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Think back to the summer of 2019. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is playing from passing cars, you’ve never heard of COVID, and the cooler at every house party is stocked with cans of hard seltzer. Sales of the drink had reached $627.2 million, Bloomberg reported, quadrupling year over year and making a billionaire of Anthony von Mandl, the founder of White Claw.
Following this uptick, dozens of companies rushed into the seltzer market and poured huge sums into marketing. But by 2021, those carefree seltzer-slugging days seemed to be behind us: A category that grew 165 percent in 2020 saw just a 30 percent growth in 2021. Big names like Coors and Sam Adams’s parent, the Boston Beer Company, found themselves throwing out cases of unsold product and discontinuing labels entirely.
That rollback may have left an opening for smaller brands to enter the space. New cans have since arrived on shelves, offering more of a craft take on hard seltzer, similar to the craft-beer movement—and in fact, many of them are made by small-scale breweries. This second generation of seltzer has prioritized using real fruit for flavor and keeping ingredient lists minimal. Even sippers who never saw the appeal of a White Claw might well be convinced to set down their Aperol spritz and crack open a can.
We tested an array of these new drinks over two warm evenings in Los Angeles. Here are our notes on the best hard-seltzer options out there right now.
Amass Sun Sign ($55 for 12)
One of the most popular samples in our test group was this sophisticated take on seltzer. Notes of vanilla and oak provided a depth beyond the typical fruit flavor, though the mandarin oranges added a lovely citrus element. It’s closer to a cocktail than a LaCroix, and it’s the one we would most eagerly buy again.
Madre Desert Water, Grapefruit and Yerba Santa ($41 for eight)
This mezcal sparkling water was delicious, coming in with a little smoke and bite (in a good way), commingled with citrus and herbs; it’s a flavor trip to the desert, as the name suggests. It also claims to be infused with adaptogens, plants and fungi that some purport have a variety of wellness-enhancing properties. “The other drinks all seem summer-specific, but I would drink this one any time of year,” one tester said.
Sprindrift Spiked Sparkling Water, Pineapple ($36 for 12)
Another crowd favorite, this offering from Spindrift received high marks. Opening the can released a strong, natural pineapple aroma, and the drink went down like a fun, fizzy juice drink. “I could crush these,” noted one reviewer. Her only concern was that it was so quaffable, she might drink several without thinking about the alcohol content.
Cliché Wine Seltzer, Mirabelle Plum and Hibiscus ($12 for four)
Developed by Napa Valley winemakers Dave Phinney and Joe Wagner, Cliché pitches its chic-looking drink as the hard seltzer for wine lovers. It had the strongest fragrance of anything we reviewed and a bold, sweet flavor that one taster described as akin to “licking the bottom of a fruit cup.” This was the most divisive seltzer we popped, with tasters either marking it at the top or bottom of their score sheets.
Happy Hour Margarita Seltzer, Passionfruit ($22 for eight)
While a little sticky in the mouth, this drink had a strong and satisfying tequila flavor and mouthfeel. Of the several tequila-based hard seltzers we tried, this one earned the highest marks. If you aren’t in the mood to whip up a whole pitcher of actual margaritas, Happy Hour would serve as a solid alternative.
Onda Tequila Seltzer, Pineapple ($65 for 24)
Onda’s can gives off Miami Vice retro-cool vibes, which are so big right now. While most of our tasters enjoyed the drink’s sessionable, not-too-sweet taste, one noted an odd endnote that threw them off. All agreed that we would need to be sitting poolside to properly judge this one—as it seems intended to be consumed.
Modern Times Bubble Party Hard Seltzer, Tangerine Fiesta ($19 for eight)
This seltzer had a cereal-like alcohol aroma upon popping the top, with a tangerine flavor that was bright and slightly tart, in a good way. “It reminds me of an old-school Mike’s Hard Lemonade,” one sipper noted, adding that his comment wasn’t entirely a criticism.
Good Sunday Lemon Vodka Soda ($20 for six)
“It’s giving Pledge,” was the initial response from one taster, a reaction to this Good Sunday drink’s strong lemon scent and flavor. Others were unbothered by the lemoniness and appreciated the bright and natural citrus flavor, noting that the tartness seemed intentional. Is a canned vodka soda technically a hard seltzer? Maybe not, but it seemed similar enough to warrant inclusion.
Ranch Rider Spirits Co. Ranch Water ($14 for four)
At 5.99 percent alcohol by volume, this Ranch Rider Spirits Co. beverage had the highest ABV of the drinks we sampled. And while others were sweet and fruity, this ranch water was salty, with notes of bitter lime. Tasters thought it needed even more lime, and one reported an “off-putting leather smell” upon popping a can.