The Makers Who Are Redefining Canned Cocktails - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

The Makers Who Are Redefining Canned Cocktails

Think canned cocktails are a modern marvel custom-made for millenials? Guess again! The reasons for wanting a cocktail in a can today are pretty much what they were 50 years ago. At least that’s according to a 1972 advertisement in New York magazine for Party Tyme canned cocktails. The ad shows five fun adults each delivering their own response to the slogan, “You’ll like them because.” Their logic ranges from portability, flavor variety, and ease of use to, “I like them because they’re cute.” (Relatable!) And while the rationale for spirits-based canned cocktails remains unchanged, since then, a whole lot has happened inside the can. 

Can You Believe It? Cans are a dominion long guarded by breweries. Even with the promise of early adopters like Club, Duet, and Party Tyme offering the “romance” of cocktails in “recyclable, compact, breakproof, pop-top cans,” according to The New York Times in 1971, the link in America’s mind between suds and tin was seemingly forged from titanium. That is until roughly 2016, when a now ubiquitous product from the Mike’s Hard crew splashed onto the scene and was embraced by bros, bartenders, and odds are, your best friends. “Before White Claw, people only really trusted beer out of a can, or soda,” says L.A.-based bartender Aaron Polsky, who counts among the ranks redefining what comes in a can. With his company, the rockstar-styled LiveWire Drinks, launched this spring, Polsky is canning his own concoctions alongside those crafted by industry powerhouses including Havard & Stone’s Joey Bernardo and The Spare Room’s Yael Vengroff. (The bartenders are paid royalties from can sales.) Yet even with well-known bartenders behind the can, many drinkers view RTDS with a skeptical side-eye.

White Claw belongs to the flavored malt beverage family, meaning it’s a fermented drink made from malted barley enhanced with artificial or natural flavoring—i.e. not a vodka soda. “To win people over, the reputation and the association of what a can [represents], and what goes into a can, needs to be made more premium, overall,” says Amanda Victoria, CEO and co-founder of Siponey, a canned cocktail line launched with her partner, Joseph Mintz, following a career in bartending and high-end spirits. For Siponey’s first launch, Siponey Royale, Victoria and Mintz spent a year tasting American whiskeys before selecting a 4-year-old rye whiskey from upstate New York. The motivation behind the brand was to do right by the RTD category, and that meant putting a super-premium aged spirit in a can, Victoria says. 

“Historically, it’s always the same stuff—corner store lagers or whatever, nothing very interesting,” says Chris Stewart, head of research and development for Empirical Spirits. “Why can’t cans be nice?” Earlier this year, Copenhagen’s self-professed “flavor company” from two Noma alumni simply leaned into it with the release of Can 01 and Can 02, which were met with nearly cultish clamor. Using vacuum distillation, the idiosyncratic cans contain a base spirit made from beet molasses and Belgian saison yeast, with inspired elements such as cold-brewed milk oolong tea and gooseberry layered on top. “We’ve brought all these crazy ingredients together to make a can with a stamp of super high quality on it.”

“Historically, it’s always the same stuff—corner store lagers or whatever, nothing very interesting,” says Chris Stewart, head of research and development for Empirical Spirits. “Why can’t cans be nice?”

Canning top-quality booze would’ve been taboo even a handful of years ago, and the market introduction of such offerings counts on consumer awareness. To Julie Reiner, founder of award-winning New York bars such as Clover Club, the RTD sphere has long been misleading. The fact that there’s, for example, a prominent beer brand’s canned Margarita loaded with malt beverage and nary a drop of tequila, can rightfully seed confusion. “I think even people who are pretty well-educated on cocktails don’t necessarily know what the difference is,” Reiner says.

Reiner and long-time bartender and Clover Club co-owner Tom Macy launched Social Hour in August, offering a trio of cocktails featuring gin, whiskey, and aperitivo bases. “Getting the general public to understand the difference between spirit-based and malt-based is like, step one,” Reiner says.

While Polsky finds many big-brand RTDs personally uncompelling, he sees such products as doing the essential legwork of cultural conditioning toward canned booze. And it’s hard to argue against the numbers: Sales of hard seltzer are expected to hit $6.5 billion by 2024. “White Claw blew the door open for us,” he says. Brands with deep pockets are willing and able to tango with public perception, “which is great, because we don’t have the money to do that.”

Behind the Scenes Several years ago, a bottled Paloma created for Leyenda’s menu convinced Macy it was time to get serious about Social Hour R&D. The premade, shelf-stable Paloma sold extremely well and was, as Macy describes it, an improved expression of the drink, owing to its consistency and carbonation. Keeping in mind the tenets of any delicious cocktail—good ingredients and proper balance—Macy and Reiner formulated Social Hour’s initial releases: a Gin & Tonic, a Whiskey Mule, and the Pacific Spritz. 

Despite their market proliferation, developing a canned cocktail is no walk in the park. Macy and Reiner seesawed back and forth with the flavor house they worked with, tinkering with the brightness of the ginger, increasing citrus notes, adjusting carbonation. “It was kind of funny because the flavor house actually cut us off from making more tweaks,” says Reiner, with a laugh.

In their iterations, they found the ABV level was important to making the cocktails credible. Many malt- and wine-based RTDs on the market linger around 4-5 percent ABV, far from that of a bar-made cocktail; Social Hour’s releases go from 8 percent up to 11.5 percent ABV. Some recent spirit-based RTDs pack even higher-ABV punches into condensed cans, such as Atlanta’s Tip Top Proper Cocktails and Post Meridiem Spirits, each 100 milliliters, which offer tiny tipples like Old Fashioneds, Negronis, and even Mai Tais. (See: “I like them because they’re cute.”)

A number of the new brands are sticking to highballs for now, finding they translate especially well to the can and the consumer. “As a bartender, you have full control over the way in which the consumer sees the drink: the temperature, the dilution, all of that,” says Polsky. “As a producer of a canned beverage, you don’t.”

For this reason, it was important that LiveWire’s offerings be highly intuitive. To the average global citizen, a can instinctively means whatever’s inside should be served cold or poured over ice, Polsky says. “This is a brave new world for people and I wanted to introduce as few hurdles as possible.” That said, LiveWire’s three current offerings don’t dumb down the layered flavor complexities of craft cocktails. From Polsky’s vodka-based Heartbreaker with grapefruit, kumquat, and jasmine, to Bernardo’s gin-based Honeydew Collins with coconut, lime leaf, and elderflower, the aim was to take real-life bartender originals and make them shippable. Polsky, who also worked alongside a flavor house to dial in formulas, proudly offers the information that his products contain natural flavors and extracts, believing fresh juice belongs at your local bar. 

For Siponey’s Victoria and Mintz, it was a different story: The bounce of real citrus was non-negotiable. In Siponey Royale, which is partly inspired by T.J. Siegal’s Gold Rush, rye is paired with lemon juice, wildflower honey, and sparkling water sourced from producers located within a 175-mile radius of each other—sustainability and honeybee health are at the heart of the brand. “When lemon juice is sitting in the whiskey, of course there’s going to be an effect on it,” Victoria says. However, following accelerated aging tests, the brand determined the effects are minimal, thereby making the payoff maximal. Victoria attributes this durability to the lemon juice used—which begins brighter and tarter than the average lemon, she says—and hypothesizes that the honey behaves as a preserver.  

canned cocktails
Empirical canned cocktails get labeled. | Photo by Sam Youkilis.

Can of Worms Launching any new brand during a pandemic introduces a whole subset of challenges entrepreneurs haven’t had to deal with for at least 100 years. Between resetting plans for off-premise and on-premise sales hatched in the “before” and solving for how to introduce new products into the homes of consumers wanting comfort, one of the biggest difficulties proved the cans themselves. “I had no idea the challenges that encapsulate ordering and getting cans made,” says Polsky. “It’s highly challenging, and it’s only gotten worse since COVID.”

Craft beer has fostered a healthy cottage industry for homebrewers and small businesses; can suppliers, labels, mobile canners, all knowledge passed down. “For this, there was no road map,” says Social Hour’s Macy. Empirical’s first attempt (neither Can 01 nor Can 02), which went from green-lighted to trialed within 21 days, gave the team much to consider and clean up. “We learned a lot during the making of this can,” says Stewart. “We had some cans burst; we would send some to places and they’d arrive exploded.” Now, they pasteurize.

In addition to huge order lead times, small producers have to schedule canners with the hope that their cans will show up on time. “Everybody is going into cans,” Polsky says. “Essentially, like, the Coca-Colas of the world are buying cans they don’t currently need in order to buffer against future shortages, and in doing so are creating shortages for everybody else.”

Siponey’s Victoria sees the rush on cans as an indication of where the industry as a whole is headed. And perhaps the attention being paid to cans will be a good thing for makers of spirit-based RTDs; as demand grows, so too could demand for access. While laws regarding liquor sales vary by state, spirit-based canned cocktails are charged higher federal and state excise taxes, making them more economically challenging to produce and distribute than their malt and wine brethren. “It’s dreamy to say, but laws could be repealed and things could be made easier,” says Victoria, who also champions the wider impacts the growing market sector can create. ”Every company coming about right now in the year 2020 needs to be looking at sustainability, diversity, inclusion, all of those great things that need to be pushing consumerism forward.”

In the Home Stretch Now it’s a fact that quality canned cocktails exist, the question becomes: In addition to home fridges, where should they exist? If it isn’t obvious by the bar-friendly faces behind many new releases, canned cocktails aren’t looking to put bartenders out of business. “I’m not trying to have Joey Bernardo carry his can in his bar, right? That’s like going to a Guns N’ Roses show and having them put on a CD,” says Polsky. But, Bernardo can expand his audience, and fans of his canned Honeydew Collins will perhaps be inspired to pay him a visit to experience the refresher in person.

When Empirical set out on its canned odyssey, the goal was to create an everyday drink. “Something that people can enjoy on the go, relaxing by a canal on a sunny day or at a house party,” says Stewart. The fact that brick-and-mortar establishments are getting in the game, stocking and selling canned cocktails, is the icing on the cake. And for bars whose focal point isn’t craft cocktails—beer bars, music venues, dive bars, or neighborhood bars—premixed drinks make a whole lot of sense. “But who knows,” adds Polsky, “We have fancy cocktail bars carrying White Claw, so why wouldn’t they carry something that their friends make?”

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