Canned Cocktails, A New(ish) Adventure

Getting canned

A new generation of ready-to-drink products are making canned cocktails cool again
A new generation of ready-to-drink products are making canned cocktails cool again (Dispatch Staff)

By Brandon Plyler

Long before I was old enough to buy them, I found out about canned cocktails from an ad in a  “gentlemen’s magazine” that I probably should not have had in my possession. Published in the late 1970s, it was chock full of new wave vices like low-tar cigarettes and pre-mixed booze in cans. Those canned cocktails looked terrible and, by all accounts, the packaging accurately reflected the contents.

Once I was old enough to frequent liquor stores, I was warned against the cans of pre-mixed booze that were still in production in the early 2000s. Big distillers by that time were turning to the flavored malt-beverage business. Instead of tiny cans at the North Carolina ABC store, the shelves of every grocery store sported flashy labels and promises of pre-packaged cocktails with a brand name you were already familiar with.

These sorts of pre-mixed “cocktails” were made with a malt base that began life as a beer with all of the character stripped out so it could serve as a base for artificial flavoring. Not using distilled spirits exempted the producer from the higher tax structure of hard alcohol, and in places like the Carolinas they could sell their products in gas stations and grocery stores instead of liquor stores.

But that’s not what we are talking about today. The canned cocktails under discussion are the latest generation of pre-mixed booze, and they’re distillate based. To find them in the Carolinas you will need to visit the same ABC store where you buy your whiskey or gin, and they’ve become incredibly popular in a very short period of time. 

A few months ago I noticed that the once-tiny canned cocktail section in my local liquor store had exploded into four full shelves. Brands that caught my attention early on were Tip Top and Post Meridiem.

I called up Travis Hartong from Bottles Beverage Super Store, which has locations in Mount Pleasant, Summerville, and Columbia, to ask him why those shelves had suddenly seen such growth—and to find out where all those cans were going.

“We have had to rearrange our shelves,” Hartong says. “Rearrange our store to fit them all.” But new varieties keep appearing on the market. With the sheer volume of new RTD (ready to drink) cocktails flooding in, Hartong, says, “We had to pump the brakes and see what works to see what keeps selling and what stays behind.” 

Canned Cocktail Species

When it comes to the new canned cocktail circus, one could put the beasts into three separate rings.

#1: A Proper Drink 

On the strong side are the tiny cans from Post Meridiem and Tip Top. The instructions printed on the labels call for nothing more than a simple shake of the can and pouring into a glass with ice. Think strong and stirred classic cocktails along with a dip into the tiki pool.

If you are a fan of these drinks you can certainly understand a big part of the appeal: avoiding the pains of gathering equipment, good vermouth, and fresh-squeezed fruit juices along with a bottle of seldom-used liqueur from your home bar.

Keeping a bottle of Italian maraschino liqueur might not fit your budget or storage space, but it’s an essential ingredient in a classic Hemingway daiquiri. Post Meridiem’s version has that, along with lime juice and a blend of West Indies Rums. Their mai tai also features a blend of rums and natural fruit juice.

Recently on a boat trip I brought along a bag full of mai tai cans and gussied the whole experience up with a flask of navy strength rum for floaters. This classic in the tiki pantheon consists of white and dark rums along with orgeat (an almond syrup that most of us don’t have at home), orange curacao, and lime juice. There is a comforting rum booziness here that is balanced by fresh citrus and a warming almond character. Over-proof or navy strength rum as a “floater” adds a layer of grilled pineapple complexity.

I love any invitation to be on a boat and hate to show up empty handed. These little cans helped make a perfect late afternoon in the sun, with just the addition of ice and a flask without the need for several bottles and mixing glasses.

Tip Top’s Manhattan, Negroni, and Old Fashioned put proper cocktails in a can
Tip Top’s Manhattan, Negroni, and Old Fashioned put proper cocktails in a can (Dispatch Staff)

Tip Top’s Negroni features dry gin, vermouth and red bitters, creating a properly bitter and aromatic beginning to any meal. They also dip into the world of whiskey with an outstanding old fashioned and Manhattan and a superb margarita, if you need some tequila in your life. While you should always support your local bartender, these 100ml cans are a great way to enjoy a fancy cocktail on the fly or at home without the commitment of ingredients or barware cleanup. At around $4 - $5 a can at retail, the price is completely worth your experimentation and a fraction of what you would pay for the same cocktail at a bar or restaurant.

#2: The Big Can

All canned cocktails have a stated alcohol strength on the package, and that’s definitely something to keep on eye as you reach into your fridge or cooler. A second category of RTD drinks offers the punch of a liquor drink in a container sized for two or more servings.

Cutwater cocktails, for instance, are delicious and packaged in the same 12 ounce-sized cans as your typical beer. Cutwater seems to be great at getting placement at music venues, and folks going to shows might be tempted to grab a 12.5% ABV cocktail and consume it at the same rate they might a beer.

“You could get yourself into some trouble if you’re not careful,” says Hartong. “Those things are refreshing.” Cutwater’s Tiki Rum Mai Tai and Tequila Margarita are both delicious and deceptively refreshing. They also have a Moscow Mule at 7% ABV, which nails the flavor profile quite well. 

Other brands in the Big Can category include Cocktail Squad’s margarita, bourbon smash, and whiskey sour (12 oz at 10% ABV) and Big Star’s margarita and spicy margarita (12 oz at 12% ABV).

#3: Seltzer Bait

Most of the remaining contenders seem to float down the river of seltzer drinkers, with their strength in a safer sphere of sub-7% ABV.

Bombay Sapphire produces a gin and tonic canned with their alluring and familiar crystal blue color scheme along with a picture of Queen Victoria. The serving suggestion mentions ice and a glass. While writing this piece I wanted to advance my research by taking a four-pack of this 5.9% ABV canned G&T to a small gathering. All contents were consumed from the can with great pleasure.

The lower ABV of Bombay Sapphire's gin and tonic lets the citrus and juniper aromatics shine through
The lower ABV of Bombay Sapphire's gin and tonic lets the citrus and juniper aromatics shine through (Dispatch Staff)

The group was impressed by the refreshing bitter quality of a dry cocktail that featured not just the spirits but also well-made tonic. The lower strength showcased the citrus and juniper aromatics while producing a completely drinkable and refreshing beverage. With a gin and tonic, it’s quite easy to go heavy on the gin part and splash in the tonic as an afterthought, but the pre-mix format avoids that. Halfway into the first can I secretly regretted giving out the other three. You should expect fresh botanical aromas followed by a crisp and appetizing dry finish.

Ketel One is another of the well-known big distilleries to put a line of RTD cocktails on the shelves. Complementing their lower strength line of vodkas aimed at consumers looking for less alcohol and carbs with plenty of flavor, these 3.9% refreshers are a natural extension. Their angle is to hit the same low ABV market as their botanical vodkas. “You can hit a good flavor profile with a low ABV,” Hartong says. “These took off wildly.”

Boxes of High Noon are also making a big splash with case stacks and single can cooler appearances. Their line of vodka sodas feature natural flavors such as pineapple, grapefruit, lime, and black cherry, and mixed 12 packs are available if you want to run the gamut. Low calories, fresh juice, and a 4.5% ABV are the big selling points for this crisp seltzer contender.

Why Cans Now?

For decades beverage connoisseurs tended to look askance at any sort of alcohol that came in cans—be it beer, wine, or cocktails—for they perceived the metal containers as a sign of low quality. In recent years, though, that perception has begun to change, thanks in large part to craft brewers.

If you know any beer folks out there I am sure you have heard the gospel of the quality of modern day cans. When it comes to cocktails specifically, improved can liners now prevent the acidic fruit juices and spirits from picking up metallic flavors from the can. Combine that with a more educated, discerning customer base and the use of great ingredients, and a more viable high-end product has emerged.

Cans also allow more versatility and mobility for the consumer—even at 30,000 feet. Southeastern Dispatch contributor Eric Doksa recently texted me a picture of the Tip Top Old Fashioned can that he was enjoying on a Delta flight. (It certainly helps that the Atlanta based Tip Top shares a home with a Delta hub.)

In-flight canned cocktails let passengers enjoy top shelf drinks at 30,000 feet
In-flight canned cocktails let passengers enjoy top shelf drinks at 30,000 feet (Eric Doksa)

Travis Hartong of Bottles is in a unique position to view the canned cocktails trends in the on-premise market (that is, the places you go out to drink at, like bars, restaurants and entertainment venues) as well as the off-premise (that is, the booze consumers buy at a retail store for consumption at home.) So far, he says, the off-premise market is the more promising, in large part due to state regulations.

South Carolina mandates that hard alcohol must be sold first to a liquor store with a Class B license before it can be sold to on-premise sites. North Carolina has a similar system in place in which bars and restaurants must buy from a state-controlled ABC store and not directly through a distributor. “High Noon seems to be going to venues with a younger consumer base,” Hartong says. “Cutwater has a great presence in music venues. All other [on-premise] customers are experimenting to see what fits.”

So far, few local craft distillers have ventured into the canned cocktail market. Brook Bristow of Bristow Beverage Law, who has many clients in the drinks industry, notes that, “Most distillers on a small scale were not really monetized to install expensive canning lines and certainly didn’t anticipate the growth in that sector when they were opening.”

Here in Charleston you can pick up some fine canned cocktails from New Realm, which has a brewery and tasting room on Daniel Island. The company is based out of Atlanta, though, which is where they produce and package the canned cocktails you might see on the shelves at your local store.

Chances are, though, that more and more varieties of this expanding category of ready-made drinks will be making their way to your local shelves soon. For now, the best advice is to have a great time poking around and finding what works for you.

About the Author

Brandon Plyler

Brandon Plyler is a Charleston-based booze nerd and an Advanced Cicerone.