They’re ‘clean’, they’re ‘natural’, they’ll get you lit but not make you fat – or at least that’s the aim. Premixed spirit-based drinks have shed their low-brow reputation and are taking over a summer barbecue near you. But are they any good? The Spinoff finds out.
For many years, RTDs had a terrible reputation: brightly hued, sickly sweet alcopops that catered only to teenagers who wanted to get shitfaced without consuming anything that remotely resembled alcohol. You know the type: Vodka Cruiser, Smirnoff Ice, Cindy’s, Big Foot.
But in recent months, there has been a resurgence in ready-to-drink alcoholic beverages. The RTD is back, baby, but not as we know it. The new wave is quite the departure from the chunder juice of yore: they’re sophisticated, subtle, clean, natural. Or at least that’s the idea. Another common theme is a charitable bent – several brands donate a portion of profits to environmental causes.
This summer, everyone from your 25-year-old yoga-enthusiast cousin to your 40-year-old father-of-three boss (*cough* Duncan Greive *cough*) is cracking open a Pals or a Ranger or a whatever, and the brands are multiplying like some sort of terrifying gaggle of canned gremlins. Every day a new sponsored post appears in my Instagram feed, screaming ONLY 90 CALORIES or SAVE THE ELEPHANTS or BEER BELLIES ARE SO 2019 (that one felt brutally personal).
So, in the interests of research, The Spinoff decided to conduct a mass tasting of these newfangled drinkies and rate them. In a vain attempt to limit numbers, we chose only New Zealand brands that marketed themselves as clean and/or natural. A rotating group of six or so of us, from regular RTD consumers to those who usually prefer a hoppy IPA or a buttery chard, blind-tasted 29 different beverages from 10 different brands (don’t worry, we did it over two sessions). Each of us gave each drink a mark out of 10, which was averaged out to bring you the top 10, ranked from 10 to 1. (NB: We’re aware the top mark of 6.9/10 is not particularly high, but we’re a hard-to-please bunch.)
– Alice Neville
THE TOP 10
10. Sero Rosé Gin, 5/10 (5%, $14 for 4 x 250ml cans)
This one was very pink – “the hue is charming”, commented Alice Neville – with a perfumey, floral aroma. Despite not containing sugar, it was very sweet (thank you, sweeteners 955 and 960, which the internet reveals are sucralose and stevia). “So sweet. I’m not into it TBH,” said Alice Neville. Madeleine Chapman compared the taste to bubble gum. “I like it because I like sweet stuff. But I feel like I would get very sick off this.” Tina Tiller was a fan. “It smells like a $1 bag of lollies; either sugar bricks or the duotone shells. It tastes exactly like Pump Very Berry water enhancer. I like it. I think it’s good.”
9. Fresh Wave Vodka, Lemon & Lime, 5.1/10 (6%, $25 for 10 x 330ml cans)
Fresh Wave “clean NZ gin” and “clean vodka” launched late last year, and is a bit boozier than many of the others we tasted. The company donates a portion of profits to Sustainable Coastlines and Surf Life Saving NZ. On taking a sip, Leonie Hayden said “this is giving me a horrible teenage flashback. I’m getting cheap vodka on the nose and fake bottled lime juice on the palate. But it’s not the worst thing I’ve tasted recently. It’s like every cheap vodka lemon lime I had in the 90s.” It did seem a lot sweeter than many of the others we tasted, presumably from the 28% apple juice from concentrate content. There is no nutritional information on the can. Neville said “at least it has flavour I guess. And is fizzy. That’s about all it has going for it.”
8. Native Hard Sparkling Lemon & Yuzu, 5.58/10 (4.6%, $20 for 6 x 330ml cans)
Of all the drinks we tasted, this Wellington brand seemed to be the most closely inspired by America’s “hard seltzer” craze, being based not on gin or vodka but a non-specific alcohol made from fermented cane sugar. Another with a charitable streak, Native donates 10% of profits to help native New Zealand species (such as kiwi at the Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre), and the cans are bedecked with a dinky little pīwakawaka (fantail). At 4.6%, it’s lighter on the booze than some of the others, and the lemon and yuzu variety has 85 calories (for comparison, apparently a pale ale is 150 or thereabouts, and a glass of chardonnay 120ish)and less than 1g of sugar per can. As we tasted this blind, many were confused by the yuzu aspect (it’s a Japanese citrus fruit, FYI). “It smells like preserved lemon,” said Kerryanne Nelson. “It smells like when they put lemon on sweet and sour pork,” said Chapman. “It’s kind of like it’s trying to be lime but it’s not,” was Maria Slade’s take. “A bit wishy washy. Disappointing.” Sam Brooks loved it, however. “I could drink a case of these over a night.”
6 = Pals Vodka, Hawke’s Bay Lime & Soda, 5.75/10 (5%, $28-$29 for 10 x 330ml cans)
Pals have exploded onto the Auckland drinking scene this summer. With famous owners (Anna and Jay Reeve, plus their friends Mat Croad and Nick Marshall), a cute name and downright charming cans, you could put this popularity down to branding, but we took that out of the equation to taste ’em blind. Pals are marketed as having less than 1.1g sugar per 100ml – that works out to about 3.6g per can – and there’s no calorie count given. The fizz level in this subtle flavour is high, which divided our tasters. “It’s like when you do a soda stream but do it too much,” said Chapman. “This would make me very bloated,” agreed Tiller. But Hayden and Neville were into it. “I really like this because it’s just fizzy water with a wedge of lime,” said the former, with the latter adding, “I like that it’s extremely fizzy and it doesn’t have that gross fake sweetener flavour. But there ain’t much going on, flavour wise.” Tiller agreed. “This has no flavour. This is ready salted chips.” Josie Adams’ take was: “You know like when you meet someone, and you say ‘they’re nice’, that’s what this is.” Brooks concurred. “It’s someone I’ve met but wouldn’t add on Facebook.”
6 = Rinse Lemon Vodka Soda, 5.75/10 (6%, $28 for 10 x 330ml cans)
Rinse is a new kid on the block, with cool patterned cans that appear to have the potential to induce migraines. Quite boozy, too. There’s 3.9g of sugar in a can of this stuff, and 128 calories. But what about the taste? “I’m getting Lift vibes,” said Neville. “And I like Lift. It has a slight bitterness, which I like.” Tiller thought it smelled like a Schweppes lemonade and tasted like an “actual RTD”, while Adams equated it to a Smirnoff Ice but “if your mum was jazzing it up”. “It’s solidly average,” said Brooks. “If I was served it at a party I would be like ‘sweet as’, but I wouldn’t rush out to spend my own money on it.”
5. Fresh Wave Gin, Lemon & Lime, 6/10 (6%, $25 for 10 x 330ml cans)
We preferred this to the vodka version (see 9th). “It tastes like if you put L&P in gin and filled it with ice and then the ice melts,” said Chapman. “Not bad.” Tiller thought it had the most flavour of all the drinks we’d tried at that stage, but wasn’t sure if she actually liked that flavour. “The taste at the start is L&P-ish but then it goes into something… there are like three stages… the aftertaste is bleurgh.” Neville said, “I think after nine drinks they all taste not bad.”
4. Finery Lemon Myrtle, Lime & Black Tea, 6.16/10 (5%, $20 for 4 x 250ml cans)
Finery is an “all natural vodka soda” that is “sugar free, carb free, gluten free”. It comes in four varieties and there are 71 calories per can. They’re by far the most expensive of the lot, at $5 a (small) can. This was our fave of the four varieties. “It feels very appetising, very smashable,” said Nelson. Slade agreed: “It’s like a lemonade popsicle – would be very quaffable on a hot day.” Brooks reckoned he’d start off with it, then move on to something else. Webb-Liddall was the sole dissenter, not appreciating the subtlety of the flavour. “You couldn’t do a shoey with that, all you’d taste is the shoe. I’m not a fan, give me a Raspberry Cruiser.”
3. Pals Gin, Hawke’s Bay Lemon, Cucumber & Soda, 6.3/10 (5%, $28-$29 for 10 x 330ml cans)
Old pal Pals sneaks into the top three with this yellow guy, in which you can actually taste the cucumber. “Ooh, cucumbery!” said Neville. “Very drinkable. A nice effervescence.” Duncan Greive made an entrance to (blind) taste this one, immediately identifying it as Pals. “I drink more Pals than anyone else. I like that it’s got a slightly sour thing, like it’s got something wrong with it. Which I like. I think this is the perfect RTD.” Tiller gave a thumbs up and said, “It’s OK.”
2. Pals Vodka, Watermelon, Mint & Soda, 6.6/10 (5%, $28-$29 for 10 x 330ml cans)
Pals took out second place with this offering, which Sam Brooks dubbed “Melony Ginsky”. (Yeah OK it’s vodka but that’s still pretty good, admit it). He said he could “conceivably spend money on this” – high praise indeed. Adams said “it’s like you left a watermelon in the chiller bag and then ate the ice afterwards”, with hard-to-please Tiller adding, “She’s summery, you’re in the sun, you grab it out of the chiller, whack it back, it’s not as nice as you think it’s gonna be but she’ll do.”
1. Native Hard Sparkling Apple & Feijoa (4.6%, $20 for 6 x 330ml cans, 6.9/10)
Pals is pipped at the post by Native with this delightfully smelling feijoa situation. “I like how it tastes like it smells, unlike many of the other ones,” remarked Chapman. “It’s like a cloudy apple juice diluted with sparkling water and I fucking love it,” added Hayden. Each can has 7.92g of sugar and 116 calories, so maybe not ideal if you’re shredding for summer or whatever, but TBH who cares because it tastes nice. We take our hats off to you, Native Apple & Feijoa.
Others that fared OK in our tasting (scoring between 4 and 5/10):
Finery Ginger, Green Tea, Honey, Mint & Lemon; Part Time Rangers Pink Rhino; Wild X Soda Vodka, Soda, Lime; Clean Collective Mojito Wild Berry & Lime; Rinse Blood Orange Vodka Soda.
And, for your enjoyment, here are some of the less flattering comments we made in reference to certain unnamed drinks that didn’t make the top 10:
“It tastes like the one time I left Fanta outside and ants climbed into it and I didn’t realise and I drank it.”
“Smells like window cleaner. Tastes like antacid. Someone’s having a laugh with that.”
“It smells terrible, like when something goes wrong with the dishwasher.”
“I get the overwhelming feeling this is bad for me.”
“A vanilla nightmare. I was made to eat soap for swearing as a kid and that was more enjoyable than this.”
“It’s the Polly Pocket of drinks. It makes me upset. It makes me want to get malaria.”
“It tastes like you poured Lush bath bomb water in a glass and drank it. This makes me hate alcohol.”
“It smells like the bathmat at a weird cousin’s house.”
“My rating is ‘bitch please’.”