Kristine M. Kierzek
If you’ve ever wondered about canned cocktails, now is the perfect time to try them. Options are growing, from mojitos and mules to spritzers and sangria. Here in Wisconsin, of course, there are brandy old fashioneds, as well.
In fact, Wollersheim Winery and Distillery in Prairie du Sac, which this year is marking its 50th anniversary, just released brandy old fashioned in cans.
Some people will doubt you can get top-notch quality in a can. Yet the category of spirits-based canned drinks is growing, and they’re different from malt-based hard soda or seltzer. Plus, they tote easily to picnics and parties.
The cocktails mentioned here are distributed throughout the state, and you’ll find producers’ latest on shelves at retailers. Most have online retail locator tools, and Woodman’s, Discount Liquor, Ray’s and Total Wine carry a number of options listed.
High-end canned cocktails are not cheap
Canned does not necessarily mean cheap. It does mean convenient and consistent.
That’s something distiller Tom Lenerz, general manager at Wollersheim, came to terms with as he worked to create that canned brandy old fashioned, made with the distillery’s Press House brandy.
“A couple years ago, if you went to the liquor store and looked for a canned cocktail, they were very inexpensive. You were not getting a high-quality product,” he said. “We didn’t want to cut corners on quality to get the price down. We took exactly how we serve it here and formulated it for the can. It is pricey at $32 for a four-pack.”
He wasn’t sure consumers would go for canned cocktails, particularly at a higher price point. Still, he knew brandy old fashioneds were always popular with his friends and family. If they didn’t sell, he’d still drink them. They launched a test run, selling only at the tasting room.
“We saw people walking out with cases at $8 per can,” he said, noting cans are distributed throughout Wisconsin as of this month. “We began with 30 gallons the first year. We’ve already made 1,200 gallons this year. We are trying to schedule another 1,200 in a few weeks because the response has been more than we expected.”
Tom Dufek, who spent a decade bartending at Hi-Hat in Milwaukee, launched Plain Spoke Cocktail Co. in Madison in 2018 with a Moscow Mule. Today, the brandy old fashioned is his bestseller by far.
“Just because it is premade doesn’t mean low quality,” Dufek said. “It is as close as you can get if you go to the bar and get one. We want to make the ability to have a quality cocktail more accessible. Four years ago, there were one or two other canned cocktails in Wisconsin; none were using real juice or anything like that.”
More canned cocktails join market
Wisconsin native and UW-Milwaukee graduate Dawn Egbert runs Dashfire with her husband in Minnetonka, Minn. They started making bitters in 2012 and launched cocktails in 2018.
“Our first one was in 750s (milliliter bottles), because the cans weren’t here yet,” Egbert said. “People really like the convenience of cans, and it makes it easier to have a quality cocktail whenever you want it.”
Because of their beginnings with bitters, their drinks are ingredient focused and typically have a higher alcohol content.
“Our cans have the cocktail you would get at the bar, 38% ABV,” alcohol by volume. “That’s a smaller niche,” Egbert said. “We’re one of five to six makers that sell the 100 milliliter cans with 38% ABV, except the white Russian, which is at 17% ABV with the cream, which is actually sourced from Wisconsin.”
She continued: “Our drinks are pretty intense. Like, a classic old fashioned has three to four ingredients. Ours has nine. Somebody at home might not want to put that much effort into it.”
Today their lineup of six canned cocktails is available at retailers in more than 20 states and online at shop.dashfire.us. Options distributed in Wisconsin include Dashfire’s 100-milliliter cans of bourbon old fashioned, fig and cascara Manhattan, elderflower Martinez, and chai white Russian made with Wisconsin cream.
Later in summer, Dashfire will launch its Long Drink Series, a line of fruit-forward, lower-alcohol, ready-to-drink cocktails.
Shelf space devoted to canned cocktails has continued to grow exponentially over the past year.
That growth inspired Bill’s Distributing in Menomonie. Tapping into the expanding category, the company launched Badger Claw canned cocktails in fall 2021. It produces cans of sweet Wisconsin old fashioned and citrus punch, packaged in San Francisco by private label manufacturer Blank Collective.
Heirloom Liqueurs released Creme de Flora Collins and alchermes spritz cans in fall 2021. They are distributed in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but availability is limited because of production issues and problems with some of the cans. Currently, the canned cocktails are available at Bittercube Bazaar, 4828 W. Lisbon Ave.
Brandon Reyes, who works with Bittercube’s Ira Koplowitz to create the cocktails showcasing their liqueurs, said additional flavors are to launch this summer, genepy mojito and pineapple amaro. Look for the espresso martini in cans later this year, as well.
The advantage of canned cocktails
Some options are also hitting the mark with consumers because they’re lower in sugar and calories.
That was the push behind Carbliss. Developed by a Sheboygan couple, Adam and Amanda Kroener, the vodka-based drinks with sparkling water were Adam’s solution. The company’s first flavors were lemon lime and black raspberry. A local bartender inspired the addition of vodka cranberry, and they added passion fruit in summer 2021 after Walmart’s request for a tropical flavor.
“This month, we launched black cherry,” Adam Kroener said. “We want to solidify ourselves as a ready-to-drink cocktail, so we also launched a tequila margarita this summer. Right now, our bestseller is black raspberry.”
Launched in December, Odyssea Sangria comes from Daniel Beres and Tripper Duval, who operate cocktail bar Lost Whale, 2151 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. Beres spent years nailing down the red sangria recipe. Odyssea is now available in red, white and rosé, sold in four-packs.
“The red is the most traditional, in the style of a Spanish sangria inspired by zurra from northern Spain, which is made with red wine, peaches, nectarines, cinnamon and vanilla. How can we make it more modern? We added raspberries, lime and cane sugar,” Beres said.
“That was our flagship. I literally had people ask me why we did cans and not wine bottles. The honest reason is you can’t take a glass bottle to the beach or a park. Also, when you open a bottle of sangria, it will go bad just like wine. You don’t have to worry about that with cans.”
Bottles to take along, too
Two options from local distillers that aren’t available in cans still hit the mark with ready-to-drink varieties.
Twisted Path Distillery, 2018 S. First St., added bottled cocktails to go with a walk-up window during the pandemic. Then the tasting room reopened, the window closed, and bottled drinks there became a staple.
“These are not distributed to grocery or liquor stores,” said owner and distiller Brian Sammons. “What we’re doing is fresh cocktails, bottled. The 12 ounces are carbonated, and then 375 milliliter liquor bottles that hold three drinks.”
Not only is Door County cherry vodka the No. 1 seller in Wisconsin for Central Standard Craft Distillery, it is also the base for two of its most popular drinks at the Craft Kitchen, 320 E. Clybourn St. Fifteen pounds of cherries from Seaquist Orchards are in every batch of the specialty vodka, which inspired the company’s April launch of two flavors of “pour ready” cocktails: Door County vodka cherry lemonade featuring organic lemonade, and Door County cherry vodka mule with ginger and lime juice.
“It is all bottled in Milwaukee, at 23rd and Clybourn, where we have the full bottling line,” said Jim Kanter, chief commercial officer at Central Standard. Each 750-milliliter bottle makes about four cocktails.