Let’s just say that Ryan Seng has a can-do attitude when it comes to cocktails and other creative pursuits. For eight years he served as head bartender at Grange and developed some of Sacramento’s most creative cocktails – bacon maple Manhattan, anyone? – all while chasing his muse as an accomplished painter.
Seng, 41, ultimately saw a different kind of future from behind the bar, and it took the shape and feel of an aluminum can. In October, Seng launched a ready-to-drink product called Can Can Cocktails, which offer a blend of spirits and mixers in the cool confines of a can, such as Boar’s Bourbon Root Beer. They’re offered at Golden 1 Center for sipping at games and concerts and also at a handful of local stores including Nugget Markets, La Riviera Market and Spirits, and Curtis Park Market.
Seng is hoping to put a dent in an emerging sector of the cocktail industry, one that is already being tapped by big players in adult beverages. He left Grange to focus on Can Can full time, and also because the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control wouldn’t allow him to work at a bar while running a liquor company because of tied-house laws.
So, with can in hand, Seng is developing new recipes and seeking more retail accounts, while preparing for a bar- and restaurant-themed art show that launches Feb. 26 at California State University, Sacramento.
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“I love bartending and miss talking to people, and the fun of it,” Seng said after a recent canning run, “but I would be stupid not to put the gas on (this company). I want to go statewide and nationally, eventually. I think there’s some room for me.”
Seng’s Can Can follows in the footsteps of his grandfather, Louis Collins, who was the former president of Crush International, the parent company of such fizzy, sweet sodas as Orange Crush and Hires Root Beer. That soda influence continued while Seng worked as a bartender, sometimes creating house-made root beer syrups as a cocktail mixer. He was also keen on crafting cocktails in multi-gallon batches, to satiate the thirsty bar crowds during peak hours.
The humble, ubiquitous can struck Seng as an especially effective delivery device for a cocktail. He was further inspired after talking with chef Mike Thiemann, who was preparing to open Empress Tavern in the basement of the Crest Theatre and mulling a cocktail concept that would work well for customers who wanted to take an adult beverage from the restaurant to their movie seat with minimal spillage.
“I kept thinking, ‘Why don’t I just get a canner and can my own drinks?’ ” Seng said. “Most people over 40 or 45 think cans are cheap and bad, but there’s a whole other generation (that likes them). There’s a California vibe where you want to be on the move, to the beach or to the pool, and cans are great for that.”
Seng, a Davis resident, raised more than $11,000 in a Kickstarter campaign and also secured a private investor. The drinks are manufactured in a partnership with Sacramento’s Old Tavern Distillery – not to be confused with a midtown bar of a similar name – and made their retail debut at the Golden 1 Center in October as Paul McCartney performed two sold-out shows.
Can Can hit the market as other beverage companies were staking a claim in the so-called “progressive adult beverage” category. Many of these canned or bottled cocktails, such as Bacardi Silver Mojito and Smirnoff Premium Mixed Drinks, are flavored beverages based on malt instead of spirits. But other products have emerged in this niche market, including a bloody mary made with actual vodka and a rum and cola produced by the San Diego craft beer company Ballast Point.
The Boar’s Bourbon Root Beer tastes like a proper cocktail instead of a simple soda with spirits. The flavor strikes on the dry side, somewhat herbal, and the drink is colored slightly red from its inclusion of Angostura bitters. An order of Can Can sells for $15 at Golden 1 Center – and about $5 in markets – and contains the equivalent of two cocktails.
Can Can takes a locavore approach similar to Seng’s former employer, Grange, with an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients such as citrus and mint. And the packaging is vibrant as well, which includes original artwork by Seng. Given the Golden 1 Center’s emphasis on Sacramento-area food and beverage producers, bringing Can Can to the arena was a slam dunk for chef Michael Tuohy, the arena’s head chef.
“I think he’s ahead of the trend in the beverage world,” said Tuohy, who formerly worked with Seng at Grange. “They’re also perfect for an arena environment. They’re built for speed and ease, and you can just crack one and go. He’s super-talented and super-creative, and it was a pretty easy sell for us to come together and do something.”
Up next, Seng plans to release new flavors of Can Can, including a signature Sacramento gin-based cocktail known as the White Linen. He’ll also merge his cocktail and visual artistry sides at the upcoming Sacramento State art show, “Call Your Corners!” The title refers to a common refrain from servers as they go to and from the kitchen and try not to collide with others. The show depicts some of Seng’s paintings, which inspired his Can Can labels, and other works that reflect the birth and ride so far of his company.
“You don’t always know what’s around the corner,” Seng said about the theme of his art show. “For me it’s been insane, but it’s also been fun. I’m at a good place right now.”