The Texas state flower is the bluebonnet, the state tree is the pecan, and the state small mammal is the nine-banded armadillo. I say we should also have a state cocktail, and it should be ranch water: a three-ingredient, low-calorie highball made with fizzy water (traditionally Topo Chico), tequila, and lime juice. The cocktail is native to the Lone Star State, with mythical origin stories hailing from Fort Davis and Austin, and in the last year or so, it’s become a Texas-size competitor in the raging-hot market for canned mixed drinks. The pandemic likely played a role in the newfound demand: customers still want quality cocktails amid restaurant and bar closures, and are looking for something portable to share outdoors. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that many fans of ranch water are less interested in cutting their own limes or popping their own Topo caps than they once were.
Competition is now stiff in the hard seltzer industry, with an estimated 150 brands challenging White Claw for a slice of the category’s $4.5 billion in global sales. Even giant beverage companies are scrambling to join the gold rush: Heineken-owned Dos Equis released its version of canned ranch water in Texas this spring, with plans to expand to ten more states in September. Coors Seltzer fizzled out within a year, because, as the company stated in a press release, sales weren’t “up to our expectations.”
Portable ranch waters fall into two related categories. The first is what’s known in the beverage business as ready-to-drink (RTD), meaning the cocktails contain actual spirits—in this case, tequila. The second, hard seltzer, represents a departure from the traditional recipe in that the alcohol comes from fermented cane sugar or malted barley. You’ll find RTD ranch waters at liquor stores and other establishments licensed to sell distilled spirits. Hard seltzers, similar to beer and wine coolers, are available at the wider array of shops eligible to sell fermented drinks, including some gas stations and convenience stores.
When she released RancH20 in October 2020, Dallas-based Amelia Lettieri was among the first to launch an RTD ranch water with premium blanco tequila. Not even a year later, her product is sold in 650 Texas locations, including bars and restaurants. It’s also available in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Tennessee, where the thirst for ranch water has spread. So far this year, Lettieri’s average monthly sales have exceeded expectations, and she’s expecting even more growth in 2022.
Lettieri has roots in West Texas; her mother is from Wink. She says she’s been drinking ranch waters “long before I should’ve been drinking them.” A career in manufacturing and trademarking taught her that consumers want three things when it comes to buying drinks: authenticity, portability, and shareability, which combine to make a drink that’s easy to recommend, serve, and then hand off to friends. Regarding “big players” emerging from outside of Texas, Lettieri says she expected competition. But, perhaps not surprisingly, she contends that “ranch waters are from Texas, and they need to be made in Texas, by a Texan.”
With so many brands to choose from, buying the three ingredients and mixing the simple drink yourself might seem preferable to decision fatigue. But if you need a can on the go for the last remaining summer diversions (and since there’s a Topo Chico shortage), it’s time to try some options for the next time it’s ranch o’clock.
I invited four discerning friends to a ranch-water tasting, and we tried ten brands to determine which canned options most resemble the actual cocktail. Five were truly worthy. As one might guess, the top three are made in Texas with real tequila.
The (almost) unanimous gold-medal winner for ranch water in a can goes to RancH20. It contains the highest alcohol by volume (ABV) on the market at 7 percent, and everyone at the tasting agreed it tastes most like the cocktail you’d get at a bar. It’s clean- and fresh-tasting, and most importantly, as one friend said, “you can really taste the tequila.”
Ranch Rider Spirits Co.
The ranch water from Austin-based Ranch Rider Spirits, made with reposado tequila, was the only other brand we considered for the top spot. Ranch Rider is the only one out of our ten brands that uses real lime juice without any additional “natural flavors.” It tastes limier than the RancH20, which I liked. Two tasters didn’t like it as much as RancH20, with one stating the lime juice didn’t taste fresh. Nevertheless, this one is the real cocktail in a can.
Our third-favorite ranch water is another RTD from Austin, Cantina Especial, which adds sea salt to blanco tequila from Jalisco, Mexico—as a slogan on the packaging states, “Born in Austin—Hecho en Mexico.” This one also comes out tasting very similar to the baseline cocktail and, for the health-conscious, has only one gram of carbohydrates and zero grams of sugar, as compared to three grams of each in some slightly heavier versions.
Karbach Brewing Company
Karbach Brewing’s hard seltzer from Houston will also please dieters, with one gram of carbs and no sugar. I could taste the switch from tequila to fermented agave, but so long as it’s served ice cold with salty or spicy snacks, I would happily tote this brand around.
Lone River Beverage Company
From Midland, Lone River is another hard-seltzer brand branching out with four flavors of ranch water: original, spicy, prickly pear, and our consensus favorite, grapefruit. All three non-original flavors, including the jalapeño-spiked “spicy,” are a tad on the fruity side for me, but they’re the lightest of all ten brands we tried, with eighty calories and a 4 percent ABV. This brand appeals to another recently emerging market, the sober curious, part of a movement that encourages lower consumption of alcohol for mental or physical health benefits.
Pass over: We found the outsider brands to be less appealing than most of the ones made in Texas. I’m not trying to be a state chauvinist, but proceed with caution unless you like the taste of artificial sweeteners. Waterbird‘s ranch water from Charlottesville, Virginia, comes off like Sprite. Painted Donkey‘s spicy ranch water from Mesa Loma, California, made all five of our tasters cough. Dos Equis Ranch Water has the saccharine flavor of a child’s cereal. Texas Ranch Water, based in Sausalito, California, tasted curiously like a White Claw—too sweet for me, but a few Claw-abiding friends enjoyed it, particularly the grapefruit. One Texas brand also scored low in our ranking. Austin-based ShotGun Spiked Seltzer’s ranch water had a smell and aftertaste that reminded us of burnt rubber.