With new products released seemingly ever week, the canned cocktails trend continues. But there’s something to be said for the granddaddy of the readymade drink: the bottled cocktail.
There’s arguably no better time than summer to make use of bottled cocktails, as camping trips, barbecues, and 4th of July gatherings all call for a stiff Old-Fashioned or a Negroni—and transporting your entire home bar to make one isn’t always an option.
In that spirit, I sampled 12 bottled cocktails split across four categories. In each instance, I poured three ounces of spirit over two large ice cubes, unless otherwise noted.
Old-Fashioned Bottled Cocktails
Bully Boy Distillers The Old-Fashioned
Boston’s Bully Boy Distillers first debuted their bottled Old-Fashioned in 2015, and they make it by muddling their American Straight Whiskey with raw sugar and Angostura bitters. It weighs in at 37% ABV.
The sugar gives it a distinct flavor of candied orange peel, which is balanced by a bitter clove note from the bitters. The whiskey itself is soft and smooth and appears more in the background of the flavor profile while contributing some noticeable barrel notes. / $29.99
Watershed Distillery, which hails from Columbus, Ohio, adds a Midwestern twist to their Old-Fashioned by adding Ohio cherry juice to a blend of bourbon, bitters, and sugar. It’s bottled at 35.07% ABV.
While you might expect a sweeter Old-Fashioned thanks to the cherry juice, Watershed’s effort turned out to be a decidedly drier dram. Spicy barrel notes take center stage, moderated by a hint of cherry and sugar, plus an interesting vegetal quality. The bitters are detectable but feel less aromatic and more spice-forward. It’s a little chalky on the palate with a clear corn character, and pleasingly hot on the tongue. / $29.99/375 ml
Doc Pepe’s Lab Barrel-Finished Old-Fashioned
To make its Old-Fashioned, Doc Pepe’s mixes a sourced Kentucky bourbon with cane sugar and Angostura bitters before infusing it with orange peels and Montmorency cherries. It’s rested for three to six months in Caribbean rum barrels and bottled at 36% ABV.
The spirit starts with a strong lick of barrel spices from the very first sip, which are complemented by powerful baking spice flavors from the rum casks and just a touch of sweetness. Overall, oak and spice dominate. / $39.99
SoulBoxer Bourbon Old-Fashioned
SoulBoxer Cocktail Co. hails from Milwaukee, so it should come as no surprise that their bottled expression looks to the Wisconsin Old-Fashioned for inspiration (note to purists: SoulBoxer makes a Brandy Old-Fashioned as well), featuring cherries and orange peel in addition to pure cane sugar, Angostura Bitters, and bourbon. It is bottled at 34% ABV.
It stood on the sweeter side of the spectrum, with prominent candied orange and cherry flavors. A hint of bourbon spice and aromatic bitters could be detected at the finish. / $24.99
Bully Boy’s offering was soft and smooth while still imparting the character of its whiskey and is perhaps the most likely to please all comers. Watershed’s effort emphasized the character of its spirit while adding an interesting cherry element. Doc Pepe’s delivered a cornucopia of spice and barrel notes that made for a highly substantial, characterful Old-Fashioned likely to excite those who go heavy on the bitters. SoulBoxer’s Old-Fashioned was ultimately the sweetest of the four, with less perceptible whiskey flavors.
Winner: Doc Pepe’s Lab Barrel-Finished Old-Fashioned
Rock & Rye Bottled Cocktails
Slow & Low Rock & Rye
Hochstadter’s Slow & Low hearkens back to the historical Rock & Rye cocktail by adding raw honey, navel oranges, aromatic bitters, and a “pinch” of rock candy to straight rye whiskey. The self-described “extra dry” cocktail is bottled at a punchy 84 proof.
Its candied citrus and smooth honey flavors are apparent at the front of the palate, but big licks of rye spice and aromatic bitters kick in at the back, ending woody and bitter with distinct hits of clove and cardamom. I found that dilution had a way of sanding down the drink’s sweetness, allowing the more complex spice and bitter notes to shine. / $29.99/750 ml or $19.99 for 4 100ml cans
The Family Jones Automatic Jones Rock & Rye
The Colorado-maker creates its Rock & Rye by infusing straight rye whiskey with warming spices, dried fruits, citrus peels, roots, bark, and rock candy syrup. It’s bottled at 40% ABV.
Despite the bevy of infused ingredients, I found the Automatic Jones to be dominated by big orange notes and rock-candy sugar, even as the drink diluted. / $34.99
Slow & Low remains true to its rock candy origins but balances those sweet, citrusy flavors out with a higher proof and a punchy, complex bitterness. Automatic Jones wasn’t able to find the same balance, and ultimately proved too sweet and one-note.
Winner: Slow & Low Rock & Rye
Negroni Bottled Cocktails
Unsurprisingly, the official Campari take on the bottled Negroni is ultra-traditional, made with equal parts London Dry gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. It comes in a convenient liter size, at an ABV of 26%.
Campari’s offering has no surprises—it’s a thoroughly solid, classic Negroni that puts the bittersweet qualities of its central ingredient on full display and cuts it with the sharpness of London Dry gin. / $40
Doc Pepe’s Lab Barrel-Finished Negroni
Doc Pepe’s Negroni is made with a London Dry gin, an Italian-style sweet vermouth, and a bitter orange liqueur, all of which are made in-house. After those ingredients have been blended together, the Negroni is aged for three to six months in ex-Kentucky bourbon barrels and then bottled at 28% ABV.
It’s sharp and clear with all of the bittersweet flavors you expect from a Negroni, but also features spicy barrel notes, vanilla, and an undercurrent of baking spices. / $39.99
St. Agrestis Negroni
Brooklyn’s St. Agrestis, which specializes in making Italian-style aperitivi and digestivi, uses its own Inferno Bitter alongside a house-made Torino-style vermouth and Greenhook American Dry Gin to produce its miniature, 100ml bottled Negronis. Each pleasingly designed bottle accounts for about one Negroni and carries a strength of 24% ABV.
This all makes for a distinctly darker and more bitter Negroni, laced with notes of fennel, caraway, and rhubarb. It is crisp and clean, and free of the syrupy quality a just-poured Negroni made with Campari sometimes possesses before dilution kicks in. / $23.99/four-pack
Campari’s Negroni was spot-on, but not any different from what a competent home bartender could make with the same three ingredients (its greatest utility is likely as a bring-along for camping trips, parties, picnics, etc). I greatly enjoyed St. Agresti’s very different take on the classic cocktail, which may frustrate purists but reward anyone looking to break convention. Ultimately, I felt that Doc Pepe’s Negroni found the middle ground by faithfully reproducing the Negroni before layering rich spice flavors on top of it through barrel-finishing.
Winner: Doc Pepe’s Lab Barrel-Finished Negroni
Manhattan Bottled Cocktails
Esquire & Jefferson’s Bottled Manhattan
As the name suggests, this Jefferson’s offering was made in collaboration with Esquire magazine, and still features the signature of its former EIC David Granger on the back. It’s made with Jefferson’s Bourbon, equal parts sweet and dry vermouth, and a light touch of barrel-aged black cherry bitters. Afterward, this Manhattan (which, thanks to its vermouth split, might be more accurately described as a Perfect Manhattan) is aged for four months in Jefferson’s Bourbon barrels. It is bottled at 34% ABV.
Unlike the other spirits—which I’d been pouring over ice—I had a little difficulty figuring out how to serve the Manhattan. The back of the bottle suggests serving it “on the rocks, or stirred over ice and served up.” At first, I tried it over two ice cubes, breaking with my usual served-up preference for Manhattans, as I felt that bottled cocktails are meant to be immediately poured rather than fussing with stirring glasses, spoons, and strainers. But I found that the drink tasted watered down almost immediately.
For my second attempt, I relented and stirred it for 20 seconds with ice before straining it into a coupe glass, up. Once again, the drink seemed watery.
For the third attempt, I merely stirred it for ten seconds over ice before straining. However, it still felt too light and diluted for what I’d want from a Manhattan. It lacked the rich body I’d expect from the cocktail, and I don’t know if this is because the drink was diluted prior to bottling, or an effect of the vermouth split. / $39.99
After its on-the-sweeter side Old-Fashioned I wasn’t sure what to expect from SoulBoxer’s Manhattan—which was just as well, as it proved surprisingly different from expectations. On paper, it doesn’t sound too radical: rye whiskey, Angostura Bitters, and Spanish vermouth. It’s bottled at 36% ABV.
However, that Spanish vermouth seems to have a profound effect on the cocktail. It is spicy, bitter, and dry, with a distinct nuttiness and even brine. This is by no means a paint-by-numbers Manhattan; it’s powerful and flavorful, though in a way that may subvert expectations. / $24.99
Doc Pepe’s Lab Barrel-Finished Manhattan
Doc Pepe’s employs a sourced Kentucky bourbon, Angostura Bitters, and their house Italian-style vermouth to make this Manhattan, which is then aged for three to six months in used American port wine barrels. The cocktail is bottled at 32% ABV.
I tried the Manhattan on the rocks and then straight up (following a brief stir with ice). In both instances, it proved itself as a rich, dark, and dry take on the classic cocktail, with a heavy amount of port influence. It features big notes of prune and raisin, which match beautifully with baking spices and aromatic bitters. / $39.99
Whether it was the effect of dilution prior to bottling or the splitting of vermouth between sweet and dry, I found Jefferson’s to be lacking in body, flavor, and what you’d ultimately expect to experience from a Manhattan. SoulBoxer, too, defied expectations, but in this case it delivered a drier, almost savory take on the Manhattan that I greatly enjoyed. Doc Pepe’s effort captured the quality of both the classic cocktail and the barrel used to age it, making for a punchy and indulgent take on the classic.
Winner: Doc Pepe’s Lab Barrel-Finished Manhattan
Readers will surely notice that Doc Pepe’s ultimately ran away with many of the categories. I’ll admit to feeling a bit skeptical of the brand at first, largely due to its admittedly goofy sounding name, combined with a logo font that seems to evoke Wild West snake oil salesman.
But aside from making thoroughly competent takes on classic cocktails, Doc Pepe’s brought something to the table that isn’t accessible to most home bartenders: barrel-aging. The added utility of barrel-aging contributed additional body and a welcome complexity to each drink, making them something I’d reach for anytime at home, no matter if all the ingredients for said cocktail were at hand.