Do Canned Cocktails Have Liquor?

With hard seltzers, spritzers and canned cocktails all sharing shelf space, it’s no surprise people often wonder if canned cocktails have liquor. Is anything alcoholic considered liquor? Nope. Liquor is not fermented like beer, malt or wine; it’s distilled. 

It may seem like splitting hairs, but there really is a difference between a proper canned cocktail and a hard seltzer or spritzer. Classic cocktails contain liquor, like vodka, whiskey, tequila, rum or gin—not flavored to taste like liquor. They’re the real thing, made with real distilled spirits. On the other hand, hard seltzers typically fermented cane sugar or malted barley, more like a beer. In fact, the government classifies them as beer and requires certain labeling. And a spritzer? It contains wine, again, fermented sugar, but this time from grape sugar.

So, technically, canned cocktails contain liquor, but ready-to-drink beverages like White Claw, Smirnoff Ice, and Corona Hard Seltzer do not. But there’s a caveat. Increasingly more manufacturers are ditching the fermented ingredients in their hard seltzers for liquor. High Noon, Ketel One and other brands offer hard seltzers and spritzers made not with fermented sugar cane, malt or grapes but with distilled spirits. 

What Are Cocktails in a Can?

Canned cocktails are premixed cocktails in a can, primarily packaged for convenience and as a non-beer, non-seltzer alternative. Canned cocktails range in ingredients depending on the manufacturer, but they typically contain distilled spirits, juices and other ingredients, such as bitters, liqueurs, syrups, natural flavorings and sometimes carbonated water. It all depends on the type of drink and the brand.

Consumers are flocking to canned cocktails these days because they’re different from beer, taste better than hard seltzers, and appeal to people with more discriminating tastes. The best canned cocktails mimic a bar cocktail, in ingredients, proportions, size and strength.

Do All Cocktails Contain Liquor?

As the word “cocktail” implies, there is alcohol in them. That’s the obvious answer and one that’s backed up with the dictionary definition. Merriam-Webster defines it as “usually iced drink of wine or distilled liquor mixed with flavoring ingredients.” At least it’s their primary definition of the word. Look at the secondary definition, and you’ll see a cocktail can be “something resembling or suggesting such a drink as being a mixture of often diverse elements or ingredients.”

So while cranberry cocktail is a blend of juices and many bars and restaurants now offer non-alcoholic cocktails, in the truest sense, we all consider canned cocktails to have liquor. Just how much liquor, again, depends on the manufacturer.

Are Canned Cocktails Strong?

Some canned cocktails contain about the same amount of liquor as a beer, around 5% alcohol by volume (ABV), while others contain as much as 40% ABV. Much of the difference is based on ingredients, proportions and can size.

A proper cocktail you’d get at a bar or make yourself likely has a perfect balance of spirits, mixers and other ingredients. Let’s take the oh-so-popular espresso martini. It contains roughly the same amount of brewed coffee as it does vodka and liqueur. No carbonated water to dilute it, so it comes in a small can with an ABV of as much as 23%. It fits perfectly in a chilled martini glass. 

Similarly, a top-shelf margarita on the rocks should contain a shot or so of tequila, about 1 ½  to 1 ⅔ ounces, with an ounce of liqueur and about ¾ ounces of 100% real lime juice. That would make about 3 ½ ounces of fluid, which poured over ice, will fill a lowball glass. For an authentic margarita, the cans should be small because they only contain the exact measurements and proportions you’d find in a margarita you ordered at a bar. You’re getting a full shot of alcohol mixed with only with just slightly less quantity of other ingredients. It’s strong because there’s more liquor in the margarita than anything else.

The canned cocktails with lower ABVs typically have different proportions, with a hefty amount going to sparkling water. That’s why they’re in 12-ounce cans. They may contain a shot of liquor, but the sparkling water takes it from a bar-like cocktail to more of a hard seltzer with spirits. 

So, if you’re looking for a classic cocktail made the traditional way, a rule of thumb that works in most cases is to look at the size of the can first, then the ingredients. The smaller the can size, usually the stronger the cocktail.

Where to Buy Canned Cocktails

State laws dictate where canned cocktails can be purchased. For instance, Alabama, Georgia, Minnesota and Texas do not allow grocery stores to sell liquor, but they can sell fermented products like beer, hard seltzers and spritzers. There are about 18 states, such as Arizona, California, Michigan and West Virginia that do allow liquor sales in grocery stores. You can not only purchase canned cocktails there but also a bottle of whiskey. 

For states that prohibit liquor sales in grocery stores, you’ll have to go to a liquor store to purchase canned cocktails or any spirits-based drink. That includes hard seltzers with spirits, like High Noon.

Then there’s another option: online. In many states, as long as you’re 21 or older, you can buy canned cocktails straight from the manufacturer’s website (that will send you to an licensed liquor retailer for actual purchase), via an online liquor store, like Drizly, or from your local liquor store with delivery services, like Total Wine.

How to Store Canned Cocktails

Canned cocktails that are shelf stable likely are made with preservatives and unnatural ingredients, so if you want higher-quality drinks that use real ingredients, look at the expiration date. Either way, you can keep canned cocktails in your bar, pantry or cabinet, but it’s best not to store them in a garage or anywhere they can get too hot or cold. Depending on the drink type, you may want to store them in a refrigerator or at least put them there a couple of hours before you plan to consume or serve them. 

For instance, canned cocktails you plan to pour over ice can remain unrefrigerated, but if you plan to drink them in a chilled glass without ice, it’s a good idea to keep them cold, either in the fridge or an iced cooler. An espresso martini and cosmopolitan are good examples of cocktails traditionally shaken with ice, and served chilled. 

Which Cocktails Should You Try First?

We love that there are so many canned cocktails on the market. It gives consumers an exciting array of types and flavors, so there’s no chance of getting bored. You’ll likely find some interesting options, but we recommend going with the classics first. 

Classic cocktails contain recognizable ingredients and taste like what you’d expect from a bar-quality cocktail. For whiskey lovers, try a canned Old Fashioned, made with bourbon, bitters, syrup and orange zest oil. It’s a perfect balance of flavors that hit every taste bud. Plus, it packs a nice punch.

Crave tequila? You can never go wrong with a traditional margarita made with silver tequila, orange curacao and lime juice. Margarita night has never been easier. Instead of getting out the blender and buying all the ingredients, just shake the can, pop it open and pour over ice. You can enjoy your party instead of being stuck behind the bar.

And what about a coffee house meets bar drink? The espresso martini we mentioned earlier? It’s the hottest cocktail at bars and restaurants right now, so why not try one premade in a can? It contains cold-brewed coffee, vodka and coffee liqueur. Chill the can, shake and pour into a chilled glass. Shake with ice to get that signature espresso martini foam.

Sometimes a fruity rum drink hits the spot. You can go a little outside of the box with a Mai Tai, a tropical drink made with rum, lime juice, orange curacao, almond orgeat and mint. This drink just screams “party time!” and makes a great house cocktail without the fuss of having to make it from scratch. Again, just shake, open and pour over ice. 

And who doesn’t enjoy a daiquiri? These come in all kinds of flavors, but we love ones made with rum, cherry liqueur, lime juice and simple syrup, it’s the perfect beach or poolside drink. You can either shake the can and pour over a glass of ice or shake, pour into a blender with ice and make a frozen daiquiri. 

And what about vodka drinks? The television show Sex and the City made the classic Cosmopolitan uber fashionable, and nothing says chic more than a Cosmo poured into a chilled martini or coup glass. A good one is made with vodka, cranberry and lime juices, and orange curacao. If you want to be extra fancy, garnish the glass with a lime wheel.

Then there’s the  Vodka Gimlet, traditionally made with gin but a nice change of pace if you prefer vodka. Good ones have a  light and refreshing blend of vodka, lime juice, simple syrup and a touch of lemongrass oil. It’s one of those drinks many haven’t tried but instantly love because of it’s simplicity.

If you still prefer gin, try a Southside. It’s a cousin of the Vodka Gimlet but made with London dry gin, lime juice, simple syrup and mint. It’s easy and crisp, perfect for warm weather and good friends.

Whether you want to try canned cocktails yourself or are looking to impress your friends with a gorgeous cocktail variety without the cost, time and hassle of making them yourself, it’s time to jump on the bandwagon. These cute little cans with premium ingredients are a refreshing alternative to cheap, not-so-great, watered-down hard seltzers made with artificial flavors. Buy a premium cocktail online today.