The Classic: Bartles & Jaymes
The Upgrade: Ramona wine coolers, $19.99 for a four-pack of 250-milliliter cans; franklywines.com
“For a lot of people in their 30s, wine coolers have legit emotional resonance,” says Jordan Salcito, beverage director at the Momofuku Group and Ramona’s creator. “That was the first time I thought, Oh, this alcohol thing is pretty tasty.” Made from organic zibibbo grapes (a Sicilian strain of muscat), natural grapefruit flavor, and cane sugar, Ramona’s first creation has the fizzy, subdued sweetness to complement a cookout.
Also try: Garden Party Botanical hard sodas, whose whimsical floral messaging (debut flavors are violet and ruby) belies a serious punch: Their 8 percent alcohol by volume is about the same as an imperial India pale ale ($9.99 for a four-pack of 12-ounce cans; Target and Whole Foods locations in Indiana).
The Classic: Zima
The Upgrade: Quaker City Malting Co. lemon shrub, $10.99 for a six-pack of 12-oz. cans at Philadelphia-area Whole Foods stores
A shrub is a Colonial-era beverage made by blending fruit syrup with vinegar, which Quaker City mixes with beer to create its tart, toasty hard soda. “I’m a history nerd,” says Quaker City founder Steven Grasse, the man behind Sailor Jerry and Hendrick’s. “My idea was to take recipes from America’s historical past and then art direct them in an industrial style.” Grasse started small last fall, testing lemon shrub and its sibling, Old Dutch, a hard root beer variant, in the Philly and Denver markets. Thanks to a partnership with Diageo Plc, distribution will expand this year.
Also try: Austin’s Mighty Swell, which makes its sparkling lemonade with fruit juice and eschews high-fructose corn syrup ($8-$10 for a four-pack of 12-oz. cans; Whole Foods and H-E-B stores in select states).
The Classic: Colt 45
The Upgrade: Amber Waves, $10 for a 22-oz. bottle, available in limited release at Charleston, S.C.’s Revelry Brewing Co.
While malt liquor may be lowbrow (it must contain 50 percent “adjunct,” any additive other than barley), this one has an impressive pedigree, as it’s made with Geechie Boy Mill Jimmy Red dent corn and Anson Mills Carolina gold rice. The result is a slightly sweet, thoroughly local take on the style. “We like to poke fun at ourselves, and it’s fun to have discerning drinkers drinking malt liquor made by a craft brewer and a two-time James Beard Award-winning chef,” says brewmaster Ryan Coker, who created Amber Waves with Sean Brock, the renowned restaurateur behind Charleston’s Husk.
Also try: Minhas Craft Brewery’s Axehead malt liquor has a mellow hoppiness—and 11 percent ABV ($2.29 for a 16-oz. can; Woodman’s Markets in Wisconsin).