What's in Your Soda?

Is Big Soda slow? Or is the modern American cocktail movement simply too small for them to notice?

I ask this because recently I was shopping and spied a number of everyday food products, including ketchup, for which the makers are proudly declaring that they’ve kicked the high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) habit. Instead, they use sugar in their wares. The argument about the relative health and environmental benefits of various sweeteners aside, many bartenders have made it clear that the standard Big Soda offerings simply don’t cut it.

The day before, I’d been talking about commercial mixers and what they do (mostly bad) to spirits with Tim Warrillow and Charles Rolls, the managing directors of Fever-Tree, a line of premium bottled mixers (bitter lemon, tonic, club soda, ginger beer, ginger ale and now their lower cal light tonic water) that has found favor with many bartenders in craft cocktail bars. Fever-Tree isn’t the only adult-quality soda maker — there’s Fentiman’s and others that I’m seeing more often — but Fever-Tree did a great deal to create the market and certainly have set the standard for what makes a good Gin & Tonic, for instance. But there’s a market for these types of brands primarily because the Big Soda suppliers, for all of their innovation in the off-premise market, have neglected this influential slice of the restaurant industry.

Others are taking soda further: Tad Carducci, a consultant with the New York-based Tippling Brothers, takes two different approaches to sodas; at The Tippler in New York City, he’s gathered a collection of heritage soda brands, including Cheerwine cherry, Nu Grape, Bubble-Up, Mexican Coke and orange Fanta.

At Chicago’s Tavernita, he’s taken a different approach. There, he’s crafted four soda flavors: cola, Valenica orange, white grape and ginger chile. The sodas are kept in specialized 30 liter kegs and “are shockingly popular,” he says. The flavor profiles are consciously different from what’s commercially available; the Valencia orange soda has some bitterness and was crafted with food in mind. The white grape (called Uva Pop) is the least sweet, what’s referred to as dry soda. And while mixing with alcohol wasn’t a primary idea behind the program, Carducci says customers are ordering a significant number of soda highballs.

So craft cocktail folks are perfectly willing to make long drinks with good soda, and I mean good soda, not gun soda. The only people on earth who love gun soda beside suppliers are accountants at chain restaurants, I think. Sure, gun soda makes money, and you can argue it exerts less of a carbon footprint. But Big Soda could just as easily make really good, dry, adult-flavored and HFCS-free products, couldn’t they? Pepsi owns Izze Natural Sodas, and Coke owns, well, oodles of brands, but still bartenders must jump through hoops and pay a premium to get HFCS-free Mexican Coke.

The craft cocktail movement helped revive rye and gin, opened its arms to bitters makers and created a market for small spirit producers; maybe now’s the time for the boutique soda business to get some love. Waiting for Big Soda to wake up won’t do it.

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