Over the past three years, hard seltzer has been as close to a sure thing as anything else in American life. Sales of the beverages first took off during the White Claw Summer of 2019, but greatly benefited from the early pandemic, when bored people looked for novelty on the shelves at grocery stores. They found it in a zillion colorful new cans of hard seltzer—buzzy, cheap, fruit-flavored, portable, and with about as much alcohol as a light beer. Sales in 2020 more than doubled the previous year’s. White Claw is still king, but by July 2021, 150-plus brands of hard seltzer were available in the United States: Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors stocked stores with seltzerized offshoots of Bud Light, Natty Light, and Coors Light. Constellation Brands budgeted $40 million on marketing alone while launching Corona’s seltzer line.
But as 2021 wore on, the hard-seltzer bubble looked like it might be on the verge of bursting. People didn’t stop buying seltzer—overall sales still grew 16 percent that year—but for the first time, enthusiasm for new products and flavors didn’t seem so boundless. In July, Molson Coors announced that it was shutting down Coors Seltzer in the United States; in October, Boston Beer Company told shareholders that it had tossed millions of cases of unsold Truly, the country’s second-most-popular hard seltzer. By March 2022, spending on hard seltzer had fallen almost 2 percent from the same period the previous year. The summer holidays, which are usually the busiest time of year for hard-seltzer sales, haven’t been much better. According to sales data from the alcohol-delivery service Drizly, seltzer sales dipped below 2021 levels during last week’s Fourth of July holiday.
Hard seltzer might be flatlining for obvious reasons. Crowds have returned to bars and restaurants, where the drink isn’t very popular. Inflation might have tightened seltzer budgets. Maybe the market grew so quickly that it has already reached something of a natural ceiling. But also, here’s the thing: Hard seltzer just isn’t very good.
Let’s get this out of the way. I am many things, but no one would accuse me of being a booze snob. I went to a party school, and my drinking habits still reflect six formative years in that environment. (Please do not assume that means I went to grad school. I was simply a townie.) I love a beer-and-a-shot combo deal or a pitcher full of cold American macrobrew or whatever a bartender has available that is cheap and in a can. I have taken more than one Jell-O shot in the past year. I’m also 36, which puts me squarely in the middle of hard seltzer’s target demographic. According to Liz Paquette, Drizly’s head of consumer insights, Millennials account for 63 percent of hard-seltzer sales on the platform.
So back in 2019, when I popped open my first can of hard seltzer—a lime White Claw handed to me one afternoon in The Atlantic’s office kitchen—I was ready to love it. The first sip was great: cold, slightly fizzy, not too sweet, identifiably lime-flavored. The drink’s popularity made immediate, intuitive sense, especially as something to take to the beach in a cooler or drink at a friend’s cookout. The taste wasn’t exactly mind-blowing, but it did what it said on the tin. For the price—currently $1 to $2 per can for a 12-pack at grocery stores near my Brooklyn apartment—that was plenty.
As I worked my way through the can, though, I had an experience that I suspect many of you will find familiar. After the White Claw had been out of the fridge for a few minutes, the drinking experience deteriorated with extraordinary speed. What had been crisp and fizzy began to flatten out, and the flavors sagged under the weight of their artificiality. It felt like it was coating my tongue, and suddenly there was an aftertaste that reminded me of diet, off-brand lemon-lime soda, except more concentrated. Within a few minutes, the drink tasted more like a product of chemical engineering than a squeeze of lime and a splash of booze in a cold glass of seltzer. The longer it sat on the counter in front of me while I chatted with my co-workers, the more noticeable the taste became. I know why people get so drunk off these, I thought to myself. You have to crush them.
In the following year, I tried too many other brands of hard seltzer to count—dug out of coolers, passed to me at rooftop parties, sipped furtively on blankets at the park. To varying degrees, they all had the same problem as that first one: Once tepid, they lost whatever charms they originally had faster than, say, a Miller High Life. The problem is, in large part, inherent to the product: The alcohol in hard seltzer comes from brewing, usually with malt or fermented sugar, just like Smirnoff Ice or Mike’s Hard Lemonade or FourLoko. While other beverages all mask their cheaply begotten ABVs with tons of sugar and other flavors, hard seltzer is marketed mostly as low-sugar and low-carb, which means there’s just less to compensate for the taste of the alcohol itself. In some cases, the ingredients intended to mask the fermented flavor have their own aftertaste, as is often the case with flavorings in diet drinks. Real sugars would boost the calorie count, after all. When the drinks are kept very, very cold, those flaws aren’t as noticeable, but when the drinks begin to warm even slightly, there’s nothing to hide them.
When the White Claw memes of 2019 were ubiquitous, the actual taste of the beverages was a secondary concern for many of the young, cash-conscious people who made it a hit. Those boom times were both a blessing and a curse—some companies made a ton of money, but many others presumably rushed into the market without any idea of what it would look like when people began buying hard seltzer not because it was funny or novel, but because they actually wanted to drink it. Eventually, some subset of consumers realized that hard seltzer is mostly disgusting and stopped buying it. A microcosm of that process played out among my friends: For a year or two, everyone was bringing 12-can variety packs of whatever new brand had most recently shown up in the grocery store to one another’s get-togethers. Eventually, though, those offerings to the party gods were replaced by other things—typically the same Modelos or Narragansetts as before, or chilled bottles of trendy natural wine. Most of us ended up with 10 or 20 seltzers in our apartment that we didn’t want to drink ourselves, and that, try as we might, could not be pawned off on thirsty visitors.
As far as I can tell, no one has tried to check the veracity of the theory that hard seltzer’s slightly flagging fortunes are a result of flaws in the product itself, but a bit of circumstantial evidence suggests that Americans are opting to hunt down what I think are objectively better-tasting drinks. Drizly’s Paquette suggested that ready-to-drink cocktails—whose shares of sales on the platform quadrupled from 2019 to 2021, and which she says are on pace for strong continued growth this year—might be what potential hard-seltzer customers are now buying.
If you were just looking at the refrigerated cases at your local liquor store, the difference between a hard seltzer and a ready-to-drink cocktail (or RTD, in industry shorthand) might not be readily apparent, but it makes a big difference in the drink itself. Unlike brewed seltzers, RTDs get their alcohol content from distilled spirits such as tequila, vodka, and whiskey. The result is a huge variety of possible drink styles; what’s inside the can might be a startlingly good margarita or negroni or Moscow mule because, as it turns out, mixed drinks seem to take really well to canning. With other RTDs (some of which even call themselves hard seltzers, just to make things even more confusing), what you get is a light, fizzy, crisp drink with a little bit of a kick—and no weird aftertaste. That’s the case with brands such as High Noon and Mamitas, which are packaged in the same kind of skinny, brightly colored cans as brewed seltzers, and which have similarly low ABVs and nonastronomical amounts of sugar. These beverages, in my personal drinking experience, posit an important question: What if White Claw was actually good?
None of this is to say that hard seltzer is over—it’s still quite popular and will likely remain so, particularly because it offers young adults an easy, cheap on-ramp to drinking. And for those who try hard seltzer and decide it’s not for them, the answer isn’t always moving on to liquor. Paquette said that many buyers under 40 are now looking for alcohol-free options—Drizly’s sales of nonalcoholic beer and wine over the July Fourth weekend this year doubled those of 2021. There is a very real, very robust market for fun little drinks that won’t get you too wasted and that taste good when thrown back next to a pool with your friends. For hard seltzer, the long-term problem isn’t a dearth of customers looking for what it claims to offer. The problem is that other drinks do it better.