The Basics Tips & Tricks

Bartenders Are Getting on the Hard Seltzer Bandwagon

These pros are harnessing drinkers’ love of hard seltzer.

Anarchist’s Pop Shoppe at Blue Bloods Steakhouse in Toronto
Anarchist’s Pop Shoppe at Blue Bloods Steakhouse in Toronto Image:

Aleksandr Russell

No drink has infiltrated the zeitgeist quite like White Claw. The Claw has fueled thousands of GIFs and memes. It commandeered its way into the cultural vocabulary (“Ain't no laws when you’re drinking Claws!”), inspired tattoos and filled the glasses of millennials, college bros, wine moms and everyone in between. And the numbers reflect that. Drinks market analysis firm IWSR noted that over the last few years the hard seltzer sector has boomed, growing by 346% in 2017, 246% in 2018 and 214% in 2019. 

But at a respectable craft cocktail bar, cracking open a White Claw can seem pedestrian. “With very few exceptions, White Claw is only mentioned behind the high-end bar as the butt of a joke,” says Aleksandr Russell, a bartender at Blue Bloods Steakhouse in Toronto. “That shouldn't be the case, though. Any bar outfitted with the ability to carbonate a cocktail could be making their own seltzer cocktails.”

Despite the common perception, White Claw doesn’t live in a different realm from craft cocktails. “The White Claw trend is all about accessibility and broad appeal,” says James Simpson, the beverage director at Espita Mezcaleria in Washington, D.C. “Hard seltzers are easy-drinking, refreshing and low-ABV, which echoes trends I’ve seen in the craft cocktail scene during the last few years.”

“Three or four years ago, the session IPA was huge,” says Russell. “Same goes for lighter lagers. The seltzer trend takes that concept and applies it to a drink that people who don't want the bloating and calories associated with beer can enjoy at a pool or in a park, without having to worry about making their own drinks.” So how can craft bartenders tap into hard seltzer’s sessionable no-fuss appeal?

Low-Brow Highball

Simpson has had carbonated draft cocktails on Espita’s menu since the bar opened. But with the rise of hard seltzer, “we’re seeing more broad appeal for the lighter spritz-style cocktails we have made in-house over the last four years,” he says. “And we’re loving it.”

“Hacking the highball has been on everyone’s mind since the introduction of premium mixer brands like Fever-Tree,” says Simpson, naming the brand used in his Ghostclaw cocktail. “Plus, modern bars already have the necessary tools and ingredients, like high-pressure CO2 charging systems and powdered citric acid blend, to make house-made hard seltzers an easy move.”

But there are differences between a bartender-made hard seltzer and a highball. “One of the main ones is what flavors are being capitalized,” says Hernan Trujillo, the head bartender at J.Bespoke in New York City. “A hard seltzer uses a lower ABV to focus on flavors from the fermented sugars, whereas a highball is merely hard liquor and a mixer. With a hard seltzer, pay attention to your alcohol-to-soda ratio. You don’t want the cocktail to come off too boozy, like a highball.” 

Russell seconds this. “You need to make sure there are no dominant alcoholic flavors, then it's just a flavored highball,” he says. One of the biggest draws of a hard seltzer is its nearly imperceptible alcohol content. “Go light on the base spirit—just enough flavoring ingredients to be present after adding soda—and try to avoid fresh citrus juice whenever possible,” he says. He prefers to use a few teaspoons of citrus zest rather than citrus juice to give the drink a subtle brightness, as he does in his Anarchist’s Pop Shoppe, which also uses vodka, Benedictine, Cherry Heering and soda water. 

Alternatively, you can simply forgo imitating the flavor of a seltzer in a highball and use the seltzer itself. “Bartenders can definitely include White Claw in their recipes by incorporating it the same way they would a club soda or tonic,” says Trujillo.

Claw-Inspired Cocktails

With a carbonation system, replicating the effervescence and ease of cracking a hard seltzer is easy. Russell highly recommends offering a hard seltzer cocktail on a bar menu “just for speed alone,” he says. “It’s a drink, at a standard cocktail price, that’s simply pulled from a fridge and injected with CO2—a huge win for any bar from a speed point of view.” He does note that without a carbonation system you’ll lose speed as well as the “gimmick factor.” “But an amped-up Vodka Soda will beat a new variation on a Margarita costwise every day of the week,” he says. “Plus, it will take less time to build.” 

Rob Granicolo, the owner of Cry Baby Gallery in Toronto, says you don’t need a carbonation system to jump aboard the hard seltzer train. “You could tweak a French 75 to allow a White Claw top to substitute for the sparkling wine—that’s a fun patio option,” he says. “Or make it into a slushie and throw in a loud garnish, and you have yourself an Instagram influencer’s dream.” Alternatively, he adds, “My first inclination is to turn White Claw into a syrup, similar to how we make a beer syrup, then add the right amount of citrus to brighten the flavors.”

One crucial element in crafting a hard-seltzer-esque cocktail is to avoid any overtly saccharine flavors. Trujillo dodges that trap by skipping simple syrup and leaning instead on fresh ingredients such as mint, lavender, rhubarb bitters or even the French aperitif Bonal. “By using liquors, juices, muddled fruit and club soda, you get a fruity refreshment that sort of disguises the spirit.”

Simply Crack a Can

While we can conjure up cocktails that imitate the breezy flavors of White Claw, remember: Many people really like hard seltzers just as they are. “We can all agree that there’s nothing better than a freezing cold can on a hot day,” says Granicolo. “Having ready-to-drink cocktails that aren't filled with sugar is a win in itself.”

“Seltzers are something that are commonly requested at our rooftop bar,” says Novel Day, the general manager at L.A. Jackson in Nashville where she serves Wild Basin craft seltzer on draft served over Kold-Draft ice cubes in a Collins glass with a nice garnish. “However, everyone seems to prefer a different brand or style,” she says. “So why not give the people what they’re asking for?