The Very Best Hard Seltzers
Think Zima, but classier.
Last year, my friend Alicia popped my hard seltzer cherry with a box of mango White Claw. At the time, we both thought that hard seltzer was flavored sparkling water spiked with a small, responsible amount of vodka, and it seemed like the most perfect invention of all time: a drink that is basically good for you (it’s water, after all — hydration!) and delivers a buzz mild enough to let you parent safely while still taking the edge off that treacherous 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. time slot — that is, tackling dinner, bath/shower and bedtime with the kiddos. We weren’t the only ones dipping our toes in the hard-seltzer pool. According to Nielsen, Americans spent nearly $3 billion on this beverage category in 2019 alone. Hard seltzer also has emerged as the most resilient segment of the entire alcoholic beverage industry during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But guess what, girlfriends? Hard seltzer is not vodka and sparkling water making sweet, subtly alcoholic love in a can. In fact, there’s no liquor at all. “The alcohol in hard seltzer comes from a fermentation process that is very similar to beer, only instead of grains such as malted barley or wheat being fermented, it’s cane sugar,” explains Cat Wolinski, an associate editor at VinePair.com, who specializes in all-things-beer. “The brewer boils sugar water, cools it down, adds yeast, and the yeast turns it into booze.”
In other words, hard seltzer shares a good amount of DNA with beer, technically falling under the flavored malt beverage category. It’s a modern-day Zima.
The Gen Xer in me wants to be excited. Zima was the mid-1990s underage “It” drink of choice. But grownup me — who loathes beer — feels swindled, and even more basic than I felt when I was a mom pouring myself what I believed was a vodka-La Croix over ice before making that night’s mac and cheese.
Regardless, hard seltzer isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. And now there are “hard” versions of kombucha, tea and spirit-based seltzers (as in, seltzer that is spiked with liquor) popping up.
Cold, hard facts
Hard seltzer is beer’s sister, dressed up in a taller, slimmer can. Wolinski says hard seltzers don a major health halo thanks to their relatively low calorie count and alcohol content (usually around 100 calories and 5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV). They’re also low-carb and, unlike traditional beer, often gluten-free — or at least gluten-reduced. The two biggies are White Claw and Truly, which I learned this summer tastes delightful when topped with a few glugs of Aperol and a splash of OJ.
Speaking of which, many people like using hard seltzer as a mixer, as opposed to drinking it straight. Drizly, an online alcohol delivery service offering several hard seltzers — such as Pabst Blue Ribbon’s Stronger Seltzer (told you it was beer!) — suggests mixing an orange hard seltzer with dark rum, apple cider, bitters and a cinnamon stick for a drink with serious fall vibes.
Kombucha, a slightly effervescent drink made with fermented tea, typically has trace amounts (less than 1 percent) of alcohol thanks to the same fermentation process that cultivates the probiotics, or good-for-you bacteria, that make kombucha immune system-friendly. But it’s 2020, and people need something a bit stronger than “trace amounts.” Enter hard kombucha, which blends the good-for-you qualities of probiotics with more alcohol than regular booch thanks to an extended brewing time. Luna Bay CEO and cofounder Bridget Connelly says their sales doubled in May and have continued doubling every month since. “People are more conscious of gut health,” Connelly says, and at 6 percent ABV, you can catch a buzz but not wake up with a headache the next morning.
Other brands, ranging in alcohol content from around 4.4 percent to 7.6 percent, include Kombrewcha, JuneShine Hard Kombucha, and Wild Tonic. Expect pretty, highly Instagrammable packaging and intriguing, artisanal flavors like Lemongrass Lime, HuckleberryBasil, Tropical Turmeric and Blood Orange Mint.
Hard distilled seltzers
Technically speaking, Wolinski says, canned vodka-seltzer isn’t “hard” because liquor, by its very nature, is already alcoholic; it’s like ordering a vodka tonic by saying, “Excuse me, bartender, I’d love an alcoholic vodka tonic.”
Still, they’re a definite thing, and they taste kind of great — so just roll with it, OK? I invited four girlfriends over for a socially distanced rooftop taste test.
First up: Cutwater’s Grapefruit Tequila Paloma. Most of us aren’t tequila drinkers, but everyone oohed and aahed over our first slightly tart, fizzy sips — like a pamplemousse La Croix with a slight tequila tang.
The brand’s Cucumber Vodka Soda (5 percent ABV) was a hit, too. While its Long Island Iced Tea is more booze than I’d usually want on a school night (13.2 percent ABV), and my friend Jess proclaimed it “tastes like college,” it did so in a softer, more pleasant way than the abomination I considered “my drink” while at university. Again, basic. I know. But hydrated and pleasantly buzzed.