Food & Drinks

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCH

“Topped with soda” used to mean exactly that. But a new generation of carbonated mixers—some drawn from the wellness movement, others imported cult classics—has transformed the ubiquitous directive into so much more.

For many drink-makers, these sparkling toppers are the genesis of cocktails informed by taste memory, texture and a pandemic-fueled desire to travel. “Browsing beverage sections in ethnic groceries can yield a lot of fun ideas,” says T. Cole Newton, owner of Twelve Mile Limit in New Orleans. “It also provides an interesting window into a culture you might not be able to experience in person.” Karen Fu, of Los Angeles bar Thunderbolt, also finds inspiration in cult favorites, but she’s equally enthused by newcomers that “highlight ingredients, methodology and history,” like East Imperial sodas from New Zealand and Kimino, a line of Japanese fruit beverages.

To earn a spot in the modern bartender’s arsenal of mixers, carbonation is key. “I need powerful, consistent bubbles,” says Masa Urushido, of New York’s Katana Kitten. “A lot of toppers aren’t well-carbonated,” he notes.

But beyond bubbles, mixers need to have a balance of body, texture and flavor. “A niche product that drinks alone well might be fussy when curated as a layered, complex flavor in a cocktail, where there are other dimensions to consider,” says Fu. “Often, a simple, refreshing, crisp, sparkling component is what’s needed in a cocktail, unless you’re building a drink to feature the mixer.”

The diversity of toppers within the marketplace is unquestionably a boon for bar professionals, but, says Annie Wiliams Pierce, of Columbus, Ohio’s Law Bird, “While the variety of brands is exciting, it can be overkill for a bar program. I’m of the mindset [that] when we bring in a new mixer, it has to have at least two applications, and they need to be smart and unique to avoid redundancy.”

To that end, Kenta Goto, of the Lower East Side’s Bar Goto, is holding out for one in particular: “I’d really love to see a sparkling dashi,” he says.

 

In its nonsparkling form, Calpico, a cultured milk drink from Japan, has been making appearances on bar tops stateside for some time; the brand also makes a lighter form called Calpico Water. But in its less-often-seen effervescent version, Calpico Soda adds a playful textural quality to cocktails, while the dairy tames the bite of acidic or high-ABV ingredients.

Kenta Goto is enamored of Calpico in its various iterations for its versatility. He and Bar Goto bartender Koharu Usui collaborated on the Ichigo, made with gin, strawberry, Calpico Water, cucumber, lemon cane syrup and soda. Subbing Calpico Soda to simplify the build is a Goto-approved hack.

The drink was inspired by Japan’s obsession with ichigo miruku, or strawberry milk. “It’s a popular flavor combination,” says Usui. “The creamy quality of Calpico is a great match for strawberry purée, and a soft, less-dry gin and cucumber give the drink a bright, fresh feel.”

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCHWilliams Pierce is an aficionado of these Detroit-made “leisure sodas,” made with botanicals like rhubarb root, juniper, Italian chinotto and cinnamon. “They all have a bite, whether from citrus or herbs and spices, but there’s plenty of flavors to work with and accentuate,” she says. “They’re also crazy delicious on their own.”

Of the four flavors, she prefers Capo (brisk, with chamomile, licorice root and peppermint) and Sera (mellow, hints of citrus and rhubarb) for her spin on a traditional Alpine summer spritzer (blanc vermouth, muddled strawberries and a splash of soda). “The Capo and Sera are both a touch herbal and floral, with lots of coriander [notes],” says Williams Pierce. “I prefer them with lighter, grassier spirits like aquavit, fun, botanical-forward gins, tequila and rhum Agricole.”

In her Wild Green Strawberries, Williams Pierce uses blanc vermouth as the base for infused strawberries. For the build, the addition of caraway- and clementine-forward Norden Aquavit, Casamara Club Capo and celery bitters yields what she calls a “juicy, herbaceous, green” cocktail.

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCHThis Brooklyn-based brand has found a following for its array of lush, fruity sodas like Sour Blueberry, Blackberry Jam, Pear Elderflower and Toasted Coconut.

Christian Suzuki, of San Francisco’s Kagano Pop-Up, fell for White Grape, a flavor that taps into one of his favorite memories. “Grapes are a celebrated fruit in Japan, where I spent much of my childhood visiting my grandparents. We’d go to Lake Kawaguchi in the summer, where they sell soft-serve grape ice cream everywhere. This is the only beverage that reminded me of those trips.”

That taste memory was the inspiration for Suzuki’s Renai Revolution, a highball made with Iichiko Saiten shochu, pandan-vanilla syrup, lime and United Sodas of America White Grape. Suzuki says the shochu has a “delightfully silky, voluptuous body that pairs perfectly with the slightly juicy soda.” The addition of pandan and vanilla, combined with the alcohol, yields “an adult take on an early sensory memory.”

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCHSometimes, nostalgia is acquired, rather than born. Travis Tober, owner of Nickel City in Austin and Fort Worth, is originally from Buffalo, New York. But his years in Texas have turned him on to Topo Chico, the state’s ubiquitous sparkling water (which is made in Monterrey, Mexico). “I’ve been obsessed with Topo Chico ever since my first visit to Austin, in 2010,” he says. “There’s something special about a bottle pulled straight from an ice-filled tub in a BBQ joint on a 100-degree day. In Texas, we also have access to Topo’s lesser-known ‘Twist of Grapefruit’and ‘Twist of Lime’ versions.”

For his Oaxacan Breeze, a super-quenching riff on the Mojito, Tober adds tequila, fresh Key lime juice, mint syrup, Scrappy’s Grapefruit Bitters and Topo Chico Twist of Grapefruit to a Collins glass with ice, and garnishes it with a slice of the Rio Grande Valley’s famous red grapefruit and a bouquet of fragrant mint. “Topo’s assertive bubbles and minerality are perfect for cocktails—it also has a touch of sodium, and all of those things combined is like a dose of steroids for flavor. Just gin and regular Topo Chico will blow your mind—you can taste every botanical.”

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCHThis line of sustainably sourced, small-batch toppers from New Zealand includes the Royal Botanic Tonic, infused with elderflower, Ruby Red grapefruit and pomelo, the baking spice–forward Kima Kola and a piquant Mombasa ginger beer.

Fu loves East Imperial’s ethos and transparency as well as their attention to detail in developing flavor profiles. For her Springy Chuhai, she uses the brand’s signature Tonic Water. “It’s crisp, zesty and full-bodied, with lemongrass, lime and cinnamon. It’s beyond just the usual hints of quinine,” she says. The highball comes together by combining orange flower water, muddled kumquats, cane syrup, Calpico, Meyer lemon juice, Mizu Lemongrass Shochu, Martin Miller’s or Roku gin and a splash of tonic. “It’s serendipitously milky, tangy and slightly fizzy from the Calpico, while the tonic gives it an earthy effervescence.”

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCHJarritos Mexican sodas, with their dizzying array of flavors, including guava, mango, pineapple and mandarin, have found a fan in Newton. “But the tamarind is special: sweet, tangy, a little earthy. It’s a pretty nuanced and well-balanced beverage on its own, and it effortlessly elevates long, fizzy cocktails.”

For his Dizzy Cordova, Newton fills a Collins glass with mezcal, amaretto, lime, Jarritos Tamarindo and a dash of Bittermens Xocolatl Mole Bitters—“in keeping with the Mexico theme, and it adds a bit of spice and savory complexity to the drink,” he notes—and finishes with ice and a lime wedge. The bar also pairs Jarritos Tamarindo with rhum agricole and Campari, but “pretty much everything goes with tamarind,” says Newton. “I’d be shocked if you couldn’t find a use for Jarritos Tamarindo by mixing it with gin, vodka or even brandy.”

Don’t Just “Top with Soda” | PUNCHThis German brand makes fruit-, flower- and herb-based tonics from inspired ingredients like blackthorn, spruce needle and pitanga (Surinam cherry). Urushido discovered the Cherry Blossom tonic in 2019. “It takes me back to being a child in Japan,” he says. “Cherry blossoms have a very faint, delicate aroma, and to replicate that requires a degree of artificiality,” which, he notes, is not always a bad thing.

To balance the dryness, acidity and delicate profile of the tonic water, Urushido uses floral, citrus-forward Roku Gin, while a barspoonful of maraschino liqueur “unites the cherry theme” in his Blue Angel Highball, created in collaboration with drinks author Brad Thomas Parsons.

“What I like about this drink is, it’s not shying away from artificiality,” says Urushido. “Today, everyone wants things to be ‘natural,’ but the Blue Angel is both delicious and completely unapologetic.”

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