American consumption of full-calorie soft drinks has been dropping for years now, as we’ve shown rare nutritional good judgment in demonizing soda as liquefied diabetes that makes you burp your rotted teeth out on the way to your long-overdue early grave.
But why, then, you might wonder, are we all still so motherfucking fat? Oh, because we have hard soda now: carbonated sugar water fortified with booze represents the fastest-growing segment of the beer market. Not Your Father’s Root Beer, which didn’t debut till last June, was the third best-selling craft beer from January 1 to November 29, according to market research firm IRI. That’s right, a boozed-up root beer sat out the first half of the year and still outsold Samuel Adams Boston Lager and Lagunitas IPA, among nearly all others.
So now, of course, NYFRB has plenty of company. That’s cool. This is who we’ve become. We’re still soda-slurping nincompoops, but at least now we’re discerning enough to insist that our soft drinks get us drunk. It’s progress. There are roughly one million hard sodas currently on the market; here’s a ranking of 13 that recently darkened my fridge.
13. Spiked Seltzer Valencia Orange (6 percent alcohol by volume)
This one looked promising, like regular old sparkling water into which someone had juiced half a clementine. It smelled like common neon-orange soda with a bit of lime, which was not gross by any means, but also not the sophisticated deal suggested by the understated appearance. The taste was curiously and unpleasantly tart, as if a worn-out double-A battery had found its way into the bottle for just a second before the error was noticed and the cap was sealed. Spiked Seltzer might be overcorrecting for the overly sweet reputation this sort of drink carries.
12. Best Damn Root Beer (5.5 percent)
This is Anheuser-Busch’s entry into the Real Man’s Root Brewski game. It tastes slightly minty and fake-orangey, and it’s altogether too sweet, too thin, and too simple. It’s a waste of the real vanilla bean allegedly employed somewhere along the assembly line.
11. Rowdy Root Beer (6.6 percent)
Rowdy comes our way via the Berghoff Brewery, which seems to have a long and hard-to-track history of making real if undistinguished beer-beer throughout the colder Midwest. It smells like lower-middle-class root beer, with caramel and a bit of vanilla and a busted mintiness that suggests green Tic-Tacs dissolved in rubbing alcohol. The mint and vanilla hints go away quick, though, and you’re left with nothing but fake caramel, as Rowdy lacks any of the spice, root, or bark-type flavors associated with its namesake pop. Good work on the ABV, though.
10. Not Your Father’s Ginger Ale (5.9 percent)
The follow-up to the best-selling hard root beer isn’t nearly as good. It’s far too sugary, and it’s ginger-deficient, too, with an orange Skittle skankiness overwhelming the slim bit of spice that bothered to show up.
9. Henry’s Hard Ginger Ale (4.2 percent)
Here’s the hard soda that brought us all together this fine afternoon. A couple weeks ago, someone in the media-relations department at MillerCoors emailed to ask if I’d like samples of Henry’s Hard This and That. My initial reaction was, “Heavens, no. Why would you even suggest such a thing? What sort of pervert do you think I am? Wait … are you the cops or Google or some shit? Fuck, are the cops and Google the same thing now?! Oh dear.” But then mid-fret, I realized my editor would probably pay me to write about this curious new booze genre, and a listicle was born. So, thank you, friendly woman at MillerCoors.
As for the soda in question, it smells like ground ginger you bought six years ago to make sassily be-dicked gingerbread men for your worst friend’s bachelorette party and haven’t touched since. The flavor is more assertive than expected, with a lemony note partially atoning for the weak ginger output. A slightly sweet-and-sour aftertaste lingers for way longer than it has any right to, though.
8. Not Your Father’s Root Beer (5.9 percent)
We covered this one already. It tastes like A&W.
7. Spiked Seltzer Cape Cod Cranberry (6 percent)
This is much better than the Valencia Orange version, with a pleasant aroma of white grape juice and cherry meat. I wouldn’t have guessed cranberry, although a sour edge from a heavy hand with the citric acid (maybe? is that how soda engineering works?) could trick you into imagining tart fruit. Not bad.
6. Henry’s Hard Orange Soda (4.2 percent)
This smells like orange soda, and tastes juicy (despite the fact that no oranges were harmed in the production) and sugary and pretty damn real. The website, which encourages us to “Live Hard-ish,” boasts that this is made of nothing more than soda, alcohol, and cane sugar, and I suppose that could seem like a pretty trim ingredient list if you accept “soda” as one of God’s children. Don’t overthink it; if you’re the type of person who suspects he might like a 4.2-percent-ABV orange soda, this is just the thing for you.
5. Coney Island Hard Root Beer (5.8 percent)
Boston Beer Company’s version of drunkard’s candy tingles the tongue with a lot of mint and some legit bark- and spice-type notes, plus a bit of vanilla. It’s the best of the hard root beer bunch, and not coincidentally the only one that lets a drop or two of alcohol show in the flavor.
4. Crabbie’s Original Alcoholic Ginger Beer (4.8 percent)
Okay, it’s all ginger beer from here on out. This is largely due to my bias toward the stuff. Ginger beer reminds me of rum and therefore makes me happy; root beer reminds me of my childhood, which was fine except for being perilously low on rum. But in addition to my personal preference for ginger beer over root beer, I suspect the boozy renditions of the former benefit from not having to meet customers’ expectations for sweet garbage.
Most Americans don’t drink ginger beer until their tongues have smartened up a bit, whereas we get hooked on childish root beer flavors before we know any better. These alcoholic root beers and orange sodas are clearly marketing toward nostalgia, whereas many if not most drinkers already associate ginger beer with adult flavors. Alcoholic ginger beer has been a real thing, especially in England, for quite some time.
Crabbie’s is a Scottish ginger beer that’s been on the American market for several years now, and I like it. It has some real, fresh ginger flavor along with black pepper and mixed citrus.
3. Fentimen’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer (4 percent)
This is another British number that opens with a straight-ahead blast of ginger. It’s clean and crisp, and while it lacks the complexity of the very best, it’s a perfectly credible drink for adults who like alcohol and spice.
2. Crabbie’s Spiced Orange Alcoholic Ginger Beer (4.8 percent)
Crabbie’s Spiced Orange is very well balanced between the two headline flavors, leaning toward ginger (as it should) but showing plenty of orange, too, along with some of the anise and suchlike spices that really could have helped toughen up the weaker of the root beers. Heat from the ginger and tartness from the orange provide two distinct sensations superior to the generic sweetness that dominates this new class of beer. I bet this would be a great host to a warm shot of dark rum.
1. New City Ginger Beer (8 percent)
This has the strange distinction of being the flagship beer of an otherwise-normal new brewery in Western Massachusetts. New City has a stout and a kölsch and a couple different IPAs, yet the ginger beer gets pride of place in the taproom cooler, and for very good reason. Ginger is by far the predominant flavor, but it’s backed by a blend of grapefruit, pineapple, honey, and pepper that make New City Ginger Beer the runaway winner.
Will Gordon loves life and tolerates dissent. He lives in Cambridge, Mass., and has visited all of the other New England states, including, come to think of it, Vermont. Find him on Twitter @WillGordonAgain.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.