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What makes a drink a wine cooler?

Wine coolers are a type of flavored alcoholic beverage that exploded in popularity during the 1980s and 1990s. While wine coolers may seem straightforward, there are actually a few key factors that distinguish them from other mixed drinks.

Alcohol Content

One of the defining characteristics of wine coolers is their alcohol content. Most wine coolers have an alcohol by volume (ABV) between 4-7%. This is considerably lower than most wines, which tend to be in the 12-15% ABV range. The reduced alcohol content gives wine coolers a lighter, more refreshing taste compared to regular wines.

The alcohol in wine coolers also comes directly from fermented grape juice or other fruits. This distinguishes them from mixed drinks made with hard liquors like rum or vodka. While those drinks may have similar ABV to wine coolers, the alcohol doesn’t come directly from fruit fermentation.


Another key element of most wine coolers is carbonation. They contain added carbon dioxide to give them a bubbly, effervescent texture. The carbonation helps provide the refreshing quality wine coolers are known for.

Carbonation sets wine coolers apart from still wines. It gives them a soda-like fizziness that makes them easy to drink. The carbonation also lifts the flavors and aromas of the fruit juice, enhancing the sensory experience.


While wine coolers contain fruit juice, they also typically have added sweeteners like sugar or high fructose corn syrup. These sweeteners balance out the tartness of the juice and alcohol. They give wine coolers their recognizable sweet-tart flavor profile.

The level of sweetness can vary widely among different wine coolers. Some have just a touch of sweetness while others are much candier. But in general, wine coolers contain higher sugar levels than most still or sparkling wines.

Fruit Flavors

The most distinctive component of wine coolers is fruit flavoring. Wine coolers can be made with just about any fruit juice imaginable. Some of the most popular flavors include:

  • Strawberry
  • Peach
  • Raspberry
  • Pineapple
  • Mango
  • Watermelon
  • Cherry
  • Pomegranate
  • Apple
  • Grape

The fruit juice gives wine coolers a fun, fruity flavor profile. It allows manufacturers to create a huge variety of flavors to appeal to different palates.

Champagne vs. Wine Coolers

Champagne is sometimes confused with wine coolers due to the sweetness and carbonation they share. However, there are a few key differences:

Champagne Wine Coolers
Made from grapes grown in Champagne region of France Made from grape/fruit juice from anywhere
Carbonation occurs naturally from second fermentation in bottle Carbonation added artificially after fermentation
Typically around 12% ABV Typically 4-7% ABV
Ranges from brut (dry) to demi-sec (semi-sweet) Always contains added sweeteners like sugar

While champagne does contain some natural sugar, wine coolers have higher added sugar levels. Champagne is also double the alcohol content of most wine coolers. So champagne provides a much different drinking experience despite some stylistic similarities.

Cocktails vs. Wine Coolers

Cocktails are another type of drink people sometimes associate with wine coolers. But again, there are some important differences:

Cocktails Wine Coolers
Made with distilled liquors like rum, vodka, gin, etc. Made with fermented grape/fruit juice
Often contain mixers like juice, soda, cream, etc. Contain fruit juice and added sweeteners
Typically have higher alcohol around 15-30% ABV Typically 4-7% ABV
Sometimes carbonated by adding soda Purposely carbonated during production

The key distinction is that cocktails use distilled liquors as their alcoholic base. Wine coolers start with fermented fruit juice. Cocktails also have a wide range of alcohol contents depending on the recipe. So they provide a much different drinking experience than the light, fruity flavor of wine coolers.

seltzers vs. Wine Coolers

The recent rise in popularity of hard seltzers has led to some confusion with wine coolers. But seltzers have some clear differences:

Hard Seltzers Wine Coolers
Start with a fermented malt base Start with a fermented fruit juice base
Get alcohol from fermented grains/sugar Get alcohol directly from fruit fermentation
Typically have around 5% ABV Typically 4-7% ABV
Flavored with fruit essences Flavored with actual fruit juices

Hard seltzers begin with a fermented malt or sugar base more akin to beer brewing. The fruit flavors then get added in after fermentation. Wine coolers start with actual fermented fruit juice. So wine coolers have a more authentic, fruit-forward flavor profile compared to seltzers.

History of Wine Coolers

Wine coolers have an interesting history in the American beverage landscape. They really emerged onto the scene in the 1970s and saw an explosion of popularity in the 1980s and 90s. Some key events in the history of wine coolers include:

  • Early 1970s – California winemakers experiment with refreshing, low-alcohol wines mixed with juice and carbonation.
  • Late 1970s – These new wine-based drinks gain traction under names like “wine spritzers” and “wine pop.”
  • Early 1980s – The term “wine cooler” becomes widely used to describe the drinks.
  • 1983 – Introduction of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. Sales skyrocket from 500,000 cases in 1983 to over 14 million cases by 1987.
  • 1980s/90s – Dozens of new wine cooler brands launch. At their peak, annual wine cooler sales surpass 100 million cases in the U.S.
  • Early 2000s – Sales being to slump. The wine cooler boom goes bust.
  • Today – Wine coolers remain popular but at much lower volumes than their peak. Flavored malt beverages and hard seltzers gain market share.

Wine coolers were a multibillion dollar industry at their peak. Their fall from popularity shows how quickly consumer tastes can change. But wine coolers retain a loyal following today among fans of their fun, fruity, fizzy flavors.

Popular Brands of Wine Coolers

Dozens of wine cooler brands have come and gone over the decades. Here are some of the most popular, longest lasting brands:

  • Bartles & Jaymes – One of the brands that really kicked off the craze in the 1980s. Known for flavored wine coolers served in distinct tall, thin bottles.
  • Seagrams – A classic brand still popular today. Makes a range of wine coolers like Escapes and Wild Berry Fusion.
  • Boone’s – Another long-time affordable brand of wine coolers sold in stores across America.
  • Arbor Mist – Known for very sweet, dessert-like wine cooler flavors.
  • Barefoot – The Barefoot wine company expanded into fruit-flavored wine coolers.
  • Smirnoff – The Smirnoff brand crossed over from vodka into the wine cooler space.

These recognizable brands have stuck around for decades, appealing to Generation X nostalgia as well as new younger drinkers. They have become icons of the American wine cooler culture.

Popular Flavors

Wine coolers come in just about every fruit flavor imaginable. But a few have emerged over the years as tried-and-true favorites. The most popular wine cooler flavors include:

  • Strawberry Daiquiri – Combines sweet strawberry with tart lime notes.
  • Pina Colada – A tropical taste of pineapple and coconut.
  • Raspberry Lemonade – The classic pairing of raspberry and lemon.
  • Peach Bellini – Drinks like a sparkling peach cocktail.
  • Watermelon Punch – A refreshing watermelon and citrus medley.
  • Sangria – Blends red fruit notes in a “sangria” style.
  • Berry Medley – Mixes blackberry, blueberry, raspberry and strawberry.

Drinkers love fruity, vacation-inspired flavors like Pina Colada and Strawberry Daiquiri. But simpler fruit flavors like peach and raspberry remain iconic. There’s a wine cooler taste for every palate out there.

Serving Wine Coolers

Part of the appeal of wine coolers is they require little fuss to serve and enjoy. But there are a few serving tips to get the most out of your wine coolers:

  • Chill them thoroughly – Wine coolers should be served ice cold for maximum refreshment.
  • Pour over ice – For hot summer days, pour in a tall glass filled with ice.
  • Garnish with fruit – Consider adding a lime wedge, pineapple chunk or other fruit that matches the flavors.
  • Enjoy with friends – These are party drinks meant to be shared on patios, at barbecues, on boats, etc.
  • Provide variety – Offer an assortment of different wine cooler flavors for guests to sample.

Wine coolers aren’t fancy drinks – they’re casual, fun beverages for chilling out with friends. Keep them cold and keep the vibe relaxed for perfect wine cooler enjoyment.

Wine Cooler Cocktails

While wine coolers are great on their own, they can also be used as the base for fun cocktails. Some popular wine cooler cocktail recipes include:

Berry Lemon Drop

  • 1 1/2 oz berry wine cooler
  • 1/2 oz lemon vodka
  • 1/2 oz simple syrup
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • Lemon slice garnish

Shake first four ingredients with ice. Strain into glass and garnish with lemon.

Wine Cooler Margarita

  • 1 1/2 oz peach wine cooler
  • 1 oz silver tequila
  • 1 oz orange liqueur
  • 1 oz lime juice
  • Lime wedge garnish

Shake first four ingredients with ice. Pour into salt-rimmed glass and garnish with lime.

Spiked Strawberry Lemonade

  • 2 oz strawberry wine cooler
  • 2 oz lemonade
  • 1 oz vodka
  • Lemon slice garnish

Stir ingredients over ice in a tall glass. Garnish with lemon slice.

The sweet and fruity flavors of wine coolers make them the perfect base for fun cocktails. Mix and match with different spirits, juices and garnishes for endless variations.

Where to Buy Wine Coolers

While the popularity of wine coolers isn’t what it was in the 1980s and 90s, they are still widely available at most stores that sell beer, wine and liquor. Good places to buy wine coolers include:

  • Grocery stores – Look in the beer and wine section
  • Convenience stores – Brands like Seagrams and Boone’s will be in the cooler
  • Liquor stores – Offer the largest selection of brands and flavors
  • Wine shops – Specialty wine shops often carry wine coolers
  • Big box stores – Walmart, Target, etc. have major brands
  • Online retailers – Amazon,,

Pretty much anywhere you can buy beer and wine will carry at least a few standard wine cooler options. Check at liquor stores for the widest selection of brands, flavors and package sizes.

Nutrition Facts of Wine Coolers

One serving of wine cooler (about 12 oz) contains approximately:

  • 100 – 130 calories
  • 0 g fat
  • 14 g carbs
  • 1 g protein

The calories and carbohydrates come from natural sugars in the fruit juice. Some nutrition facts will vary slightly by brand and flavor. But wine coolers have a relatively low calorie count compared to many mixed drinks and beers.


Wine coolers hold a special place in American drinks culture thanks to their explosion of popularity in the 1980s and 90s. While sales have dropped, they remain nostalgic summer drinks for generations of fans. The combination of real fermented fruit juice, carbonation, sweeteners and fun flavors creates a very distinct beverage profile. Wine coolers are their own unique category of flavored alcoholic drinks meant for chillin’ and relaxing with friends.