Soda 101: Understanding Soda WatersSodas, Tonics, Ales, Beers, Colas, and More
Sodas are some of the most important mixers in a bar. They are often used to top off fancier mixed drinks such as the Gin Fizz, Bocce Ball, and Alabazam and are the non-alcoholic ingredient
for many of the popular highballs and lowballs. There are a few types of soda that will be employed on a regular basis in the bar and these should be included in your everyday stock.
To understand the difference between each is valuable, particularly when experimenting with new drinks or when you're out of one and need a good substitute.
All sodas are different -- the same as each brand of vodka or gin is different from the others -- one tonic water may be fruitier or drier and one ginger ale may be sweeter than others.
Soda Guns and Soda Bottles
If you are working in a bar you may have a soda gun to dispense the most popular sodas.
This is convenient and quick and once you remember the layout of the buttons this will be one of your main tools that you will use without thinking about.
There are also many bottled sodas which are convenient for the home bartender, traveler, or those who want to offer a boutique soda. Some bars will stock the bottled sodas
(usually the premium brands if a soda is already in the gun) and with those,
it is customary for the bartender to top off the drink with a little soda and set the bottle alongside the napkin to allow the drinker to add more to fit their taste.
Small Bottles are Better
When buying bottled sodas, choose the smallest bottles possible unless you are planning on using a large amount at once, say for a party.
The majority of the carbonation is lost when the seal is first cracked and a Scotch and Soda or Whiskey Fizz with day-old soda will be weak, flat, and undesirable.
With the smaller bottles, you can usually pour one tall or two short drinks and each will be fresh.
Types of Soda
These first four soda waters are very similar to one another and can be substituted for one another in a pinch.
When choosing one of these light sodas it is important to remember that your drink will only be as good as your soda, especially when you consider
it often makes up more of the volume of the drink than anything else.
For the best mixed drinks, choose sodas that you wouldn't mind drinking straight.
- Soda Water: Soda water is the foundation for most of the other sodas and is soda in its purest form. It is simply water with carbonation added and is also called sparkling water, carbonated water, mineral water, or seltzer. Bottled soda water is available, but the freshest soda comes from an old-fashioned soda siphon and has a carbonation that bottled waters do not. The siphon is the way the bartenders of old made soda and many still use it because it produces a pure and effervescent soda.
- Club Soda: Club soda and soda water are almost identical, and sometimes club soda is just another name for soda water. The two are interchanged in drinks all the time. Club soda often contains additives such as salt and, occasionally, light flavorings. Drinks like the John Collins, Tom Collins, and Vodka Collins have recipes using both soda water and club soda, the decision between which to use is usually a matter of taste and availability. Other popular soda drinks are Smith & Kearns, Singapore Sling, and Wine Spritzer.
- Tonic Water: Tonic is a bitter-tasting soda water that dates back to 1858 and is flavored with quinine. It was originally used for medicinal purposes. The amount of quinine in tonics available on the U.S. market is reduced from those sold elsewhere in the world. The Gin and Tonic is probably the best example of a tonic water drink. It began with British expatriates in India who used the combination of gin's botanicals and tonic's quinine to be an excellent way to prevent malaria. Schweppes was first produced in the 1870's and is one of the more popular tonic waters, with Canada Dry producing another one that is readily available. Today, many boutique tonic waters are available and can be paired with premium gins or other liquors to create some of the best mixed drinks. Q Tonic and Fever Tree are two of those newer brands that are worth tasting and both have full lines of sodas that fall into each of these other categories.
- Ginger Ale: Ginger ale is another lightly flavored soda water, except in this case it contains ginger, sugar, and each brand's "secret" ingredients. There are two types of ginger ale: golden and dry. Golden ginger ales such as Blenheim, Vernors, and Red Rock are darker, sweeter, and stronger than the dry varieties and were popular before Prohibition. Dry ginger ales are more popular today, mostly because they have a lighter flavor and are more versatile when mixing. Canada Dry and Schweppes are two popular brands of dry ginger ale.
Ginger ale is a versatile soda for tall, refreshing drinks because its sweet spiciness pairs well with so many spirits and flavors. Take, for instance, the classics like the whiskey Highball, the Gin Buck or the more innocent Shirley Temple.
- Ginger Beer: This soda has not been as common as the others, though it is seeing a resurgence and is used in two very important drinks: the Dark and Stormy and Moscow Mule. It is less carbonated than most sodas and is typically made with a combination of ginger, lemon, and sugar, with a decidedly spicier ginger taste. Some commercial brands contain alcohol, though the majority do not. Some of the best ginger beers are from Jamaica and can be found in specialty or natural food markets. Fever-Tree, Fentimans, and Q Drinks are three nice, premium brands. If you really like ginger beer, it is not difficult to make your own either.
- Citrus Soda: You will come across more than a few mixed drinks that list lemon-lime soda (Lynchburg Lemonade, Seven & Seven). There are many options available and many of the boutique soda companies produce a great citrus soda. Sprite, 7-Up, and Sierra Mist are the most common commercial brands. Another citrus soda you will come across in drinks like the Paloma is grapefruit soda. For this, Squirt is a nice option, though many people prefer Jarritos. Q Drinks also makes a fantastic grapefruit.
- Cola: Coke, Pepsi, RC, or whatever brand, cola is pretty self-explanatory and it is an essential in any bar. However, I encourage you to step away from the big brands for a minute and try some of the boutique sodas because they are less syrupy, more traditional, and do not mask the rest of the drink when mixed. Rum and whiskey are popular spirits to pair with cola (Cuba Libre, Rum, and Coke, Colorado Bulldog) and you'll also need it available for more complex drinks like a Long Island Iced Tea.