The first time I saw a can in real life was during a beach picnic with my girlfriend’s family. Her 19-year-old brother had used his fake ID to go to the liquor store and pick up not Pabst Blue Ribbon or a handle of whiskey, but a six-pack of White Claw, the now-infamous alcoholic seltzer, which he smuggled into the cooler. “Black Cherry is the best flavor,” he said. To me it tasted like a spritz made out of cough syrup, like it should be tinged the color of a bruise; but instead it was clear, as if it had emerged from the earth itself, pure and unadulterated.
White Claw now makes up 50 percent of the alcoholic seltzer market. It’s the subject of GIFs and memes, as much a part of current cultural vocabulary—at least for this year—as the Manhattan or Martini were. How did the brand and its competitors (including Truly, Press, Bon & Viv and Cape Line) become the go-to beverage for teens, college bros and middle-aged partiers alike? How did hard seltzer suddenly become so popular that it faced shortages across the country?
Despite its summer-of-’19 boom, White Claw actually debuted back in 2016. It was created by Mark Anthony Brands, the Canadian makers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, a malt-based beverage launched in the U.S. in 1999 under the new category of RTD, or ready-to-drink. That the saccharine, beer-bongable MHL and bubbly, fruit-flavored White Claw were born of the same makers is almost too good to be true. It makes more sense when you consider that both appeal to the sub-21 demographic and were designed to be inoffensive. “We found that up to 25 percent of guys didn’t particularly want to drink beer, but couldn’t be seen holding anything else in their hand,” the company’s founder Anthony von Mandl told Beverage Industry in 2006. He was intrigued by the popularity of wine coolers, but noted that “men had to be in the closet, so to speak, to drink a wine cooler,” he said, without a shred of concern for how that might sound.
In the same interview, von Mandl described the Mike’s Hard brand as “comfortable and not aspirational.” In other words, not beer but still “manly,” and unpretentious enough to be perceived as socially acceptable. The company introduced an array of new products, some featuring higher alcohol content and others designed for blenders, and grew precipitously. In 2015 von Mandl sold the Canadian rights to the MHL brand, among others, for $350 million to Labatt Breweries in order to focus on wine and spirits. The money opened up an opportunity to work on something new.
Akin to the wine coolers von Mandl observed in the ’90s, seltzer is a convenient alternative to alcohol as a whole, which health-conscious millennials have proven to be kind of over. We obsess instead over self-care, skin care and nootropic pills—a different sort of cocktail combo—but we still want something to hold at parties. That could be a fruit-doused seltzer in a cute package; or Recess, a line of CBD-infused seltzer wrapped in pastels; or a low-calorie hard seltzer in a skinny white can. White Claw’s design fits into this milieu: It’s softer than Mike’s Hard, with a chunky, fun font and hand-drawn wave logo. Unlike the other hyperminimalist, sans-serif seltzer brands, it has a faux-worn texture like Fixer Upper shiplap, suggesting an experience more human than Soylent and a welcoming vibe that hits home, from the coasts to middle America. The aesthetic perhaps signals a shift in marketing strategy; now that advertising channels have become more diffuse, brands can’t afford to cater to a single demographic. Products must resonate widely.
Indeed, part of the key to White Claw’s success is how it manages to fit in everywhere. In bars it’s stocked next to wine bottles, in liquor stores near the craft stuff, at home with the LaCroix. White Claw doesn’t have a single role or context. Instead, it’s a deliberately blank canvas onto which we can project our desires and anxieties alike. Its path to internet fame is proof.
The unsponsored viral video that turned White Claw into a meme was made by the YouTuber Trevor Wallace in late June of this year. Wallace satirizes the beverage by playing a Claw-guzzling bro, simultaneously normalizing the act, reassuring viewers that it’s the inverse of effeminate and echoing the original MHL prerogative. His line, “Ain’t no laws when you’re drinking Claws,” elevates the anodyne beverage into something hedonistic or extreme. It’s not weak; in fact, it’s beyond the law. The parody feels strange—White Claw wasn’t that famous yet—and yet, somehow it turned fiction into reality, like all great advertising. By June of this year, Mark Anthony Brands had sold more White Claw, $212.1 million worth, than in 2018 overall.
A wave of memes followed. Equal parts satire and sincere, they confirm the extent to which the brand has already become shorthand. There are Toy Story versions, recipe suggestions and jokes about dating and pumpkin spice. The cans have become a lifestyle object for “E-boys” and “VSCO girls,” trendy online identities often defined by their accessories: scrunchies, hydroflasks, CBD products, Juuls. Hard seltzers fit in with this self-commodification: If you buy the product and put it in a selfie or video, you can participate in the meme. It’s as easy as that.
A few weeks ago, I bought a six-pack of mango White Claw from a local liquor store to accompany a take-out Mexican dinner with a friend. The owner told me that grapefruit was a hit, but mango was the most requested. It was heavy on the fruit, its flavor purée-dense, its 5 percent ABV mere pinpricks. In that moment, it was simply a convenient alternative to a six-pack of Modelo, a desire to avoid decision fatigue, a convenient excuse to evade the craft beer cooler—really, it was whatever we wanted it to be.