Last year I asked a brewery owner what excited him in his portfolio. The response was swift.
“Canned cocktails,” he said.
That’s right. The beer guy was most optimistic about ... premade cocktails.
Turns out, he’s not alone.
In a wild time where beer’s dominance of the alcoholic beverage industry has waned by the year (look no farther than the rise of hard seltzer), ready-to-drink cocktails have assumed their place in the boozy pantheon.
The number of RTD cocktails, as they’re known for short, has grown exponentially in recent years. Many are packaged in 12-ounce aluminum cans. But they also come in smaller cans. And large bottles. And small bottles. And cans shaped like bottles. And boxes. And pouches.
Craft distillers have waded in. So have major spirit brands, including Tanqueray gin (introduced last year), Jack Daniel’s whiskey (also introduced last year) and Absolut vodka (yup, you guessed it). Large breweries are making RTD cocktails — Anheuser-Busch bought San Diego’s Cutwater Spirits in 2019 — and so are smaller breweries, including Boulevard, New Holland and Dogfish Head.
I spent a couple of weeks tasting through a large swath of what’s out there — or what felt like a large swath every night around 9 p.m. — and I have thoughts. But before the thoughts, let me tell you the guidelines. There had to be guidelines; there are so many ready-to-drink cocktails at this point and, frankly, a lot of them are junk.
—I tasted only the boozy cocktails aiming to replicate the layered, nuanced experience of what would be served in a bar with a serious cocktail program. That doesn’t mean the cocktail itself needed to be serious — playful is wonderful in this realm — but there needed to be intention behind the liquid.
—I wasn’t after wispy vodka sodas with a smattering of flavor; anyone can make one of those. I wanted fully formed cocktails. Most of what I tasted — about 50 RTD cocktails in all — was above 10% alcohol, and plenty of it surged well past that threshold (consider a delicious 24.6% rum Old-Fashioned — keep reading).
—I also ignored the things that seem mostly like a vehicle for combining alcohol and sugar to generate an easy buzz. There are plenty of those on shelves. I skipped them all.
As for my grand conclusions? There are a lot of good ready-to-drink cocktails out there. Many are very good. And I absolutely love the concept.
Draft cocktails have always bugged me as a bit of a rip-off; if I walk into your bar and spend $8 or more for a cocktail, I don’t want something premade. I want something fresh. I want an experience. But paired with from-the-fridge convenience, that same premade cocktail can’t be beat. As a consumer, I’m not interested in the bar’s convenience; I’m interested in my convenience. RTD cocktails offer it.
Of the dozens of ready-to-drink cocktails on shelves, here are the ones to savor — and those to avoid.