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Is Your RTD Actually Ready to Drink?

Is Your RTD Actually Ready to Drink?

Recently, a representative from Tip Top, a pioneer in the world of canned cocktails, reached out to me with an interesting query. The company wanted to know if their canned espresso martini would be served “the correct way”—a.k.a. shaken with ice, as directed on the label, and not poured straight from the can. 

The ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail category is still relatively new, but it’s growing fast—surging 104% over the past two years, according to research firm BevSource. I’ve only started reviewing them for Wine Enthusiast this past year. But nothing has flummoxed me quite like the RTD espresso martini. 

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The espresso martini, of course, is one of the moment’s most popular cocktails. Naturally, it’s also a staple among pre-mixed drinks. I’ve typically been evaluating these and other RTDs with and without ice—in both cases, poured in a glass. But as Tip-Top’s question rightly highlights, serving methods are not always straightforward.  

Consider the instruction on the side of Moth’s espresso martini: “Shake, Squeeze, Enjoy.” Squeeze? Say what now? 

“Shake the can before you open it,” a rep for Moth explains, “then towards the end of the pour, squeeze the can,” thus creating a layer of foam on top of the vanilla-accented drink. While this process yields a thin film (which quickly dissipates), I accomplished the same result when I poured without the confounding squeeze.

Increasingly, I find the phrase “Ready to Serve” on RTD labels, which often signals that the consumer is expected to shake or stir the liquid with ice. This is different from products labeled “Ready to Drink,” which are meant to be poured over ice or sipped straight from the container, as you might a soda.  

Does it matter if you shake “Ready to Serve” RTDs? Yes and no. For example, I tried Ketel One’s bottled espresso martini (labeled “Ready to Serve”) both ways. Shaking it with ice yielded a lighter, aerated texture and pleasing bubbles around the edges. Still, it tasted pretty much the same as unshaken. 

More important, I think, is the distinction between “Ready to Serve” and “Ready to Drink.” The subtext? If you don’t heed that directive, the quality of the drink is on you, buddy. 

There are certainly compelling reasons to do more than pop and pour. For example, a few months ago, I met with Hawaii’s Ocean Distillery at my favorite local coffee shop. Jim Grannan, the chief marketing officer, surprised me by pulling out a 1-liter bottle of RTD espresso martini made with the company’s sugar cane-based vodka—and a cocktail shaker. After securing ice (and permission) from the barista, he vigorously shook the drink, pouring out a long-lasting, foamy collar atop the dark-brown liquid. 

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I assumed it was just a flex. But as it turned out, rattling the drink over ice wasn’t just a performance. The drink is lightly sweetened with agave and tapioca; the latter is an emulsifier, so shaking helps create that memorably dense froth. Additionally, shaking with ice “softens the espresso bitterness by slightly diluting it,” Grannan explained, which seems important for this particular cocktail. 

Underscoring that point, the bottle isn’t labeled as an RTD, or even “Ready to Serve”—it’s “Ready to Shake.” 

Elsewhere, Connecticut-based distillery SoNo 1420 offers a line of “Ready to Mix” cocktails, including an espresso martini. Called Threesomes, each drink is packaged as a trio of mini bottles shrink-wrapped together, each bottle holding a different component of the drink. (In the case of the espresso martini, those components are vodka, coffee liqueur and cold-brew espresso.) Consumers are expected to open all three bottles and pour them simultaneously—intuitive, if a little messy, in my experience. Was SoNo concerned consumers would get it wrong? What was the worst that could happen?  

Image Courtesy of SONO 1420 America’s Maritime Distillery

The concept is “nearly 100% foolproof,” says founder Ted Dumbauld. Most people figure it out, especially after watching someone else pour—sorry, mix—a drink. In focus groups, they found that some people removed the wrapper holding the bottles together and poured them one at a time. While that affects the “memorable and immersive” experience of making the drink, doing so won’t ruin it, Dumbauld says. 

So how did Tip Top’s RTD espresso martini fare? I can’t tell you: Tip Top declined to send the sample, “because of the variability in how it’s being judged,” the rep says. 

In other words, I couldn’t be trusted to enjoy the drink properly. Can you? 

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