If there’s one thing that I’ve increasingly come to realize in the last few years while tasting a whole bunch of emerging RTD (ready to drink) cocktail brands, it’s that one has to essentially separate “cocktails” and “mixed drinks” into two mental categories for this segment of the alcohol market.
RTD “cocktails” are typically higher strength offerings available in smaller formats, such as the 100 ml, single-serving cans of a company such as Post Meridiem. They’re typically replicating classic cocktails such as the old fashioned or Manhattan, and they’re a rather more complex undertaking, involving an array of additional spirits, liqueurs, bitters, juices, etc. They also tend to represent the high end of the RTD market in terms of price to the consumer.
RTD “mixed drinks” are a bit more humble and easy for anyone to wrap their head around. Here I’m talking about simple, “spirit plus mixer” drinks such as canned gin and tonic, or rum and coke, or whiskey ginger, etc. These are arguably an easier sell, given that you can package them in larger format, more familiar packages such as a 12 oz soda can, and they tend to be less expensive. I think these types of RTD drinks might even have the most promise in the segment, as it just seems as if they should be easier to pull off well, and because the consumer probably has lower expectations for a canned gin and tonic than they do for a canned martini or Manhattan.
The flip side, however, is that the canned “spirit plus mixer” category is still essentially the premiumized side of the “canned mixed drink” spectrum, because the genuinely cheapest offerings available on the market are all seltzers masquerading as spirits. Whether or not they’re the sort of brands that go out of their way to imply they contain spirits when they really don’t—a rampant practice that has damaged the idea of ranch water before it ever had a chance to even get popular—these cheap examples of seltzer-as-cocktails are able to undercut more authentic brands on price. It leaves the makers of these more genuine mixed drinks in a tricky position, competing against companies making cheap, fake drinks.
For that reason, I tend to want to like a company like SouthNorte, a San Diego-based brewer of Mexican-inspired beers, and maker of tequila-based canned cocktails. They’ve created a non-fussy, uncomplicated line of canned mixed drinks featuring tequila, packaged in 12 oz cans. It’s an idea with a lot of merit, though in tasting them the execution isn’t quite as consistent.
So with that said, let’s taste some tequila mixed drinks.
SouthNorte’s Paloma is perhaps the most conventional of the three offerings, which are all canned at a slightly elevated 7% ABV, squarely in IPA-esque territory. It’s also the best of the three in my opinion, thanks to a classic interplay between grapefruit and tequila. It’s not clear exactly what form the grapefruit takes here—the company simply notes that it’s a combination of “refreshing red grapefruit, and lemon-lime soda.” Notably, the descriptions on the SouthNorte site seem to occasionally be at odds with what is written on the can, which simply notes tequila, grapefruit and “fresh lime” rather than the lemon-lime soda.
The highlight of this drink is the moderate tequila earthiness/herbaceousness that shines through, complementing pops of grapefruit juice and grapefruit candy. It has a salty, savoriness on the palate, and feels like perhaps it could be punched up a bit more in terms of acid or brightness, but overall it’s pretty solid. This one is also particularly easygoing as it dilutes a bit on ice, nor is it overly sweet. The company suggests garnishing with salt, but to my taste it already reads as quite saline. I appreciate that the tequila in particular comes through most strongly in this Paloma, whereas it retreats into the background more on the other drinks.
The “mule” truly can be just swapped for any base spirit at this point, can’t it? I feel like I’ve seen a basic mule variation of every conceivable sort on a restaurant menu at this point, so why not tequila as well? Notably, the can again diverges from the description on the SouthNorte site—the latter says that the drink contains “tequila, ginger beer with lime, mint and a hint of jalapeño,” while the can itself doesn’t mention the mint or the jalapeño. Curious.
On the nose, this one initially reads as a little bit odd, with the expected ginger and lime citrus, but also something artificial or solvent-like. Thankfully, that character doesn’t really show up on the palate, which features slightly medicinal ginger beer and candied lime, with moderate sweetness. There’s a hint of spice, although it feels easier to attribute to the ginger rather than any jalapeño presence, and just a little bit of more resinous and herbal qualities that hint at the tequila. I wouldn’t mind, however, for the spirit to present itself a bit more assertively.
The SouthNorte Matador is a highball combining “smooth tequila with natural pineapple, lime and club soda,” by which I can only hope they mean actual pineapple juice. Regardless, it sounds like something with potential to be a good hot weather/summer sipper in particular.
In execution, though, this one goes a bit off the rails. The nose definitely is redolent of pineapple, but it also veers off in other unexpected fruity and sweet directions, evoking watermelon and especially bubblegum. The palate is likewise quite sweet and very fruity, but simultaneously muddled, with pineapple Lifesavers and cotton candy. These notes are aggressive enough that they effectively blotch out whatever tequila character is to be had here—it feels like the target demographic is meant to be people who don’t want to taste the spirit at all. Unfortunately, that isn’t me.
And so, it’s something of a mixed bag with these canned mixed drinks, though I do appreciate their commitment to using genuine spirits instead of diluting the segment even more with yet another cocktail-style seltzer brand. If you’re looking for a simple, easy Paloma in particular, it’s a decent option.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more food and drink writing.