Like seemingly everybody else in America, I have spent the vast majority of this brutally hot summer sitting underneath a fan in my air-conditioned apartment and clutching a sweaty can of White Claw spiked seltzer. Available in flavors like mango, black cherry, and grapefruit, these slim cans of refreshing sparkling water are spiked with a potent 5 percent alcohol content, and they’re the hottest cold drink in the country.
This particular brand of spiked seltzer has inspired a truly unique devotion among its fans, dominating more than half of the rapidly growing “spiked seltzer” market, becoming the subject of countless memes, and taking over Instagram feeds. Comedian Trevor Wallace, known for his goofy Facebook videos, has racked up millions of views on Facebook and YouTube with a video about “guys who drink White Claw,” inspiring the infamous “AIN’T NO LAWS WHEN YOU’RE DRINKIN’ CLAWS, BABY” rallying cry that can be heard ringing across summer barbecues.
Why people like White Claw isn’t really a mystery, especially during steamy summer months. It’s lighter and more refreshing than a beer, has less hangover-inducing sugar than a fruity sangria, and has a much more trendy connotation than wine coolers, a time-honored favorite of high schoolers. As Eater’s own Jaya Saxena notes, spiked seltzer also boasts a strong veneer of health and wellness thanks to a low calorie and carbohydrate count, and being free of bogeyman ingredients like gluten and artificial flavors. It’s got a universal appeal that’s able to cut across dietary restrictions, booze preferences, and perhaps most uniquely, the surprisingly fraught gender politics of malt beverages. Exemplifying this cross-over is Ben Shea, a self-identified bro, who recently told Business Insider that White Claw is “ridiculously good. If I’m at a party now and someone offers me an IPA or a White Claw, I definitely take a White Claw… I do dude things and get stoked and all that. But I also just feel comfortable saying I like White Claw and that it’s good.”
The White Claw boom isn’t without precedent. It’s just the latest in a decades-long parade of sweet, low-proof beverages that have captivated the attention of the American drinker. It’s just that this specific spiked seltzer has somehow managed to avoid falling into the toxic marketing tropes that have long dominated the beverage industry. It falls into a sweet spot directly in between the hypermasculine absurdity of Liquid Death canned water and the hyperfeminine inanity of White Girl Rose. Everyone gets to enjoy the fizzy, intoxicating joy of White Claw, and that’s a pretty far cry from where we were in the 1990s, when pretty much any malt beverage that wasn’t brewed from barley and hops was derided as “bitch beer.”
The lineage of White Claw can be traced back to the syrupy-sweet Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers that originated in the 1980s, but a more direct comparison is Zima. Introduced in 1993 by the Coors Brewing Company, Zima was wildly popular, with 70 percent of American drinkers admitting to sipping a chilly Zima in the ’90s. But it was also widely ridiculed for proving instantly popular with young women, which led to its reputation as a “girly-man” drink. “It has long been considered the very opposite of macho,” Slate’s Brendan Koerner wrote in 2008. “A drink that fragile coeds swill while giving each other pedicures.”
And it wasn’t as if Zima didn’t try to appeal to men, either. In early Zima commercials, a suave man in a white suit touts the beverage as “zomething different” than a beer or wine cooler, the kind of drink that will help you woo a woman at the bar with its sophisticated flavors. Another commercial from 1998 depicts a man running away from a vicious (and tiny) dog. He finds refuge in a bar, orders a Zima, and when the dog gets into the bar and bites him on the ass, it freezes instantly thanks to the beverage’s inherently refreshing nature. But despite those efforts, Zima never took off with male drinkers, which could have something to do with how much time comedians and talk show hosts like David Letterman spent making fun of the “crap.” The brand tried a number of different Zima products that would appeal to men, including the Zima XXX which boasted a higher alcohol content than its predecessor, but they all flopped.
Once Zima fell out of fashion, a host of sweet successors came along trying to replicate that success for the long term, but none managed to shake the “bitch beer” label. Smirnoff Ice gained popularity in the late 1990s, and quickly became known as a drink for sorority girls. Further solidifying its reputation as a beverage for less serious drinkers, it ended up being the punishment in a drinking game called “Icing,” described by CBS News as the “nation’s biggest viral drinking game” back in 2010, that involves making one’s friend kneel and chug after finding a hidden bottle of Smirnoff Ice.
Then came Mike’s Hard Lemonade, which debuted in 1999 from Mark Anthony Brands, the same company that now manufactures White Claw Hard Seltzer. In 2017, Mike’s Hard Lemonade announced that it would shift its marketing efforts away from its “original target audience” of female drinkers. According to Forbes, the brand decided to “hyper-focus” on attracting millennial males with a series of new advertisements that “featur[ed] young males opening a bottle of Mike’s and being engulfed in a glow of happiness.” Despite those efforts, there are countless threads on forums like Reddit where men debate and hand-wring over whether or not Mike’s is actually a “girly” drink.
But White Claw has taken some demonstrable steps toward marketing its products in a way that doesn’t inherently categorize it as a “woman’s drink.” The white can avoids the bright, feminine-coded colors seen on similar beverages like canned rose. In the brand’s Instagram posts, men are pictured drinking White Claws as they show off their punching combinations, catch footballs, and kayak. Meanwhile, women aren’t just depicted sipping White Claws while they get their pedicures, they’re taking the drink to play frisbee at the beach and go boating.
That shrewd approach appears to be paying off, and it seems like White Claw could avoid the fate of its predecessors. Instead of sipping the cans at home in shame, dudes proudly proclaim their love for spiked seltzer and proudly pose with White Claw tallboys on Instagram. People are paying five bucks each at bars, and ordering cocktails served in White Claw cans, doctored with rum, ginger liqueur, and black cherry puree. And thousands of people, regardless of their gender, are posting selfies with White Claws in hand.
In a broader sense, White Claw’s marketing is selling its fans a lifestyle, one that both men and women want to be a part of. It’s what you drink when you’re chilling at the beach, partying at music festivals, and of course, earning enough money to live your best carefree life. It’s an upscale, aspirational brand, one that doesn’t carry the same trashy, low-budget connotations as other malt liquor beverages like wine coolers and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, with sleek, gender-neutral branding and an implied promise that it’s a little bit more virtuous than those other drinks. Hell, you can even buy it at Whole Foods.
Even as canned wines and cocktails like caipirinhas and whiskey highballs have their moment in the sun, the distinct appeal of White Claw and other hard seltzers is much more universal. As the success of fizzy water brands like La Croix, Bubly, and Spindrift demonstrate, everyone loves fizzy water, but spiked seltzer’s runaway success is about much more than just an obsession with bubbly beverages. As spirits historian Christine Sismondo told Salon, people are looking for a “drinker not a thinker” during the summer months, and it seems likely that feeling goes far beyond the flavors in a drink.
While it’s wishful to think that the success of White Claw represents a bigger shift in the way brands market to gender rather than lifestyle, it’s more realistic to recognize it as being indicative of the 2019 type of hypermasculinity that is currently en vogue. It’s a drink for a more evolved bro, the type of man who isn’t afraid to talk about his macros or brew kombucha. The rise of crossfit alongside paleo and keto diets gave men permission to be more publicly and proudly health and image conscious than most of their predecessors. The 2019 bro hasn’t successfully bucked patriarchal values, but he has managed to spruce them up with face masks, potentially disordered eating, and an open and honest affection for spiked seltzer.
If there is something positive to be derived from all this, it’s that the outdated and misogynist notion of “bitch beer” could be dying. Considering that dude-branded butt wipes and “pens for her” exist, it’s nice that we can at least kick back and get White Claw Wasted™, not as separate genders, but as human beings. And the additional bonus, of course, is that White Claw actually tastes really fucking good. In these crazy modern times, that can sometimes be enough.