If you’ve been paying the slightest bit of attention to the world of alcohol and spirits for the last few years, you’ve no doubt seen the headlines crowing about the huge growth of what is termed the “RTD” sector, as in “ready to drink.” When you see those headlines about RTD drinks exploding, it’s hard to know exactly what kinds of products are being referred to, however. And the truth is, most of this growth is happening in products that are essentially what we would refer to as classic “mixed drinks.” We’re talking canned gin & tonics, or rum and colas, or canned versions of simple mixed concoctions such as the spritz or the vodka soda. A little bit of base spirit, some flavorings and bubbles, and you’re pretty much there—these are the products that have really propelled the RTD drink boom.
At the same time, though, there’s also an undercurrent of companies selling more potent, traditional, classic cocktails in canned form, but this is a dicier proposition that comes with additional challenges. For one, a “standard strength” cocktail such as a Manhattan invariably comes in a smaller volume of liquid, which necessitates tiny cans that look more unusual and perhaps inconvenient to the consumer’s eye. It’s also more difficult to really hone in the flavor profiles of something like a canned daiquiri or negroni than it is to throw together some cheap gin and tonic with a bit of extra sugar. Likewise, there’s the question of “occasions,” as the marketing people would no doubt mention—when are you really likely to crack open a tiny can of negroni? At a concert? A baseball game? Neither really seems extremely likely. The fact of that matter is that these are more specialized, less welcoming drinks by default.
Into that world, Atlanta’s Tip Top Proper Cocktails has been making waves with their eye-catching packaging and focus on traditional, legitimate canned cocktails. With the slogan “always balanced, never too sweet,” Tip Top is offering tiny, 100 ml cans of six different classic cocktails at the moment, at strengths between 24 and 37% ABV. Curious at how well a little canned drink could really replicate the likes of a freshly shaken daiquiri, I grabbed samples of all six and got to tasting.
But first, an acknowledgement: In terms of logistics, I still find these to be a somewhat awkward vessel for drinks. For one, I have no desire to drink these cocktails—at the same strength you’d be getting at a bar, more or less—straight from the 100 ml can, as it suggests. It’s awkward, it looks silly, and it invites one to drink these potent elixirs entirely too fast. You’re better off pouring them into a glass, but then it becomes a question of “what glass”? The volume of liquid barely fills any of an old fashioned rocks glass, even with a bit of ice, which you may or may not want in each recipe. A better option, perhaps, is the cocktail coupe, which can take some of these recipes and make them look more familiar as “cocktails.” Also nice for this purpose: Some of the small, 4-6 oz beer tasting glasses I happen to have on hand. Ultimately, this is a small issue in the experience, but one that bears mentioning.
With that said, let’s get to tasting.
The label reads “dry gin, red bitters, sweet vermouth,” which is … yep, that’s a negroni alright. This one weighs in at 26% ABV. I chose to drink it in a small beer tasting glass along with some ice, as I often find the negroni to be unbalanced in favor of bitter Campari, which leads me to make gentler negroni variations at home.
In terms of presentation, this also seems to be a somewhat gentler and more inviting negroni, and that’s by no means a bad thing. The nose is bright and marked by tart red berries, orange zest and essential oils, and hints of pine resin. On the palate, this is strong, sweet and bitter all at once, as a negroni should be, featuring some of the most intense flavors in these canned cocktails. There are flashes of pine from the gin, along with bittersweet fruit and citrus, and a slightly syrupy, smooth texture. It’s a bit bracing in terms of the flavor intensity, but that’s what a negroni does—probably best to pour it over ice, though. All in all, though, it doesn’t come off as unbalanced in favor of either sweetness or bitterness, which is nice. I’m not a super frequent negroni consumer, but this strikes me as pretty close to the center of the bullseye on what the average consumer would want if they were buying a canned negroni.
In general, I’m of the opinion that the whiskey-based Tip Top cocktails rank among their best, as both the old fashioned and the Manhattan do an excellent job of translating the flavors of a properly mixed cocktail into a canned drink. This one is the strongest of the group, weighing in at 37% ABV, although I honestly wouldn’t have pegged it as the strongest if tasting them all blind. This speaks to the fact that this old fashioned has been made pretty friendly and approachable. I consumed it in a beer tasting glass with a bit of ice, given that you expect ice in a typical old fashioned.
On the nose, this one has a nice bourbon baseline, with hints of brown sugar, a twist of citrus, and more oak than I was expecting as well. That oakiness follows through onto the palate, giving this one a somewhat more thoughtful flavor profile than one would likely expect—many canned old fashioneds seem to prioritize sweetness, but in this case there’s actually some bitter, woody balance. Citrus pith and hints of French toast with a bit of cinnamon tie this one together, and it’s slightly more dry than most old fashioneds you’ve likely sampled in recent memory. A good effort, all in all, although I think I like the Manhattan even more.
I’ve never been a particular fan of this combination of gin, lemon juice and honey, primarily for the fact that drinks featuring a sizeable honey presence have a tendency to be overtaken by that flavor and by cloying sweetness. And unfortunately, that’s my experience with this Bee’s Knees—I can’t accept putting this cocktail into a can that reads “never too sweet” on the side, because this one is positively saccharine. It weighs in at 26% ABV.
On the nose, you get some of the bright lemon citrus, and some florals/something like lavender, but it’s all then drowned in a tidal wave of honeyed sweetness. Giant honeycomb and confectionery notes dominate the palate, along with some florals and more herbal notes, but it’s hard to focus on anything else when this one is so sweet and so syrupy. There will absolutely be plenty of drinkers out there who love this sort of thing, but it’s just not the style of cocktail for me. Even over ice, I couldn’t bring this one down to a level where the honey flavors didn’t seem dominant.
The daiquiri is one of my very favorite cocktails, and I’ve waxed poetic on its simple beauty in the past, along with the fact that most people’s idea of a “daiquiri” sadly involves frozen, sugary drinks with fruit flavorings. Suffice to say, the true daiquiri is simply a combination of rum, sugar and lime juice, and this is thankfully the version that Tip Top has produced as well. They note that their version is made with “silver, Jamaican and aged rums,” which is a rather confusing combination of descriptors, along with the expected cane sugar and lime juice. It’s the lightest of the canned cocktails, at 24% ABV. I poured this one into a coupe glass without ice, looking for the most traditional daiquiri experience.
On the nose, this one definitely feels like it’s in the ballpark, if not 100% what I was expecting. Sweetened lime juice is certainly a predominant player, but there’s also a little earthiness and herbaceousness that hints at the rum underneath. On the palate, this one is again “close,” but also a bit unusual. The lime is there, and it has a good level of tartness, though the lime flavors have taken on a noticeably “candied” dimension. The combination of rums offers a bit of mustiness and hints of something like buttered popcorn that I wasn’t expecting—perhaps the result of using a small amount of aged rum, but not committing to the “aged rum daiquiri” more fully. All in all, this is a decent version of the classic daiquiri, but it doesn’t ultimately land as close to the version I’d make at home as Tip Top’s whiskey-based canned cocktails do.
Now this one is legitimately quite impressive. As you’d probably hope for in a classic Manhattan, it’s made with rye whiskey rather than bourbon, along with the requisite sweet vermouth and bitters. It weighs in at a bit higher strength of 31% ABV. In classic Manhattan fashion, I poured it directly into a cocktail coupe, as I’ve never been a fan of the watered down Manhattan served over ice.
On the nose, this canned cocktail is really interesting—it smells legitimately like a Manhattan I’d be likely to make in the comfort of my own home. The juicy red fruit notes of the vermouth pops nicely, as do notes of dried herbs, citrus and slight cocoa. On the palate, this again is a very faithful and full-flavored version of the classic cocktail, with bright red fruit and citrus met by vanilla and a welcome thread of balancing oak bitterness. Certainly this one is never too sweet; it might actually be a touch more dry than one I would make at home, but is honestly quite similar. It’s hard to imagine myself ever stocking a bunch of canned cocktails to drink at home specifically for “convenience” sake, but if I felt like I absolutely needed to be able to bring a portable Manhattan somewhere, I’d consider this to be a very good option.
The Margarita perhaps does not project the gravitas of a canned cocktail like the Manhattan, but one might say that actually makes it more of a natural fit to consume in a canned form. Regardless, this one in particular feels like a case where a serving size larger than 100 ml would probably be natural—I mean really, if you get a margarita in a restaurant it’s going to be a whole hell of a lot larger than that, right? Notably, the ingredients on this one list simply “tequila, lime juice, orange liqueur,” suggesting that there’s no additional sugar or simple syrup used in this particular margarita recipe.
On the nose, my initial assessment of this one was that it felt a little bit flat—you certainly get the lime, but the tequila presence seems a bit on the musty or almost “stale” side—it doesn’t really pop in a way that announces the spirit. On the palate, though, this one is a bit better, with a decent amount of sweetness and a flavor profile that trends toward herbaceous notes and some unexpected mintiness, like it passed within a few feet of an opened bottle of Fernet Branca. Like the daiquiri, this one feels to me like it’s definitely in the neighborhood of a classic margarita, but I’d still likely find myself mixing a fresh one for maximum flavor impact.
At the end of the day, though, I admire the fact that Tip Top is really trying to nail nuanced, adult takes on these classic cocktails, without any significant revision or attempts to make them more marketable or low-ABV. These are what they claim to be, no more and no less. In particular, the whiskey-based cocktails are excellent, and the negroni is no slouch either. I’ll be curious to see what other canned versions of classic cocktails Tip Top may roll out in the future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.