It's a hot, still Sunday along the narrows of the South Shore, we've stopped at the fishing station for more bait during a day of fluke fishing. I grab some minnows from the freezer and turn to the refrigerator for a six-pack when some unfamiliar G-force draws my hand toward those drinks that look sort of like beer but aren't, silver cans embellished with waves and tiny raspberries.
An hour later, I'm sipping my first-ever White Claw — a spiked seltzer flavored with raspberry — and realizing these have been winking at me for months now, from ice buckets and coolers and gas-station shelves, a growing army of spiked seltzers, sparkling margaritas and canned cocktails decorated with flowers, fruit, and mermaids, plus promises of "0% sugar" and "only 100 calories" and, the macdaddy of them all, "gluten-free."
The recent wave of canned drinks that have bumped Mike’s Hard Lemonade and Zima to the sidelines can come in quasi-exotic flavors such as dragonfruit and guava, or as premixed Moscow mules and gin-and-tonics, all canned up and ready to rumble in their natural habitats of barbecues, ice buckets, boats and coolers hauled to the beach.
From last spring to this one, sales of malt-based cocktails (such as Bon & Viv) spiked by 574 percent, according to Nielsen, while hard seltzer sales nearly doubled (to $487.8 million) and canned cocktails rose by 40 percent — all of this while craft beer sales plateau. While most of in the category are technically malt beverages — using a fermented alcohol that's stronger and sweeter than beer — canned cocktails, by contrast, usually name a specific spirit base, such as vodka or rum, though a few keep it mysterious ("distilled from corn," for example, is all the informaton one brand will give you).
The origins of that alcohol delineate where you will find these: Though most fall between 5 and 10 percent alcohol, hard seltzers and malt beverages (such as Lime-A-Ritas) dwell on convenience stores and beer distributors shelves, while canned cocktails are sold in liquor stores. I scoured all of these places to collect a hodgepodge in order to find out, what's good? Hundreds of bubbly, sometimes wincingly sweet sips later, it became clear not all are created equal. Another take-away: It's hella hard to find a canned G&T on Long Island (I looked high and low, to no avail).
High Noon Sun Sips Vodka & Soda, Grapefruit
After that first can of White Claw (see below, way below), cracking into High Noon felt like a robust reprieve. This super-fizzy, uncomplicated drink is like liquid sunshine, and activates every summer urge in your body and in your brain for sun, sand and an empty mind. Unlike some unnaturally tinted malt beverages (looking at you, Smirnoff Ice), Hign Noon is clear as day, and the grapefruit flavor is direct and fresh, and instead of a surfeit of sugar, it tastes a little bit salty, just like the August air. Grade: A Price: $11.99, four-pack of 12-ounce cans
Fugu Black Skimmer Bourbon Whiskey Highball, Cutwater Spirits
Whoa! Hello, bourbon, no mistaking you here. This blend of bourbon and soda water is like a thrash metal anthem in a sea of ballads. At 10 percent alcohol, it's one of the booziest, too, its muscle stewarded by hints of toffee and cocoa. The addition of mint, though, leaves a strange aftertaste. Definitely have this one over ice, if your surroundings and provisions allow. Grade: B+ Price: $12.99, four-pack of 12-ounce cans
Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzers
This is White Claw's savvier, worldlier, better accessorized cousin, light-bodied but still full of personality, roughly effervescent, and up front about its weird alcohol ("cold fermented corn sugar,"). It is not terribly sweet and, at 4.5 percent alcohol, totally sessionable. Bon & Viv's flavor spectrum treks from grapefruit (pleasingly tart) to prickly pear (a trending flavor that tastes sort of like a fusion between honeydew and cherries). Just avoid the classic flavor, which smells and tastes like watered-down lager. Grade: B+ Price: $8.99, four-pack of 12-ounce cans
Corona Refresca Guava Lime
Guava is another flavor darling of the summer and Corona uses it to decent effect in a beverage packaged as a "premium spiked refresher ... imported from Mexico." I popped one open with low expectations, but its faux-tropical charms softened by jaded heart, even if it does smell a little like beer as you bring it to your lips. Sure, the guava is probably lab-created guava flavor, the lime probably from citric acid, but Corona gets points for not oversweetening the heck out of this (as they could have) and producing something that can probably sate both grandma and a college senior at a family barbecue. Grade: B Price: $9.49, six-pack of 12-ounce cans
Two Chicks Sparkling Tequila and Grapefruit Cocktail (Paloma)
Two Chicks launched their unabashedly femme-looking drinks line this spring and their riff on a Paloma gets props for being the prettiest of the bunch, a slender pink can embroidered with flowers and hearts that you want to wave around the deck like arm candy. What's inside, though, is a sugar-forward sparkler with only a back note of grapefruit, and tastes more like rosé than a Paloma. Put it in the freezer and let it turn to a slushie to mimic frosé, as this draws out the citrus notes (just make sure the can doesn't explode). Grade: B- Price: $16.49, four-pack of 12-ounce cans
Fugu Horchata Cold Brew Cocktail, Cutwater Spirits
Because this is still (or non fizzy), it's a welcome textural break from the field, but still seems uncomfortably suspended between fake horchata, an espresso martini and cold brew that's been left in a car for a day. There's the faintest whiff of cinnamon, but the biggest selling point, really, is its bracing 12.5 percent alcohol -- enough to seal the deal for some people, I guess. It's also one of an extensive line of canned cocktails from San Diego Cutwater Spirits. Grade: C+ Price: $14.99, four-pack of 12-ounce cans
Hemptails Citrus Gold
This malt beverage suffers from identity crisis. It's made with hemp seeds, so it has the skunky flavor of some IPAs (and more illicit things). It's citrusy in a blood orange kind of way, and mildly bubbly, too; while all of these things should equal allure, this just tastes odd, like the wrong chord in the middle of a song. Grade: C Price: $10, six-pack of 16-ounce cans
The Copper Can Moscow Mule, Cutwater Spirits
This russet-colored can touts the classic Moscow Mule components: a "6x distilled' vodka, ginger beer and organic lime juice. All promising enough, but given the ease of mixing a Moscow Mule at home, I'd rather batch my own than bank on this tinnier version of the original. It's also just shy of fizzy enough to taste flat and tired. The six-times distilled vodka? That, I could get down with -- on its own. Grade: C Price: $15.99, four-pack of 12-ounce cans
White Claw Hard Seltzer
This is the most ubiquitous canned cocktail, filling ice buckets across the land, and that's a puzzler, because it's akin to fruit-tinged air. The ingredient list coyly lists, simply, 'alcohol,' which is the second ingredient after seltzer. I give White Claw props for having real raspberry concentrate in their raspberry flavor, but it still has the sort of chemical sweetness that still smacks of aspartame, even if it isn't. I'd rather ingest 100 calories and 2 grams of sugar in a can of Bon & Viv, but I'm me and you're you, and I realize this is here to stay, and I can accept that. Grade: C- Price: $9 per six-pack of 12-ounce cans
Jose Cuervo Sparkling Margarita
With eyes closed, any drinker could probably name this as a margarita, but holy Jalisco, this is SWEET, like a triple-sec-heavy margarita that was spilled on hot pavement and left to develop really, really ripe flavors, then decanted back into a can to gain a finishing aluminum note. This little guy packs 8 percent alcohol, though, from blanco tequila, a lot of alcohol in a small package. Will more than one give you a headache? That's for you to find out. Grade: D Price: $7.99, four-pack of seven-ounce cans