Here are 5 things you need to know about buying and drinking canned cocktails in Utah

Ready-to-drink beverages are booming in Utah. Here’s how they’re made, what they cost and where you can find them for summer sipping.

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Canned cocktails are the official sippers of summer.

“They’re meeting all the consumer demands right now,” said David Ozgo, Chief Economist with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “All you have to do is crack it open — or twist the cap.”

The market for ready-to-drink cocktails in the U.S. has been growing in recent years, said Ozgo, as busy consumers look for more convenient ways to enjoy their favorite boozy beverages.

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With canned cocktails, he said, consumers spend less time buying and mixing ingredients, and the recyclable cans are easy to pack for outdoor activities.

Utah distillers and brewers are helping drive sales in the Beehive state, with several launching canned cocktail lines made with premium spirits, fresh fruit and natural flavorings. Simple enough, right? But the variety of new products — coupled with Utah’s unique liquor laws — can trip up even the most savvy consumer.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Simplicity Canned Cocktails in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 17, 2021. From left, Chad Linville, Chris Weed, Rebecca Weed, Liam Mooney, and Xavier Jarvis.

Here are five things to help you choose, buy and enjoy canned cocktails as we head into Memorial Day weekend:

Ready-to-drink cocktails are different than spiked seltzers

This may seem obvious, but many people get canned cocktails and hard seltzers mixed up. So let’s set the record straight.

Canned or ready-to-drink cocktails are made by distillers and often sold in 12-ounce (355 milliliter) aluminum containers. The beverage is made by taking a distilled spirit — think vodka, whiskey, gin or rum — and mixing it with juice, soda, bitters or other flavorings. The choices are endless from margaritas and mojitos to Moscow mules and mai tais.

Hard seltzers, on the other hand, are usually made by brewers. A source of sugar — typically cane sugar or malted barley — is added to water and fermented by yeast. The live cultures of the yeast convert sugar into alcohol and then the brew is infused with real fruits or natural or artificial flavors. (It’s more complicated than that — but you get the idea.)

Canned cocktails usually range from 6% to 12% alcohol by volume (ABV), while hard seltzers can sometimes be a lower-alcohol option, ranging from 4% to 12% ABV.

Canned cocktails are sold in approved state stores

In Utah, anything that contains distilled spirits, even if it’s a small amount, must be sold in an approved state store.

When it comes to canned cocktails, the shelves at state liquor stores are filled mostly with national brands such Bacardi, Smirnoff or Jim Beam — although you can find some local canned cocktails at certain locations.

That means that most of the canned cocktails produced in Utah are sold at the individual distillery where they are made. The distilleries usually have an on-site store — called a package agency — that has been been licensed by the state and can sell products made only on the premises.

Hard seltzers are sold in both grocery stores and liquor stores

Here’s what things get complicated. Hard seltzers are sold in both grocery stores and liquor stores in Utah, which creates interesting consumer questions such as “Why is White Claw’s mango flavored seltzer in the grocery store, but I have to go the liquor store for the raspberry flavor?

As usual, the explanation is uniquely Utah.

If the seltzer (or any beer, for that matter) is made with an ethanol-based flavoring — which contains alcohol — it is considered a flavored malt beverage and, under state law, must be sold in the liquor stores. If the flavoring is glycol-based — which does not contain alcohol — it can be sold in grocery and convenience stores.

There is one more twist, however: Any hard seltzer, no matter the flavoring, that is more than 5% ABV must be sold in liquor stores or package agencies.

Canned alcohol is heavily taxed

In the liquor store, the price of a canned cocktail ranges from $3 to $5 per can and includes the state’s 88% markup for spirits; while hard seltzers in the liquor store are subject to a 66% markup, similar to beer.

Because of this, hard seltzer sold in grocery stores typically cost less per can. Brewers are taxed $13.10 per barrel, which is built into the shelf price that consumers pay.

Canned beverages from Utah distillers and brewers

Several Utah distilleries are producing ready-to-drink cocktails, while breweries have jumped on the hard seltzer train. Here’s a list of what each business offers and where to buy it for your summer sipping.

Beehive Distilling • This Utah gin maker sells three canned cocktails under the Desolation Distilling Brand including a Moscow mule, a gin rickey and a gin and tonic. The cocktails are sold inside state-run liquor stores and at the distillery, 2245 S. West Temple in South Salt Lake.

Epic Brewing • This Salt Lake City brewery launched its Pakkā Hard Seltzer line in April with grapefruit tangerine, cherry lime, black cherry and mixed berry hard seltzers as well as black and green hard tea, and a hard coconut water. Last week, Pakkā also launched Junipér, a high-alcohol (17% ABV) botanical beverage made with cane sugar, juniper berries and citrus that emulates the flavor of gin without being distilled. Grapefruit tangerine hard seltzer is available at liquor stores, while the rest of the products — made with real fruit — are available at the brewery, 825 S. State Street, Salt Lake City.

Grid City Beer Works • The craft seltzer at this 1-year-old brewery is called Grid City Bubble Works. Flavors include a cucumber lime and hoppy hard at 5% ABV. There’s also a rose at 8.2% ABV; and the aperitif made with muscat grapes and aromatics at 11.2% ABV. Find them at the brewery, 333 W. 2100 South, Salt Lake City.

Ogden’s Own • In 2020, the distillery launched its ready-to-drink cocktail line with a Moscow Mule and vodka soda. This month, it added two whiskey-based drinks — Porter’s huckleberry lemonade and Porter’s peach tea. All items can be purchased at the distillery, 615 W. Stockman Way, Ogden.

Roha Brewing Project • The Salt Lake City brewery has crafted two hard seltzers and put them in a twin-pack, appropriately called Gemini. The black cherry and the white grapefruit flavors are 100 calories per can and are 5% ABV. They are available in grocery stores and the brewery, 30 E. Kensington Ave., Salt Lake City.

Salt Flats Spirits • The Bartender to Go line — made from recipes developed by a mixologist — includes six cocktails: Kentucky mule, Long Island ice tea, Cuba libre, tequila sunrise, Sturgiss lemonade and gin spritz. Select items are available at liquor stores. All can be found at the distillery, 2020 Industrial Circle, Salt Lake City

Simplicity Cocktails • When this distillery launched in 2018, it sold only premixed cocktails, including a Moscow mule and a gin and tonic. Today it has 11 ready-to-drink options including a margarita, a bourbon mule and several vodka sodas. It also started selling bourbon and potato vodka in 12-ounce aluminum cans, the first distillery in the U.S. to package premium spirits in resealable containers. Available in liquor stores and at the distillery, 3679 W. 1987 South, building #6, Salt Lake City.

Shades Brewing • The spiked seltzers at this brewery are sold under the Livli name and are brewed with real fruit. Flavors include grapefruit, key lime, pineapple mint and raspberry. All are 5% ABV and available at the brewery, 154 W Utopia Ave, South Salt Lake.

Squatters • The Grandeur Peak line of spiked sparkling water includes red grapefruit, Utah cherry, peach and mango paradise. They are flavored with natural fruit oils and are 90 calories per can. Available in grocery stores and the brewery, 147 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.