The Bar World’s Biggest Names Are Getting Wise to Canned Cocktails

As beverage director at Clover Club in Brooklyn, N.Y., Tom Macy has been formative in the 21st century cocktail revival. But then: Covid,when everyone was forcedto pivot.

When the bar was temporarily locked down at the onset of the pandemic, Macy and his boss, Julie Reiner, foundedSocial Hour Cocktails, which cans a line of ready-to-drink, high-quality quaffs. “The biggest selling point of an RTD is—and always has been—convenience,” he says. (If not “necessity” for lazy drinkers at the height of the lockdown.) But “convenience meant you had to sacrifice quality.”

Social Hour’s rye- and ginger-beer-based Whiskey Mule (10.5% alcohol by volume) is zesty and effervescent. The alcohol is sourced locally, from New York Distilling Co., the mixers are vibrant, and the price is premium: $20 for a four-pack of 250-milliliter cans. “People understand what makes a great cocktail, and they understand that it’ll come with a higher price point,” Macy says.

RTD beverages hadbeen booming prior to the pandemic—with volume in 2019 up 43.1% from a year earlier, according to IWSR analysis—but the $8 billion segment islargely dominated by cloying malt-liquor alcopops such as Twisted Tea and Mike’s Hard Lemonade. Simple vodka sodas, gin and tonics, and rum and Cokes are widely available, too.

Now, though, consumers can find top-shelfmai tais,caipirinhas, andbloody marys, or anAmericano 2.0 (amaro, vermouth, bitters, soda water; 9.5% ABV), from thereigning World’s Best Bar at $14 for a four-pack. Manhattan’s Dante unveiled its canned line of aperitivi in September, in a partnership withFive Drinks Co., co-founded in part by former Anheuser-Busch InBev SA executives.

Technical advances have broadened viability—and ambition. Acclaimed bicoastal barman Aaron Polsky worked with a flavor chemist to developLiveWire Drinks, which made its debut in March. “Rather than purporting to use fresh juice, which tastes off after a few days, we use organic acids to balance the profile without flavor degradation,” he says. “We use extracts to really capture the taste of the fruit. And it doesn’t require refrigeration, which also helps in the supply chain.”

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Polsky’s initial release,Heartbreaker, combines a glutenfree vodka with oroblanco grapefruit, jasmine, ginger, and kumquat flavors. In the next six months, other colleagues in the New York bar industry, including Masahiro Urushido from Katana Kitten and Christine Wiseman from Broken Shaker, will conceive releases and earn residuals on sales of their respective drinks.

“We are big believers in cans,” saysBathtub Gin’s head bartender, Brendan Bartley, who’s relied on to-go and delivery drinks to stay afloat the past few months. “They represent the ultimate container for keeping out air and light, the primary culprits in spoilage.”

Bartley designed the Algonquin—a tart yet spirit-forward combo of genever, pineapple, and vermouth—specifically for the can. To package it he enlisted the aptly namedCanned Cocktail Co., a one-stop mobile shop that arrives with a portable canning machine and label maker in tow. He simply pours in his batch, and out come 8-ounce cans, ready for delivery. Canned Cocktail has signed up dozens of the five boroughs’ highest-profile bars, such as Little Branch and the Up & Up, signaling an industrywide canning revolution.

Last year theLong Drink Co. expanded the reach of the eponymous thirst-quenchers from Finland, where they exist as an entire subcategory of canned cocktail. Around the same time, AB InBev—the world’s largest brewer—entered the fray with its purchase of San Diego’sCutwater Spirits. The brand offers the widest array of canned craft cocktails on the market, with 19 products in total, including a dangerously palatable Long Island Iced Tea (13.2% ABV) that went on sale in August.

The best part? No one but your fridge can judge.

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