Picks

A Comprehensive Guide to Which Seltzer to Buy, for Which Purpose

Yes, all seltzer is basically the same. Here’s how to differentiate if you’re not just going for what’s on sale.

Collage of seltzer cans and bottles.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Spindrift, Hal’s, Bubly, Whole Foods, and LaCroix.

Seltzer is having a moment. Both the regular variety and the alcoholic spinoffs have won the Drink of 2019 title from major media outlets. There is even a seltzer that contains CBD. Which perhaps helps explain why, for such a simple drink, selecting a seltzer in the year 2019 can feel wholly overwhelming.

We’re here to help. A panel of Slatesters tested 11 brands of cans and small bottles of (nonalcoholic) seltzer to find out which ones are the best and for what reasons.

We stuck to seltzer served in small portions mostly because opening up a fresh seltzer is satisfying. It has much of the feel of cracking open a cold beer (and in fact, you should bring a 12-pack of the soft stuff to your next party). Liters of seltzer can go flat, SodaStream machines require buying replacement cartridges—we had to draw the line somewhere. We also only tested one or two flavors per seltzer: a lemon or other basic fruit flavor and a plain (some seltzers have dozens of flavors, and, as this Thrillist ranking of all Polar flavors demonstrates, they can really be all over the map).

It was not a scientific test. Taste testers knew which seltzer they were consuming. They heard their fellow testers’ reactions. We allowed this because branding and friends are part of the seltzer experience. Perhaps the most important thing we learned: Most seltzers just don’t taste that different from one another, so really, you can just buy whichever is on sale.

Here are our more specific conclusions:

If you’re a cheapskate: Whole Foods 365 Sparkling Water

The unassuming store-brand Whole Foods 365 Sparkling Water was a favorite among our testers. The flavor is there, but not overpowering. Same goes for the bubbles. One tester described the plain variety as standard soda water; others observed that the lemon was a bit Sprite-like, minus the sugar. And at just over a quarter per can, it’s the least expensive canned seltzer we considered. The downside is that the only reliable way to get it is in-person at Whole Foods; stock on Amazon is only available to Prime members and tends to be spotty. Stock up in bulk.

If you’re fancy: Hal’s New York Seltzer

This is the rare seltzer that has a lot of flavor that tastes neither juicy nor fake. The flavor is like a bartender just put a slice of lime in a seltzer. Other flavors include black cherry, blackberry, mango, orange, and even vanilla cream, which one Amazon reviewer describes as “fresh” and “not too sweet.” But Hal’s is also expensive, at over $1.50 per 20-ounce plastic bottle, even when purchased in bulk. Serve it in a champagne glass.

If you’re lazy: LaCroix Sparkling Water

In an already mild category of beverages, LaCroix is pretty mild. The experience of drinking it is best summed up by the memorable tweet, “LaCroix taste like if you were drinking carbonated water and someone screamed out loud the name of a specific fruit in the other room.” Nonetheless, LaCroix is popular. It’s been the subject of a New York Times Magazine Letter of Recommendation and has had its image plastered on swim shorts and one-pieces. Yes, it’s also true that the company’s CEO once went on a weird rant about the brand’s declining profits (sample phrases: “zest and authenticity,” “LaLa feeling,” “woeful acts of God”), and Bloomberg recently declared the brand has “lost its fizz.” But it also comes in a number of appealing flavors from cran-raspberry to pamplemousse, and it’s not very expensive. Buy it if you spot it stacked up at your local grocery store, which, you will.

If you want a seltzer with actual flavor: Spindrift

Spindrift is, in my head, in such a category apart from other seltzers that I actually neglected to pick it up for the taste test. That’s because Spindrift actually has a significant amount of flavor, which comes from the small amount of real fruit juice in every can (it also has a small amount of calories—grapefruit has 15, for example). As Spindrift devotee Lindsey Weber explains in Eater, “Spindrift’s flavors taste like the fruits it lists on the can, because it uses just enough real fruit juice to flavor the bubbles without it becoming actual juice.” For when you are tired of other seltzers.

If you want a cheerful can: Bubly Sparkling Water

“I feel like I’m having candy with none of the guilt,” declared one of our testers, an avowed soda lover. But the sweet quality was polarizing: No one else in our small taste test group particularly liked this seltzer, and one tester outright hated it. But Bubly, which comes in 12 flavors, won for cutest cans. They are brightly colored, with tabs bearing greetings (“hi u,” “sup,” “hiiii”). Their marketing campaign includes a Super Bowl ad featuring Michael Bublé (get it?). Perfect for kids.

The rest:

Waterloo Sparkling Water: No one had anything positive to say about this seltzer. Testers compared the lemon flavor to cleaning supplies, Trident gum, and, somehow, cotton candy. (Though later, when I tried a can at my desk, it tasted fine and normal to me. Maybe it’s just weird when directly compared to better brands.)

Vita Coco Sparkling Coconut Water: This is the dark version of Spindrift. It has juice, but instead of being a nice drink, it tastes kind of bad, like watered-down kombucha.

Schweppes Sparkling Seltzer Water: While a couple of testers liked this one and expressed loyalty to the brand, there’s just not anything remarkable about it. It’s also hard to find in stock online.

Canada Dry Sparkling Seltzer Water: Again, this one was fine, but not remarkable.

Hint Sparkling Water: This one left a weird aftertaste.

HyVIDA Sparkling Water: We tried the raspberry flavor, which did not taste like fruit exactly. One tester’s comment: “This tastes like makeup.”