There’s nothing new about the ready-to-drink category. Gen X had its wine coolers and Gen Z has its hard seltzer. But the pandemic put canned cocktails in the spotlight like never before. They allowed us to safely enjoy a drink—made by someone else—when there was no chance of bellying up to the bar.
“As much as people like to drink delicious cocktails, you know, they don’t like making them,” says Melkon Khosrovian of LA’s Greenbar Distillery, which he co-founded with his wife, Litty Mathew. They see canned cocktails not only as an extension of the craft cocktail movement but its future.
Greenbar launched its first canned spritzes in 2019. Highballs soon followed, including Rum+Cola, an organic, made-from-scratch take on the old standard. Greenbar also makes several nonalcoholic drinks, like Earl Grey Bitters+Soda that, when cracked open, releases aromas of bergamot and black tea. Aluminum cans, light to ship and endlessly recyclable, made sense for a distillery named for its sustainable ethos.
“I think we’re at the very beginning of this movement,” says Khosrovian. “In five years, we’ll see shelves that currently hold bottles of beer, wine and liquor filled to the brim with cocktails.”
In 2020, Greenbar’s ready-to-drink (RTD) sales shot up 384 percent. This year, the company invested $2 million in a high-speed canning line able to process 100 cans per minute. The equipment is a game-changer for the small-scale LA distillery, allowing it to expand distribution to supermarkets and sporting arenas nationwide.
For Tom Macy, who first had the idea to can cocktails in 2013, the category’s explosive growth came as a surprise. Together with Julie Reiner, who, in addition to owning Clover Club and Leyenda, in Brooklyn, New York, is known to be one of the progenitors of the modern cocktail movement, Macy launched Social Hour Cocktails in 2020. By then, the goal had evolved from making a good drink portable to offering a cocktail experience on par with that of a great bar.
“You might want to pour it over ice and put a nice garnish on it,” Macy suggests. “You might fix yourself a cocktail at home or from your hotel minibar.”
In other words, canned cocktails aren’t just for backyard barbecues and beach picnics. They might be stocked in the fridge at your favorite fast-casual restaurant or offered, self-serve, at an event in lieu of hiring a bartender. In the UK, where the RTD trend is more advanced, you can grab a canned gin and tonic at the gas station.
After a successful UK launch last year, 6 O’Clock Gin was eager to bring its canned G&Ts to the US. In addition to the usual challenges, it faced an aluminum can shortage attributed to the surging demand for canned drinks. The G&Ts, made with a tonic created by 6 O’Clock’s master distiller specifically to pair with its gin, offer the ideal ratio of gin to tonic.
Canning boils down to a science. Using ingredients like fresh juices, as many craft bartenders insist on, can be tricky. Rather than work with big commercial canners, several brands have partnered with craft breweries well versed in the preservation of freshness. A trusted local brewer, says Jeff Wuslich, co-founder of Cardinal Spirits, in Bloomington, Indiana, also allows for more control over the process. Cardinal started canning two popular cocktails from its tasting room in 2018. This year, it added Bourbon Cream Soda, a flavor seemingly born of sheer nostalgia.
“I think we’re getting past the novelty phase,” says Wuslich. “Maybe a year ago, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! A canned cocktail from a craft distillery?’ And now we’re on to, like, ‘Does this actually taste good?’”
After tasting more than 40 cans, many sugary, others stale or unbalanced, we found these six, which do, in fact, taste good. Crack open one of these cocktails now:
7% ABV, $15/355-ml 4-pack
Made with Greenbar’s rum, this is a spice lover’s highball, bursting with clove and cinnamon.
Social Hour Cocktails Pacific Spritz
8% ABV, $20/250-ml 4-pack
A blend of bittersweet aperitivo, rosé and a splash of tropical fruit gives a festive drink just the right balance of bright, bitter and bubbles.
Cardinal Spirits Maui Mule
5% ABV, $12/355-ml 4-pack
Tiki fans will appreciate this fun and flavor-packed offering, with its tart passionfruit and bold ginger kick.
6 O’Clock Gin London Dry Gin & Tonic
7% ABV, $4/200 ml
For a London Dry style, this G&T is floral and citrusy, with delicate lemon-lime notes. It’s also the perfect single-serving size.
Tolago Hard Seltzer Cherry Rose
5% ABV, $13/355-ml 6-pack
Hard seltzers are inherently light on flavor, but this one, made with real cherry juice and rose petals, is surprisingly aromatic and crisp.
Avec Yuzu & Lime
0% ABV, $36/237-ml 12-pack
Conceived by Denetrias Charlemagne and Alex Doman to double as an artisanal mixer or nonalcoholic cocktail, this can is lime soda all grown up, nuanced and elegant.
Chantal Martineau is the author of How the Gringos Stole Tequila and co-author of Finding Mezcal. She lives in New York's Hudson Valley.
This story appears in the print issue of August 2021.
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