A new wave of independent beverage brands, some promising health benefits and others a good old-fashioned buzz, are remaking the way we unwind.
In Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, “The Road,” which is set in a desolate postapocalyptic America, the protagonist finds a can of Coke and offers it to his son. Sweet and fizzy, the soda is a taste of the lost world, preserved against the odds. The world’s flora and fauna might have died off, the human population reduced to refugees and cannibals, but the can is intact.
In recent years, though, the scope of the can has greatly expanded. As American tastes move away from sugar, artificial flavorings and in some cases even alcohol, a glut of new single-portion drinks brands has emerged. Typically small-scale businesses, they promise everything from wellness to tipsiness, by way of thoughtfully crafted fruit-flavored seltzers, botanical mixers or artisanal cocktails including low-calorie tequila blends, herb-forward spritzers and old-fashioned old fashioneds. And where the hard-seltzer boom of the past five or so years has provided drinkers of all ages with an easy path to inebriation, these latest offerings seem designed — with their bright, Instagram-friendly branding and health-conscious recipes — to appeal specifically to millennials and Gen Zers. They are typically low-sugar, low-carb, low-additive, low-calorie and low-alcohol (if they have any). Their names often sound like European nightclubs.
Credit…Photo by David Chow. Styled by Haruko Hayakawa
Take Recess, a line of drinks and powders that advertises itself as an “antidote to modern times.” There’s no faulting the ambition. Benjamin Witte, the brand’s founder and C.E.O., talks about products that help consumers feel “calm and relaxed in distinct ways at different moments throughout the day.” He says the latest range, Recess Mood, uses magnesium L-threonate, “a new and highly efficacious form of magnesium,” to “catalyze the production of dopamine and serotonin” in the brain. After drinking a version infused with strawberry and rose, at least one person on my informal tasting panel claimed to feel “slightly high and giggly.” That may have been attributable, at least in part, to the design of Recess’s cans, which come in soothing pastel colors. But their flavors are brightly juicy without the tongue-flattening astringency of artificial sweetener.
Recess follows on the heels of Kin, a range of alcohol-free “euphorics” intended to occasion a booze-free high. The Kin Spritz blends botanicals, including hibiscus and licorice, with nootropics such as caffeine and the adaptogen rhodiola rosea, which, the company says, “supports the balance” of cortisol, the fight or flight hormone. The flavor is mildly grassy, and the effect on me and my nonscientific surveyors was mild but noticeable.
Another emergent theme is the ready-to-drink can that doubles as a mixer. In 15 years, the British tonic water company Fever-Tree has built a multibillion-dollar empire on its slogan that “if three-quarters of your drink is the mixer, mix with the best.” The British American start-up Avec and its competitors are hoping for a slice of that pie. Avec’s flavors are bold — think jalapeño and blood orange or hibiscus and pomegranate — and made with high-quality ingredients and without artificial additives. “From the rise of premium spirit options to zero-proof spirits to CBD-infused products, the adult drinking occasion is changing radically,” says co-founder Dee Charlemagne.
Something & Nothing, founded in the U.K. in 2017, sells what it describes as “seltzers for the curious,” made with a base of grape and lemon juice, that are likewise designed to be drinkable on their own or with alcohol. The Yuzu Seltzer, in particular, was a hit with the tasters: It has a softly citrusy flavor with a pleasingly tart finish. Another brand making use of the Japanese fruit is Ghia, whose signature drink is a nonalcoholic aperitif with deep grapefruit and orange notes — founder Melanie Masarin was inspired by her childhood vacations on the Mediterranean — and which recently launched Le Spritz, a range of ready-to-drink cans that add sparkling water with a dash of rosemary and yuzu to the original formula. Not to be confused with Ghia is Figlia, a bottled nonalcoholic aperitivo whose flavor profile has more ginger and summer berries; while it can be drunk neat, I preferred it with a splash of sparkling water. While we’re on bottles, another standout line is Curious Elixirs, which offers five different nonalcoholic cocktails presented in pleasingly grown-up brown glass containers.
But reports of the death of the boozy cocktail may be exaggerated. The family-run, California-based boutique aperitif company Haus, which also bottles its drinks rather than canning them, has grown rapidly since launching in 2019. Its range blends fruit wine with everything from star anise, cloves, lavender and citrus to cinnamon, strawberry and elderflower. Flavoring wine in this way might have the vignerons of Burgundy rolling their eyes, but it produces a drink versatile enough to be consumed neat or in mixed drinks. Best of all, the relatively low alcohol by volume (ABV) means you can make your way through more of the stuff without falling off your stool or alienating your party guests. At 8 percent, the McBride Sisters range of canned California-made rosé spritzers has a similar quality.
Zuzu, an alcoholic “sparkling cocktail,” launched in 2019 by old friends Ali Schmidt and Greta Caruso, prides itself on a philosophy of “less is more delicious.” The pair’s original calamansi lime flavor includes just five ingredients: lime juice, agave spirit, agave syrup, sparkling water and a dash of salt. And as with most of these new drinks, which speak to customers raised on a doctrine of “Coke is bad,” care has been taken to avoid excessive sweetness. It has a summery, citrusy flavor. Where Zuzu’s branding and simple glass bottles are deliberately low-key, the packaging of the canned Onda is loud, emblazoned with bright surfing-inspired lettering. The drink consists of a mix of tequila, sparkling water and fruit juice — either lime, grapefruit, watermelon or blood orange — and, with just 5 percent ABV and no more than 100 calories per can, seems targeted at the younger day drinker. (One of Onda’s co-founders is the actress Shay Mitchell, a star of the teen drama “Pretty Little Liars.”)
The Atlanta-based brand Tip Top, another purveyor of alcoholic options, looked further back for inspiration for its premade cocktails. Meant to be drunk straight or poured over ice, they come in charmingly dinky 100 milliliter cans printed with a logo of a monocled giraffe and fonts that echo Prohibition-era posters. They also have throwback ABVs of up to 40 percent. While the margarita lacks some of the life zest of fresh lime, the classic Manhattan, old fashioned and Negroni are all a treat, with a welcome bitterness and unapologetically strong liquors. “We felt there wasn’t the simple baseline satisfaction for cocktails that are familiar,” says co-founder Neal Cohen, who launched the company in 2018 with his childhood friend Yoni Reisman. “The discerning drinker, who generally steers clear of canned cocktails, understands we are coming from a different place.”
On the one hand, this new wave of portioned drinks is a logical, enjoyable extension of other prevailing trends. The beverages cater to generations whose members are more fastidious about what they put in their bodies, even if it’s in search of a buzz. The transition away from plastic packaging makes aluminum more persuasive, even if its recycling credentials also deserve scrutiny. And the pandemic has boosted the appeal of drinks that are easy to consume alfresco. But with every new can or small bottle comes, too, the implication that we are increasingly more wary of communal drinking, less willing to split a bottle, as it were. With their carefully calibrated mixes of adaptogens or craft liquors, these offerings align with a consumerist fantasy that even our pre-dinner drink might be tailored exactly to our preferences and ours alone. There’s something antisocial, maybe even faintly lonely, about that. After all, if there’s one thing McCarthy’s bleak but redemptive novel and Coca-Cola’s marketing have agreed on, it’s that while a can of Coke might be delicious and transporting, the act of sharing it is more precious.