When you crack open a can of soda, the first flavor you get is a sugar rush—and that’s just fine for soda. But when you come home and open a canned cocktail, that’s not what you’re looking for. Instead, the crisp lime of a margarita or the undercurrent of herbal bite in a Manhattan should be what’s shining through. But for many canned cocktails, sugar is doing a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to taste and appeal, so these brighter or more nuanced flavors get drowned out.
Even when you switch to low-sugar varieties, it can be hard to find drinks that let the herbal edges, acidic clarity, or the dark, grainy notes of the alcohol take center stage. You’re left wanting something real rather than artificial sweeteners. However, delicious low sugar canned cocktails are out there.
Whether you’re worried about drinking your calories or you’re looking for a break from sugary-sweet drinks, it’s simple to comb through the canned drink market and find your favorite cocktails done right. We’ll walk through the hows and whys of avoiding “low-sugar” drinks that simply switch out the sugar for something else. Then we’ll give you the field guide to finding high-quality drinks that are low on sugar, zero on fake sugars, and high on real flavor.
Beware of Low Sugar Canned Cocktails That Rely on Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners have been a boon and a curse in equal measure. They’ve opened up the market so more people can have sweet things while avoiding excess sugar, but they’ve also saturated the market to the point where some things are simply too sweet to be delicious. Everyone has their own stance on the taste, sufficiency, and safety of fake sugars—it tastes metallic, there’s no difference, it seems cold, etc.—but there are some objective truths about low sugar canned cocktails that lean on artificial sweeteners.
WHO’s on Aspartame
Both the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have recently released news about aspartame that has made people wary. WHO has described aspartame—one of the first and most popular artificial sweeteners—as “possibly carcinogenic.” That’s not a death knell on artificial sugar; the research was limited, and there’s still more science to be done. The safe daily consumption threshold set by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) is certainly high enough that most people won’t reach it.
Knowing where science stands is part of being an educated consumer. If you’re concerned about the developing buzz around liver cancer or continuing conversations about insulin spikes from artificial sweeteners, there are enough canned cocktails on the market to help you stay firm on that stance.
Overly Sweet Drinks Might Be Masking Fake Juices and Low-Quality Ingredients
For many people, artificial sweeteners taste and function just like sugar, and that’s great. But all it does is provide a sweet taste, and some canned cocktails rely on that to hide how the other ingredients don’t taste quite right. Some of the biggest flavor compromises low sugar canned cocktails can make are:
- That fruit juice funk: Lime juice is difficult for mass manufacturers to put in a can. So they often don’t. Instead, they add lime extract or lime flavoring and a hint of citric acid to mimic it. But you can taste the difference in its hollow, metallic bite when there’s no sugar to mask it—and you might even be able to taste it around the sugar.
- Where’d that liqueur come from?: Liqueurs add sweetness to cocktails, but they do so with a combination of nutty, fruity, and tart flavors. Good cocktails use good liqueurs, and bad cocktails use bad ones (or a combination of synthetic chemicals that aren’t liqueurs at all).
- Bottom of the barrel, not top-shelf: Many canned cocktails don’t use premium liquor. In the past, that made sense; the canning process would make the alcohol slightly off anyway, and people were buying convenience instead of flavor. But now, with proprietary canning practices that protect the cocktail’s ingredients and flavors, convenience doesn’t have to come with compromises. Canned cocktails should always use properly aged whiskeys, high-quality tequilas, and real bitters. Artificial sweeteners often hide when brands aren’t doing that.
Artificially Sweet Drinks Aren’t Bartender-Quality
Ultimately, a drink that has an artificial sweetener isn’t bartender-quality. Difford’s Guide says a cosmopolitan has triple sec and cranberry juice, not xylitol or maltitol. Even when a recipe like a daiquiri calls for sugar syrup, artificial sweeteners can recrystallize and lack richness.
By and large, bartender-quality drinks should have as few ingredients as possible to achieve the final complex flavor, not a long paragraph of additions, and each ingredient should be delicious. If you wouldn’t accept it at a bar, you shouldn’t have to accept it at home.
How to Find Low Sugar Canned Cocktails You’ll Truly Enjoy
Artificial sweeteners are the secret behind many low sugar canned cocktails, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re searching for a satisfying drink but want to avoid high levels of sugar and any trace of fake sugar, explore the wide market of ready-to-drink cocktails with these guidelines:
Enjoy Drinks That Aren’t Sweet From the Start
This is an easy approach, but it’s one that is just as easy to forget. The great thing about cocktails is that they don’t have to be sweet to be delicious. Here are some iconic cocktails that fall outside of ‘sweet’ into ‘crisp, rich, and complex.’
- Espresso Martini: The sharp and rich mix of coffee and vodka takes center stage here. While the coffee liqueur has sugar, good martinis won’t let it be more than a quarter of the total cocktail.
- Margarita: This classic is dominated by tequila and lime juice, with just a bit of sweetness.
- Old Fashioned: There’s some demerara syrup, but it’s all about the whiskey and bitters
Shop for Drinks With Real Ingredients, Like Real Fruit Juices
When you’re in the mood for something sweet, that doesn’t mean you have to make do with either sugar or artificial sweeteners. Instead, opt for drinks that get their sweetness from real fruit juices and sugar that is as unprocessed as possible. Look for cans that stick to these ingredients:
- 100% real lime juice: Southsides, vodka gimlets, mai tais, and more all include lime juice. When your beverage includes real lime juice that’s been carefully canned, you get its bright freshness and little zip of sweetness. Artificial lime juice is comprised of extract and citric acid (and sometimes even more sweetener).
- 100% real cranberry juice: Cosmopolitans are all about the fruit flavors. Real cranberry juice adds tartness and a bit of sugar. Fake cranberry substitutes often pile on the sugar.
- Cane syrup: Some drinks include simple syrups and sugar in the Difford-approved recipe. When you do want a sweet cocktail, look for brands that say the source of the sugar and don’t make do with industrial substitutes.
Search for Brands That Know High-Quality Sweet Drinks Don’t Need Much Sugar Added to the Mix
Searching through the ingredient labels and recipes of each canned cocktail on the market can be a drag. Instead, go a level higher and look for brands that are committed to creating great-tasting, authentic drinks.
Brands serving bartender-quality drinks in a can won’t rely on preservatives and low-sugar alternatives—and they won’t be quiet about their high standards either. When companies are winning awards at contests like the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, you know they aren’t trying to fool you or the judges with unnecessary sugar.
Savor the Proportions
Another trick to identifying high-quality cocktails is to look at the proportions. Great cocktails put the alcohol in the spotlight. They’re supposed to be strong. Look for cans where the liquor gets top billing and, preferably, they tell you the proportions right on the front of the label instead of hiding it on the back.
This trick does more than let you know when you’re holding a properly strong cocktail. When a company can comfortably make whiskey, vodka, or tequila one of the biggest proportions of the drink, you know they’re using a high-quality source that tastes good on its own—they don’t need sweeteners to mask it.
Go for Variety and Explore Your Palate
If chocolate martinis, pina coladas, and mimosas are your jam but you’re trying to make a change without relying on artificial sweeteners, it’s hard to find an acceptable substitute. So turn your search into a tasty adventure. Find a brand that hits all of these quality checkmarks—no fake sugar, real ingredients, strong proportions—and get a variety pack. You might just find yourself happily replacing that mimosa with a margarita or the chocolate martini with an espresso one.
The Way Low Sugar Canned Cocktails Were Meant to Be
Low-sugar alternatives are everywhere on the market, and we’re not going to say that’s a terrible thing. A wide-open market of different cocktail calibers and compositions means everyone can find their favorite. But when you know you want low sugar without the “low sugar,” order your next cocktail from Post Meridiem. We specialize in tasty RTD spirits across the sweet and bitter spectrum, and when they have sugar at all, it’s in the form of real fruit juice and high-quality sources. Find us online and see where you can pick up some authentic low sugar canned cocktails.