For a cocktail once referred to as one “only a local could love,” the dead-simple Ranch Water may seem a surprising candidate for national stardom. But since Punch first reported on the West Texas staple in 2016, the drink has exploded in popularity; it’s now lauded as a better take on hard seltzer, a cocktail “sweeping the nation,” a new muse for the canned cocktail boom, and, for some, the drink of the summer.
Ranch Water has long been beloved in its native Texas, making an appearance on menus at historic destinations and ice houses like the Gage Hotel and Ranch 616. In its simplest form, it’s a thirst-quenching combination of tequila, lime juice and Topo Chico—for Ranch Water devotees, no other brand will do. By some accounts, when made with any other sparkling water, the drink is simply a tequila rickey, undeserving of the Ranch Water name. Topo, a Mexican mineral water that has amassed a cult following, sometimes serves as the drink’s vessel, too, as it is often built directly in the bottle.
At Dallas mezcalería Las Almas Rotas, the house Ranch Water can be made with tequila, mezcal or sotol. Owner Shad Kvetko says the best versions of the drink feature solely the spirit, fresh-squeezed lime juice and carbonated mineral water. (While he prefers Topo, the bar has had to turn to other options due to pandemic shortages.) As a purveyor of agave-based drinks, Kvetko says Ranch Water is “a good vehicle for these spirits because of its simplicity and—at least the way we make it—a lack of sugar.”
That simplicity might appeal for other reasons, too. Ranch Water has been referred to as a “healthier Margarita” (hear that, Skinny Margarita?) because it happens to forgo a sweetener. “Tequila was and continues to be on fire, and consumers started looking for more premium ingredients without the sugar,” says Monique Ramos, brand director for Ranch Rider Spirits, the company that made the first of now many canned Ranch Water brands. According to her, the cocktail, with its fresh citrus and reposado tequila, is “a perfect upgrade to a hard seltzer.”
When simple drinks become the object of bartender fascination, some, like Kvetko, take the opportunity to source the very best ingredients for the sparse build, while others begin a quest for the most technical and complex take, breaking down each element. It’s down this path that you might find new takes on Ranch Water employing fat-washing, infusion and mineral dissolution.
At Portland, Oregon, bar Holy Ghost, the Siete is the most popular of nine house Ranch Water riffs. Made with coconut-washed tequila and fresh pineapple and lime juice, the drink reads like “a tequila Piña Colada soda,” according to bar manager Sid Chi. Another variation on the menu, the Ocho, sports a bright pink color thanks to its base of mezcal infused with hibiscus-raspberry tea, made bubbly with soda water.
Other riffs on the format play with the citrus element. At Porchlight in New York, the large-format house Ranch Water employs a “Kitchen Sink Cordial” made from the bar’s leftover lemon and lime wedges from the night before, plus sugar, water and lactic acid. Houston bar Eight Row Flint’s Ranch Water, meanwhile, turns to a fragrant lime oleo saccharum for added brightness, bolstered by a grapefruit garnish. In Brooklyn, Leyenda’s Ranch Water also incorporates an oleo saccharum—this time, made with sage and lime peels—for herbaceousness, while fino sherry complements its Topo Chico topper’s minerality.
Outside of Texas, however, Topo Chico can still be difficult to find. According to James Simpson, beverage director for Destination Unknown Restaurants, “It took us quite a while to get Topo Chico [at Espita, one of the group’s restaurants]… because it wasn’t distributed in Washington, D.C., when we opened.”
While some bars turn to alternative options, such as Mineragua or Agua de Piedra, Simpson sought to more precisely capture the prescribed mineral water’s flavor, creating a proprietary house blend with minerals known to be in Topo Chico, such as calcium chloride, gypsum and chalk.
Then, “we thought, ‘What other iconic cocktails would be improved by Topo Chico?’” Simpson recalls. The Martini, a drink already diluted when stirred, was prime for the mineral water treatment, and thus the Ranch Water–inspired TBD Martini was born. (Now Espita has access to the mineral water, so sometimes the mineral element comes directly from the bottle, uncarbonated). Like the bar’s Ranch Waters—its go-to recipe for the West Texas classic adds a splash of Combier’s Pamplemousse Rose liqueur—the TBD Martini is served with a mini bottle of Topo Chico on the side.
The rise of the simple Ranch Water represents a larger shift in American taste. For Kvetko, the drink is a gateway to understanding quality and responsibly sourced agave spirits; for Chi, it’s a way to introduce customers to serves outside of the tequila-sodas they typically call for; and for Simpson, it’s a signifier that minerality and salinity are becoming more prevalent considerations in cocktail recipe development.
But the drink is not only a bartender fixation: Ranch Water’s easy-drinking nature and easily accessible components make it a popular at-home option (or even an on-the-go move, thanks to the many ready-to-drink cans now available). The explanation for Ranch Waters’ growing fan base is as straightforward as the cocktail: “Their popularity has to do with them being a simple, approachable and refreshing drink,” says Kvetko.