreshing authenticity to the flavor (no facsimile calamansi here), Zuzu has managed to create an RTD that feels deceptively good for you.
- Price: $22.99-$31.96 (four 250ml bottles)
- ABV: 5 percent