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What White Claw Obsession Says About Our Changing Relationship to Alcohol

On this episode of “Eater’s Digest,” a deep dive into the low-cal, low-carb world of hard seltzer

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A person pulls a variety pack of White Claw spiked seltzer from a grocery store shelf

Just as there’s a song of the summer, inevitably, each year, a drink of the summer rises to the forefront of our collective consciousness to dominate backyard parties, beach days, and other warm-weather gatherings between May and August.

This summer was no exception: White Claw, which at this point needs no explanation, has claimed its throne as the season’s most popular adult beverage, with booming sales (up about 200 percent from 2019 to 2018, with 164 percent of that growth occurring this July alone) and cultural recognition.

Hovering around 5 percent ABV and minimal in carbs and calories, White Claw and other spiked seltzers have positioned themselves as a “healthy” alternative to popular summer drinks like light beers and spritzers, one that’s easier to drink and recover from and that minimizes the guilt that comes with turning a six-pack of anything into a single serving size. Which begs the question: When does White Claw stop being a lower-calorie alternative and start being an enabler?

Even if the hangover after a White Claw session is easier to recover from and the caloric intake isn’t quite so catastrophic as with a bottle of wine, binge drinking is still just that. When the session lasts from 2 in the afternoon to 2 in the morning, the “healthy” veneer of a White Claw starts to look a little thin.

On the latest episode of Eater’s Digest, hosts Amanda Kludt and Daniel Geneen dive into the world of White Claw, inviting former Momofuku bar director and cocktail expert John deBary to join them for a (not at all) rigorous taste test to see for themselves which hard seltzer brand they should reach for at the grocery store — and ended up learning more about our predilection for guilt minimization than anything else.

Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts.

Below, a lightly edited transcript of our interview with John deBary.

Daniel Geneen: Amanda, because we love to over-analyze and because this drink is the drink of the summer, we created some categories to try to explain why it is having such a moment.

Amanda Kludt: First up: health. As you know, Daniel, this is a low-calorie drink, which is very important for people who are counting calories and care about their figure.

Daniel: Counting calories and also counting sugar and counting carbs. These drinks are a bunch of zeros across the board. Yeah. All right.

Amanda: It’s basically like a vodka soda.

Daniel: See, for me, vodka soda was always the sign of a, of a healthy drinker. You know, someone who was out there to get, get turned, but also to monitor their intake. So I feel like to me, vodka soda is the Godfather. These drinks are not straying. I think they’re just accessible in a new way. [inaudible]

Amanda: Yeah, it’s like it’s a canned vodka soda, but with also a flavor, ’cause my problem with vodka soda is it tastes like shit. So if you put a little little flavor in there, make it a little more palatable, I’m on board. Uh, also in the health category, we should mention that most of these are gluten free. So people care about that. Beer drinkers who can’t handle gluten or just don’t want it might gravitate toward a spike seltzer.

Daniel: And I think another major point here is that, uh, people like activities, activities are big, and you can’t really slam a beer and then play spike ball in the same way. You know?

Amanda: Fair point.

Daniel: Amanda, I don’t know if you know this about me, but I am constantly fighting the hangovers. I’m battling them a lot. But one of the ways I soften them up a little bit is by not drinking any sugar.

Amanda: Category two. The seltzer bubble.

Daniel: When Four LoKo dropped their new spiked seltzer product, they captioned it, “hard seltzer ran so we could fly.” But really, I think that the seltzer movement or LaCroix ran so hard seltzer could fly. You can’t separate this movement.

Amanda: I don’t think this drink would be having its boom without the boom of seltzer. Seltzer has been big for the last two years. As people try to get off of soda and they realize like, oh, Coke is not good for me. I need to drink something that has zero calories, and so they’ve been getting into LaCroix and all of the LaCroix competitors, and now, oh, here’s an alcoholic version. I can just continue my LaCroix habit.

Daniel: It’s just water with a little bit of fun.

Amanda: Next category: sobriety. Did you know sobriety is in, Daniel?

Daniel: Are there sober influencers?

Amanda: I think there are. People are also sober curious. So low-ABV drinks in general are kind of on the rise. And while this is not that much different than a beer in terms of how alcoholic it is, I think it just plays into this idea of people trying to get into session drinks or to have a drink that is just not going to completely kill them.

Daniel: Next up: It is trendy. White Claw is inexpensive. These seltzer drinks are inexpensive and also cool in a way that is both ironic and unironic.

Amanda: Yes. Well, also, the cans are very cute and pretty and aspirational and fancy looking, so they’re good for the Instagram, but they’re cheap. It’s an accessible Instagram thing.

Daniel: I actually think that this, this movement parallels the obsession with the Juul a little bit, because it is better for you than the thing that everyone was used to. It is, like, fun — people make jokes about it. People love making Juul jokes. People love making jokes about hard seltzer.

Amanda: I bet the teens love it too.

Daniel: I don’t know. I don’t go to teen parties anymore.

Amanda: Me neither. But I’m just assuming. Yeah, I think you’re right. Yeah. I mean, that’s not the point you were making, but I think you’re right that it is like the Juul.

Daniel: Fun flavors. They’re a little bit healthier.

Amanda: Yeah. Easy to sneak into places. Which leads us to portability and the low-key aspect of these cans. You could carry them around in your purse, on the subway, into your high school. Who knows? Kids these days. And no one’s really going to know.

Daniel: Have you ever drank a White Claw on the subway?

Amanda: I have not. Have you?

Daniel: Oh yeah.

Amanda: Oh yeah, yeah you have!

Daniel: And you don’t feel bad about it. I did it and didn’t worry. I didn’t fear the law.

Amanda: You know where you could bring them? The movies.

Daniel: I think that a lot of people would want to drink vodka soda or tequila soda on the beach, but no one wants to bring the mixers.

Amanda: Yeah, bringing whole bottles. Inconvenient and expensive. All right. Last category: bro culture. The bros have embraced White Claw even though these kinds of drinks have [failed with bros] in the past, i.e., Zima.

Daniel: What’s the Zima story?

Amanda: There was a spiked seltzer-ish drink called Zima in the ’90s they tried to market it to men. It was completely not embraced. People on late-night shows used to make fun of Zima and guys who drank Zima as girly, or kind of silly, and now it’s completely accepted. In this iteration of spiked seltzer, guys are all in. At first, I think it was kind of ironic, but now people seem to be embracing it with earnestness, because now evolved bros can accept their love of health.

Daniel: Yeah. I think when something is better, it’s going to eventually catch on. These are going to make people feel better in the morning. They’re making them feel more active.

Amanda: But what about Zima?

Daniel: I think that was before the health movement launched primarily out of the Jersey Shore television show.

Amanda: Is that where evolved healthy bros came to be? Guys who could care about their body very publicly?

Daniel: I don’t think so, but I can’t think of an earlier representation of, like, an egg-white bro, you know, on, on mainstream television. So for me that was a really important, a pivotal moment in my life. I started doing my own laundry.

Amanda: So part of White Claw getting adopted by bro culture, ironically or not, is a video from Trevor Wallace. So he is a comedian. And he did a kind of tongue-in-cheek satire video where he’s this bro who just loves White Claw. He coined a phrase, “no laws when you’re drinking Claws.” People now have T-shirts that say that.

Daniel: I think that they tried to make the T-shirt, but White Claw put a stop to it.

Amanda: And said there actually are laws. Yeah. Which is funny.

Daniel: Shows you that White Claw gets it. What do you think about this expression? It’s awful. I think he said it in a way where he was, you know, he was acting as a gross bro.

Amanda: Yeah, it’s satire, but then it becomes accepted and then people say it ironically and then un-ironically and then it’s just like a snake eating its own tail.

Daniel: It legitimizes a lot of very wrong, very terrible behavior.

Amanda: There are lots of laws. Please follow them. All right, so to really understand spiked seltzer and which is the best spiked seltzer, which one we should be buying, we brought to the studio John deBary, noted bartender, seltzer expert, I think an all-around great human. Welcome to the studio.

John deBary: Thanks for having me.

Daniel: Could you talk a little bit about the alcohol that’s in these — it’s a just sugar alcohol, a fermented sugar alcohol?

John: Basically, yeah. So I’m not, like, an expert on what a malt beverage is, but because of our, like, super cockamamie liquor laws, we can’t just put, like, vodka and soda into a can, and I desperately wish that we could. Like, in Japan you can get, like, Japanese whiskey highballs at 7-11 and it’s like heaven. Basically malt beverages are just a really high-alcohol beer. It’s made with, like, grain and usually sugar to, like, ferment into something that’s higher, like more 12 to 20 percent alcohol. So it’s not a spirit in the direct sense. It’s basically just like a flavorless beer that’s then flavored.

Daniel: John, you have never had a spiked seltzer before, and we are going to, as quick as we can, run through all these flavors and get your take on them. But as someone who is, you know, a culinary expert in the field of, of mixology, you have a good sense of what these are going to taste like.

John: I think so. But also I know that from experience, I’ve been developing something, a drink. But it’s really, really, really hard to do this and make it taste good. And berry flavors are kind of gross, like, grapefruit’s really easy to do. Hibiscus is also very easy. Cranberry is easy, so it’s like, you know, they pick the right ones, whereas like people wanting to do blue raspberry, you know it’s going to taste like bubblicious.

Daniel: We’re going to start with grapefruit Bon & Viv.

Amanda: Oh, great sound.

John: My initial reaction is that it’s like surprisingly flavorless.

Daniel: How’s the aftertaste?

John: It’s a little tinny. A little like almost metallic, like a B. I wouldn’t not drink this.

Amanda: If someone gave this to me, I would drink it again.

Daniel: Yeah. Okay. Next. Clementine hibiscus.

Amanda: You don’t get a lot of hibiscus in this one.

John: It tastes like if you ate a clementine peel.

Amanda: Grade?

John: C.

Daniel: Alright. Cranberry time. I hate the smell of this one.

Amanda: You like it? Oh, he likes it!

John: Also a B? B plus!

Amanda: Alright, pear elderflower.

John: Yeah, I kind of like it actually.

Daniel: Yeah this one rocks. It’s by far the best one for me.

John: Yeah, it’s really good.

Amanda: That’s like Jolly Rancher.

John: But I think that’s why it’s good. It doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It’s just like candied water.

Daniel: Next up we have Truly. I’m a huge Costco fan, and I don’t mean this as a slight to Costco, but Truly looks like the Costco seltzer.

John: It’s like Kirkland.

Amanda: This one has an... aroma.

Daniel: Yeah, that’s the worst one I’ve had so far. Very medicinal.

John: This whole mixed pack is like a huge red flag for me, because it’s all berry, and berry doesn’t always crush it on artificial flavor.

Amanda: We should try black cherry Claw now to compare. Since we just had the black cherry Truly.

John: It’s better. There’s also this like kind of burnt sugar caramel thing that’s been actually in a lot of these. I think it’s probably because of the way they make the malt.

Daniel: Let’s keep Clawing.

Amanda: I want to try this grapefruit Claw because, and this is what I would gravitate toward if I were on the beach.

Daniel: We have got some positive head nodding.

John: This is legit good. Like the bar is pretty low here and like the success/fail rates, the margin between the two is pretty, pretty narrow. I feel like the, the goal with these, is to be aggressively fine.

Daniel: To wrap up, I think we’ve decided that these things exist. They’re a fact of life. They’re very practical — in terms of how good they are, we’re operating within a small window of quality, and even the worst one of these — someone gave one to you at a party, you’re not going to turn it down, right?

John: Yeah. No.

Daniel: And the best one, you’re not going to get excited, are you? If you’re at a convenience store that’s a block away from the party and they have the worst flavor or you can choose to walk five blocks and get the best... don’t. Just get the worst one and go to the party and live your life.

Daniel: I think a major point that, like, seems so obvious that maybe we don’t even need to talk about, it is that if you really wanted to be healthy, you would just not drink. I think that one of the reasons that alcohol things get so trendy and become so adopted by the culture in an ironic or an unironic way is that I think that a lot of, like, bro culture especially, but like party culture are looking for, like, minor justifications and ways that legitimizes their drinking — or makes their drinking feel like they’re part of a movement or a fun thing and to kind of, like, drown out the idea that they’re just drinking to get drunk.

Amanda: But you think with party culture, people are very open about that they’re drinking just to drink.

Daniel: But I think like I’m someone that would say that, but I’m also looking for these, like, slight justifications. Like, let’s have a Claw night! It’s a way to keep it from being depressing in a way, to prevent having to admit what the thing truly is. And that’s why I feel like summer to summer, there’s always a thing that’s going to be fun and cutesy, and it’s just a way to distance ourselves from what’s actually going on here, which is just that we’re all getting drunk. People getting drunk, people nervous, want to be chill.

Amanda: White Claw is the way to hide your disorder.