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Sept. 20, 2021

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Here are the best ready-to-drink cocktails

Wide variety is available in latest alcohol trend

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Gin & Tonic by Chicago Distilling.  Premade cocktails are all the rage right now, but which ones are worth drinking?
Gin & Tonic by Chicago Distilling. Premade cocktails are all the rage right now, but which ones are worth drinking? (Raquel Zaldivar/Chicago Tribune) Photo Gallery

Last year, I asked a brewery owner what excited him in his portfolio. The response was swift.

“Canned cocktails,” he said.

That’s right: The beer guy was most optimistic about … premade cocktails.

Turns out, he’s not alone.

In a wild time where beer’s dominance of the alcoholic beverage industry has waned by the year (look no further than the rise of hard seltzer), ready-to-drink cocktails have assumed their place in the boozy pantheon.

The number of RTD cocktails, as they’re known for short, has grown exponentially in recent years. Many are packaged in 12-ounce aluminum cans. But they also come in smaller cans. And large bottles. And small bottles. And cans shaped like bottles. And boxes. And pouches.

Craft distillers have waded in, including Chicago Distilling Co., which has seen its 200-milliliter canned cocktails (that’s 6.8 ounces) become a surprise hit. So have major spirit brands, including Tanqueray gin (introduced last year), Jack Daniel’s whiskey (also introduced last year) and Absolut vodka (yup, you guessed it). Large breweries are making RTD cocktails — Anheuser-Busch bought San Diego’s Cutwater Spirits in 2019 — and so are smaller breweries, including Boulevard, New Holland and Dogfish Head.

I spent a couple of weeks tasting a large swath of what’s out there — or what felt like a large swath every night around 9 p.m. — and I have thoughts. But before the thoughts, let me tell you the guidelines. There had to be guidelines; there are so many ready-to-drink cocktails at this point, and frankly, a lot of them are junk.

I tasted only the boozy cocktails aiming to replicate the layered, nuanced experience of what would be served in a bar with a serious cocktail program. That doesn’t mean the cocktail itself needed to be serious — playful is wonderful in this realm — but there needed to be intention behind the liquid.

I wasn’t after wispy vodka sodas with a smattering of flavor; anyone can make one of those. I wanted fully formed cocktails. Most of what I tasted — about 50 RTD cocktails in all — was above 10 percent alcohol, and plenty of it surged well past that threshold (consider a delicious 24.6 percent rum Old-Fashioned — keep reading).

I also ignored the things that seem mostly like a vehicle for combining alcohol and sugar to generate an easy buzz. There are plenty of those on the shelves. I skipped them all.

As for my grand conclusions? There are a lot of good ready-to-drink cocktails out there. Many are very good. And I absolutely love the concept.

Draft cocktails have always bugged me as a bit of a rip-off; if I walk into your bar and spend $8 or more for a cocktail, I don’t want something premade. I want something fresh. I want an experience. But paired with from-the-fridge convenience, that same premade cocktail can’t be beat. As a consumer, I’m not interested in the bar’s convenience; I’m interested in my convenience. RTD cocktails offer it.

Of the dozens of ready-to-drink cocktails on shelves, here are the ones to savor — and the ones to avoid.

Tequila

We adore our margaritas. By almost any metric, and no matter who is tabulating, they are the nation’s most popular cocktail. And that popularity is reflected in their ready-to-drink dominance. Many of the companies wading into the RTD field offer a margarita. Those that don’t have one in the works.

Top shelf: Last summer, esteemed Chicago taco joint Big Star teamed up with also-local Apologue Liqueurs to put its margarita in 12-ounce cans. While Big Star Margarita (12 percent alcohol) may not quite replicate the joy of a fresh margarita at Big Star’s Wicker Park bar, its combination of tequila and Apologue’s triple sec liqueur comes awfully close. There are none of the artificial flavors or overwhelming sweetness that doom so many margaritas, canned or not. It’s nicely dry, finishing with a limey bite and a pleasant boozy snap.

Also recommended are two other Big Star RTDs added to the lineup this summer: Spicy Margarita (12 percent) gets an addition of jalapeño that offers a kick, but without overbearing heat. And Big Star’s Paloma (6 percent) is a classic blend of tequila and grapefruit, though rather than juice, it’s Apologue’s grapefruit liqueur, which comes across with authentic fruit flavor and just enough sweetness.

For those who like a bit of smoke, Crafthouse Cocktails’ Smoky Margarita (13.6 percent) offers a hearty twist, though it also underscores a directive for almost everything on this list: Pour it over ice. A little dilution helps tie the Smoky Margarita’s flavors together and lessens both the heat and some of the cocktail’s more bracing qualities. In the Smoky Margarita, that’s a burnt-rubber note that fades to a lovely smokiness once the cubes melt just a bit.

Mid-shelf: I’m not generally a mango margarita fan, but Cutwater’s Mango Margarita (12.5 percent) is nicely balanced between robust fruitiness and a boozy hit in the finish. I prefer it to Cutwater’s basic margarita (12.5 percent), which isn’t egregious. But there are better options.

If you’re into flavored margarita of a more fervent kind, consider the jalapeño-pineapple margarita from On the Rocks (20 percent), made with Tres Generaciones tequila, which hits its intended intersection well. It’s available individually and in a highly recommended mixed pack that covers the cocktail spectrum. I prefer On the Rocks’ jalapeño-pineapple margarita to its classic version, also available in the variety pack and made with Hornitos tequila (20 percent).

The grapefruit flavor in Chicago-based 88 East’s paloma (8 percent) skews more grapefruit soda than actual fruit, but it’s tasty.

Leave it on the shelf: Unfortunately, 88 East falters with its Mezrita (8 percent), which aims for a smoky mezcal margarita. The can promises “smoke and fire” and a “hint of spice,” but those flavors come across with an undercurrent that’s strangely antiseptic. It’s a massive miss. Zing Zang’s margarita (9 percent) is the garden-variety American margarita in a can: too goopy and too sweet. Cutwater’s Paloma (7 percent) is also too sweet and false in its grapefruit flavor, with an unfortunate cotton candy note.

Vodka

Being a neutral spirit, vodka can be used as a canvas for almost anything — and in ready-to-drink cocktails, it is. Many manufacturers dabble in Moscow mules, but there is plenty beyond that, from a grape-and-ginger cocktail to bloody marys.

Top shelf: There are plenty of RTD Moscow mules out there — a blend of vodka, lime and ginger. Crafthouse Cocktails (10.1 percent) aces the mixture better than most: lime, ginger, and, most importantly, not too sweet. Chicago Distilling’s Chicago Mule (a local play on the Moscow clocking in at 10 percent) is nicely balanced and dialed in with a gentle ginger bite and an interesting floral essence that makes it a little rounder than many competitors.

The Moscow mule from F!VE Drinks (9 percent) is the most ginger forward of any of these, and by far. That will appeal to some (including me), but the lingering heat and bite could turn off others.

Cardinal Spirits of Bloomington, Ind., uses that neutral vodka base to excellent effect with its Bramble Mule (6.5 percent), a lovely blend of raspberry, ginger and hibiscus. It’s fruity but not sweet, a touch earthy, and shows a subtle spiciness. It’s the only thing I tried from Cardinal, but I’ll likely seek out more.

Mid-shelf: Cutwater’s Moscow Mule (7 percent) is balanced and mellow, skewing sweet. Like much of the Cutwater line, it’s inoffensive and accessible. It would be fine to pull from a backyard cooler, but it’s hard to recommend further. Same for The Copper Can (10 percent), which offers a heavy (and welcome) jolt of lime offset by a cream soda note that results in more sweetness than other mules.

Chicago Distilling’s Transfusion (10 percent) is built of grape, ginger and vodka. It’s a fun curveball.

There aren’t many RTD bloody marys out there, but Zing Zang, which built a reputation on its bloody mary mix, makes a respectable one (9 percent) that features a spicy bite in a rich tomato base.

Leave it on the shelf: 88 East’s Watermelon Vodka (8 percent) really isn’t bad. It tastes like a well-made (and not too sweet) liquefied watermelon Jolly Rancher. It is highly recommended to whoever wants to drink a liquefied (and not too sweet) watermelon Jolly Rancher. Everyone else should probably pick up Cardinal Spirits’ Bramble Mule instead.

Gin

Ah, gin. Elegant, wonderful gin. Gin is often an ideal base for interesting and nuanced cocktails, and that’s true in the ready-to-drink realm, too. This is the most consistent crop of cocktails I tasted.

Top shelf: Chicago Distilling’s Gin and Tonic (10 percent) won best RTD cocktail from the American Distilling Institute in 2019, and I can see why. It’s boozy, but layered with a lingering botanical bite. The gin is probably delicious, but the secret, I suspect, lies in the house-made tonic, whose secret ingredient is wormwood, that same bracing and bitter herb prominent in Chicago’s beloved Malort. This is not just another wispy G&T — which, let’s be honest, is most of them, canned or not. This is complex and layered, bright and refreshing — a G&T for the connoisseur.

Crafthouse comes through with yet another winner with its take on a Southside (13.8 percent), made with London dry gin, mint and lime. So does On the Rocks with its take on an aviation (20 percent), made with London dry gin “and flavors of dry cherry, lemon and violet.” (Exact ingredients are not listed.) It’s soft and lightly floral upfront before landing with dry, boozy muscularity.

Mid-shelf: F!VE Drinks blazes an interesting trail with its Summer Spritz (12.5 percent). It’s made with gin, elderflower cordial, cucumber bitters and cucumber, lemon and grape juices. Summer Spritz bursts with cucumber — a refreshing summer-ready flavor — balanced by a hint of citrus and a light gin bite. It’s bright and interesting and goes down quite easy for the alcohol content. Despite its name, Summer Spritz is available year-round.

Leave it on the shelf: Blueberry Gin Lemonade (9 percent) from Michigan’s New Holland Brewing is fun and summer ready, but also too sweet, too boozy and a touch artificial.

Rum

Tequila gets most of the spirit love in this country, but don’t sleep on rum for a tropical escape. The rise of Tiki bars is reflected in RTDs.

Top shelf: On the Rocks’ mai tai (20 percent) may not exactly be a mai tai — it veers into pina colada territory — but it is unabashedly delicious, bursting with fruity tropicality (think pineapple, melon and banana) with a weighty rum underpinning. Another one to pour over ice; a little dilution helps.

Next up, yes, it’s Crafthouse again. Its Rum Old-Fashioned (24.6 percent!) boasts a nice thread of coconut and is phenomenally balanced for the alcohol within. It is truly one to savor.

Mid-shelf: I can’t fully disavow F!VE Drinks’ mojito (9 percent). It tastes perfectly fine. But an infusion of passion fruit lends a fruity burst that is not recognizable as what most people would probably expect from a mojito. In the case of On the Rocks’ mai tai, diverging from what’s expected works. Here, less so.

Cutwater’s Tiki Rum Mai Tai (12.5 percent) is perfectly fine, though sweeter and simpler than, say, the On the Rocks take.

Leave it on the shelf: I was excited for a cocktail from a box. Truly. But Drake’s Organic Boxtails’ Minted Mojito (12 percent) is all sweetness, laced with a strange disinfectantlike flavor that makes it impossible to recommend.

Bourbon

The classic American spirit isn’t widely represented in RTDs, which is a bit surprising considering the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan are two essential classics. Nevertheless, there were some worthy candidates.

Top shelf: On the Rocks Old-Fashioned (20 percent), made with Knob Creek bourbon, is close to what you’d get at any self-respecting bar: boozy and muscular with notes of maple, dark fruit and oak. If you’re noticing a trend with regard to the On the Rocks series, you’re right: It’s consistently good stuff.

In Crafthouse’s Gold Rush (14.9 percent), the honey and lemon are starring characters, creating a bright and accessible cocktail that hides its robust alcoholic content. The Crafthouse portfolio is also consistently impressive.

Mid-shelf: Zing Zang’s Bourbon Whiskey Sour (9 percent) is exceedingly sweet, thanks to the “award-winning sweet and sour mix” championed on the can. But at least the sweetness rings true and doesn’t come with any off flavors. This likely makes for a welcome gateway to dark spirits for people often turned off by dark spirits.

Leave it on the shelf: I thankfully encountered no irredeemable duds among the bourbon RTD cocktails. But in another couple of years, as RTDs no doubt continue to proliferate, I’ll check back. In the meantime, I’m ready for a beer.

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