Just as the right choice of spirits can make a cocktail shine, a well-crafted mixer can make it soar. A variety of high-quality mixers, including small-batch tonics and artisanal sodas, are bubbling up behind bars. Mixologists are also concocting house-made, bottled cocktails uncapped tableside—fresh, ready-to-serve libations that have guests thirsting for more. Liquid purveyors and operators with a fancy for fizz show how to add sparkle to drinks programs.
A TONIC FOR WHAT AILS YOU
Bars in Spain typically offer five, six or more types of tonic on the menu—along with an impressive selection of gins to match each one. Though you’d be hard-pressed to see that many choices in most American venues, bars here have recognized the importance of quality mixers to pour over ice and a guest’s botanical-based clear spirit of choice.
Newer brands like Fever Tree and Q Tonic are made with cane sugar and all natural ingredients, which helps elevate the gin or vodka mixing experience.
Tonics are also getting fancier and flavored: Fever Tree, for instance, offers a Mediterranean tonic with ingredients including lemon, mandarin and rosemary, and a Naturally Light Indian Tonic Water, with 45% fewer calories than its standard tonic.
The tonic trend today is leaning towards syrup concentrates, to which bartenders add soda water and a spirit. Tomr’s Tonic is crafted from all organic ingredients, and sold in 200-ml. bottles for around $9 retail price. Since each drink typically requires ¾ oz. to 1 oz. of syrup, each bottle yields seven to ten cocktails.
“It adds balance and texture to a drink—tonic water can be abrasive,” says Tom Richter, owner/creator, formulist and chief bottle washer of Tomr’s Tonic. “Most people say ‘I thought I hated gin and tonic, but I guess I just hated the tonic!’”
Rather than the clear elixir with which people are familiar, Tomr’s Tonic has an amber hue, which requires a little education for guests. Richter explains that it gets its color from the bark of the cinchona tree—the original source of tonic’s ubiquitous bitter flavor—as well as from organic cane juice sugar.
There are several benefits to using tonic in a concentrated form. “You can regulate the concentration as you like, and it can also be used as a cocktail ingredient,” says Richter. Bartenders at PDT in New York use it in a riff on the Collins, with Plymouth gin, lemon and grapefruit juices, topped with Champagne. Syrup concentrates have a longer shelf life than sodas since they don’t go flat, though they must be refrigerated after opening.
Jack Rudy Cocktail Co., based in Charleston, SC, also crafts a small-batch tonic concentrate used in about 300 bars around the country, and sold at retail in packs of two 17-oz. bottles for $32. Founder and president Brooks Reitz describes his tonic as a cleaner, more “feminine” alternative to similar products on the market—a contrast to brands that favor heavier, robust winter spices and an intense flavor profile.
“The botanicals introduce themselves quietly, and at the end you get that pleasant, bitter quinine sensation” Reitz says. “I want the tonic to lift up the gin, not mask it.”
Reitz says tonic syrups also allow for creating Gin and Tonics in a keg—a great option for high-volume bars—as well as using it as an aromatically bitter ingredient in drinks.
The company’s Jack and the Beanstalk cocktail is made with Bluecoat gin, Jack Rudy tonic, grapefruit juice and Aperol. “It introduces sweetness, tartness and bitterness,” he notes. “It’s an easy way to elevate a very simple cocktail to another level.”
Premixed cocktails bottled in-house are literally popping up all over drinks menus.
Sumi Robata Bar and Charcoal Bar, a 35-seat traditional Japanese robatayaki restaurant in Chicago, offers several bottled cocktails, which change seasonally. “It’s a fairly simple process, but it does take some prep work,” admits Sumi Robata beverage director Matthew Lipsky. He starts by creating a batch of about 25 cocktails, and then adding water to dilute each drink so mixing it with ice is unnecessary.
The batch is transferred via a funnel to 180-ml. sparkling wine bottles, which are sealed with bench crown cappers crimped around the top of each bottle. Current offerings, each priced at $12, include Dragon’s Milk, with vodka, cucumber, mint, Nigori sake, white pepper and lime, and The Sad Flute, with Bourbon, ginger, yuzu and grapefruit.
Sumi sells around 150 bottled drinks per week year-round; that number increases to 250 when the patio is open during the summertime. “Guests seem to like how accessible and fun the presentation is,” says Lipsky.
The drink is served alongside a glass, but most patrons prefer to drink the cocktails directly from the small bottles. An added benefit, especially in the warmer months, is that even though the drinks are potent, the effervescence renders the alcohol approachable rather than overpowering.
The 210-seat Trummer’s on Main in Clifton, VA, which focuses on creative American cuisine inspired by the Virginia agricultural community, offers four bottled cocktails, each priced at $10. Batch #3 mixes Gran Centenario Rose tequila, Byrrh, Cocchi Americano and cassis; Batch #4 “Cherry Coke” combines Coke and vanilla with fresh cherries steeped in a mixture of liqueurs.
Owner Stefan Trummer says that the labor intensity of these drinks on the onset will pay off at the time of service. “Guests will get the cocktail right away, and all of the drinks will be consistent,” he notes.
For operators wanting to incorporate bottled drinks into their beverage program, Lipsky says that preparation is paramount. “While the recipes might be simple, the technique requires some preplanning,” he cautions. “These are not cocktails you can make on the fly.”
The bottles he uses aren’t dishwasher safe, so they are hand washed and dried on a bottle tree. And, he says, any citrus used in bottled drinks will need to be juiced at least every other day to preserve the integrity of the drink.
The move away from high-fructose corn syrup in favor of sweeteners like cane sugar influenced the burgeoning artisanal soft drink market. The launch a few years ago of companies like the Seattle-based DRY Soda Co. ushered in innovative effervescence, along with interesting flavors including rhubarb, cucumber and lavender.
DRY Sodas are enjoyed straight out of the bottle, as well as in cocktails like the Blueback Collins served at Urban Farmer Steakhouse in Portland, OR, with organic vodka, orgeat, lemon, orange bitters and rhubarb DRY Soda.
Many bartenders in need of fizz with flavor today are seeking out locally produced, artisanal sodas to add to their shaker creations. Companies like New York’s Brooklyn Soda Works, Pop Art Soda in Abilene, TX, and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Soda Company pride themselves on using locally sourced ingredients, innovative flavors and natural sweeteners.
Francesco Amodeo was looking for a locally produced lemon soda. The beverage director for the 135-seat seafood-focused restaurant Azur in Washington, D.C. needed to replace the Italian Amalfi lemon-based soda La Nostra Gazzosa in his limoncello-based Amalfitano cocktail.
So Amodeo turned to Nathan Zeender, founder of nearby Wildcraft Soda, a small-batch, draft-only botanical soda business. Zeender’s products are sold at area farmers’ markets and select bars; he is also considering offering reusable 32-oz. “growlettes.”
Amodeo, a native of Italy’s Amalfi Coast and also owner of Don Ciccio & Figli Artisanal Liqueurs, collaborated with Zeender on an amaro soda to be mixed with Amodeo’s soon-to-be-released amaro. Partnerships like this between bartenders and soda purveyors allow for creative and delicious collaboration.
GETTING INTO GINGER
Ginger beer is a staple for bars that use the soda in drinks like the Dark and Stormy. Traditional brands like Barritt’s and Gosling have been joined by newer players on the market including Blenheim and Ginger People.
Maeve Pesquera, national director of wine for the 65-locations of the Tampa, FL-based Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar, chose Fever Tree ginger beer for the Moscow Mule on the Retro Chic page of Fleming’s drink menu. “I love the intensity of the ginger flavor in the Fever Tree,” she says. “It helps create a memorable but well-balanced cocktail.”
Traditional ginger “beer” is a misnomer, as the beverage is actually alcohol free, but a product from the U.K. introduced last year to the U.S. market is a ready-to-serve libation. Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer is now available for sale in 30 states, in two formats: a four-pack of 11-oz. bottles and a 16.9-oz. bottle. The recommended way to serve it is over ice, with a slice of lime or lemon.
Crabbie’s is launching its first mass sampling campaign across East Coast vacation destinations this summer, according to Phil Clarke, general manager of the Everett, MA-based St. Killian, Crabbie’s U.S. importer. The company is currently researching an orange flavor for the American market, Clarke says.
Above all, the growing selection and availability of these craft sodas and mixers lends them a wide application, says Reitz of Jack Rudy. And not just for high-end cocktail lounges, but also in neighborhood joints and in the bars of enthusiastic home cocktailians. As for cocktails in a bottle, well, they’re just plain fun.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer and wine educator in the Washington, D.C. area. She can be reached through her website, www.kellymagyarics.com, or on Twitter @kmagyarics.