Whatever your preferred cocktail, odds are there’s a version available in a can.
In 2020, canned cocktail sales surged 52.7%, according to IWSR, a drinks market analysis firm. Consumer demand grew during the pandemic, as bars and restaurants closed and people pursued outdoor activities.
The popularity of hard seltzer has also created enthusiasm for ready-to-drink (RTD) canned beverages. The overall RTD category, which includes hard seltzers, grew 62.3% in 2020, according to IWSR.
While many are enjoyable, canned cocktails don’t always taste quite like drinks made at bars or at home. In fact, some taste markedly different.
In general, a wide range of ingredients are added or removed from canned cocktails for safety and shelf stability. Citrus tends to degrade and oxidize, so a complex mix of acids, sweeteners, flavorings and colorings may be used to reconstruct the effect of lemon or lime.
“Juices, teas and honey all are challenging,” says Scott Weddle, director of business development for Flavorman, a flavor formulation company in Louisville. “These ingredients are common in cocktails and can naturally have a higher microbial load than some other ingredients might.”
Canned cocktails don’t always taste quite like drinks made at bars or at home. In fact, some taste markedly different.
Other canned drinks are completely re-engineered, compared to standard cocktails.
Aaron Polsky is founder of LiveWire Drinks, a Los Angeles-based canned cocktail company that spotlights drinks sourced from bartenders. His canned drinks are formulated with more water than standard drinks, which would typically be shaken with ice.
“In a bar, I make it, they drink it,” says Polsky. “I have control over the final serving temperature. With a can, it has to taste good over a range of temperatures…The levels of water, acid, sugar and alcohol were designed so that if someone pulled it out of an ice bath, or took it in a cooler, it still has to taste good.”
There are many components that can affect canned cocktails.
Most often, citric, malic, tartaric and/or phosphoric acids are used in place of fresh citrus to give brightness and acidity.
“Fresh natural juices, especially citrus—lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange—just don’t have shelf life in a can or bottle,” says Melkon Khosrovian, cofounder of Greenbar Distillery. The Los Angeles-based facility cans 11 drinks, none of which require citrus or replacement acids.
“It breaks down within a matter of weeks,” says Khosrovian.
Citric acid is most commonly used to replicate the tartness and sourness that citrus would typically provide, though it doesn’t add citrusy flavor. It’s also sometimes added to balance out sugar, control pH or lengthen shelf life.
“It’s important to get [a canned cocktail] to a relatively low pH,” says Weddle. “It makes the environment less hospitable to microbial growth.”
Is the base of your canned cocktail a quality distilled spirit or malt beverage? The latter are increasingly common. Malt beverages are fermented and brewed like beer, and they’re considered beer by U.S. regulators. They skip the extra step of distillation needed to be considered a spirit.
This doesn’t mean that they’re bad, but a malt beverage-based “margarita” won’t drink quite like a Tequila-based version.
Even when spelled out, like in a canned gin & tonic, some producers purchase a neutral alcohol base and add juniper oil or other flavorings, or combine a gin concentrate to dilute with tonic syrup and water.
If a canned drink is less than 10% alcohol by volume (abv), it’s more likely that preservatives are used to ward off microbial growth.
Potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate and other preservatives are often added at very low levels, and there’s no flavor impact, Weddle says.
Some producers are working on natural preservatives, but Weddle is skeptical about their effectiveness.
“There hasn’t been any great data that anyone’s cracked that nut so far, but there’s lots of great work going on, so we’re hopeful,” he says.
Used to make cocktails bubbly, carbon dioxide can also add a touch of sourness, says Khosrovian. “It adds bite, a sharpness to the palate.”
That’s often considered desirable, as in naturally carbonated mineral water.
“We typically overcarbonate our drinks, compared to others,” says Khosrovian. “We make ours for bubble lovers.”
Many canned cocktails are clear, as white spirits, acids, sweeteners and chemical additives don’t tend to add color. Some selections have a naturally dull hue, like those that feature barrel-aged spirits or oxidized fruit juices. Some producers add natural or artificial colors to brighten up drinks.
“Think of those 100 different colors of Gatorade,” says Weddle. “You can get any color in the rainbow.”
Those colors come from artificial dyes like FD&C No. 5. Usually, there’s no flavor or texture impact.
Natural colors derived from fruits and vegetables are less stable. They may fade and brown over time. When used in concentrated amounts, they can add flavor, like the purplish hues derived from cabbage, says Weddle. “You can get to the point where you’ve added so much you can pick up cabbage notes in your berry liqueur.”
Natural and artificial flavorings help compensate for the lack of juices and other fresh ingredients in canned cocktails. Quality and variety can vary, but examples include limonene or citralene, extracts used to mimic fruit flavors.
Gums and glycerins are used to add texture. Gums can thicken a drink, so particles like black pepper can be suspended in a canned Bloody Mary. Glycerin is used to add a slick or “smooth” sensation. It’s often added to gin-based cocktails to take off the edge. It’s a type of sugar, and it may add a trace of sweetness.
Like in a freshly made cocktail, sweeteners add flavor. While bartenders might reach for sugar, often in the form of simple syrup, agave or honey, the range of sweeteners used in canned drinks is even wider.
If a Flavorman client specifies a sugar-free drink, the company might formulate it with stevia, monkfruit or sucralose. These substances are tricky because they can add bitter notes at the finish.
“The sweetener can drastically change the flavor,” says Weddle.
High-fructose corn syrup is also common. Though not used in Greenbar’s line at press time, Khosrovian says that he’s found that it can have a muting effect.
“It was like throwing a blanket over flavors,” he says. “You couldn’t taste them as vividly.”
As a result, Khosrovian says that manufacturers of artificial flavorings concentrate fruit notes or other products at higher strengths to compensate.