In the summer of 2019, a slender little dynamo named White Claw blew into every bar, boat and backyard barbecue with gale force. These fizzy, fruity spiked seltzers unlocked the front door for an explosive field of hard seltzers and canned mixed drinks that blurred the bounds between beer and cocktails, and could be toted almost anywhere.
Two summers and a pandemic later, the field has become a Technicolor dreamcoat. Whereas a canned gin & tonic was next to impossible to find back then, liquor-store shelves are now stacked with canned Moscow Mules, Negroni, spicy margaritas and cosmos. White Claw still owns hard seltzers, but at least five Long Island breweries and a distillery have launched their own hard seltzers, spiked teas, boozy lemonades or canned cocktails, aiming for their slice of a market that generated $1.8 billion in sales last year and is expected to grow another 35% in 2021, according to research firm T4.
The booziness of hard seltzers usually comes from fermented grain or sugar, with carbon dioxide lending fizziness. The results of that process are rarely equal, though — many rely on artificial sweeteners like Stevia, which can be a mood killer for anyone whose palate is clobbered by fake sugars (this writer raises hand). In some seltzers, the malt flavors can smother the fruit, making them akin to weak beer.
With summer suddenly upon us, I tasted through a field of Long Island-made spiked seltzers and canned cocktails, plus a few with New York City ties. Here they are, in the order in which they won my particular heart. Prices are approximate and can vary by retailer.
9. Montauk Brewing Co. Hard Seltzer Lemonade
5% alcohol; $20 per 12-pack of mixed flavors.
When Montauk Brewing launched hard seltzers last summer, they were so wildly popular that they were hard to find. This summer, the brewery followed up with bubbly spiked lemonade, in four flavors: Original, Pink, Strawberry and Blueberry. How I want to love a drink that relies on real lemon juice and black carrot juice for color, but the Stevia-driven sweetness is unrelenting, kiboshing every other flavor in its wake. This probably won’t matter, though — I predict these will be the darlings of the summer.
8. LiV Craft Vodka cocktails from Long Island Spirits
5% abv per 12-ounce can; $12 per six pack; livcans.com/home
This is the only Long Island-made canned cocktail of the bunch, a blend of fruit juices, fruit flavors and vodka produced at the Baiting Hollow distillery. These make a dramatic sacrifice to stay calorie-free, though, relying on a Stevia-based sweetener that renders them unabashedly cloying. The bright lime flavors of Last Summer Lime Fizz get lost in that sea; Long Island Cold Brew Tea tastes like diluted caramel, which might be someone’s thing.
7. Oyster Bay Brewing Craft Hard Seltzer
4.5% abv per 12-ounce can; $12 per six pack
Sometimes it’s wise to say what you need to say in as few words as possible. That seems to be the ethos of this hard seltzer, which hides its alcohol content well beneath straightforward fruit flavors. Lemon-lime tastes like a less-sweet Mountain Dew, and if no one told you these were actually spiked, a few cans in and you might start belting out Cardi B or spilling your secrets unprompted.
6. Free Time Craft Hard Seltzer from Moustache Brewing Co.
4.5% abv per 12-ounce can; $12 per six pack
This is the mystery of the bunch, with suave packaging but minimal visibility. I found some at Total Wine in Westbury, where they were so new that not even the floor associate knew they existed. Mercifully sweetened with cane sugar and in smart flavors like tropical watermelon, mango-passionfruit and tangerine-guava, this is malty stuff, almost like sipping a phantom of wheat beer.
5. Blue Point Brewing LIIT Hard Sparkling Teas
5% abv per 12-ounce can; $19 per 12-pack
These understated spiked teas are cleverly named for our patron drink, Long Island Iced Tea, but not nearly as powerful. The three flavors are akin to three wildly different siblings. Raspberry-lime is subtle, tasting as if a handful of raspberries had been squeezed into a glass of fizzy water. Mango is in-your-face, steel-band-on-a-beach tropical, while lemon has an identity crisis, like an Arnold Palmer left too long so that melting ice watered the whole thing down.
4. Great South Bay Brewery Hard Seltzer
5% abv per 16-ounce can, $12 per four-pack; greatsouthbaybrewery.com
This Bay Shore brewery has fun with the category, venturing where few have trod before — such as candy-cane or pumpkin-spiced coffee hard seltzers. Beach days call for fruit, though, and the Spiked Kiwi hard seltzer is tart, summery and uncomplicated, with bubbles like ultra fine sandpaper. I hoped Blue Raspberry Fool Aid might mimic my favorite 7 Eleven Slurpee, but sadly it won’t leave you with a blue tongue (it’s clear) and its berry flavor is kind of indiscriminate.
3. Dante NYC & Five Drinks Co Summer Spritz
12.5% abv per 200 ml can, $11 per four-pack
This spicy little number was forged by the talents of the New York City bar Dante, and it’s a more floral version of a gin & tonic, brimming with cucumber and elderflower flavors.
2. Fishers Island Lemonade Fizz
5% abv per 12-ounce can, $16 per four-pack
Booze? What booze? Devotees of the original Fishers Island lemonade might nod knowingly at such words, as this beloved whiskey- and vodka-spiked lemonade is a creeper. Fizz, one of two new flavors launched this year, injects bubbles into the situation, but dials the booze level down to nearly half of its big sister. It’s pure citrus-spiked sunshine — easy drinking that evokes fresh breezes and lazy coastal days.
1. Sixpoint Brewery Party Poppers Hard Seltzer
5% abv per 12-ounce can, $28 per 12-pack
Whilst sipping the wonder that is Lemon Bar, one of four flavors from this Brooklyn brewery, I wondered if some professional drinkers had locked themselves in a room until they had created exactly what they might want in a hard seltzer — freshly-squeezed lemons layered with biscuits and a hint of vanilla, easily the most inspired of this entire field. Passionfruit-orange-guava is subtly tropical, while lime-cucumber smells like an actual cucumber and tastes like a gin and tonic. Triple Berry is forgettable, like a bad episode of "Game of Thrones," but we sometimes need to accept the middling alongside the great.