Is Wine Soda Just a Wine Cooler? A Canned Drink Decoder | Wine Enthusiast
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Is Wine Soda Just a Wine Cooler? A Canned Drink Decoder

Just a glance in the cooled drink sections at supermarkets, stadium concession stands, train stations, airports and liquor stores reveals… a whole lot of cans.

It can get confusing telling one from another, because the lines between various canned beverages continue to blur. For instance, hard seltzer juggernauts Truly and White Claw now have their own vodka lines—and canned vodka ready-to-drink (RTD) cans. Legacy vodka makers like Smirnoff are also rolling out vodka-free “spiked seltzers.”

To further confuse matters, in July, Robert Mondavi’s Woodbridge Wines released what they billed as the first-ever “wine soda,” also in a can.

In an already-crowded field full of hard sodas, spiked seltzers and RTD wine spritzers, where do all these products fit in? We set out to find the answer, with help from experts.

What All Canned Carbonated Drinks Have in Common 

What unites all of these cans, explains Melkon Khosrovian, co-founder of Greenbar Distillery, is carbonated water. The operation launched an extensive drink canning facility back in 2019 in Los Angeles.

Beyond that, it’s a matter of identifying the base alcohol (wine, spirits or a malt beverage base, which is brewed like beer) and flavorings, such as sugar or other sweeteners, juices, botanicals or bitters. Sometimes additional alcohol, like liqueurs, may be a flavoring, too.

Follow the Cans, Follow the Money

Most RTDs are beer/malt-based, despite recent studies that show most consumers prefer RTDs made with spirits (especially vodka), and declining sales of hard seltzer. According to statistics reported by the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S., 86% of RTDs are malt-based, compared to 13% made with spirits and 1% with wine.

That’s not likely to change, as long as tax rates remain favorable, resulting in lower prices for those cans. “The tax implications are enormous if you sell liquor versus malt beverage, it’s night and day,” says Khosrovian.

Why don’t more wine-based RTDs exist? Again, tax rates, says Salcito. She points to wine coolers, the 1980s phenom, which were “kneecapped in 1992 when Congress passed a law quintupling the excise tax on wine-based beverages in favor of malt-based ones, ostensibly a successful effort on behalf of the beer lobby.” Today, “that excise tax still stands, so hard seltzers will always be cheaper than anything wine-based.”

The Wine Enthusiast Can Decoder

Need a cheat sheet? Here’s our opinionated guide to what’s really in that can.

Wine + Carbonated Water + Flavorings = Wine Cooler

Based on this non-official definition, wine soda is a wine cooler. However, flavored sparkling wine (if no carbonated water is added) is not. “Wine soda” is “an interesting new marketing term,” says Jordan Salcito, founder and CEO of canned wine spritz Ramona, but not a separate category. As for those flavorings? They’re often fruit juice and sugar.

Wine + Carbonated Water = Wine Spritzer

You can learn about a few of our favorite canned wine spritzers here.

Wine + Carbonated Water + Bittersweet Liqueur = Spritz

The Aperol spritz is the among the best-known variations, though there are plenty more spritzes out there. It’s become a popular canned category—even legacy brand Luxardo is getting into the canned spritz game.

Distilled Spirit (or Fortified Wine) + Carbonated Water = Highball

We’re being overly simplistic: a highball is usually a spirit plus any sparkling liquid. That can be as simple as a vodka soda or gin and tonic. Or that effervescence could be from a soft drink or a fizzy cider. Canned versions abound these days.

Malt Beverage + Carbonated Water + Flavorings = Hard Seltzer

Hard seltzer is a flavored malt beverage. The base may be brewed-malt (“clear malt”) or brewed-sugar; both are considered beer, the most common malt beverage. You can learn more about how hard seltzer is made here.

However—just to confuse all of us—some anomalies exist, notably High Noon Hard Seltzer, which is made with vodka brewed to about 20% alcohol-by-volume (ABV), half the usual strength of vodka, and diluted with carbonated water to around 5% ABV. By our analysis, that’s technically a really, really weak highball.

Malt Beverage + Carbonated Water + Flavorings = Spiked Seltzer

If that formula looks familiar, you’re not imagining it: spiked seltzer is just another term for hard seltzer. “It’s just a marketing term,” shrugs Wine Enthusiast beer reviewer John Holl.

Malt Beverage + Carbonated Water + Flavorings = Hard Soda

A subcategory of hard seltzer, these tend to be a bit sweeter, like their non-alcoholic soda pop counterparts.