Orlando McCray is a White Claw man. “Truly is trash,” says the head bartender at Nightmoves, a sister bar to natural wine destination The Four Horsemen in Brooklyn, New York. “There are faux artisanal brands I have given a chance, but they’re not good.”
In 2020, “when things got real dark,” says McCray, the appeal of easy-drinking, no-thinking hard seltzers was even stronger for him and his hospitality comrades-in-arms.
“What’s funny is that I turned our wine director, Justin Chearno, onto hard seltzer as well, and as soon as I turned a natural wine person, I knew I was onto something,” he says.
Hard seltzer is one of the fastest-growing categories in the beverage industry. Three years ago, there were 10 brands on the market, according to Nielsen. By the middle of 2020, that number had risen to 65, as spirits brands, water companies, wineries and breweries entered the segment.
Last summer, McCray started to make his own hard seltzer, dubbed Nightclaw. He’s among a handful of bartenders who’ve started in-house hard seltzer programs. They appeal mostly to young, affluent drinkers and industry folks who don’t mind paying a premium for a craft product with a twist of low-brow irony.
Most commercial hard seltzers are a concoction of malt liquor, carbonated water, chemical flavoring agents, sugar and citric acid. On its own, the malt base tastes like “off-dry garbage, wet cardboard,” says Jack Schramm, who has consulted on several hard seltzer projects after his role as head bartender at Existing Conditions vanished last year. “It’s really unfortunate on its own.”
Upgrading the base is the most obvious place for bars to tinker, but the approaches diverge widely from there.
À la minute seltzer
At Nightmoves, where the seltzer program is scheduled to resurface in the summer, McCray devised a 5% alcohol-by-volume (abv) neutral base with Wódka vodka, cane syrup from Martinique and citric acid. He sought flavorings that didn’t taste too synthetic and landed on Apex Flavors’ green apple, orange creamsicle, cranberry, guava and watermelon.
Rather than can the seltzers, his team force-carbonates the drinks in two-liter bottles and serves them in chilled highball glasses with ice on the side.
“It didn’t cost us anything to make. We did it to be cheeky, and at a lower price point.” —Orlando McCray, Nightmoves
“We wanted it to be absurd and have five or six flavors, all centered on a zero-flavor base,” says McCray, who charged $8 a pop last year. “It didn’t cost us anything to make. We did it to be cheeky, and at a lower price point [than other cocktails]. We turned quite a few people into hard seltzer drinkers.”
Cocktails, but make it hard seltzer
When Will Wyatt, co-owner of Mr. Paradise in New York City’s East Village, launched his in-house hard seltzer program, he planned to develop a neutral vodka base. But with help from Schramm and armed with Dave Arnold’s book, Liquid Intelligence, Wyatt figured out how to create complex, esoteric hard seltzers.
At its simplest, Wyatt’s formula is ¾-ounce cordial, 1½ ounces spirits and 9¾ ounces water, force-carbonated in a similar manner to McCrady’s seltzer. To ensure that the product is as shelf-stable, fresh and bubbly as possible, Wyatt applies a full arsenal of modernist bartending techniques to seltzers like his Cougar Magnum, a combination of Islay Scotch, gin, St-Germain, smoked grapefruit and popcorn butter.
“The goal of these isn’t the same as other hard seltzers, which I think is like, ‘I’m gonna get drunk without wasting too many calories.’ I hope I never have to know how many calories they have.” —Will Wyatt, Mr. Paradise
For the Party Lobster, he clarifies watermelon juice with a pectin-breaking enzyme and a combination of gelatinizing and wine-fining agents, and then spins it in a centrifuge. He measures the juice’s Brix with a refractometer and adds sugar until it reaches the sweetness of simple syrup. To mimic citrus juice, Wyatt adjusts the watermelon syrup with citric, tartaric and malic acids.
To finish, he combines the resulting cordial with water, Campari, Tequila and mezcal. The mixture is then chilled to just above its freezing point and is carbonated three times at 60 psi, or pounds per square inch (the higher the psi, the more carbon dioxide is in the liquid). Wyatt gently agitates the bottles throughout the process to encourage carbon dioxide absorption.
Carbonation also introduces carbonic acid, which enhances the perception of sour flavors. Wyatt fills 12-ounce cans to the brim, seals them with an Oktober can seamer and slaps on a waterproof Avery shipping label.
Over the holidays, those labels advertised the beverage as “Santa Claws,” for which Wyatt hoped to at least receive a cease and desist letter from White Claw. The letter never came.
Wyatt is a bit conflicted about calling the beverages hard seltzers. He prefers sparkling cocktails.
“The goal of these isn’t the same as other hard seltzers, which I think is like, ‘I’m gonna get drunk without wasting too many calories,’ ” says Wyatt. “I hope I never have to know how many calories they have.”
In downtown Pittsburgh, Market Street Grocery houses a grocery store, café, wine bar, bottle shop and cocktail bar. Last year, during warm weather, there was a boozy lemonade stand out front that drew people out of their apartments and back to the neighborhood.
“Everything that happened with Covid-19 hit our industry hard, especially downtown,” says Cecil Usher, a bar industry veteran and one-half of Mindful Hospitality Group. “We wanted to create a product in Market Street Grocery to recaptivate peoples’ attention and give them something to look forward to.”
Usher and his partner, Catherine Cannon, joined with Cody Baker, an event producer and marketer, to launch a line of hard seltzers. Their first iteration has a base of Grey Goose Citron, clarified and acid-adjusted lemon and lime juices, sweetener and water.
To produce the volume they needed, Usher decided to carbonate the seltzer in a keg, a process far more finicky than a two-liter bottle. He scoured beer forums and reread techniques from bartenders like Arnold and Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Usher finally placed the keg in the freezer for an hour and carbonated the seltzer three times at 45 psi. He waited 20 minutes in between each round and gently shook the keg.
“I cracked one open two weeks after canning, and I was shocked,” says Baker. “It was still carbonated. It made that psssshhhht noise when I opened it.”
The $10 seltzer hits 7% abv, just above traditional seltzers and right below the new White Claw Surge. No one is balking at the price point, according to Cannon.
Low-tech, premium ingredients
The selling point for Yellow Door Taqueria’s $11 hard seltzer is its two full ounces of Chinaco Blanco Tequila.
“It’s stronger than a hard seltzer,” says Jarek Mountain, managing partner and lead bartender of the Boston restaurant. “We wanted it to feel like you are ordering a Tequila soda.”
Mountain takes a low-tech approach to his agave-centered seltzers. He infuses Tequila for three to five days with mango, passion fruit, cactus flower or berries, and strains the liquid through cheesecloth to remove as many solids as possible.
To the Tequila, he adds a half ounce or so of pasteurized lime juice and a touch of agave syrup. He pours the mixture into a can and fills it to the top with cold Polar seltzer.
Yellow Door works with Canned Cocktail Company, a micro mobile-canning service that stops by the restaurant to can and label the drinks. The seltzers sell out long before the ingredients have a chance to degrade.
“In summertime, they’re going to fly for us,” says Mountain. “It’s like, ‘I’m going to a barbecue, let me buy six seltzers.’ ”
Hard seltzer future
As indoor bar service resumes in New York City, Wyatt plans to package one hard seltzer flavor a month for Mr. Paradise.
“Our weekend nights are chaos,” he says. “When guests are packed in here and the bartender is 30 tickets deep, the server can be like, ‘I need a six-pack of cocktails.’ ” Wyatt plans to charge $13 for the drinks, $2 less than his other cocktails.
Schramm says that in-house hard seltzer could occupy a similar menu niche as vodka soda, the perennial best-seller in most bars. But he cautions that housemade hard seltzer may not work in every bar.
“Everyone is working on [ready-to-drink, canned cocktails]. Hard seltzer might lose its novelty. Maybe we’ll see the era of the seltzer sommelier approaching. That’s more likely than the advent of everyone having in-house hard seltzer.” —Jack Schramm
“Ask who your guest is and what your goals are,” he says. “There’s lots of fun to be had in the space, but it might not be the most cost effective or best-selling drink, unless you meet a specific set of criteria.”
Schramm thinks only the most curated programs will stand up to market saturation. “Everyone is working on [ready-to-drink, canned cocktails],” he says. “Hard seltzer might lose its novelty. Maybe we’ll see the era of the seltzer sommelier approaching. That’s more likely than the advent of everyone having in-house hard seltzer.”
For McCray, though, hard seltzer is now just another menu category, one he enjoys drinking and can also produce in-house at a healthy margin.
As with all the White Claw McCray enjoyed in 2020, he says, “I don’t think about it too much.”