Whether walking through the grocery store or scrolling past ads on your Instagram feed, chances are you’ve noticed the canned cocktail boom — everything from palomas to Old Fashioneds premixed and contained in an excruciatingly designed package. The canned drinks, which now include Bacardi Bahama Mamas made with real rum and even boozier libations like the Negroni, offer both incomparable convenience and the assurance that you won’t screw up a whole batch of classic cocktails with human error. But while we may not always have time to juice a bunch of limes for the perfect margarita or tediously muddle mint and sugar for a proper mojito, surely we deserve better than this new outcropping of mediocre cocktails whose only virtue is that they’re served in a fashionable can.
Press releases from the new generation of canned cocktails flood my inbox daily, many of them touting fancy, buzzword ingredients like raw honey, fresh herbs, and adaptogens. These cocktails are now mixed with “real” tequila and rum, not the malt liquor featured in progenitors like Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Zima, and that’s supposed to function as an indicator of quality — and health. “With just 99 calories per can, only 1 gram of total carbohydrates and 0 grams of total sugars, Cantina Ranch Water is not only flavorful and refreshing, but it provides a better-for-you alternative,” reads one release.
These drinks are trying to show consumers that these aren’t your mother’s malt beverage, they’re part of a whole new generation of drinks that promise to bring a bartender’s touch to the convenience of a canned beverage. Unfortunately, though, such quality is rarely found inside the can. It is true that at least some of these canned libations offer more balanced flavors and fewer chemical additives than their predecessors. These are both good things. But canned cocktails didn’t exactly have a high bar to clear — being better than “objectively bad” does not mean that they are good.
Thanks to the explosive growth of the ready-to-drink category, every single libation you can think of is being turned into a canned cocktail, to varying degrees of success. The market is overwhelmed, mostly by drinks that just don’t need to exist in canned form. In June, Coca-Cola announced that it would bring its iconic branding to a whiskey-and-Coke cocktail in partnership with Brown-Forman, the legendary whiskey conglomerate that produces Jack Daniels. This news was the absolute last straw for me. Not only does Coca-Cola want you to pay a little more for each cocktail when you’re headed out to the beach or otherwise looking for a convenient libation, they want to make it worse!
Almost to a one, canned cocktails are unbalanced — always too sweet or too acidic — to really give you the satisfaction you’re looking for when trying to unwind with a cocktail. They also inevitably end up tinged with a metallic taste thanks to the aluminum packaging, and that tinge is especially prevalent when you’re drinking a canned margarita or other cocktail with lots of citrus juice. Many contain artificial sweeteners in an effort to make a “healthier” version of the original ranch water or mai tai — but that just leaves them with a weird, chemical aftertaste.
And ultimately, the beauty of drinking cocktails at home is that you can customize them to your personal tastes, for better and for worse. Don’t like vermouth in your martini? Just leave it out! Prefer to shake your Manhattan instead of stirring? Who cares? Do what you want! But with a canned cocktail, no adjustments can be made if you find the drink too cloying or too boozy, leaving you stuck to either just begrudgingly slurp it down or toss it into the trash.
Perhaps it’s worth a reminder that mixing up your own big batch cocktails — customized to your liking — is exceptionally easy. Just pour your favorite mixers into a pitcher, add booze, and serve when convenient. You can even fill up a Thermos with your concoction, and take it wherever you want. Outside of the fact that it’s going to taste better than any canned cocktail, it’s also more stealth — easy to drink in places where you’re probably not technically allowed to do so, and you have the added bonus of not having a bunch of cans to dispose of when the drinking is over.
To be clear, I am not above a trashy drink or convenience. I have consumed more White Claw than is medically reasonable and, honestly, wouldn’t smack a bright blue bottle of MD 20/20 out of your hands under the right circumstances. Every booze has its time and its place, but the vast majority of canned cocktails feel mostly like a gimmick, promising ease and convenience and delivering both alongside a big dose of disappointment. I also understand why companies would seek to capitalize on a market category that’s grown more than 200 percent in the past five years alone. What I don’t understand, though, is why anyone wants to buy a canned version of their favorite drink. What we gain here in alleged convenience is lost almost entirely in flavor and quality, and with something as simple as a Jack and Coke, it’s just not worth it.