Today’s whiskey cocktails-in-a-can are changing consumer perceptions
RTDs, or ready-to-drink cocktails, are taking the market by storm. Gone are the days of dressed-up malt liquor. Quality cocktails in a convenient form have gone from the novel 2015 release of the Jefferson’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Manhattan to a product so ubiquitous that stores are having to designate new aisles for them.
“The availability of good-quality spirits at an affordable price has increased significantly,” says Neal Cohen, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Tip Top Proper Cocktails. “With the whiskey boom 10 to 15 years ago, and the surge in spirits overall, there’s a surplus of great ingredients out there that allow for better canned cocktail options.”
But it’s not just the availability of cocktail ingredients in the market, otherwise this could have become a trend in the 1970s just as easily. Consumers want good cocktails at home, and making them from scratch isn’t always realistic.
“Cocktail education plays a key role too,” Cohen explains. “Canned cocktails have historically been more about a cheap, quick buzz for someone who doesn’t really like the taste of their beverage and wants it covered up with juices and sugar.
As cocktail culture has grown, the demand for an option that services a discernible cocktail drinker in a convenient fashion has led to better options, such as Tip Top, getting the attention of that type of consumer. The technology of our 100ml can is also a factor. It is the appropriate size for these types of high-proof, classic cocktails. In the past, if you found a cocktail in an 8-12oz serving,
it’s usually carbonated and includes a bunch of filler because the serving size is not in line with classic preparations.”
Of course, it’s going to be difficult to emulate a fresh, handmade cocktail in something that has been canned or bottled; attention to detail and quality ingredients are crucial.
“It definitely starts with good whiskey,” says Social Hour founder Tom Macy. “In our particular style of cocktail, which is a longer-form, refreshing style (as opposed to a spirit-forward cocktail like an Old Fashioned), getting the balance of whiskey is a delicate line to walk. You want the cocktail to be easy to sip on outside at the park while still being an honest whiskey cocktail. In a lot of the carbonated canned whiskey cocktails available, I hardly taste the whiskey at all. Both of our whiskey cocktails are using New York Distilling Company’s Ragtime Rye, which is a serious whiskey with 72% ABV in the mash bill, and three to six years old. So it has enough spice to punch through in the cocktails along with plenty of finesse and fruit notes to blend in with the other ingredients.”
But it’s not just the ingredients that have to be carefully selected and blended together – the vessel in which it arrives to the consumer also plays a critical part in the end quality of the cocktail.
“When we think of ‘canned’ taste, it is referring to the metallic aftertaste that some foods can pick up from their container,” explains Dallas Cheatham, Jack Daniel’s RTD director. “Food containers for things such as soups or vegetables are made of steel, whereas beverage cans are made from aluminum. Both are then coated with a protective layer inside the can that prevents interaction between the contents and the metal. However, food goes through extreme temperatures during processing, while canned beverages are usually filled at ambient to refrigerated temperatures. The composition of the can and the much gentler processing prevents beverages from picking up metallic taste. Brown-Forman works directly with the can producer to test every liquid they make prior to producing. The final liquid is sent to the can manufacturer and put through a series of tests to ensure the proper liner is used, and also that it will hold up over time. Lastly, the head Brown-Forman lab in Louisville continuously receives finished products from our production sites in the US, and all over the globe. These products are tested organoleptically to ensure that all specifications and quality parameters are met.”
Jack Daniel’s has had RTD beverages on the market for decades, one of the many factors that paved the way for this new category to take off during the past couple of years.
“Who doesn’t love an easy button and finding instant gratification?” asks Gwen Conley, director of quality and innovation at Cutwater Spirits. The company makes a range of more than 20 canned cocktails featuring base spirits including whiskey, vodka, rum, gin, and tequila, as well as liqueurs.
“Cutwater makes sure that our consumers get high-quality cocktails with a variety of options. You might say we make a cocktail for any occasion to fit your mood, day and even the season,” Conley says. “Innovation is truly part of our DNA, so we are always developing new cocktails and cool concepts. Prior to scaling any release for wider distribution, Cutwater team members will sample and openly discuss what’s working and what’s not… The Cutwater Tasting Room & Kitchen is the home base for our cocktail R&D program. When our team is satisfied with a product, we put it on the menu in our Tasting Room. This way, employees and guests alike are able to try new releases and provide detailed feedback. This is an extremely important part of the process, and we’ll tweak the recipe accordingly. Plus, the Cutwater crew and Tasting Room regulars take pride in helping to bring a new canned cocktail to life.”
Anthony Canecchia, founder of SanTan Spirits, which produces GingerPunk, admits to being a ‘ginger junkie’. He says, “We wanted something sharp with a lot of angles and elbows, hence the name GingerPunk. It’s gonna scream out loud as soon as you crack one open!”
Taste will always be a factor in ready-to-drink cocktails, whether canned or bottled, but sometimes there is also an element of history or environmentalism that goes into them. For Siponey founder Amanda Victoria, a love of whiskey and a desire to save bees led to a canned cocktail with rye whiskey and honey that uses proceeds to support education and conservation of pollinators.
In Memphis, it was a drive to save a pre-Prohibition family recipe that led to the creation of the Memphis Toddy. “I actually joined the Old Dominick team when they were in the middle of developing the Memphis Toddy,” says Alex Castle, master distiller at Old Dominick. “In 2013, when first cousins Chris and Alex Canale discovered an unopened bottle of ‘Dominick Toddy’, they decided to revive their great-great grandfather’s pre-Prohibition whiskey brand. Unfortunately, the recipe for the Dominick Toddy died with Domenico Canale in 1920, so the Canales shipped the contents of the bottle to a facility in California in an attempt to reverse-engineer the recipe. In 2015, when I joined the Old Dominick team, I was able to take over the process and fine-tune the recipe – tweak the amount of cinnamon, determine the level of sweetness we wanted, and other more subtle decisions. The actual making of the Toddy is a very hands-on process. We fill large mesh bags with the dried botanicals (cinnamon, clove, cardamom, black pepper), creating what are essentially tea bags, that then go into the hot water/Bourbon mixture, where they steep overnight before we remove them and add the final sugar.”
Regardless of what type of ready-to-drink cocktail makes its way to your home bar, it has almost certainly gone through significant research and development. Everything from the package it arrives in to the ingredients inside have been carefully selected for maximum enjoyment. What remains to be seen is how popular these cocktails will go on to be once people feel safe getting back to their favorite watering holes. Until then, ready-to-drink cocktails are a great option for high-quality, low-stress tipples.
Your ready-to-drink cocktail bar…
Siponey Royale (bubbles)
The rye whiskey is not hidden here! The bubbles distribute the rye, honey, and lemon across the palate. Great balance between sweet and sour.
Siponey Cafe (bubbles)
Lemon juice should not work with coffee, but somehow it comes across as cocoa in this combination. The rye is not as apparent as it is in the Royale.
Not your standard whiskey mule. Ginger and vanilla together have the flavor of iced gingerbread cookies, though not too sweet. The whiskey does get lost.
Cutwater Whiskey Mule (bubbles)
The ginger flavor is perfect, but it overpowers the Bourbon. The overall cocktail has a nice balance with a finishing hint of cherry.
Social Hour Whiskey Mule (bubbles)
More of a ginger ale than a ginger beer flavor. The overall balance is nice, between sweet and sour, but the whiskey is faint.
Social Hour Prizefighter (bubbles)
Like a whiskey peach bellini! On the sweeter side, while being far out of standard for a whiskey cocktail.
Old Dominick Memphis Toddy (still)
This would be great hot or cold. A great addition to cider or a great base for a holiday punch. Spicy and very sweet with notes of baking spices and citrus.