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 absent from the States until recently. All we had were 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. A little 7% ABV canned cocktail gets taxed the same as a full-strength bottle of liquor.
But thanks to industry trailblazers, including the five canned cocktails below, the U.S. is well on its way to enlightened, high-quality RTDs that could put the words “wine cooler” in the same dusty drawer as “8-track tape.”
Cutwater Spirits was cofounded by Yuseff Cherney, who began distilling as a side project under Ballast Point brewing. He started canning cocktails because he wanted to make drinks he could enjoy while fishing and hiking, his favorite activities. The brand has a line of 18 canned cocktails made from its portfolio of premium spirits, including a Bloody Mary, Rum & Ginger, Gin & Tonic, and Long Island Ice Tea, each featuring Cutwater’s San Diego craft spirits as their base—and not a lick of malt in sight.
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, when heated up and poured in a mug, it takes on a whole new kind of seasonal versatility.
Finland’s greatest export—besides, arguably, the sauna—is the long drink, a category of alcoholic beverage that combines gin with grapefruit soda. The refreshing cocktail’s roots can be traced back to the 1952 Summer Olympics, when the Finnish government needed a quick serve for millions of visitors. It remained popular among locals and today is available in multiple variations all over Finland. Fortunately, a made-for-the-U.S. version emigrated stateside in 2018. This particular long drink, aptly dubbed “Long Drink,” is a lightly carbonated mix of gin, grapefruit soda and juniper that goes down easy and comes packaged in a distinctive bright blue can. It’s a natural choice for summer, but don’t relegate Long Drink exclusively to warm-weather hangouts—the Finns drink it year-round.
“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 the drink in a can seemed like a natural outcropping to their Mule-fueled success. The corn-based vodka is their own product, and the rest consists of real ginger extract, fresh lime juice and locally-sourced Colorado beet sugar. The cocktail is less of a punch of flavor than a nudge, but it’s refreshing, portable and gluten-free.
The Cooper Spirits Co. kicked off the rebirth of the Rock & Rye trend with a spicy, citrusy, just-sweet-enough version. It’s a winning combo of the company’s own rye, air-dried Florida oranges, Angostura bitters, Pennsylvania-sourced raw honey and a touch of rock candy. The 84-proof Slow & Low is available in a 750 mL bottle, if that’s your preference. But it’s hard to deny the portability (and adorable nature) of the brand’s 3.4-ounce can, which is the perfect amount for a single cocktail. 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.