When I take a drink of Ninkasi’s canned agave paloma with tequila, I’m surprised with how much it tastes like it had just been mixed. And if I hadn’t seen someone crack open the can, I’d still be wondering whether Ninkasi secretly had a bartender make the drink fresh for me.
The Ninkasi canned pre-made cocktails taste convincingly like the real thing, but the brewery isn’t in the business of tricking people. It’s working with Eugene bartending legend Jeffrey Morgenthaler to establish itself in the world of canned fizzy cocktails. And two out of the three cocktails that Ninkasi sells pay homage to Morgenthaler’s drinks he created in Eugene: the Richmond gimlet and the Bourbon Renewal.
Ninkasi co-founder Jamie Floyd says the company isn’t intending to put bartenders out of a job. Ninkasi is selling something that allows customers to drink its product in new places, much like when it joined the brewery wave of canning some of its bottled beers.
“That was a big impetus for me when we were able to start canning beer. It related so much with our brand identity of being outdoorsy and all the things Pacific Northwest,” Floyd says. “Once we had that in our hands, I thought, ‘Man, we have so many other uses for these cans.’”
Rather than sharing a bottle of whiskey over a campfire, Floyd says campers could instead drink Ninkasi’s canned carbonated cocktails.
Ninkasi then asked Morgenthaler if he wanted to make the recipes for the drinks, which he said “100 percent ‘yes’ to.”
Morgenthaler’s accolades are almost too long to list. He’s been recognized as an influential bartender by Food & Wine magazine, as a top mixologist by Playboy and “Best Bartender” by Eugene Weekly readers in 2008. He’s also received seven James Beard Award nominations for his bar program at the now-shuttered Clyde Common and Pepe Le Moko in Portland. And Morgenthaler says he’s been honored to have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson use his eggnog base for the Dwanta’s Teremana Spiked Eggnog Salt & Straw ice cream collaboration.
Before all of these accomplishments, Morgenthaler’s bartending origins were at Tiny Tavern in 1995. Then around 2001, he created the Bourbon Renewal and the gin-based Richmond gimlet. Versions of both of these drinks make Ninkasi’s line — Morgenthaler says the gin rickey is a nod to the gimlet. (Those cocktails are now old enough to drink, in case you want to feel old.)
Ninkasi’s canned cocktail lines are being released at a time when large corporations are stepping into the scene. From Budweiser to Natural Light, major brewers are mixing seltzer and vodka to compete with White Claw, whose footprint of flattened boxes and empty cans can be found throughout Eugene’s campus area.
But Morgenthaler says Ninkasi’s cocktails were designed differently than the approach often taken by large corporations.
“A lot of people default to vodka for canned cocktails because they’re afraid of people who might not want gin, tequila or bourbon. If you think about it, three polarizing spirits,” Morgenthaler says. “I just leaned into it. If you don’t think you like bourbon, you just haven’t had a great bourbon cocktail.”
Morgenthaler says he worked with the can in mind, rather than cramming a recipe into the medium, which he says other companies have made the mistake of doing. He had his rules for the drinks: citrusy, puckery, tart and low alcoholic content while preserving the flavors of the liquors. And the drink had to be approachable. It was a stressful endeavor, he says.
Ninkasi’s canned cocktails actually taste like drinks you’d order at the bar, if not maybe a little better, and rely on ingredient minimalism.
For those who can’t hide a scowl after drinking bourbon, the canned Bourbon Renewal puts the bourbon in the background — still there, but not as detectable for us sensitive to the liquor. The gin rickey is a refreshing drink with mint and lime complementing the gin.
It’s the agave paloma where Ninkasi blows my mind. Morgenthaler says that one goal of these cocktails is to provide an experience that makes someone think back to pre-COVID bar days. And my previous bar life flutters behind my eyes as I drink the agave paloma, thinking back to the days of being canned like a sardine for Agate Alley’s Thursday night “Drink Wheel” special night.
Morgenthaler calls the cocktails “session” drinks, a name often used for beer recipes with the alcoholic content toned down. With alcoholic content below 10 percent, drinkers don’t need to share a can like they would for other canned cocktails in the high teens of alcoholic content, he says, “These were meant to be fun and crushable.”
Floyd sees Ninkasi’s canned cocktails in various places. Sure, customers can have easy-to-drink cocktails at home or while backpacking, but he says he’s also looking at Amtrak trains and music festivals.
Morgenthaler finishes Floyd’s thought, saying he’ll know that Ninkasi’s canned cocktail line will have made the big time when he’s drinking one while watching Wilco perform at Edgefield Amphitheater in Troutdale.
And that is one of the most Oregonian ways of knowing you’ve made it.
To find where to buy Ninkasi’s canned cocktails, visit NinkasiBrewing.com/Cocktails.