The summer of 2021 has already been dubbed by marketers in the alcohol space as the “summer of canned cocktails.” That – along with the absolute explosion in the hard seltzer and ready to drink (RTD) cocktail space – explains why there was a sudden influx in traffic to a piece we featured last summer titled “How to Find the Healthiest Spiked Seltzer.”
We’re all here for picnic season. But with marketing messages coming from every direction on “clean cocktails,” “healthy cocktails” and “organic spiked seltzers,” we can feel your thirst for more info in your Google searches before you pack your coolers.
We sat down to ask DJ Blatner RDN, CSSD, author of the chart topping The Flexitarian Diet, the creator of Pizza Croutons, and frequent expert guest on Good Morning America to help us sift through this space.
We asked her about three specific categories: hard kombucha, spiked seltzer, and prepared cocktails. While there’s more we could talk about, what you seem to have questions about are the gluten-free, low-sugar options that are everywhere.
First, a primer: what makes something a prepared cocktail, a spiked seltzer or a hard kombucha?
Blatner explains “Kombucha is fermented tea. Tea is one of the healthiest beverages on the planet and because it’s fermented, it may have some probiotic benefits, too.”
She explains that “the process of fermenting kombucha creates some natural alcohol in all kombucha! The usual low-alcohol version we get without an ID at the store has less than 0.5%, so by law is considered “non-alcoholic,” although it does have some. The “hard” kombucha is fermented to have much higher alcohol.”
So the question is: with a higher alcohol by volume, will the gut health benefits evaporate? “Having a higher alcohol level won’t necessarily undo those potential benefits of tea and probiotics, but obvi it’s alcoholic so moderation, even if it has some potential perks,” she explains.
In this category, you’ll find.
Hard seltzers or spiked seltzers:
Most of these, according to Blatner, are malt liquors. Great. What’s a malt liquor?
“Malt liquor is basically high alcohol beer. During the process of making beer, some extra sugar is added (more sugar = more alcohol) to get it to be higher in alcohol than usual beer. Malt liquor IS different than other types of liquor or spirits (think whiskey, vodka, tequila, rum, gin) because it is not distilled. The distillation process separates the pure alcohol from the fermentation liquid.”
According to BevSource, malt is one of the cheapest liquors to use as a base and because malt liquor is a cousin of beer, it’s regulated like a beer rather than a spirit (easier to make, distribute, and market).
And, another confusing tidbit: these spiked seltzer malt liquor beverages, although they’re the cousin of beer, are gluten-free.
In this category, you’ll find:
- Michelob ULTRA Hard Seltzer
- Topo Chico hard seltzer
- White Claw
- Texas Ranch Water Co.
- Bon and Viv
Prepared cocktails made with spirits, aka Ready-to-Drink cocktails:
It feels like it should be self explanatory, but there’s a lot of conflicting language. This category includes ready to drink beverages made with a spirit (like vodka, bourbon, tequila, etc.), a mixer (like seltzer, juice, etc.) and other flavors (natural and otherwise).
In this category, you’ll find:
- Hornitos RTD tequila seltzer
- Ranch Rider
- High Noon
- Liquid Confidence (an upstart out of Kellogg Business School, it’s kombucha and a spirit – what a hybrid)
When in doubt about what your favorite canned cocktail is: Search for the beverage in question on Bevmo.com and look to the “varietal” section. This works for most brands with national distribution. If it’s a smaller brand, we recommend sliding into their DMs.
Now, let’s talk about the marketing terms
There are a lot of terms being thrown at us for these beverages like “organic,” “clean,” and “low calorie.” What does any of that mean? Clean, as it turns out, means nothing. According to Blatner it “has no legal definition, so it’s a marketing term, not a nutrition term that can tell you anything.”
Organic, on the other hand, is a term regulated by the USDA that gives you information about the product you’re about to buy and consume. Here’s how Blatner breaks it down.
“100% Organic” contains only organic ingredients and is processed without chemically added sulfites.
“Organic” contains at least 95% organic ingredients without chemically added sulfites. This includes Michelob ULTRA Organic Hard Seltzer (disclaimer: we have a partnership relationship with Michelob ULTRA – and we really like the stuff).
“Made with Organic Ingredients” contains at least 70% organic ingredients and may contain up to 100 ppm of sulfites.
Speaking of Sulfites, according to Good Housekeeping, they’re used “to maintain freshness and prevent oxidation,” but there are many who are sensitive to the compound (in particular, those who have asthma).
Low-calorie: According to the FDA, a food can be labeled as “a low-calorie food” if it contains 40 calories or fewer. Many of the newer, spiked seltzers and ready to drink cocktails share their calorie counts per serving as a selling point in ads and on their packaging, and those tend to be in the 80-100 calorie range, so not technically low-calorie.
Will you get a hangover more easily from a darker spirit? Yes-ish, Blatner says.
“There is some truth that clear alcohol may potentially give less severe hangovers. The reason: “congeners.” Congeners are compounds that naturally occur in small amounts as a result of the fermenting/distilling process in darker alcohol like whiskey, dark beer, and red wine.”
The fact is, if you overindulge, you’re in for a rough morning, Blatner says. “No matter the color of your alcohol, if you overdo it, you will still feel like poop in the morning.”
What do the trends tell us?
Health-conscious consumers are thinking more about what they’re drinking and how much. Because we’re drinking at home, it’s easier to be aware of how a cocktail is made and how you feel after one or two. The alcohol industry has been saying for a while that consumers are “drinking less, but better,” thanks in large part to Gen Z and Millennials.
There’s a growth in sober curiosity – or investigating what life would be like without alcohol using a very pressure-free approach. Quartz covered the movement in depth, and a few stats jumped out: in 2020, the low- and no-alcohol beverage category’s sales grew by 30%. And in 2020, Alcohol-free beer company Athletic Brewing Company (#Sweatworking Summit partner) won Brewer of the Year in 2020’s International Beer Challenge, beating out its alcoholic competitors.
Higher spend on the “good stuff”
Because consumers are drinking at home, the premium spirit category grew, most notably whiskey, tequila/mezcal, cognac and – a recurring favorite – ready-to-drink cocktails.
Consumers are researching their beverages more.
Consumers are buying more alcohol online, which means it’s a little easier to research what’s in the product, who makes it, what their values are, Liz Paquette, Head of Consumer Insights at Drizly, shared with Forbes. She also shared that a few of the categories we’re watching are growing at a rapid pace: Hard seltzers, ready to drink cocktails, Mexican spirits, and “alco-pops” like hard lemonades and hard kombucha.
So, what should YOU drink?
We recommend moderation and a limited-ingredient product if you choose to imbibe. Blatner’s current canned cocktail of choice is based on that: “Volley, which is just 3 simple ingredients: sparkling water, organic juice & 100% blue agave tequila.”
But if reading labels and doing a ton of research isn’t your thing, we’re going back to that good advice that Christina Heiser gave last summer via Paige Valentik, RD, registered dietitian for Sodexo.
When looking for the healthiest spiked seltzer, Valentik suggests focusing on calories rather than trying to limit specific ingredients. That’s because all alcohol is processed by your body in the same way.
“No matter what form of alcohol a person consumes, it’s going to be digested the same,” she says. “So, focusing on calories from alcoholic beverages is the best way to go versus going crazy with trying to limit carbohydrates/sugars and other ingredients.”
“Look for spiked seltzers with no added sugars or listed as ‘0 grams’ under added sugars on the nutrition facts label,” says Valentik.