As the ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktail and mixed drink market continues to surge, and countless brands trip all over themselves in a rush to enter the market and establish their niche, it is safe to say that my opinions have begun to crystalize in terms of what makes for a top-flight canned drink. The best examples that this genre has to offer are often versions of classic cocktails with little to no ornamentation—it can be nice, sure, to taste a fancifully flavored version of an old fashioned or margarita occasionally, but do you really want can after can of them in your fridge? The goal, here—the reason for the segment’s existence—is theoretically to provide high-quality versions of everyday staple cocktails, at a maximum of convenience. Just open a can, or a bottle, pour, and you’re ready to relax or entertain, without having to mix drinks yourself. That’s the theory, anyway.
This theory, though, requires a few things on the part of the product. It demands a certain transparency on what is in the can, or the bottle, in order to feel like you’re getting a legitimate cocktail. It demands some assurance that quality ingredients are being used. And most important, it demands that the product ultimately resemble the kind of cocktail that you would get from a bar, or mix for yourself.
On the first front, the new lineup of bottled cocktails from Brown-Forman, titled Up or Over, has a few things going for it because they’re actually made with brand-name spirits. Unlike many on the market now, they can list not just that they’re using tequila, but Herradura Tequila. They’re making an old fashioned not just with any random whiskey, but Old Forester Bourbon. Those names pack some definite cache, and they’re the selling point of Up or Over for a reason.
However ... it doesn’t matter what spirits are used, if the final result is lacking assertiveness or potency. And I’m afraid that’s what’s going on with these Up or Over cocktails—they’ve been watered down (presumably to save costs) to such an extent that despite the quality ingredients they pale in comparison to some of the more legitimate canned cocktails now on the market. The company seems to be relying on the brand names to do all the heavy lifting, rather than the cocktails themselves, and that is unfortunate.
The Up or Over lineup consists of the following four drinks:
— Classic Dry Martini – Made with Fords Gin, 28% ABV (56 proof)
— Whisky Sour – Made with Gentleman Jack Tennessee Whiskey, 15% ABV (30 proof)
— Premium Margarita – Made with Herradura Tequila, 15% ABV (30 proof)
— Ginger Citrus Old Fashioned – Made with Old Forester Bourbon, 28.5% ABV (57 proof)
The four cocktails are hitting shelves in Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Oregon and Washington now. I received samples of just the margarita and the old fashioned, so let’s get to tasting and I’ll explain how these unfortunately fall flat.
ABV: 15% (30 proof)
This is “premium” in the sense that a margarita becomes “premium” when made with call liquor rather than well liquor, but one has to question how much a brand of tequila matters when it’s ultimately been diluted to this degree. Just reading the instructions on the back gives you an idea of how far this 375 ml bottle is really meant to be stretched. Keep in mind, it’s bottled at an initial 15% ABV. The back then reads:
“Recommended serve: For best results, chill first. Add to a shaker with ice and shake hard so that some ice melts. Pour over fresh ice into a margarita glass.”
Suffice to say, they want you to take an already significantly diluted margarita and shake it again, diluting it even further before serving. It’s hard to avoid concluding that they’re trying to get as many serving sizes out of this bottle as possible. By means of comparison, I recently reviewed some canned cocktails from Golden Rule Spirits, which also included an old fashioned and a margarita. That canned drink, which also consisted of only tequila, lime juice and triple sec, is presented at a significantly more robust 27% ABV (54 proof), and recommends the drinker simply open the can and pour over ice rather than diluting it again. Considering the second shake that Up or Over is recommending, that might make the Golden Rule version of the margarita almost 2.5 times more potent. And that’s such a huge difference that it almost makes comparing the two impossible.
As for how the Up or Over Premium Margarita tastes, it’s actually not as bad as I feared it might be—light tequila on the nose, with sweet orange oil, leading into sweet tequila on the palate, with lots of candied orange and an unusual, more herbaceous note that tastes a lot like cucumber. What’s more noticeably off here is the texture of the drink, which is notably watery and vaguely disconcerting. The entire effect has an uncanny valley vibe to it, and it makes me question whether pre-bottled cocktails like the margarita are ever really worthwhile when one can so easily make a better drink with a minute or two of effort. Still, if one company like Golden Rule Spirits can produce a canned version of this drink that delivers the full flavor you expect from a margarita, our expectation must morph to expect the same from the competition.
ABV: 28.5% (57 proof)
The bottled old fashioned from Up or Over has a bit of a ginger spice twist to it, but is otherwise a standard old fashioned, purportedly with a recipe designed by Old Forester Master Taster Jackie Zykan. I do appreciate that this bottle is designed to simply be poured over ice in a lowball glass and immediately served, but I have to say, if Jackie Zykan was mixing up a cocktail like this for a visitor at the Old Forester distillery, I highly doubt she would be diluting it to 28.5% ABV (57 proof) before pouring it over the ice in your glass.
Once again, let’s compare with the canned cocktails from Golden Rule Spirits that I tasted not long ago. Their old fashioned weighs in at 39.5% ABV (79 proof) out of the can, and there’s no clearer indication of the drink’s simplicity—it’s literally just whiskey, bitters and some simple syrup. So how does one account for a reduction all the way down to 28.5% ABV in this Brown-Forman version? There’s really only one possible conclusion: Water, and a significant amount of it. And honestly, if that’s how you like your cocktails, then go ahead, more power to you. But even if you prefer some more dilution, you could just as easily achieve that dilution for yourself if Brown-Forman had bottled this drink at a more respectable strength. Why not give drinkers that option? I will struggle to accept any rationale that the 28.5% ABV was chosen because it was the “right” proof point for this flavor profile, rather than the more profitable proof point.
As for how the Ginger Citrus Old Fashioned tastes, it’s as approachable and easy drinking as you would likely expect it to be. Ginger is present on the nose, but it’s pretty subtle, with citrus and oak trailing. On the palate, it’s light in texture and a bit watery, with mild caramel sweetness that evokes Werther’s Originals, along with hints of orange candy. The ginger contributes subtle flavor, and no noticeable heat.
The irony here, for the old fashioned in particular, is that not only is is easy to make a much more flavorful version of this drink at home in a few moments, but that the Old Forester brand already sells products to help you do exactly that. Their Old Fashioned Syrup is an excellent staple that can speed up the whole process, essentially making the process of mixing a cocktail as simple as “add bourbon and stir.” And the drink you produce by doing this will be FAR more flavorful and interesting than the one coming out of this Up or Over bottle. Even for a reasonable $15 per 375 ml bottle, I struggle to recommend you do anything but mix your own, more flavorful and satisfying cocktails.
After all, don’t you deserve the best cocktail you can get, for roughly the same amount of effort?
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.