How today’s ready-to-drink cocktail companies are squeezing elaborate cocktail recipes into portable cans

by Beth Krietsch | July 16, 2019

Canned cocktails don’t have the greatest reputation. And given the history of drinks in this category, it’s easy to see why people are a bit wary. Most of the ready-to-drink cocktails sold in the past were actually malt-based beverages with overly sweet flavor profiles that didn’t taste much like the cocktails you could get at a bar. Consider, for instance, Bud Light’s play on a margarita, the Lime-A-Rita — it doesn’t even contain tequila.

“The reason why most people had this aversion to the category for a long time was primarily because the FMB versions were pretty rough,” says Yuseff Cherney, founder of Cutwater Spirits, an Anheuser-Busch-owned, San Diego-based spirits brand that sells more than a dozen varieties of canned cocktails. “They weren’t representative of a true cocktail.”

But today’s ready-to-drink cocktails are a far cry from the sugary, artificial mixtures of the past. These drinks swap malt bases for quality spirits distilled in-house and are strategically crafted by teams dedicated to finding recipes that work. Southern Tier Distilling makes a vodka madras with cardamom and chamomile; Interboro Spirits & Ales makes a gin and tonic featuring its own Goodwin Hill Gin, along with accents of juniper berry, lemon peel, black pepper, licorice, angelica root, and coriander; and Cooper Spirits Co. sells a canned version of Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rock and Rye, containing rye whiskey, raw honey, navel oranges, and rock candy.

Canning cocktails is not a casual undertaking: producing a drink that comes out of the can with the proper level of carbonation, correct flavor profile, and shelf stability requires a host of equipment and a great deal of finesse. Most canned cocktails are carbonated, typically by adding carbon dioxide to the liquid in a process called forced carbonation. Jesse Ferguson, co-founder of Interboro Spirits & Ales, explains that the processes for canning cocktails and beer at Interboro use the same equipment and are nearly identical.

For a smooth carbonation process, the liquid must be near freezing (carbon dioxide dissolves much better into cold liquids than warm liquids) and have the proper consistency. The more viscous a liquid is, the harder it is to carbonate, and the amount of sugar in the cocktail plays a role here, as a high volume of sugar could make the liquid thicker and, subsequently, more difficult to carbonate. Another challenge comes in transferring the cocktail liquid from carbonation tank to can without losing carbonation; canners solve that problem with a proper canning line made up of canning machines, a bulk supply of carbon dioxide, a large tank to hold the carbonated liquid, and a carbonation stone, which diffuses carbon dioxide into the liquid.

Perhaps the most important consideration in formulating these drinks is finding the right ingredients: Given that they determine the canned drink’s taste, shelf stability, alcohol content, carbonation level, and more, rarely does a beverage maker find a formula that works on the first go.

Many of these new canned cocktail companies advertise house-made ingredients. “The overall quality of the drinks can only be as good as the quality of the individual ingredients that go into it,” says Luke McKinley, marketing director of Novo Fogo, which makes a canned Sparkling Caipirinha based on Brazil’s national drink. Cutwater produces its tonic, bloody mary mix, and other cocktail bases in a food-grade facility that’s located inside the distillery where they produce all of its spirits (except tequila, which is sourced in Jalisco, Mexico). Southern Tier in Lakewood, New York, meanwhile, makes its own vodka, bourbon, and gin at the company’s distillery.

To make the canned caipirinha, Novo Fogo and Black Magic Beverages (a contract packer that helps Novo Fogo manufacture and package its products) worked through dozens of formulations, experimenting with varying levels of sweetness, acidity, flavor, and cachaça, with a particular focus on alcohol and sugar levels, until they found a balance that tasted right and could be packaged in a can. “Premixed, spirit-based cocktails are complicated beverages that often find taste and shelf stability at odds with each other,” McKinley says. Ultimately, lowering the sugar content allowed Novo Fogo to craft a drink that’s easier to drink in succession; Novo Fogo recently changed the drink’s formula to reduce its ABV from 11 percent to 8 percent.

At Cutwater Spirits, product development is near constant and mostly handled by founder Cherney and the company’s director of quality assurance Gwen Conley. Cherney and Conley typically start by kicking recipes back and forth before bringing ideas to a focus group made up of 15 members of Cutwater’s upper management. From there, successful recipes move on to the company’s tasting room. “Ultimately if we get good feedback there, then it’ll go into production,” Cherney says, noting some of the recipes take up to a year to perfect. “It’s a very organic path.” Cutwater also runs a research and development program that’s open to all employees.

Southern Tier works with a food lab that helps the production team determine if their ideas can feasibly be produced in large quantities. Co-founder Phin DeMink says this partnership has been helpful in allowing the company to overcome many of the challenges inherent to developing canned cocktails at scale, like maintaining shelf stability and taste.

Southern Tier also relies heavily on its tasting room to guide product development. A team of four people pays close attention to flavor and industry trends, and after developing and refining new drinks, they vet them among tasting room customers before producing them at a larger scale. “Our tasting room is kind of where it all starts,” DeMink says, and the process can be challenging. Sometimes customers simply don’t like a drink. Other times a recipe will be too difficult to translate to a large batch while still maintaining strict taste, shelf stability, and quality standards. “There have been some that were just really fantastic cocktails, but they just have to stay behind the bar,” he says.

But these companies wouldn’t put so much effort into crafting canned cocktails if they weren’t confident there was an audience for them. Drinkers, drawn to the convenience and portability of canned beverages, have become accustomed to getting quality products in cans, from seltzer to beer — and they’re willing to pay for that quality. “It helps that people are generally used to paying a bit more these days for craft beers, which are priced similarly to many canned cocktails,” Cherney says. Today’s canned cocktails made with actual spirits sell for somewhere between $4 and $8 each, around twice as much as canned flavored malt beverages like the Lime-A-Rita, Twisted Tea Hard Iced Tea, and Smirnoff Ice, which typically sell for $2 to $3 each.

For a long time, higher prices prevented a proliferation of canned cocktails, and were a driving force behind the production of flavored malt beverages in the first place. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau taxes malt-based beverages at the same rate as beer, whereas canned drinks containing spirits are taxed at a higher rate. “The biggest issue for years before we even started was the taxation,” Cherney explains. “And that’s the whole reason that FMBs exist. If it wasn’t for the taxes that were levied against spirits being so high, these would have probably been made a long time ago.”

The taxes haven’t changed, but Cutwater and companies like it eventually took a risk, assuming that consumer interest in craft cocktails at bars and restaurants would translate to a willingness to take a chance on canned cocktails made with real spirits, even if they did cost more than malt-based canned drinks. The risk paid off, and as long as people continue to be drawn to canned cocktails — whether for taste, ingredients, convenience, or simply out of curiosity — it seems like their ever evolving recipes, will only continue to improve.

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