These 4 NYC Women Are Changing the Canned Beverage Game
From Korean rice beer to artisanal cocktails, here are four beverages to try now.
If there’s a silver lining to 2020, it’s that the pandemic has made drinking at home not only more acceptable, but, well, necessary. And luckily for New Yorkers, becoming a drink expert from the comfort of your living room has never been easier, thanks to a slew of women-founded canned mixers and alcoholic beverages that have hit the market. Although women-led startups receive only 2.2% of available funding from venture capitalists, female and New York-based founders are making some of the best new products out there; whether it’s high-quality rice beer or artisanal canned cocktails.
If there’s one person in New York who wrote the playbook on high-quality canned drinks, it’s certainly Julie Reiner. The bartender is not only responsible for legendary craft cocktail bars Flatiron Lounge, Leyenda, and Clover Club, but also wrote the mixed drinks bible: The Craft Cocktail Party. So, it’s little wonder that Social Hour, her canned cocktail line that she created with Clover Club’s head bartender Tom Macy, upends all previous notions of what a pre-batched drink can taste like. It’s a bit akin to sipping Dom Perignon when all you’ve ever had previously was Trader Joe’s. “We didn't want to put our names on a product that wasn't as good -- if not better than -- a cocktail we make for a guest,” Reiner says of the line, which launched this August. “Our reputation is for creating some of the best cocktails you can drink at a bar, so our cans needed to be at the same level.”
Reiner and Macy, who often make a cocktail 40 different ways before settling on a recipe, harnessed that same perfectionism when creating recipes for Social Hour. They ultimately decided that fizzy, long drinks work best in a can, so the launch this August includes a classic gin and tonic, a straight rye whiskey mule, and the low-ABV, aperitivo-style Pacific Spritz. And in keeping the operation ultra-local, the drinks are made with spirits from New York Distilling Company, a favorite brand of theirs. “Ultimately, we want to make truly great cocktails accessible to anyone and change the public's perception about what a canned cocktail can be,” she says.
Another brand hoping to reinvent the genre of canned alcohol is RAMONA, an organic wine spritz and rosé line founded by James Beard Foundation nominee, Jordan Salcito. The former wine and beverage director for Momofuku restaurants, Salcito first became interested in wine when she learned her grandfather used to make it in his basement. RAMONA took that DIY spirit and brought it to the masses. “The biggest difference between RAMONA and other canned alcoholic beverages is our value system,” Salcito says. “We produce -- objectively delicious -- wines and spritzes made from organically grown, sustainably sourced ingredients and work with partners who are similarly committed to transparency around an ethical supply chain.”
RAMONA launched with a ruby grapefruit spritz in 2016, but has since expanded to include other fruit flavors like blood orange and Meyer lemon, as well as a dry, sparkling rosé. “Our subsequent flavors were a result of identifying what we wished existed and did not, and then ensuring that we could develop those flavors with organic ingredients and a taste profile we repeatedly craved,” Salcito says. RAMONA is also notable for its versatility: it can be sipped straight from the can, but also serves as a full-bodied base for cocktails. Salcito is always on the hunt for new flavors to add to the collection, but also notes that the brand is more than just wine in a can. “Community is the core of what we do,” she says. “We actively engage in like-minded partnerships and philanthropic endeavors that champion the issues that matter most to us: female empowerment and entrepreneurship, social justice, anti-racism, and sustainability.”
While a gin and tonic or a wine spritzer may be recognizable to all, other canned brands are bringing previously niche beverages to the forefront. Makku, founded by entrepreneur Carol Pak, aims to make Korean rice beer makgeolli as recognizable as an IPA. Pak is certainly uniquely qualified when it comes to marketing such a product: Her former job was at ZX Ventures, the venture division of Anheuser-Busch InBev. And, specifically, her work focused on the Beyond Beer division, which was looking for -- you guessed it -- the viability of alcoholic beverages that weren’t an average beer.
The drink, which Pak describes as the lovechild of coarsely filtered Nigori sake and lager beer, has gained newfound popularity of late in Korea, but historically has been the provenance of older drinkers in America. Pak hopes that Makku’s sleek branding and inscrutable, but refreshing flavor will rocket it into a drink category all of its own. “It's really difficult to describe the taste,” she says. “It's a little bit creamy, slightly tart and sparkling, and just a touch sweet. We just try to have people try it.”
Makku, which launched a year ago, currently comes in three flavors: the full-bodied original, and fruit-infused blueberry and mango. For the latter varieties, the fruit is blended right into the original brew, with no added sugar. Pak recommends drinking it chilled and by itself: “For now we want to introduce this drink on its own, in its pure, simple form,” she says. But as the public gains awareness of Makku and makgeolli in general, she’s open to more creative uses. “I think in the future, our play would be to do lighter-calorie, vegan versions of creamy drinks, like piña coladas,” she says.
Makku isn’t the only company aware of how wellness-focused many consumers are. Conscientious imbibers are looking not only for low-calorie drinks, but those made with less sugar and no artificial ingredients. Avec, a new canned mixer line from Brooklyn-based Dee Charlemagne and Alex Doman, is hoping to capitalize on that trend. The two met while studying at Columbia Business School: Doman is a former strategy consultant who specialized in food and beverage, and Charlemagne is a former advertising and content strategist. They’re hoping their expertise as well as the high quality of their ingredients will propel Avec to be the go-to choice for both at-home cocktails and (eventually) bartenders.
The brand’s mixers all clock in at four grams of sugar or fewer per serving, with its lemongrass and yuzu flavor actually containing zero sugar and calories. “At first, when we talked to a bunch of bartenders, they were like, 'You guys are crazy; people love sugar in their cocktails!' But then White Claw came out last year and sort of changed that whole ethos. It took off just because of the hundred calorie message," says Charlemagne. Avec’s goal is to elevate the mixer game by using all-natural fruit juices, botanicals, and spices, as well as creating alluring flavor combinations that can help consumers make foolproof cocktails at home (they’re also quite tasty on their own). The brand launched this summer with unique combinations like hibiscus and pomegranate; jalapeno and blood orange; and grapefruit and pomelo.
But Avec’s mission is twofold. Its name, which means “with” in French is not only a clever way consumers can order it -- “I’ll have a tequila Avec Grapefruit,” for example -- but a nod to the brand’s ethos. “One of the values of Avec is not just changing what people mix with their alcohol, but also changing who they're mixing with and where they're mixing,” Charlemagne says. The founders’ hope is that drinkers from many different backgrounds and cultures can find common ground with their product. And, post-pandemic, the mission is to create events that will foster such interaction.
COVID-19 has certainly made things exceptionally difficult for small businesses. But the single-serving nature of these canned beverages is a boon: after all, there is less chance for contamination if you’re not sharing. And, ideally, one day, you’ll also be able to guzzle any of these drinks in a real, live, bar. We’ll drink to that.
Where to order:
Avec: Brooklyn Fare West Village, Chicky’s General Store, DUMBO Market, check website for more
Makku: Whole Foods Bowery, same day shipping in NYC via TapRm, nationwide shipping via Craft King Beers
RAMONA: Chelsea Wine Country, Dirty Candy, Parcelle Wine, check website for more
Social Hour: Wet and Whistle Wines, check official IG and website for updates
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