Remember the hard soda craze? It seems like a distant memory now, though it was just a few years ago that beverage companies were betting big on alcoholic root beer, orange soda, and the like. The boom didn’t last, as drinkers moved on to the next novelty—to say nothing of America’s growing wariness about sugar. But like a phoenix from hard soda’s ashes, hard seltzers rose to heights few could have predicted. Fizzy booze water became the drink of summer.
In 2018, dollar sales of hard seltzer grew 169% to nearly $500 million dollars. There are more brands than ever, from big companies like Smirnoff to craft breweries like Oskar Blues, lining the shelves. They derive their alcohol from a brewed malt (“clear malt”) or brewed sugar base; most of the ones I sampled included the latter. Now to maintain proper beer cred, I’m supposed to stick my nose up at these hard seltzers, right? But I can’t ignore them. My friends pack our cooler full of them for river trips; bars offer them on special during game day; and my state of Montana consumes more White Claw per capita than any other.
It was time for me to finally give hard seltzers their fair shake at a taste test. I concentrates on widely available brands, and tried to stick to berry flavors, as those were the most consistent option across brands. Click, pop, fizz, bottoms up.
Calories: 120 per 16 oz.
It smells a little cough syrupy, but the rosemary note helps mitigate that. I find it more pleasant if I imagine Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda. The flavor is very seltzer-ish, with no perceptible alcohol. Rosemary isn’t really noticeable either, it lingers on the back of the tongue as a kind of refreshing mintiness. The cherry aspect is actually better tasting than I thought, not overly artificial. I don’t think I’m drinking cherry juice, but there’s nothing medicinal about it. I’d drink this.
Score: 7 bubbles (out of 10)
Calories: 90 per 12 oz.
This one actually has the most ridiculous coral-pink color, something overtly bubble-gummy about its pink color keeps it from looking like rosé wine. It smells like candy, specifically those sour cherry straws covered in tart sugar; a second sniff makes me think of unset Jell-O.
For as sweet as the aroma is, the sugar doesn’t arrive until after the swallow. The front end is just watery, hardly anything to it, but the artificial sweetness, like phenylalanine or diet soda, builds on itself. It doesn’t taste like seltzer at all to me, and it’s not really carbonated enough. (PS: Sing it with me… She drank a raaaaspberry rosé)
Score: 4 bubbles
Calories: 40 per 16 oz. can
It doesn’t smell like literally anything. There’s a faint mint note or grassiness plus fruit, like an underripe strawberry smells. The sip is very watery—I know that’s ridiculous to write—heavy on the blackberry more so than strawberry or raspberry, which is an interesting choice. Very big carbonation washes the taste away almost as soon as you can grab at it; sort of tastes like a sweet spa water. The blackberry is nice, but the sweetness—not super noticeable at first—compounds after a few sips and begins to taste like some kind of adult Juicy Juice box.
Score: 6 bubbles
Calories: 100 per 12 oz.
The aroma is bubble-gummy, but pleasant, like one of those bubblegum-flavored character ice pops. When I sip it, I pick up lots of cherry, but with a sort of unplaceable botanical note at the end that I don’t hate. It’s sweet but doesn’t linger; ends like a black cherry soda and then is gone save for a tiny lingering in the back of the throat rather than on the tongue. Not bad.
Score: 6.5 bubbles
Calories: 80 per 11.5-oz. can
It’s fuchsia-colored, very jewel-toned, like electric cranberry juice, and smells like a Jolly Rancher fell into Sprite. This is one of the few ones that’s sweet from start to finish, but not in a juice way, more of a diet sparkling water beverage with tons of aspartame. The cherry flavor isn’t bad, but there’s just too much faux sweetness to concentrate on it.
Score: 4 bubbles
Calories: 80 per 12 oz. serving; 106 per 16 oz. can
Oh, I thought the last one was Jolly Rancher. Correction: This one is Jolly Rancher. I smell watermelon Jolly Rancher and nothing else. Strangely, once I drink this, the kiwi is actually what comes through more for me in terms of flavor and it’s pleasant. It’s still a bit on the sweet side but there’s enough carbonic bite from the huge soda bubbles to clear that up. Not the best, not the worst, but the strawberry-kiwi flavor has more legs than I anticipated.
Score: 5 bubbles
- Bon & Viv
- White Claw
- Smirnoff, Crook [tie]
I didn’t consume them as part of this taste test, but I’d highly recommend two craft brewery-made hard seltzers, Big Sky’s Ginger Lemon Basil Spiked Seltzer and Oskar Blues’ Wild Basin Boozy Sparkling Water. Neither is too sweet and both are way more botanical-citrus than fruity in nature. Wild Basin just tastes like sparkling water with a little Cheerios note—I know, weird, but that’s the only way I can describe it—in the back that I enjoy.
These hard seltzers don’t deserve the flak they catch. They’re no substitute for the complexity of a well-made cider or beer or wine, but on a hot summer day when you’re drinking just to keep a buzz and stay cool, they fit the bill. I expected way more artificial flavors than I encountered—just stay away from the two brands in the slim cans and you’re fine—and at less than 100 calories per 12-ounce serving, these might rotate into my drinking rotation every now and then.