Canned, bottled, “pre-made,” or ready-to-drink cocktails have been around for about as long as cocktails themselves have existed, though they’re certainly gaining in both market share and prestige. The popularity of pre-made cocktails has peaked and waned over centuries and right now we’re in a pretty big peak with seemingly every brand — new and old — putting out some form of ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail in a can, bottle, or even pouch.
Cards on the table, the vast majority are pretty trash. As someone who judges these things, I can tell you that there are a lot of companies out there delivering shit products with too much sugar and too little refinement (this is often where brands hide the cheap booze they make). Still, that’s not to say there aren’t great ready-to-drink cocktails. There are… a few.
Below, we’re calling out some canned, bottled, and pre-made cocktails that don’t actually suck. These are the ones that break through the void of overly sweet, overly manufactured, and overly messed with and actually have a nice, subtle, and tasty flavor while delivering what’s promised on the label. Let’s dive in!
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Stone Buenafiesta Margarita Pineapple Habanero — Zach Johnston
Average Price: $16 (four 12 oz. cans)
Stone Buenafiesta Tequila Margaritas are made by a beer company but actually hit the mark really well. The RTDs are made with actual tequila from Jalisco that’s blended with a touch of real habanero and pineapple in the vat when they’re making the drink.
The tequila comes through on the nose with a sense of roasted vegetal agave next to fresh green chili pepper and a hint of grilled pineapple. That tropical fruit gets juicy and fresh on the palate with a cut of lemon oils and spicy habanero on the very end, plus a twinge of lime juice and maybe a hint of that roasted agave popping back in.
This did have a mild sweetness but that was cut by the hefty citrus and habanero spice. It has a truly nice balance of flavors and actually kind of feels like a real margarita. If you poured this over some rocks with a salt-rimmed glass, you’d be pretty satisfied.
The Gold Fashioned 2022 Blend – Steve Bramucci
Average Price: $152 (one 750ml bottle)
This product is a little bit of an outlier because as you can see — it’s $150 per bottle. And you can get one hell of a bourbon (or rye) for that money. So to pay that much for a bottle that is not simply “all alcohol” is going to feel… a little odd to many consumers.
With that said, this is a beautiful midcentury Don Draper bottle — a bar cart centerpiece — built around quality ingredients. The whiskey blend isn’t known but features 15-year Kentucky Straight Bourbon, 9-year Kentucky Straight Bourbon, and 6-year Indiana Straight Rye. The saffron is ethically sourced from Afghanistan, the vanilla comes from Tahiti, the cacao is from Equador, the gentian flower extract comes from France. This is a world tour in a bottle.
As a truly nice touch, the bottle comes with an “orange zest atomizer” to spritz over the glass. Def a cool look at parties.
If you bought some big ice cubes, poured this directly into the glass, and spritzed the orange zest over the top as you delivered each glass, you would have a show-stopping opener to any party. The nose picks up the orange zest plus a nice warming whiskey and plenty of the fair trade demerara syrup. The palate has a nice whiskey warmth with some of the more exotic flavor notes — vanilla and saffron — landing near the finish. The close is sweet. And while this is a tad sweeter than I’d make an old fashioned, it’s certainly not sweeter than what the average drinker expects or what is served at the average bar.
Moreover, I don’t think you’d do much better at most whiskey bars and you’re definitely not getting 10x 75ml old fashioneds on the coast for less than $150 (especially if you tip well).
I hosted a party where I knew I couldn’t mix bespoke drinks during the arrival rush. I poured this out to the first 10 guests and it was an absolute hit.
Campari Soda — Zach Johnston
Average Price: $10.95 (five 3.35 oz. bottles)
Created back in 1932 in Milan, this is the granddaddy of ready-to-drink cocktails. The deeply red elixir is a mix of one part Campari and two parts fizzy soda water (the good stuff from northern Italy). The balance is perfect for pouring over some ice or simply drinking from an ice-cold bottle.
Rich botanicals and herbal notes subtly appear on the nose with a sense of almost salty mineral water and a touch of orange essence. The palate is dry and full of woody botanicals and soft citrus, especially tangerine and pomelo with a hint of chinotto bitterness.
This is a great and refreshing pre-made cocktail. It’s wonderful on its own but really shines over some rocks with a topper of prosecco, creating your own easy spritz.
Cutwater Heater Hot Buttered Rum — Steve Bramucci
Average Price: $19 (one 375ml bottle)
I picked this particular expression, but to be honest I love the entire Cutwater Heaters series. I think a big part of why is that I like hot cocktails this time of year but always make too much and they’re sort of a menace to clean and generally a hassle to prepare. Visually impressive, sure, but sort of a bear all around. Plus, while Cutwater’s canned series is pretty sugary for my palate, hot drinks are supposed to read as sugary-syrupy — which made me curious about these.
The Heaters series is made up of four pour-over RTDs — you pour hot water over a shot of the mix and you’ve got a drink. That solves the problem of making too much and also allows folks to make theirs a tad stronger or weaker, depending on personal preference.
This reads as buttery without it tasting synthetic or chemical-y. It’s warming and holiday-ish. All wins. The mid-palate has a nice whiskey punch — 80% abv isn’t bad for an RTD (it gets proofed down by the water but mine still felt like a nice, stiff pour). The backend is sweet, there’s no avoiding that, but it’s butterscotch sweet in a way that works and doesn’t feel unbalanced and there’s enough warmth (from the hot water and the booze) to mitigate it.
Not sure I could do more than 10% better from scratch. And avoiding the cleanup is far more valuable to me than that last 10% of performance!
Jim Beam Cocktails Classic Highball — Zach Johnston
Average Price: $11 (four 12 oz. cans)
This canned cocktail from Kentucky blends classic Jim Beam bourbon with a touch of seltzer water and a drop of citrus oils.
The bourbon shines through on the nose with hints of woody spice, vanilla beans, and cherry candy. The palate is full of that bourbon-y goodness while the seltzer offers a sharp fizziness accented by hints of rich orange and lemon oils.
This is shockingly good for a canned highball. It’s easy drinking and full of classic whiskey highball flavors.
Golden Rule Espresso Martini – Steve Bramucci
Average Price: $20 (four 3.3 oz. cans)
I’ve always gotten a great response about Golden Rule. I think the reason why is 1) they taste even more potent than they are (in a good way), and 2) they are one of the few canned cocktails that aren’t overly sweet. I suppose those two things are related (as alcohol potency is typically masked with sweetness) but regardless — these little guys are tasty!
This tastes like an espresso martini. Sorry for not being more involved but… does an espresso martini ever taste either better or worse than an espresso martini? I don’t think so, personally. I mean, unless you’re really brewing espresso in your house. Then… maybe? Not even so sure.
Does that make these tasting notes poorly written? I say “no!” It tastes like a mix of sugar, vodka, and espresso and that’s what you wanted.
Buy these. Pour them into martini glasses. Float an espresso bean or cocoa powder on top. Claim you made them from scratch. If someone notices, I’ll reimburse you.
Jack Daniel’s Apple Fizz — Zach Johnston
Average Price: $12 (four 12 oz. cans)
This canned cocktail is made with Jack Daniel’s signature Jack Tennessee Apple, fizzy soda water, and a touch of citrus essence.
There’s a clear sense of apple orchards with a hint of Granny Smith and honey lurking underneath on the nose. The palate melds honey apple crisps with light lemon zest and a twinge of orange pith for a bright and refreshing sipper.
This is a bit like Martinelli’s Apple Cider turned up a notch. The sweetness is dialed back a bit and feels like real honey, not sugar syrup. The light citrus really jives with the tart apple and creates an easy drinker.
Sagamore Spirit Rye Orange Crush — Zach Johnston
Average Price: $16 (four 12 oz. cans)
Maryland’s Sagamore Spirit created a whole line of new RTDs with their award-winning rye whiskey. In this case, the pre-made cocktail is Sagamore Spirit rye cut with orange juice, lemon juice, lime juice, and natural orange flavor along with fizzy soda water.
This is like a boozy orange creamsicle in a can. There’s a sweetness on the nose that’s tied to the orange. The palate has a nice and lightly spiced whiskey base with a hint of rye breadiness and burnt orange that plays well with the creamy vanilla and orange that’s the star of the show.
This is the sweetest of my picks. But it works here since this is about an “orange crush” and not a simple rye highball. It delivers what’s on the label while going deep enough to feel like something real and nostalgic, even straight out of a chilled can.
George Dickel Social Hour Harvest Whiskey Sour – Zach Johnston
Average Price: $28 (four 8.5 oz. cans)
This brand-new canned cocktail from George Dickel is a killer. The actual booze in the drink is 13-year-old George Dickel Tennessee Whisky, which is wildly good whiskey to put in a pre-mixed cocktail in a can. The mix is a combination of that old whiskey plus Honeycrisp apple, Meyer lemon, cinnamon, maple syrup, and cardamom with a whisper of fizziness.
The whiskey and Meyer lemon pop on the nose with a sense of spiced apple cider (the good stuff with a murky body). The palate is bold and hits you with a light whiskey sense that’s part whiskey sour and part spicy apple cider. The dark cider, woody cinnamon, and whole cardamom pods really last on the palate with a nice citrus counterpoint. Moreover, there’s an actual finish that lasts and meanders through the woody spice and real apple cider — with a hint of cinnamon butter — back toward the feel of a good, wintry whiskey sour.
This is straight-up delicious and really feels like you’re drinking a cocktail. It’s boozy, full of real-feeling flavor notes, and doesn’t at all taste like it’s out of a can.