Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Liquid Pop art: House-made sodas are raising the bar

Photo: JOEL VEAK

 There's really no delicate way of putting this, so I'll just come out and say it: if your default drink is an "and" drink, meaning a rum and Diet, say, or a Jack and ginger, then you have shitty taste. I'm sorry - I don't make the rules, but that's how it is. (Okay, I do make the rules, and I guess I'm not really that sorry.) 

Not only is it boring, but the sugared-up soda you find on the gun at most bars completely obliterates any nuance the spirit in question may have had in the first place. But that doesn't mean you have to abandon sodas altogether when it comes to cocktailing. There are plenty of local spots, like Erbaluce (69 Church Street, Boston, 617.426.6969), for example, that are making their own house-made sodas and incorporating them creatively into their bar programs. "We don't carry any commercial soda products. Our soda gun has two speeds: sparkling and still," says bar maestro Nick Korn. Instead, Erbaluce offers Italian-style sodas using fresh ingredients. Sounds good, but why should the average imbiber care? 

There's a wholesome, green, renewable element to that approach, Korn explains. "I think it's for the same reasons that people like our food. Given the philosophy of our kitchen - fresh, local, seasonal, made-to-order - having Coke and Mountain Dew syrup delivered in bags wouldn't really make sense. Instead, we try to make use of the same relationships and produce, not to mention philosophy, that end up in the kitchen, on the bar."

To that end, they feature an ever-changing lineup of sodas that varies with the day's available ingredients. Take the Caff√® Seltz ($5), inspired by the caramel and citrus flavors of cola and made from the previous night's leftover coffee, reduced down with sugar, star anise, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Going from that cola-style drink to a cocktail was easy, Korn says. "By combining the coffee syrup with one of our favorite amari, ditching the citrus, and adding some orange bitters, we have a version of what's probably my favorite ‘and' drink, the Fernet and Coke." 

At Erbaluce, you'll also come across options like a celery soda made with syrup from the seeds, salt juice from the stalks, and bitters made from celery and lovage leaves. More straightforward is a ginger beer made with farmers' market ginger, which they juice and then combine with Demerara sugar and Angostura bitters. They use that in a Dark and Stormy-style cocktail called La Burrasca ($10), made with a blackstrap cordial (an overproof rum cut in-house with grade-A molasses). As the varieties of ginger available at the market change throughout the year, the flavor profile shifts as well. Bad news for people who want uniformity in their sugar water, I guess. 

That flexibility in flavor is what makes house-made soda a good alternative, says Tom Keefe of Minibar (51 Huntington Avenue, Boston, 617.424.8500). "First, sodas out of the gun are limited. With a carbonation system, you can essentially carbonate the liquid from any fruit or vegetable. Blending these juices is where you can be creative and make sodas not found in a gun or on a shelf. Secondly, with a homemade system, you are able to control the sugar content. Most store-bought sodas are loaded with high-fructose corn syrup. Working with a fresh product, you eliminate all those nasty ingredients found on the back of most commercial products." Keefe is currently working with a cucumber-and-lime soda in the Hendrick's Press ($11), which also features Hendrick's gin, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, and mulberry syrup. 

Sounds refreshing, right? So do the various limeades ($3) at Area Four (500 Technology Square, Cambridge, 617.758.4444), which are made with lime juice and muddled tarragon, basil, mint, or whatever else strikes the staff's fancy. Bar manager Chris Graeff echoes Keefe's emphasis on the appeal of flavor control. "Coke is a very fixed product with very fixed flavors. This also allows us to work with more local ingredients, as much as we can - herbs in season locally and things like that." His sodas aren't specifically designed as mixers for cocktails, but the herby citrus qualities of the limeades lend themselves to gin, dry vermouth, and maybe some tannin from a green tea. 

Just don't get too attached to what's in your glass: it may not be the same tomorrow. "We'll change it," Graeff says. "Every day, people can come in and have a different house-made soda. It's fun to offer different products." Almost as fun as finding sodas that are truly buzz-worthy. 

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