In all likelihood, you probably heard a lot about ranch water this summer. Perhaps more than you really wanted to hear, even. The tequila-based West Texas staple mixed drink has gone national, with a name that can’t be copyrighted (any more than someone can copy “margarita”) meaning that dozens of brands have been able to flood the space, trying to establish industry leading takes on the latest beverage sensation. Only issue? Most of the brands now leading the chase have essentially nothing to do with ranch water, because they’re simply hard seltzers that have never passed within a horse ride of a tequila bottle. This drink has effectively been disassembled and had its definition stripped away by the alcohol industry before it ever actually had a chance to hit the bigtime.
But just in case you haven’t already heard, what is ranch water exactly? The origins are hazy, but all the apocryphal lore all points to west Texas in the 1960s, where the drink presumably arose out of sheer convenience—it’s barely much of a mixed drink at all. A classic “ranch water” is nothing more than blanco tequila, combined with lime juice and neutrally flavored carbonated water or mineral water. The drink has long had an association with fellow Texas staple Topo Chico in particular, with proponents saying that the highly carbonated nature of Topo Chico makes for a more refreshing ranch water. And for decades, this is all there was to the drink, as it slowly made its way across Texas before starting its breakout into national consciousness in the last few years.
The simplicity of making ranch water makes it particularly well suited toward putting this basic drink in a can, and indeed there are plenty of traditional, canned ranch water brands out there today, from small companies such as Ranch Rider Spirits Co., Epic Western, or Cantina Ranch Water. All of the biggest brands, though, and the ones currently spreading the concept of ranch water to the masses, are hard seltzers with the words “ranch water” slapped across them, and the inherent deception in this is simply galling to me. Most of these brands do nothing to dissuade the consumer from assuming that there’s actual tequila in their drink, and some actually appear to be reinforcing the deception with their choices in marketing language. The game has become to take advantage of the consumer’s lack of knowledge about both “ranch water” and hard seltzer itself to sell them a drink full of fake tequila flavors.
Take the tequila out of ranch water, and the term becomes totally meaningless.
There are many companies that now fall under this umbrella, and the biggest all have the backing of international alcohol megaliths. There’s category leader Lone River Ranch Water, owned by Diageo, and Dos Equis Ranch Water, owned by Heineken. AB InBev of course has skin in the game, using one of their acquired craft breweries, the Texas-based Karbach (naturally) to produce their own ranch water. Molson Coors will likewise be taking advantage of the association of Topo Chico with ranch water to introduce a ranch water version of their Topo Chico Hard Seltzer in the near future.
None of these brands involve actual tequila in any way, because this simply isn’t how hard seltzer brands are produced —they make use of alcohol created by fermentation, rather than blending in small amounts of distilled spirits with sparkling water. Even despite the hard seltzer boom, this is something that many consumers still don’t understand, or care to understand. And of course, this means that these brands can’t genuinely reproduce the actual flavor profile of ranch water, because “alcohol from sugar,” as Lone River puts it, is just neutrally flavored booze that doesn’t taste like tequila. “Agave nectar,” which they play up as a sweetener, doesn’t taste like tequila either. This leaves the entire burden of the “tequila” part of a canned ranch water seltzer—the part that is supposed to be the core of the flavor profile—on the “natural flavors.” Which is to say, fake tequila flavoring. And at this point, you might as well be drinking Sazerac’s fake gas station liquors.
Looking at the website for a category leader like Lone River, though, or watching their recent parade of TV advertising, one isn’t likely to pick up on “I’m buying a tequila-flavored seltzer.” Instead, they say things like “Our Original Ranch Water hard seltzer is made with 100% organic agave and natural lime juice.”
“100% organic agave,” that is indeed a clever turn of phrase. After all, tequila is a product of 100% agave. But there’s no tequila in Lone River—rather, they’re presumably referring to the fact that the product also contains agave nectar for sweetening. The only way you’d ever know that, though, is if you visited the Lone River website and specifically clicked on the “what’s inside?” button, something that 99.99% of consumers will never do. Only then do you learn that it’s made with “alcohol from sugar,” rather than the subtle implication of tequila. I particularly like that they put “natural flavor” and “salt” in slightly smaller print, as if to say “look how small those words are; you don’t need to concern yourself with those.”
The whole thing is simply a little bit absurd, especially when you stop to think of the weird mental gymnastics of a company like Molson Coors—a historical beer company—producing a hard seltzer, that is pretending to be a mixed drink, that then bears the name of a non-alcoholic sparkling water. That’s what you have in a “Topo Chico Ranch Water” that contains no tequila, produced by the likes of Molson Coors. And meanwhile, the brands made in a way that is more genuine to the original drink instead must eke out a niche existence, without the backing of an industry giant.
One has to wonder whether this watering down of the ranch water concept will simply kill off the trend before it even has a chance to truly bloom. Leave it to Big Alcohol to screw up something so simple, so thoroughly.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.