It should go without saying at this point that hard seltzer has completely upended the markets for beer and what we previously referred to as “canned cocktails” or mixed drinks. Several summers into the phenomenon of less-sweet flavored malt beverages, seltzer is still soaring, and the arms race for the dry, “better for you” alcohol demographic continues unabated.
Into that space steps a new company, with a new product. Onda is a spirits brand producing two core flavors of what it’s calling “Sparkling Tequila,” but these products are for all intents and purposes canned tequila sodas with the addition of fruit juices. Whereas hard seltzers have often been marketed and pitched to consumers as being “like a vodka soda,” here the simile is less necessary—these actually contain real tequila and real citrus juices. They’re aiming to compete with hard seltzers by providing the same key specs: 100 calories, 5% ABV, dry profile, “zero sugar, zero carbs and naturally gluten free.” Only here, you can actually say you know the source of the alcohol in the product: Blanco tequila from Jalisco, Mexico, rather than anonymous alcohol derived from malt fermentation.
“Over the past year, as our friends drank hard seltzer with mystery alcohol and cheap ingredients, we were thirsty for something better,” said Noah Gray, Co-founder and CEO of Onda in the brand’s press release. “We designed Onda to raise the bar by focusing on high-integrity ingredients we actually want to drink.”
“Tequila soda is hands-down my favorite drink, and I’m really excited about the opportunity to create a beverage brand that is rooted in quality and shared experiences,” said Shay Mitchell, Co-founder and Chief Brand Officer of Onda.
Oh, and you’ve also got a “brand inspired by the surf style of the ‘90s,” but does anyone really care about the look? Let’s talk about what’s in these cans instead.
The “lime” flavor of Onda can boast a particularly simple ingredients list: “Carbonated water, tequila, lime juice concentrate, natural flavors.” The combination of lime and tequila is obviously meant to evoke a margarita, but it’s really best to think of these as tequila sodas, as they lack any of the sweeteners that are necessary for a real margarita. Comparing them to cocktails rather than simple mixed drinks is just a recipe for disappointment. Onda suggests drinks these straight from the can, no doubt intending to mimic the visual iconography of hard seltzer in any way that they can, but pouring it into a glass unsurprisingly allows you to more easily smell and taste the stuff.
On the nose, this smells like lime seltzer, with a slightly grassy or herbaceous twist, which is easier to pick up in the glass than from the can. It’s pretty dry on the palate, not too far off from most bulk supermarket lime seltzers (non-alcoholic seltzers), with just a hint of grass or agave pointing to the presence of the tequila, and a hint of salinity. Honestly, I expect that you could probably tell someone this was a non-alcoholic lime seltzer, and they wouldn’t question it. It drinks effortlessly, which is of course the whole idea—if it didn’t, this product would qualify as a failure on that point alone. It’s simple and fairly inviting, although by no means assertive in terms of flavor. It feels like something calculated to drink mindlessly, as fast as possible, but there’s nothing unpleasant about it.
In comparison with the lime flavor, the grapefruit Onda has a bit harder time dissociating itself from the cocktail/mixed drink it’s clearly emulating, the paloma. It’s a bit more expressively citrusy on the nose, in a way that lands somewhere between grapefruit and clementine oranges. Interestingly, the ingredients list says it contains BOTH grapefruit and lime juice, which may contribute to this. The nose likewise has a slightly musty, vegetal note that indicates the tequila, but it is very faint.
On the palate, though, it’s hard to shake the association of this as being akin to a paloma, except watered down. And the thing about a drink like the traditional paloma is that it’s not lacking in flavor or assertiveness—it has enough tequila to speak clearly through sweet grapefruit soda. This is a much more subtle riff on those flavors, which just comes off as lacking in verve. It’s not far off from grapefruit seltzer, but if you want grapefruit seltzer they make perfectly pleasant N/A ones. It comes dangerously close to my ultimate sticking point with hard seltzer, which is that N/A seltzers deliver almost identical flavors, allowing me to save my alcohol consumption for products that don’t have great N/A alternatives.
With that said, however, between the likes of Onda and pretty much any hard seltzer brand I’ve ever sampled, I’d choose the Onda. In fact, I expect that if you gave most drinkers a direct choice between a seltzer-like product where the source of the alcohol was a distilled spirit, or “flavored malt beverage,” people would choose the spirit every time, all else being equal.
It ultimately boils down to what marketers refer to—and I can’t believe I’m honestly typing this shill-speak, but it’s true—as “occasions.” Whereas there’s really no occasion in which I can see hard seltzer being something I would want, here the sheer convenience of a legitimate canned mixed drink makes it something I could see myself consuming. Would I prefer to simply mix up my own, more flavorful mixed drink? Sure, but you can’t take a can of that down to the beach, or on the golf course. That’s where the likes of Onda comes in. It’s a narrow window, but it’s more than I can say for hard seltzer.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.