Ready-to-drink beverages (or RTDs, as we like to say) have grown exponentially in recent times. Besides varying widely in quality, there are entirely different categories within this segment that it’s important to distinguish between. In this way, you’ll actually have a chance to make a decision you’ll be happy with when you’re browsing at the local store or thinking about clicking “buy” online. When it comes to RTDs, we’re interested in ready-to-drink canned cocktails.
Not All RTDs Are Created Equally
Distiller is dedicated to spirits, after all. That’s what canned cocktails contain — actual distilled alcohol. RTD cocktails are therefore not interchangeable with something such as a canned wine spritzer. More importantly, this does not include the vast world of seltzers and hard seltzers, wherein the cheapest available sugar is fermented as efficiently as possible, dosed with flavoring and carbonated.
The problem here however, is not only do these products vaguely hint that they belong together, they’re also often stocked on the shelf right next to one another. Our suggestion is to always look at the ingredient list to see if it includes spirits or not. More power to you if the hard seltzers of the world are up your alley. We’ll stick to canned cocktails incorporating something, anything, that came off a still and actually resembles a real-world cocktail.
Distilleries Enter the Canned Cocktail Game
Did you ever wonder why brewing giant Anheuser-Busch decided to acquire Cutwater Spirits, a distillery in San Diego? Because Cutwater has become a powerhouse in canned cocktails. Behind the shiny copper stills at the front of Cutwater’s distillery, the warehouse is a hub of activity. Massive, multi-colored pallets stretch from floor to industrial-height ceiling with tens and tens of thousands of cans in every direction.
All of Cutwater’s canned cocktails include real spirit, though it’s not all distilled in-house. The brand couldn’t possibly provide the scale to make all of its RTD flavors while producing spirits for sale. Needless to say it isn’t distilling the tequila it uses, for instance. Flavors are diverse, and while standards like Margaritas, Mules and Palomas come well regarded, there are some surprises in there. A canned White Russian? My hesitant grimace turned into a smile after my first sip. A Long Island Iced Tea, made with vodka, rum, gin and tequila? The can bills it as “the one you’ll remember,” and it isn’t wrong; it’s a tasty take on the infamous specialty that won’t turn out your lights.
If I had to choose my favorite canned cocktail line though, I wouldn’t hesitate to name Novo Fogo’s Sparkling Caipirinhas. Flavors include Original Lime, Passion Fruit and Lime and Mango and Lime. All are bright, refreshing and eminently crushable. Each is made with a base of Novo Fogo’s organic Silver Cachaça and includes all natural ingredients. They clock in at 8.2% ABV and come in 200ml cans.
Large Brands Too
All of this is in addition to a growing collection of legacy multinational brands entering the mix. Think Jack Daniel’s canned Whiskey & Cola, and canned Ketel One Botanical Vodka Spritzes. One interesting option I was pleasantly surprised with was the Tia Maria Iced Coffee Frappe. Though neutral spirit is the base, any type of spirit is better than none. And at 4% ABV with a creamy texture, it’s an ideal choice for brunch or for bridging the gap between needing a bit more energy to finish off the workday before sliding into happy hour.
Bottled Cocktails: Distillery Product Line Add-ons
Another increasingly popular format is a bottled RTD cocktail straight from a distillery. As opposed to the largely-carbonated world of canned cocktails, some of which might include fruit juices in addition to a soda or tonic or another sparkling component, these shelf-stable spirituous cocktails are ready to be put on ice and sipped from a glass. Think bold, stirred drinks; the types of which you’d order up from a craft cocktail joint in town, whenever it is next that you’re sitting at the bar. Keep them on the bar cart, or load them up in the freezer, and you have a pre-batched party ready to go.
Minnesota’s Tattersall Distilling is a great example. Last fall the brand released a Bottled Manhattan made with its straight rye whiskey and Italiano-Style Liqueur. There’s also a Bottled Old Fashioned as well. Both are bottled at 35% ABV and available in full-size 750ml bottles.
The Family Jones
Another standout to consider is The Family Jones in Colorado. The distillery already had a Rock & Rye on the market — a category which is essentially both a spirit and a ready-to-go cocktail at the same time — and fleshed out a lineup of bottled cocktails including a Gin Martini, Cosmopolitan and Smoky Old Fashioned.
Utah-based High West takes things a step further by not only bottling its cocktails, but barrel-finishing them. Two of its barrel-finished cocktails to consider are a Manhattan and Old Fashioned, each of which are composed and then put into the barrel for its ingredients to marry together before bottling.
Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey is also worth a look. The brand has a full lineup including a Manhattan, a Sazerac, and both a bourbon and rye Old Fashioned. The newest addition is its bottled Saffron Negroni made with the distillery’s Dutch-style Gin, Amaro Vermut, and Saffron Amaro. It’s bottled at 30% ABV in 750ml bottles.
Don Ciccio & Figli
Washington D.C. liqueur and amaro producer Don Ciccio & Figli unveiled a full lineup of bottled cocktails dubbed La Perla, including a Negroni Classico and Negroni Bianco Oro, Cherry Manhattan, Walnut Old Fashioned and Fennel Sazerac, in addition to an Ambrosia Spritz canned cocktail. The bottled options come in four packs of 200ml bottles, so you get a bit more than a full 750ml bottle, but in smaller formats where freshness isn’t a concern after opening. It’s a great way to have high-end liqueurs in a crafty format you would otherwise be mixing up on your own after purchase.
Craft Cocktail Entrants
Besides bottled and canned cocktails made by distilleries, there’s also a huge collection of options from standalone brands.
Another recommended option is Siponey, co-founded by industry vet Amanda Victoria. Siponey Royale is made with four year old New York rye whiskey, wildflower honey and lemon juice, coming in at 7.25% ABV. The flavor and carbonation are both dialed in and delivered in a way that doesn’t compromise on taste experience for the sake of convenience. A newer addition to the lineup is Siponey Cafe, with cold brew coffee joining the fold with rye, honey, and lemon. Notably, a portion of proceeds from all Siponey sales goes towards saving honeybees.
Social Hour actually brings the bar world and the distilling world together, with Julie Reiner and Tom Macy of the former combining with the likes of New York Distilling Company from the latter. NYDC spirit goes into its Whiskey Mule (10.5% ABV) made with Ragtime Straight Rye Whiskey, and its Gin & Tonic (11.5% ABV) with Perry’s Tot Navy Strength Gin. The brand also has a Pacific Spritz clocking in at 8% ABV. All three flavors are highly successful.
Needless to say, there are scores of others out there. Next time you’re ready for a RTD cocktail, I’d encourage you to see what the local distilleries and bars in your area are offering. Or consider placing an order online from one of the above brands in places where shipping is available. These bottled and canned cocktails we’ve mentioned are far better than reaching for the mass marketed, artificial seltzer du jour.
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