You’ve likely noticed there is a beverage trend that seemed to have appeared overnight. While America’s love for something different has, in fact, been brewing for some time, we can thank COVID-19 for helping these fastest-growing ready-to-drink beverages take on a life of its own. We’re talking about the canned cocktail revolution. With so many to now choose from, how do you find the best canned cocktails without trying a slew of really bad ones?
Once you’ve tried a great canned cocktail, you’ll see just how awful some of the ready-to-drink options are. Canned cocktails are simply premade cocktails in a can, and they can be different from the more recognizable hard seltzers and spritzers you’re seeing prominently displayed at grocery and convenience stores. The main difference? The primary ingredients.
Are Hard Seltzers Considered Cocktails?
Hard seltzers and spritzers are mostly malt-based or wine-based. These hard seltzers contain no vodka, tequila or any other real spirit, despite the labeling sometimes being a bit fuzzy. In fact, hard seltzers are a beer-like product and are made similarly with malt, although hard seltzer has more carbonation than beer. Hard seltzers contain water, sugar, yeast and flavoring. No distilled spirits mean it’s not a traditional cocktail.
According to WineEnthusiast, “Hard seltzers are categorized as a flavored malt beverage, or FMB…but the main fermentable source is usually sugar. Topo Chico Hard Seltzer doesn’t feature actual tequila, for example, but rather an alcoholic sugar base. Producers often use cane sugar or dextrose and mix it with warm water to create a sugar wash. The base is then pitched with yeast to begin fermentation.”
And while hard seltzers were all the rage a few years ago and gobbled up market share, sales have declined 5.5% in the past year, according to NielsenIQ. This drop is the likely driver behind why so many companies, even those already in the hard seltzer market, are swapping out that sugar base for spirits, like vodka. At the very least, they’re adding spirits-based canned cocktails to their product line. There’s good reason.
Consumer tastes are changing. CNBC recently published an article on the topic, saying, “Hard seltzer’s lost its novelty as consumers have been distracted by many new beyond-beer products entering a hyper crowded marketplace,” and “More beer companies recognize that beverage alcohol consumers are gravitating toward spirits and choosing convenient ready-to-drink products made with premium spirits.”
When you compare hard seltzers with canned cocktails made with premium spirits, there really is no comparison. The best canned cocktails taste like what you’d order at a bar or make yourself, not the bitter, watered-down flavor you often get with a hard seltzer. And man, are premium canned cocktails easier and more convenient than making a cocktail yourself.
Sure, it can be fun to stand behind the bar and play mixologist for your guests. But when it comes down to it, most people don’t want to pay to stock and maintain a full bar, and they want to enjoy the party and make sure people aren’t waiting in line for a drink. Oh, and who wants to transport all the ingredients to make Old Fashioned at a tailgate or beach party when you can crack open a premixed cocktail that’s made as well as a top-shelf cocktail?
How to Find the Best Canned Cocktails
The beauty of canned cocktails is that they are relatively inexpensive, save you from buying all the ingredients, take zero time to make, and can travel. Many brands offer a wide variety of classic cocktails, so you can buy some of each to have fun options to try. So, how do you find the best canned cocktails?
First, look at the ingredients. If you see anything on the ingredients that you wouldn’t have stocked in your bar or see a reputable bar using, skip it. There are too many great canned cocktails that craft their drinks the right way for you to settle.
Look for premium spirits, like silver tequila, liqueurs and bitters. Look, too, for how they label their citrus. Many say “lime juice”, for instance, but few actually use 100% real lime juice because it’s incredibly difficult to do so.
Once citrus oxidizes, it quickly loses flavor. Many canned cocktails are carbonated (oxygen) and/or have oxygen present in the cans. To ensure the tart, citrusy flavor of real fruits, they choose to use natural flavorings or extracts that taste like the real thing. This seemingly small difference is actually a big one because nothing replaces the flavor of real citrus. Only manufacturers that go the extra mile to strip out all oxygen from their canned cocktails can claim real citrus juice. So, unless the label says “100% real lime juice”, for instance, you may want to rethink buying it.
Let’s go back to the carbonation point. Sure, a vodka soda or a gin and tonic you order or make has carbonation. But does a margarita? A daiquiri? Not likely. Look at the label and see if it lists carbonated water as an ingredient. If so, it’s not the real thing—unless, of course, carbonated water is in the classic recipe.
Some Great Canned Cocktails to Try First
Now that you know what to look for, the rest is all about taste, and that can be quite subjective. You can take people’s word for it and try whatever they recommend, you can see what the experts say, or you can forge your own trail and sample what interests you.
Here are some of the best canned cocktails that repeatedly get rave reviews:
High Noon Spirits
High Noon is considered a hard seltzer but is one of those companies that chose to replace the sugar base (malt) with real vodka they say has been distilled five times for the smoothest flavor. You’ve likely heard of High Noon’s parent company, E&J Gallo Winery—not exactly industry newbies. VinePair ranked their grapefruit vodka soda as fifth out of its 30 Best Hard Seltzers of 2021, and if you ask around, you’ll find many consumers agree. Their base is vodka with fruit juice, sparkling water and natural flavors. They’re not too sweet and don’t have the typical artificial aftertaste found in many hard seltzers. No matter the flavor you choose, and there are several of them, they each come in at 4.5% ABV (9 proof).
Post Meridiem Cocktails
The Post Meridiem “Into the Night” Espresso Martini won Best of Class ready-to-drink Classic Cocktail at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, one of the most prestigious and respected global spirits competitions. Ingredients include 100% arabica dark roast cold brew coffee, vodka and coffee liqueur, all of which pack a punch at 22.5% ABV (45 proof). Their Double Old Fashioned is even stouter (37% ABC and 74 proof), made with straight bourbon whiskey, a blend of three bitters, demerara syrup and orange zest oil. It earned second place in the same category at the same competition, giving the Atlanta-based company bragging rights for the two best canned cocktails in the world. With those accolades, you can’t go wrong trying their entire line of canned cocktails.
Cutwater, owned by Anheuser-Busch, has an array of canned cocktails, many of which have earned awards from the ADI International Spirits Competition, the LA Spirits Invitational, and the Denver International Spirits Competition, just to name a few. In fact, they claim they own the most award-winning canned cocktail brand. From their Mild Bloody Mary and Strawberry Margarita to their Vodka Mule and White Russian, their 25-canned cocktail lineup includes tequila, vodka, rum and whiskey-based varieties. ABV ranges from 5% to 14%, 10 proof to 28 proof, respectively. What’s interesting about Cutwater is that the company began as a distillery, so all of their spirits in their canned cocktails are homemade.
Like Cutwater, Cazadores began as a distillery, crafting and bottling award-winning tequilas in Mexico. Seeing the opportunity in the ready-to-drink beverage industry, it began canning cocktails with its 100% Blue Weber Agave Tequila Cazadores. Its Paloma won Best of Class Tequila/Agave Based Cocktail at the 2022 San Francisco World Spirits Competition, and is “highly recommended” by sites like Tastings.com. Besides tequila, its Paloma is made with natural flavors and grapefruit soda, coming in at 5.9% ABV (about 12 proof). The company doesn’t yet have an extensive line of canned cocktails, but you can find regular and spicy margaritas alongside its Paloma.
The Finnish Long Drink
The Finnish Long Drink comes to the U.S. from Finland, where it is the not only the best selling category of liquor, but the long drink recipe is also considered the national drink of Finland. It won Gold Medals at the New York International Spirits Competition, the American Distilling Institute, and the Proof Awards, and Shanken News called it one of 2022’s top performers in the spirits industry. Made with spirits and sparkling citrus, the company offers four flavors, from 5% ABV (10 proof) to 8.5% ABV (17 proof).
There isn’t a shortage of options when it comes to finding the best canned cocktails, but the few highlighted here give you a starting point. Try some at home, fill up a cooler with different varieties when you’re on the go, and share with friends. You’ll skip the hassles of making scratch cocktails and get to enjoy the fruits of someone else’s labor. Cheers to easier yet equally awesome cocktails!