For years, canned cocktails consisted largely of saccharine G&Ts loaded with more chemicals than the average drinker can pronounce. Cocktail snobs tended to snub them in favor of their fancier counterparts mixed by men with handlebar mustaches in perfectly legal speakeasies. Yet in 2020, with dark, poorly ventilated bars most likely off the menu for the coming months, these portable, ultra-convenient drinks are suddenly looking pretty damn good.
It helps that today’s canned cocktails are a quantum leap above the dusty relics you remember languishing in the back corners of liquor stores. The best ones are made with high-end ingredients, taste a whole lot better than your average macrobrand hard seltzer, and make for an easy way to spruce up your next (socially distant) barbecue. Nevertheless, bartenders say getting them right isn’t always easy.
“Canned cocktails are tricky. You’re dealing with a lot of things you wouldn’t otherwise have to think about,” says Robby Haynes, brand beverage director of Apologue. “The biggest challenge is dialing in a citrus component that reads as true, bright, and refreshing, but also shelf-stable.”
Chicagoans have long loved Big Star for its margaritas, which Haynes proudly says are made with fresh lime juice and top-shelf orange liqueur, even when they come out of 155-gallon tanks. The team has been working on the idea of canning their stalwart cocktail for the past two years.
“Honestly, the pandemic really kind of put extra emphasis on the importance of bringing this to market,” Haynes says. “We had nothing but time and we just thought, let’s put this puzzle together with this canned cocktail.”
The resulting cocktails are available exclusively through retail outlets, including Whole Foods, in the Chicago area. According to the team, one of the most difficult elements was nailing a formula that would taste consistent in every can.
“When you’re making hundreds of margaritas and you’re on a patio with your friends having a good time, there’s a certain amount of forgiveness with those variables,” says Laurent Lebec, beverage director for Big Star “The average consumer is looking for something that tastes as close as possible to the margarita that they know. That’s difficult to do with a base made just of juice. You have to use different painting tools to give the impression of fresh juice.”
In order to make a Big Star’s Margarita in a can taste like the real deal, Lebec punched up the real lime juice with citric acid in order to provide its signature bite. He feels strongly that all the trial and error was worth it.
“We’ve proved that you can take a cocktail that’s been one of Chicago’s go-to drink moves for years and put it in a can,” Lebec says. “So many people this summer are going to be having small, intimate backyard barbecues. They may not feel comfortable going to a bar or restaurant, but this way, they can still have a little bit of that experience in the comfort of their own homes.”
The next time you’re planning a small, socially distant gathering, consider packing a few of the following in your bag.
Pampelonne’s La Pêche
Purists may have sniffed at the very concept of canned wine not long ago, but the times have changed. Pampelonne gussies up its canned sparkling wine with a few suitably bougie extras. This version, with white peach, nectarine, honeysuckle, and lime, may not match drinking a Bellini by a Venetian canal, but it’s a reasonable facsimile.
Collective Arts Brewing’s Dry Gin & Soda with Grapefruit, Lemon & Lime
The eye-popping can designed by Montreal-based artist Maïa Faddoul would almost be worth the price of the drink by itself. Thankfully, the effervescent contents are just as enjoyable. The flavor profile errs on the dry side—perfect for anyone with an aversion to the cloying canned cocktails of yesteryear.
The Finnish Long Drink
Way back in 1952, long before craft canned cocktails were anything approaching cool, the Finnish government came up with the lonkero, or “long drink,” as a way of serving booze to the masses at the Summer Olympics. Unlike hard seltzers, which are fermented from simple sugars, this grapefruit-tinged libation is made with gin and the juniper notes really help carry it. This 5.5% ABV Nordic cousin of a paloma remains popular in its native land and is currently available for delivery in many parts of the US.
Bravazzi’s Blood Orange Hard Italian Soda
Italians mastered the art of non-alcoholic aperitifs long before much of the rest of the world got on board. Made with cane sugar, fruit juices, and natural ingredients, these 4.2% ABV versions taste like a hard seltzer took a trip to Rome and came back with a sexy accent. It’s hard to go wrong, but the bright, fragrant blood orange variation is a winner.
Cocktail Squad’s Greyhound
Consider this the upgraded version of the artificial citrus-infused White Claws other drinkers will be guzzling this summer. A pinch of salt helps enhance the grapefruit flavor, which manages to be refreshing, but not overpowering. You could drink this straight from the chilled can, but for an easy upgrade, husband-and-wife duo John and Lauren Maggio recommend serving it over ice in a salt-rimmed glass with a sprig of rosemary.
Tip Top Proper Cocktails’ Negroni
Despite their ever-burgeoning popularity, negronis have avoided being relegated to basic status, thanks to an impeccably balanced, faintly bitter flavor profile. Long regarded as a bartender’s go-to, they’re uncomplicated, but easy to mess up. At 26% ABV, these cans are definitely meant for sipping, but for those longing to return to their local dive, this should hit the spot.
Bartenders—or “mixologists” if you really must—have been attaining chef-like levels of celebrity in recent years. Aaron Polsky’s line of craft cocktails in cans, developed by all-stars like Joey Bernardo of Harvard & Stone, might just be the logical conclusion of the phenomenon. Launched on March 3, Polsky’s own creation, Heartbreaker, is a bright blend of vodka, oroblanco grapefruit, jasmine, ginger and kumquat.
Five Dr!nks Co.’s Gin & Tonic
While some canned cocktails induce a similar level of buzz to a hard seltzer, at 11% ABV this G&T is fairly close to what a bartender would pour for you. The flavor profile more or less sticks the landing as well. Sure, pouring two ingredients into a glass with ice isn’t exactly tricky, but no one wants to lug a bottle of gin to their friend’s backyard.
Slalom Fox’s Bourbon Revival
With high-quality spirits and no artificial ingredients, Slalom’s cocktails are all solid choices for outdoor drinking. This bourbon cocktail boasts a pleasant tartness from blackcurrant and lemon juice, and clocks in at an easy-drinking 7.3% ABV.