If you’re craving a cocktail but you don’t have a fully stocked bar cart, your only option used to be heading out to a bar or restaurant. But that doesn’t always offer the blissful moment you are after if you just want to kick up your feet with your favorite drink, watch the sunset, or chat with friends without the loud music or crowded atmosphere.
However, today’s growing ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail sector offers an ever-widening array of cocktails that can satisfy any palette. The RTD cocktail market was valued at $18.82B in 2022, and it’s expected to skyrocket up to $33.25B by 2033. So, how can you navigate the market and make sure you’re buying bar-quality drinks you’ll love?
When you’re shopping around for a craft cocktail, make quality your hallmark metric. What drinks taste good? Which brands can you trust to deliver an authentic experience? Who has a wide enough array of cocktail options so you don’t have to constantly be researching different brands? Looking for bartender-quality RTD cocktails isn’t just an arbitrary metric based on personal palettes and what tastes good, either.
Instead, you can use an extensive array of cues that will guide you past sub-par packs of canned cocktails and toward well-crafted, authentic cocktails that can satisfy your thirst for a professional-quality drink. Here are seven ways you can zero in on the right brand by taking into account how high-quality brands should be crafting their canned cocktails.
7 Ways RTD Cocktails Can Be Made With the Same Great Taste as Freshly Mixed Cocktails
The secret to any well-made drink is the care and attention given to every step in the process. This includes everything from producing the ingredients and choosing the right recipe and proportions to how it reaches your hand. Understanding these seven key elements of how bartender-quality RTD cocktails are made will help you find the right can for any occasion.
1. Specialty Canning Methods Allow the Use of 100% Real Lime Juice
RTD cocktails aren’t new, but limitations in the technology held many brands back from creating cocktails that actually tasted great. One of the largest hangups companies encountered was fruit juice. Freshly squeezed, 100% real fruit juice—especially lime juice—doesn’t stay at the pinnacle of freshness for long.
Many companies get around this by instead opting for a cost-effective and longer-lasting option that sacrifices taste for shelf life. The result is metallic cocktails with artificial fruit flavors and a shot of citric acid to try and recreate the zap of citrus. But if you’ve tasted RTD cocktails and been put off by the tinny taste, here’s the solution:
Find a brand that uses specialty canning methods that accommodate real lime juice.
100% real lime juice is completely irreplaceable, and it makes a big difference in drinks like a refreshing and authentic margarita, where lime juice is the star of the show. But this requires custom canning processes that demand more detail and quality control measures. What’s more, real lime juice isn’t meant to last for years, so a short shelf life is a sign of quality on this point.
What to look for:
- Seek out cans that say “100% real lime juice”
- Don’t get distracted by cans that say “real fruit juice” or “natural flavors”—that’s too vague.
- If a can says “100% cranberry juice,” it’s a good indicator that no artificial colorants have been used
2. Craft Cocktails Should Always Use Premium Liqueurs and Bitters That Taste Great
Canned cocktails are often treated like second-tier drinks, and that reputation is frequently deserved. Many mass distributors use basic or substandard liqueurs—they’re good enough to impart the basic flavor or fulfill the requirements of the drink, but they certainly aren’t top-shelf. In fact, many RTD cocktail companies may turn to a combination of artificial flavors, extracts, and sweeteners in lieu of the real thing.
But premium-grade RTD cocktails are made differently. They use the same high-quality liqueurs that you would expect to see in a bar or formal restaurant. While alcohol may be the primary ingredient, well-made cocktails are also made using real coffee, award-winning bitters, and liqueurs imported from top-notch suppliers in Italy. If a brand is cutting corners on sourcing its ingredients, they’re cutting corners on your experience.
What to look for:
- Robust descriptions on the source of the drink’s bitters, syrups, and liqueurs, either right on the can or on the website
- A clearly printed recipe that aligns exactly with the ingredients in the nutritional facts
3. Manufacturers Can Use Top-Grade Liquors That Are Distilled, Stored, and Poured the Right Way
All cocktails need to be made with high-quality liquor, and manufacturers who are committed to their craft know this. The drink that defines this concept is the classic Old Fashioned—mixed up the right way, an Old Fashioned is 90% bourbon. It certainly can’t be made with bottom-of-the-barrel bourbon that’s been artificially aged or made from the wrong blend of grains. Instead, it needs to be finely crafted with high-rye bourbon whiskey that’s been aged for at least three years and pulled straight from its properly sourced barrel.
You know your drink was made the right way when the manufacturer describes what type of bourbon went into the can and discusses the details of the manufacturing process in loving detail. But how do you find this as you’re shopping?
- Buy Old Fashioned cans that tell you the type of bourbon by identifying the grain used to produce it
4. RTD Cocktails Should Always Follow the Real Recipe, Just Like Your Local Mixologists
When food and beverages get mass-manufactured, the recipe often changes. There are preservatives, artificial ingredients, and stabilizers that you’d never find in a home kitchen. While this works for a variety of food ingredients, it doesn’t work for cocktails.
Manufacturers that care about the quality of their cocktails follow the same recipe you’d see a mixologist use as they create an individual drink for you. The drinks are made with liquor, liqueur, bitters, and real fruit juice. The recipe will vary based on the cocktail, not on the circumstances of when the cocktail was made.
You know the manufacturer cares about crafting an authentic cocktail when:
- They print the recipe on the can
- They highlight the proportions, the ingredient sources, and the details
- There are no additional ingredients on the label
5. Bartender-Quality RTD Cocktails Aren’t Meant to Last
You’d never order a cocktail at your favorite bar, take it home, and put it in the refrigerator to enjoy in a couple of days. Well-crafted canned cocktails operate the same way—they aren’t meant to last forever, and they shouldn’t be shelf-stable for years. Being able to ‘stay good’ for years on end indicates that the can is packed with preservatives, fake fruit flavors, and artificial sweeteners. In fact, there is no technology that can preserve real lime juice for years.
Instead, craft cocktail canneries make small batches of goods that align with forecasted sales and then continue to make new batches so they never sit over-long on store shelves. The way to discover a can that prioritizes quality is simple:
- The best by date should be within a year or so of the manufacturing date.
6. Canned Cocktails Should Be Made with the Right Proportions and the Right Strength
Every detail matters when you’re crafting a high-quality cocktail, and mixologists who work on a commercial scale know that just as well as bartenders at five-star hotels and Michelin-star restaurants.
First, every cocktail needs to follow a recipe with very regimented proportions of ingredients. If you’re expecting a 50-proof Mai Tai, that’s what you should get in every sip of every can. The proportion of sweet to bitter to sour matters just as much as the ingredients themselves to round out the flavors and give the cocktail its signature mouthfeel and taste.
To maintain this standard, RTD cocktail manufacturers need to ensure every ingredient has a consistent strength and is added in the right amounts. One way to ensure you get that consistent experience is to choose brands that make small batches. This allows for far more granular control over the composition of every can. Ideally, all of their processing, mixing, and canning will happen within an in-house facility for even more quality control.
Look for these attributes:
- Brands that create small-batch cocktails
- Cans that clearly state the alcohol level
- Cans that clearly state the recipe and proportion of every ingredient
- 100 ml per can—this is the right size for both bar cocktails and canned cocktails
7. Craft RTD Cocktails Are Made to Win Competitions
Bartender-quality RTD cocktails are ultimately made to taste great. But since great taste can be a subjective experience—and you don’t want to experiment with dozens of different brands—you can easily circumvent this potential issue by following expert recommendations.
If bartender-quality RTD cocktails taste great and use authentic ingredients, you’ll find them winning gold, platinum, and silver at mixologist competitions around the country. Two gold-standard competitions you can use to streamline your shopping are the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the SIP International Spirits Competition. Canned cocktails that win awards at these high-caliber events are certainly worth tasting.
Finding Your Favorite Cocktail Is a Breeze with Post Meridiem
When you’re looking for quality, start by sipping the very best. Post Meridiem’s selection of authentic craft cocktails is mixed and developed by people who appreciate freshly-made cocktails, and we work hard to make sure each of our cans has that bartender-quality taste. You’ll see that commitment in every list of ingredients, every place we source our ingredients from, and every can that details its top-shelf ingredients and 100% real everything. Order some of your favorite cocktails online or find them in a store near you.