The COVID-19 pandemic has caused some interesting changes to the travel and hospitality industries. Especially for airlines, where small enclosed spaces where people are in close contact for multiple hours at a time, the same old amenities and processes were no longer viable. One of the casualties was in-flight cocktail service– but some airlines found creative ways to bring that back as the pandemic has been getting under control. One method has been canned cocktails, and the Tip Top Proper Cocktails line was the one selected by Delta.
Based in Atlanta, Georgia (much like Delta), Tip Top Proper Cocktails was founded in late 2019 by Neal Cohen and Yoni Reisman with the intent to bring the experience of a fine mixed drink to live music experiences. Wine and beer are often easily available at live music venues and festivals, but good cocktails take valuable time to prepare and are wildly inconsistent. Using the same model that has been popular in continental Europe for some years now, they wanted to package cocktails in a grab-and-go format that ensured a consistent flavor profile and quality while being quick to distribute at a venue bar or take on a camping trip.
Admittedly, the two didn’t know much about the cocktail industry to start. To create their cocktails, they roped in local Atlanta cocktail craftsman and bar owner Miles Macquarrie and his encyclopedic knowledge and years of experience behind the bar. They initially wanted to try and do a series of carbonated cocktails, building off the experience that Miles had in bottling a fizzy French 75 variation, but decided that the fizzy alcoholic drink market was too crowded and instead focused on classic cocktails. They also recognized the perception of hard seltzer as something people reach for to get intoxicated, not to enjoy — and they wanted to avoid that same stigma.
The product launched in late 2019, just ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the onset of COVID-19, their target market disappeared overnight as live music venues and large gatherings closed indefinitely (and are still not all fully re-open as of the time of this review). While that option may have dried up, though, the pandemic brought new opportunities for direct to consumer marketing and partnering with other businesses — such as Delta Air Lines, where providing cocktail service as an actual mixed drink wasn’t feasible during the pandemic. The folks at Tip Top describe that opportunity as a “dream” partnership that they had wanted to make happen for some time, with Delta being a fellow Atlanta-based business — but it truly came together as the pandemic was worsening.
Coming out the other side of the pandemic, Tip Top seems positioned stronger than ever, and is focusing on expanding distribution, adding new cocktails, and keeping up the quality of their product.
This can is decidedly light on the details — they only list bourbon whiskey, orange bitters, and cane sugar as ingredients — but I contacted the company for the full details and they were more than happy to fill in the gaps.
The bourbon for this cocktail comes from the MGP Distillery in Indiana, which is the biggest distillery you may never have heard of. They typically make “white label” bourbon, which is bourbon either used by other companies to make their products (like we have here) or simply bottled under other brand names. Some people look down on the use of MGP spirits, but usually that’s in the second instance (where it’s simply a label someone slapped onto MGP’s existing product). In this case, its the former instance and it’s just the starting point for Tip Top’s recipe.
The bourbon Tip Top uses starts as a mixture of 75% Corn, 21% Rye, and 4% Barley Malt, which is cooked and fermented before distillation. The newly made whiskey is then placed into new charred oak barrels with a #4 char (a good, medium level) for an undisclosed period of time. As a note, this mixture is similar to the recipe for Bulleit Bourbon but with just a touch more corn in exchange for a bit of rye.
While the can might only state that orange bitters are being used, it’s actually a mixture of orange bitters, angostura bitters, and three varieties of citrus oils that are combined to finish out the drink. The orange bitters are usually a good call (in my opinion), as I enjoy a good bit of citrus flavor cutting through the other (usually richer and darker) components in the drink and adding a bit of balance. As for the other citrus oils, that’s where things get interesting and a little dangerous. Done correctly, it can be a delicious drink — but left unbalanced, it can turn into the overly sweet fruit punch that is a 1950’s era take on an old fashioned (that pretty much every bartender wants to forget ever happened).
The ingredients are combined with cane sugar and canned for distribution, probably after a bit of dilution (since a normal bourbon is ~40% alcohol by volume, but this can clocks in at 20% alcohol by volume) and is ready to serve straight out of the can — no shaking needed.
Normally when I review something, it comes in a glass bottle. In this case, though, we’ve got a can… which means there’s no way to see what’s inside before you crack it open. Usually, I look poorly on a product where the label obscures the entire container — but in this case, I can’t really blame them.
As far as a can label is concerned, I actually really like this. The branding is straightforward and clean, without a lot of the shiny hoopla (looking at you, White Claw). There’s the company information, an indicator of the contents (old fashioned), and then the company logo taking up the majority of the real estate.
I think the profile image of a giraffe in a top hat is an excellent choice. It’s playful and quirky, but still maintaining a bit of class and sophistication. Exactly the kind of style you’d want to espouse for a classic, quality cocktail… in a can.
Small disclaimer here: I tasted this cocktail at altitude on a Delta flight. Why does that matter? Because flavors change at altitude — smell is an important component of the way you taste things, and pretty much everything about being in a pressurized cabin negatively impacts smell. Lower air pressure, reduced humidity in the air, and even the rapid exchange of the air in the cabin pretty much wipe out most components. What you’re left with is a distillation of the flavors and aromas, with only the major components remaining. Think of it like adding an ice cube to your cocktail even before you’ve taken a sip.
At altitude, once you pour this into a cup the bitters are the very first aroma that come through. The citrus is large and in charge, with that orange flavor and aroma being the #1 thing that you’ll notice and nearly nothing else. Usually, I’d expect some hint of the bourbon aromas to join the party… but that doesn’t seem to happen.
Taking a sip, the bourbon flavors start to make themselves known. The citrus is still the first thing you’ll get, but there’s also a hint of vanilla and caramel that work their way into the flavor profile and mix together to form something delicious.
In general, the cocktail is well balanced, and the sugar doing a great job balancing out the bitters but there’s enough of a bite left here that you might want to consider drinking this over some ice to really make it smooth and perfect.
We’ve all had a bad cocktail. Something that just wasn’t well made or properly balanced, that we choked down more than we actually enjoyed. And especially when it comes to the cocktails I’ve ordered while airborne, or at large events, that can be the rule rather than the exception.
Compared to what you’d normally get, this is night and day a better option. It is a delicious, well crafted cocktail and only might need an ice cube to make it perfect. The branding is well done, and the form factor works great. I think the only things I’m knocking one stars off for is the slight bitterness when taken straight up, and the lack of packaging information about the bourbon being used.
Overall Rating: 4/5
A canned cocktail that lives up to its name: Tip Top.