What Makes the Best Canned Cocktails?

The White-Hot Canned Cocktail Market 

Canned cocktails are everywhere—from grocery and convenience store fridges to liquor stores, restaurants and bars. The ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail market is booming, valued at $853.2 million in 2021 with an expected CAGR of 13.4% from 2022 to 2030.

Americans, in particular, are always looking for something new, and canned cocktails are the newest shiny toy. While beer and wine will likely always own the alcoholic beverage market, cocktails in a can (or bottle) are making their mark, and consumers are stepping out of their comfort zones.

Unlike some fads, there’s reason to believe this new territory will hold their interest for the long haul. Increasingly more beer, wine and spirits companies see the potential and are jumping on the canned cocktail bandwagon to stake their claim. There is no shortage of flavors and varieties from which consumers can choose. Everything from mango wine spritzers and margarita-style seltzers to full-strength Old Fashioneds and espresso martinis are already on store shelves, with more arriving daily.

As a consumer, this cornucopia of options is fun and adventurous, but there are stark differences between these beverages, and some are focused on quality more than a quick buzz.

What’s in a Can?

Shakespeare may have said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but when it comes to canned cocktails, nothing could be further from the truth. There are specific checklist items that make a truly fantastic canned cocktail, and as with many rush-to-market products, many cocktails in a can are a tragedy, at least for discriminating tastes.

What makes a great canned cocktail is the very same as what makes a great bar cocktail: real ingredients at the right proportions and strength. This authentic cocktail trifecta is sadly missing from the vast majority of canned cocktails. Let’s take a look at each of these more closely.

Real Ingredients

The term “real” has lost its punch because it’s so overused, like its close relatives, “natural” and “healthy.” When we say real here, we are referring to no artificial ingredients. Of course, that means no food coloring, no artificial flavors and sweeteners, no artificial preservatives, and no stabilizers like gums and glycerine. You wouldn’t dream of using those ingredients in your own bar, yet that, right there, takes out a significant portion of canned cocktails. 

Wine Enthusiast says, “In general, a wide range of ingredients are added or removed from canned cocktails for safety and shelf stability. Citrus tends to degrade and oxidize, so a complex mix of acids, sweeteners, flavorings and colorings may be used to reconstruct the effect of lemon or lime.”

But we can go further than that. “Real” here also means real spirits, just like the ones you’d find in the premium aisle at a liquor store. The majority of cocktails in a can today contain alcohol produced in a brewing process similar to beer but not the kind of distilled spirits you’d find in a premium liquor bottle. It’s much cheaper for manufacturers to produce a malt beverage or use a liquor concentrate, but the primary reason for this low-quality alcohol choice is that the resulting beverage can be sold as a beer-like product in grocery and convenience stores, taxed at a lower rate than spirits.

A true, bar-quality canned cocktail contains premium distilled spirits, liqueurs, bitters, and 100% real juice—again, just like you’d stock in your own bar or expect to find at a restaurant or bar. The companies that truly care about quality will also go the extra mile to source the finest of these ingredients.

And while companies say their beverages with citrus flavors contain juice, such as in a canned margarita, unless the ingredients specify “100% real juice”, you’re likely consuming colored citric acid. Citrus juices in standard 12 oz cans and bottles quickly become oxidized and aren’t shelf-stable, so most manufacturers add citric acid or other similar acids to avoid bacteria and to reconstitute the citrusy flavor.

Companies who strive to create a true craft cocktail, like Post Meridiem and Drynxmyth, have found creative and effective ways to ensure their cocktails stay fresh without sacrificing quality ingredients.

Post Meridiem Spirits discovered an innovative way to strip out the oxygen from its citrus juices and package the beverage in a way that eliminates oxygen contamination to protect flavor. It’s the only way the company can stand behind its “100% real lime juice” labeling on its margarita cans. They also use real tequila and real orange curacao—nothing else. No artificial anything, no seltzer, colorings or preservatives. Just the same high-quality, top-shelf cocktail you’d order or make yourself. And they devote the same attention to the ingredients in their entire line of canned cocktails.

Right Proportions

We’ve all tasted a cocktail where the ingredient proportions aren’t quite right. Add a little too much liquor, and you get the “Whoa!” reaction. Add too much citrus or bitters, and you get the “Whew” pucker. And too much sweetness often leads to having to add more of everything else to try to balance it out, or toss it all together and start over.

The best mixologists know that next to quality ingredients, a proper cocktail has the perfect proportions of alcohol to all other ingredients, depending on the cocktail type. Typically, with canned cocktails, the larger the can, the more “off” the proportions. 

Let’s take hard seltzers, for instance. Most come in standard 12 fl oz cans, or thereabouts. Only a small fraction of the liquid in the can is alcohol. And even less is typically “juice.” Most of it is artificially-carbonated seltzer or club soda. Some manufacturers use sparkling agave wine instead, adding flavors to create a “spritzer.” These beverages may be ideal for those who prefer a more subtle, drinkable versus sippable option, much like beer, but if you’re looking for the real thing, you’re better off with a cocktail that’s made just like a real cocktail.

Right Strength

Now, we get to strength. Just as the small cans have little room for fillers, some can also pack a punch when it comes to the alcohol strength, with many coming in at 20% or higher ABV. Again, a bartender typically uses 1.5 – 3 ounces of alcohol to make a standard-sized drink. They then add the rest of the ingredients, shake, and pour over ice in an 8-ounce glass. If done properly, the drink will be perfectly balanced. The same should go for the best canned cocktails. 

The Guardian says that when crafting the perfect cocktail, the most important ingredient is the alcohol, saying, “A proper cocktail should not disguise its booziness; it should celebrate it. As a rule of thumb, a cocktail is 50ml of the “base” spirit (that’s a double shot).” The rest is typically ice and a mixer. And as far as the mixers, they should always be fresh, no sodas or mixes, and keep it simple with only a few simple ingredients. It should taste good from the first sip to the last. Guzzling one after another isn’t what you’re going for here.

Not only will a full-strength canned cocktail taste like the real thing, but it also provides a clue as to whether the manufacturer used preservatives. Unlike food manufacturers, beer, wine and spirits brands aren’t required to disclose their ingredients. Wine Enthusiast provides a hint, however. They point out that the alcohol content dictates whether preservatives are required to keep the beverage safe to drink, with any drink that is less than 10% ABV needing preservatives to prevent microbial growth. 

If you look at the ABV on most larger cans, you will find it to be in the 4 – 10% range, much less than what you would find in a mixed cocktail at a bar or prepared by you. So, if you’re wanting a bar-like drink experience with authenticity, check the ingredients and ABV to see if they are equivalent.

What About the Can?

We’ve mentioned the size of the can, but when comparing canned cocktails, packaging most definitely makes a difference. So much so, that some manufacturers like Post Meridiem spent a significant amount of time and investment in their 100 ml cans to protect the flavor and keep their canned cocktails authentic, which meant building their own production facility and system. 

The smaller cans do just that, eliminating oxygen (and, therefore, preservatives) and being fashioned in just the right size to effectively hold the exact ingredients you or an establishment would use. While the “cute” cans may look like a marketing ploy, it’s actually a pretty ingenious engineering feat that’s all about providing the best taste. That dedication to quality shows just how much authenticity matters to the company.

Want to taste the best canned cocktail? Find where you can get your hands on a Post Meridiem canned cocktail.