Just last fall, we declared that the future would be canned. At the time, Big Beer had long since ceded dominion over the aluminum vessel to craft brewers, who in turn were competing with hard seltzer—both big (White Claw) and small (Evil Twin)—and a growing, yet at the time insubstantial, crop of ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails. Today, that crop has yielded a glut. With no shortage of zeitgeisty, eye-catching RTDs on the shelves, there’s never been a better moment to parse the good from the bad.
In our recent tasting of more than 70 RTDs, it became clear quite quickly to the panelists (myself, Punch editor in chief Talia Baiocchi, Llama Inn bar director Lynnette Marrero and bartender Jack Schramm) that the proposition of a canned cocktail is not as simple as putting a cocktail in a can. It takes an understanding of how extracts, acids and clarification impact flavor to translate the experience of an à la minute creation into a shelf-stable product. But even the most discerning producers are at the mercy of their respective flavor houses, and can struggle to translate a delicious idea into a drinkable reality. This is no doubt why some brands, even those attached to recognizable industry names, have missed the mark, eliciting tasting notes ranging from “smells like a vintage store” to “literal poison.” Of the dozens sampled, almost all were met with a reaction akin to “This would be better if…”
Perhaps this is, in part, why our winning lineup features a number of RTDs released by spirits producers themselves. For those brands who already possess a deep familiarity with the star ingredient, it’s often only a matter of topping with soda to create something craveable and refreshing that resonates with drinkers.
As the tasting wore on, a notion that was clear beforehand grew glaringly apparent: Certain cocktails are simply not suited to the grab-and-go format. The Mai Tai belongs in its mug; the Mojito is nothing without freshly muddled mint. Conversely, drinks of a spritzy nature fared exceptionally well as did simple mixtures like the Gin & Tonic or Tequila & Soda, despite the feeling that a two-ingredient cocktail might be more easily and economically procured by making it oneself.
Three hours and dozens of cans later, consensus was reached. It’s worth noting that for this tasting we did not include hard seltzer, and in every case stuck to the serving suggestions, opting for the straight-from-the-can pour rather than on the rocks (although many would have benefited from the extra dilution). If instructions called for stirring in a mixing glass, the cocktail was disqualified as it was not, in fact, ready-to-drink. Below is our selection of the cans (and bottle!) that left us wanting another sip.