RTD Cocktails Are Fine, But Not Yet Great

Such people are the ideal audience for ready to drink cocktails, a.k.a. RTDs. My friends enjoy variety in flavor and spirits, but more importantly, they like it delivered by someone else.

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I was genuinely surprised when a friend told me some years ago, “I’m glad you make good cocktails for us because I’m too lazy to make them like this.” As I handed this anything-but-lazy person an old fashioned made from a whopping three ingredients (five if you count the orange peel twist and clear Wintersmiths ice cubes), she admired it at arm’s length before adding, “I know these really are easy to make, but it’s just easier to open a bottle of wine and be done with it.”

Being “done with it” meant no patient dilute-and-chill stirring or making of simple syrups to store in the fridge for a variety of cocktails—stuff home cocktailers love to do for fun.

Her husband actually enjoys the ritual of making drinks: measuring, counting, stirring, etc. Yet as I made him a drink that same night, he said to me, “Oh, freezer ice is fine for me. You don’t have to use your good ice in my drinks.” He’s OK with the stuff I use only for shocking cooked vegetables, the densely fogged ice that melts quickly and, for reasons unknown to me, softens the vivid edges of a well-made drink.

Such people are the ideal audience for ready to drink cocktails, a.k.a. RTDs. My friends enjoy variety in flavor and spirits, but more importantly, they like it delivered by someone else. This couple works hard, their children are gone, and though they go out often, they also enjoy their liquid indulgences at home. They also have the means to buy RTDs that, compared to the cost of making cocktails from scratch, are pricey, though only about half what they’d pay for drinks and tips at a good bar. Pop the top and pour; that’s great for them.

Though whiskey, tequila and vodka-based RTDs have been available for years, not many were very good. But as with so many changes wrought by COVID-19 shutdowns, manufacturers upped their collective game with better tasting RTD options. Though not in the volume of market launches of new hard seltzers, launches of spirits-based RTDs has been impressive recently, so I was eager to accept some press samples.

Packages started arriving at my condo many months ago, and I and my wife and friends have gradually cracked several cans and bottles of them. The consistent verdict given most of them is “pretty good, but not great,” meaning a grade of C+ to B for most. None ever scored less than a C-minus.

At first sip, most received the soft praise of, “That’s better than I expected.” Subsequent sips saw people pleased … until about the halfway point, where flavors and textures changed and disappointed. Some common knocks included, “weird finish,” “strange nose,” “citrus tastes fake,” etc. Eventually, the tastings ended with some drain pours and the resolve to make our own from scratch—post haste.

Here are some broader thoughts on RTDs:

One of the most off-putting flavors in any manufactured cocktail is processed citrus—lemon and lime especially. An Herradura Premium Margarita (one of four bottled cocktails in Brown-Forman’s Up or Over line) largely conquers this problem; the lime influence tastes as fresh as can be expected from a bottle. But its Old Forester Ginger Old Fashioned doesn’t fare as well. Ginger—another flavor too easily altered by processing—is a bit shrill in the drink. Worse, the drink is dominated by a muddled wood note that comes off as a faux oak accent. That drink needs work for sure, while the margarita is a suitable option.

Another problem centers on low carbonation. A gin and grapefruit Greyhound made by Rivergreen (a small processor in Louisville, Ky.) contains sparkling water for texture. This is hands down the best balance of citrus and spirit in any RTD I’ve had, but all too quickly, the fizz left the drink. And we drank it straight from the can, so the blame can’t fall on ice or aeration caused by pouring. A similar Greyhound made by 10 Barrel Brewing used vodka instead of gin (gin is always my preference) and its carbonation was a bit better. But the processed grapefruit flavor was reminiscent of cleanser.

Lastly, there’s sometimes a problem with low proof. Other than cost cutting, why would RTD manufacturers do battle in the cocktail space if they’re going to bottle drinks that are weaker than some scratch analogues? (The Old Forester Ginger Old Fashioned was 28 percent ABV, which is well below what I’d create from a 50 percent ABV base [possibly 40 percent ABV with dilution factored in] whiskey at home.)

It seems that all RTDs are using 80 proof spirits, which, outside of a margarita, is low for me, but perhaps not for most others. The endless 80-proof options at liquor stores bear this out: people like easy-drinking booze. But if I have to add spirit to the drink to get the oomph I prefer, then technically it’s out of balance. And if it’s out of balance, why not make my own balanced drink to my preference?

I am happy to say that RTD doesn’t stand for “really terrible drink.” They’re pretty good overall. The effort made by modern producers is evident in the increased quality of such drinks, and doubtless consumers will notice and appreciate it and purchase them. Just because I’m not one of them doesn’t mean they’re a bad thing to have around. Drink innovation is always a good thing.

For some deeper insights on RTDs, and specifically the Up or Over line, check out Jim Vorel’s solid piece at Paste.com. I agree with everything he says on the subject.