The Best Canned Cocktails, According to a Cocktail Competition Judge
Think canned cocktails are super-sweet, low-quality drinks? Think again! There's a new crop of canned cocktails that have complex flavor profiles and use high-quality spirits.
A weekend getaway with friends, an afternoon at the beach, a picnic at the park or even just hanging out in your backyard—there are times when having a cocktail would be nice, but bringing your home bar with you is not an option. These times call for canned cocktails.
Serious cocktail lovers would have scoffed at canned cocktails in the past, with their saccharine-sweet, one-note flavor. But much like canned wine, canned cocktails have evolved into drinks that are truly enjoyable, with complex flavor profiles and high-quality spirits. And customers are noticing: driven by the pandemic and bar closures, the canned cocktail industry had a $25 billion valuation in 2020.
"Just a few years ago a canned margarita tasted like fake lime," says food and drinks writer Virginia Miller. "Now, it's just shocking how much more natural the citrus is, how well it plays with the carbonation, and how the sweetness level has gotten much more balanced."
Miller has judged some of the biggest cocktail competitions in the U.S. and around the world. For the last five years, she has specifically judged the ready-to-drink category that includes canned cocktails. More highly regarded mixologists and distilleries are coming out with their own canned cocktail lines, Miller says, paving the way for some exciting grab-and-go mixed drinks that go beyond the standard gin and tonic or margarita.
"This is where this category can keep getting really interesting. How do I get those cocktails in a can that a really gifted bartender can make, but are very tricky to make at home?" she says.
Luckily, brands are answering the call. Here, Miller shares some of her favorite canned cocktail options, all of which can be ordered online at a price more affordable than ordering from a bar.
Who says a fancy cocktail can't come from a can?
Owl's Brew offers tea-based mixers as well as tea-based canned cocktails. "These elegant little boozy teas have a complex flavor, nice packaging, and the company was started by two women," says Miller. With just 4.8% alcohol, they're perfect for a chill day at the beach. The cans come in fun flavors like White Tea, Raspberry & Watermelon; Matcha, Chamomile & Pineapple; Darjeeling & Hibiscus Flowers; and Jasmine, Blueberry & Lemon. Can't choose? You can also order a variety pack!
Cutwater is one of the originals in the ready-to-drink cocktail game. The American distiller has such a wide range of canned options that there is something for any drink lover. And they really are high-quality cocktails. "They recently came out with a Rum Mint Mojito canned cocktail. And I thought, there's no way that mint is going to taste fresh," says Miller. "But I was blown away. It's really kind of amazing how fresh and good it tastes." There are so many canned cocktails to choose from, including most of the classics: Long Island Iced Tea, Mai Tai, Bloody Mary and Paloma, as well as interesting options like Horchata Cold Brew and Elderflower Vodka Spritz.
"More and more distilleries and spirit companies are doing their own canned cocktails," says Miller. "And I like that because I know already that there's a good base to it." Novo Fogo, a Brazilian cachaça distillery, is one of her favorites doing canned cocktails right now. "Novo Fogo is one of the great brands, and their recent line of canned cocktails is fabulous," she added. The brand makes sparkling caipirinha canned cocktails in three flavors: lime, passion fruit and mango. The perfect drink to take your taste buds on a vacation when you can't actually get away!
This Copenhagen-based distiller calls itself a "flavor company," and their canned cocktails live up to the name. If you're looking for something unique, these drinks are it. Empirical has two options: the first has a base spirit distilled from beet molasses, along with sour cherry, black currant buds, young pine cones and walnut wood. The other cocktail they make has oolong tea, toasted birch and green gooseberry. "It's balanced, it's unique. It's the kind of drink that makes someone like me stop in their tracks," says Miller. "It's a really interesting cocktail in a can that I can't make on my own." The flavor "wow" factor will cost you (though it's still cheaper than a cocktail at a big-city bar): a 4-pack sells for $45.
Classic doesn't have to mean boring. If you're looking for a more basic cocktail that's done really well, Social Hour Cocktails fits the bill. Created by world-renowned New York City mixologists Julie Reiner and Tom Macy, Social Hour Cocktails makes an incredibly tasty Gin and Tonic, Rye Whiskey Mule, and Pacific Spritz (aperitivo and rosé). "It's a bartender-led collaboration with the New York Distilling Company, so there is some real quality there," says Miller. "They're really balanced and just done beautifully."