What Is Hard Seltzer?

The Sparkling Alcoholic Drink Is All the Rage

Hard Seltzer

The Spruce Eats / S&C Design Studios 

It's hard to ignore the trendiness of hard seltzer. On nearly any beer shelf, you'll find an ever-increasing selection of sparkling spiked soda water. With flavors ranging from simple fruits like grapefruit and mango to intriguing combinations like lime-lemongrass or pear-elderflower, these bubbly beverages are everywhere.

As with any trend, there's a lot of misinformation circulating about hard seltzer. Is it really just vodka and soda? Are these seltzers healthier than beer or cocktails? Before you crack that next can, it's good to know what you're drinking.

What Is Hard Seltzer?

Though it's often compared to vodka and soda, hard seltzer is definitely not that. It doesn't contain vodka or any other distilled spirit but is instead produced in a similar manner to beer.

The basic concept is that a little sugar is added to carbonated water (seltzer), which is then fermented by introducing yeast so that the sugars are converted into alcohol. This is then often infused with natural or artificial flavor. Of course, each brand has their own methods. Some use barley (labeled as a malt beverage) or another fermentable base, such as rice.

The general goal of these drinks is to create a low-calorie, low-carb sparkling alcoholic beverage that has no or very few sugars. Many are gluten-free as well. They also have a low alcohol content, ranging between 4 percent and 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Sold in cans at a similar price, they can also be purchased in any store that sells beer.

How Long Has Spiked Seltzer Been Around?

Spiked seltzer is nothing new. In the 1990s, Zima (a sparkling clear malt beverage) was all the rage—it's often considered the grandfather to today's hard seltzers. Malt beverages, coolers, and canned cocktails have been a popular alternative to beer ever since. Their convenience and low-alcohol appeal means various styles have come and gone.

The current sparkling drink style is credited to Nick Shields, who developed and launched Spiked Seltzer (now Bon & Viv) in 2013 in response to the growing popularity of vodka and soda drinks. His Champagne yeast-fermented seltzer with light fruit flavors set the stage for the current boom.

Hard seltzer really took off after the 2016 launch of White Claw. It's produced by Mark Anthony Brands (best known for Mike's Hard Lemonade) and received more attention than expected. That same year Truly was launched by Boston Beer Company (makers of Samuel Adams and Angry Orchard) and the hard seltzer market was off and running.

Today, breweries, cider houses, and distillers are following the trend. You will notice that almost all of the biggest names in beer have released a hard seltzer. It's so popular that many in the industry declared 2019 "the summer of seltzer." Most don't see it as a fad, either, as sales are only expected to increase.

Why Is It So Popular?

The trendiness of hard seltzer followed the rise in popularity for seltzer in general as flavored non-alcoholic seltzers have replaced sugary sodas. It's also appealing to drinkers on low-carb diets (such as keto) and for those with gluten intolerance.

Social media added to the perception that these seltzers are a fancier alternative to malt beverages (though some seltzers are technically that). And, you can't ignore the convenience factor. Canned drinks are far easier to carry to a party than cocktail mixers and there's no need for a corkscrew.

The low alcohol content is inviting to those who want to imbibe, but aren't looking for the full buzz that comes with higher ABV beer, wine, and cocktails. Spiked seltzer is more like a refreshing session beer: you can enjoy just one or have a couple and not get drunk.

Is It Healthy?

Using the word "healthy" for any alcoholic beverage is risky and moderation is always key. It's also good to remember that most of the carbs come from the alcohol itself. While they're often marketed to the health-conscious consumer, it's important to keep things in perspective.

Hard seltzers generally fall in the 90 to 120 calorie range. That's right in line with light beers, a glass of wine, and a straight shot of vodka. It's a different story when compared to some cocktails. For instance, the piña colada can easily have over a few hundred calories. But, that same coconut-pineapple taste (minus the luscious creaminess) can be found in a hard seltzer with just 90 calories.

Sugar content is where hard seltzers really shine. At most, they contain 1 or 2 grams of sugar per serving. This contributes to the drink's low carb count, making it similar to wine and significantly lower than beer and malt beverages. For example, Smirnoff Ice contains 32 grams of sugar, while Smirnoff's hard seltzers are sugar-free.

Seltzer's low alcohol content has appeal as well. A vodka and seltzer from scratch is an 8 percent ABV cocktail (depending on how much soda is poured). That's not the strongest cocktail (martinis and margaritas fall in the 20 percent ABV range), but it's twice that of hard seltzer. Add to that the low sugar factor and you also reduce the chances of a hangover.

On the other hand, hard seltzers are often a choice for summer drinking. Alcohol, however, is a diuretic and will dehydrate your body, no matter how refreshing the drink seems. On hot days, these seltzers should not replace proper water intake. Just like any alcoholic beverage, alternating them with regular water—still or sparkling—will help you stay hydrated.

The Best Way to Drink Hard Seltzer

As you explore the options, you'll find that hard seltzers vary greatly. Some are sweeter, some fizzier, some more flavorful, and so on. If you find that you don't enjoy one, try another. There are many hard seltzer brands out there, so there may be one that's more appealing to your personal taste.

The best way to drink a hard seltzer is very cold. Drink it straight out of the can or pour it into a chilled glass and add ice if you like. Adding a little fruit can enhance the flavor, too.

Some people also like to add a shot of liquor. Effectively, they're replacing the nonalcoholic soda with a spiked seltzer, ramping up the drink's alcohol content (as well as its sugar, carbs, and calories). The flavor options do make hard seltzer a nice drink mixer that can add depth to simple cocktails. However, if you're concerned about making your drinks healthier, a non-alcoholic flavored seltzer would be a better choice.