The liquor store shelves are littered with pre-mixed Margaritas, Daiquiris, and a variety of other cocktails that are already mixed up and packaged in a convenient bottle. Most of these do not even require a second bottle of liquor, everything you need is inside.
While these 'ready-to-drink' (RTD) cocktails may be tempting because of their convenience, the majority of the time they leave a lot to be desired. This is especially true when put head to head against a freshly prepared cocktail.
However, there are some exceptions, and if you are going to take the easy route, you'll find a few tips useful for finding a better-bottled cocktail.
#1: Don't Be Cheap
It's tempting to save a few dollars on a 'cocktail' that allows you to pour and drink. After all, that's part of the appeal of these drinks. However, if you're trying to decide whether to save $5 on an RTD daiquiri, then fork it over and buy the more expensive option. You will thank yourself in the end.
Or we could put it this way: Think about the money you're saving by skipping the rum, lime juice, and simple syrup needed to make an authentic Daiquiri. Oh, wait! That's all that goes into a made-from-scratch Daiquiri? Some of our favorite cocktails are much easier than the marketers of RTDs make them out to be. You might want to remind yourself of that the next time you're at the liquor store.
#2: Check the Label for Alcohol
Some bottled 'cocktails' are deceiving about whether they do or do not contain liquor. Many are just the flavoring mix, and you will need to add the rum, tequila, or vodka yourself.
If a bottle does contain liquor, it will often say it loud and clear—"Tequila's Already Inside!" Few things are as disappointing as finding out there's no booze when you get home and your liquor cabinet is otherwise bare.
If you do have a well-stocked bar and are just looking for an easy mix, some of the non-alcoholic drink mixes are good to pick up. Stirrings are a brand that is highly recommended. These taste great and allow you to go top-shelf on your base spirit or experiment with, say rum in a Cosmopolitan or tequila in a Lemon Drop.
#3: Avoid the Creamy Mixes
This cannot be stressed enough. Except for Kahlua's Mudslide and their other milky RTDs, these are almost guaranteed disasters in a bottle.
One classic story involves a party where a pale pink liquid the consistency of Pepto Bismol was passed around (it had to be some take on the Pink Squirrel or something like that). It was not a good experience for anyone who took a drink that night. There are many good times to say "no" and that is one of them.
#4: Stick With Brands That Can Make It Straight
By this, we mean that if you're going to go the easy way, choose a brand you trust and who have a reputation for making too distilled spirits in the first place. Reputable spirit producers like 1800 Tequila and Charbay begin with a great base. They also tend to use high-quality mixers that will not degrade their original product.
You will find that RTDs produced by companies who are not in the spirit business (including those from chain restaurants) are very disappointing.
#5: The 'Bucket O' Cocktail
Wine in a box is coming out of the shadows and fixing its once-seedy reputation. There are some impressive boxed wines available today. The same cannot be said for the "bucket o' cocktail."
You've seen them: they're often margarita mixes that are packaged in an ice cream pail-like container, complete with convenient carrying handle. You can scoop it into your glass or toss it in a blender and drink away.
It's cute, and some may argue that it's clever marketing. We argue that the majority are sub-par, some may even be on the verge of disgusting with a far-too-sweet, kiddie Kool-Aid type of taste. We're adults, and it's time to drink like adults. To show up at a party carrying a bucket says "I'm cheap and don't care what we drink."
While we're on the subject, can you guess what you need to make a real Margarita? It's another three-ingredient drink: tequila, triple sec, and lime juice. It shakes up in less than two minutes, and your hand won't get sticky from scooping slush out of that bucket.
#6: Artificial Ingredients?
Here's another shortcut some brands like taking, they will go with artificial ingredients and colorings to make their product seem more appealing. Most of the time, these will be over sweetened and only look good, leaving you with a desire for "fresh" taste.
We see it all the time in convenience foods, and drinks and there is a movement against that in the broader market. If you avoid unnatural things in your foods, keep the same standards for your cocktails. This will certainly limit your options, and honestly, you're probably better off with mixing your cocktail.
#7: Those 'Ritas' in a Can
'Margaritas' in a can, they sound great. They're also everywhere, including almost any convenience and grocery store you walk into in America. Despite the name, these are not margaritas (or daiquiris, or whatever they claim to be). These are malt beverages, not canned cocktails.
Sure, the Bud Light Lime-A-Rita may taste like a margarita, but that's just the lime 'flavoring' talking. This drink is made of "malted barley, cereal grains, yeast, hops, flavors, and sweeteners." Those sweeteners are often high fructose corn syrup, and the Straw-Ber-Ita is flavored with "derivatives of real strawberries" (whatever that means). It's made like beer, and no liquor is involved.
Quite often, these drinks are very sweet, but they can also be a refreshing alternative to beer on a hot day at the beach. They are low in alcohol (around 8% ABV, though that's stronger than Bud Light), so they might have their place in certain circumstances if you enjoy them. However, they are not margaritas or even closely related to a cocktail except that they contain alcohol.
Final Thoughts on Bottled Cocktails
Convenience is nice at times, and there are some relatively impressive bottled cocktails or 'just add liquor' drink mixes available. However, as you might have noticed, we are advocates of a freshly made cocktail. The argument that a good cocktail is hard to make is one of the biggest myths in the world of adult beverages. They're easy, and the difference in taste is worth an extra minute of your time.
If you do want to buy ready-to-drink cocktails, shop wisely, read the label carefully and pay a little more for fewer artificial ingredients and a cleaner taste. Or, buy a non-alcoholic drink mix and add your own liquor. In the least, this gives you a little more quality control over your drinks.