If you’re heading to Scotland, scotch is the obvious order of the day. But what you may discover there is a portable sipping culture: cocktails in a can. This clever on-the-go creation was nowhere to be found in the States a few years ago. All we had was malt beverages—the falsely flavored hard lemonades, coolers and whatnot made from malted grains and juiced with an extra jolt of alcohol via corn byproducts. The reason: Our prohibitive post-Prohibition laws by and large don’t know what to do with pure spirits in a can. Even if their alcohol levels are comparable via dilution to, say, a beer or a malt beverage, they are in separate tax categories. Up to now, a little 7 percent ABV can of Disco Lemonade gets taxed the same as a bottle of pure booze (that is to say, much, much more).
But thanks to the five trailblazers below, the U.S. may well be on its way to enlightened high-quality to-go tippling that could put the words “wine cooler” in the same dusty drawer as “8-track tape.”
The Cooper Spirits Co. kicked off the rebirth of the Rock & Rye trend—its spicy, citrusy just-sweet-enough version a winning combo of its own rye, air-dried Florida oranges, Angostura bitters, Pennsylvania-sourced raw honey and a touch of rock candy. Although owner and visionary Rob Cooper passed away earlier this year, his team made sure that his idea for great cocktails in a portable form saw the light of day. Launched in September, 84-proof Slow & Low is now available in 3.4-ounce-can form (the perfect amount for a single cocktail). And if four bucks sounds like a lot for that amount of liquid, consider that same drink with those same high-quality ingredients would cost you at least twice that in any bar. Dig it.
Fishers Island has only one pull-up-a-stool bar to its wiggly nine-mile strip of land in the Long Island Sound, The Pequot Inn. Built in 1902, Bronyo Shillo’s dad took over the inn and bar in the 1990s and with it a popular-yet-origin-less house concoction called Fishers Island Lemonade—a combo of whiskey, vodka, honey and fresh lemon juice.
“One late night, I was bartending, and I had to refill the lemonade container so much because it was so popular; it’s what we’re known for,” says Shillo. ” I thought it would be cool if we could bottle it.” But growing up on a seafaring island gave her the smart idea to go for a can instead. “The labels don’t come off when wet. You won’t have glass on, say, a boat. And you know, there are kids out there who like to shotgun things.” It also happens to be very Toddy-like, so while it’s super refreshing straight out of the ice-cold can, heated up and poured in a mug, it takes on a whole new kind of seasonal versatility.
“We opened our tasting room in 2012 in Denver,” says Wyn Ferrell, who co-owns Mile High Spirits with his business partner, Joe Vonfeldt. “We immediately became known as a Moscow Mule bar, with 10 to 15 options of it on the menu.” Putting it in a can seemed like a natural outcropping to their Mule-fueled success. The corn-based vodka is their own product, Elevate, and the rest consists of real ginger extract, fresh lime juice and locally sourced Colorado beet sugar. The final product is less of a punch of flavor than a nudge, but it’s refreshing, portable and, hey, gluten-free if that matters to you.
New York State’s first canned cocktail launched this past summer from affable winemaker turned distiller Ben Reilley in Cazenovia, N.Y. “I was the winemaker and director for Owera Vineyards for four years. I figured, if I’m going to work 80 hours a week, I might as well be doing that for myself.” His Life of Reilley line of New York State corn-based vodka launched in 2014, and he uses the raspberry version as the main boozy source in Disco Lemonade, a gently carbonated easy-drinking sipper that strikes a just-right balance of sweet and tart. (And at 6 percent ABV, it’s perfectly pleasant to unregretfully knock back a few.)
Earl Kight and his partners sold Ballast Point Brewing Company to Constellation Brands for more than $1 billion dollars, but they wouldn’t give up the distilling end of it. Re-dubbed Cutwater Spirits, their line of canned cocktails was inspired by a trek to Australia, where that antipodean country’s penchant for mixed drinks in cans inspired Kight. Today, there are four in total running from 6 to 10 percent ABV: a Bloody Mary, Rum & Cola, Rum & Ginger and Gin & Tonic, each with Cutwater’s San Diego–based craft spirits (Fugu vodka, Three Sheets rum and Old Grove gin) at their base—and not a lick of malt in sight.