These days, it’s not uncommon for food and drink establishments to make their own bitters, infuse their own liquors, squeeze their own juices and brine their own garnishes. With this kind of attention to detail, it’s no wonder bartenders are shying away from canned sodas and gun bubbles in favor of inventive craft sodas.
We found a handful of Austin places that offer sparkling alternatives to the usual soda swill. And teetotalers rejoice: Every last one of these can be enjoyed without alcohol.
Michael Simon relocated to Austin this spring from Chicago, where he worked as Graham Elliot’s beverage director and general manager. Now, as the bar manager of Qui, he’s fine-tuning some of the most inventive cocktails in town.
“What’s great about working with Paul [Qui] and the guys in the kitchen is that sense of evolutionary refinement is always there,” says Simon. “Very, very, very few things are perfect and have no room for improvement. They would say the same thing. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to work here in the first place.”
Simon and his bar team are currently using a Soda Stream to create sparkles to order for several of their signature cocktails. The bases are prepped ahead of time using a process that includes juicing, steeping, infusing, reducing and straining.
One of Qui's most popular cocktails, Lena Dunham’s Super Nightlife Mule, pairs vodka with fresh celery and yuzu juice, ginger, cane sugar, filtered water, celery bitters, sea salt and a fresh lemongrass stalk garnish for a clean and refreshing summer elixir.
A newly created sweet and sour raspberry tonic blends Jean-Marc Montegottero raspberry vinegar, fresh sudachi juice, freshly juiced pomegranate seeds, quinine powder, agave nectar, cane sugar, kaffir lime leaves and sea salt, topped with a sliced sudachi garnish. The resulting concoction has floral and citrus notes and enough sweet and sour layers to stand up against Navy-strength gin.
Next on the agenda, he’s sourcing kola nuts to create a bourbon cherry kola cocktail. How does Simon come up with this stuff? “Lucid dreaming,” he says with a smile.
Since opening this winter, the menu at Sway has included Pok Pok Som drinking vinegar, which is served topped with sparkling water on tap. Made in Portland, Oregon, with organic sugar and natural flavorings, drinking vinegar varieties include a fruity pomegranate, twangy honey and slightly bitter tamarind — flavors that pair nicely with the vibrant dishes.
“Drinking vinegar in general has a lot of different sources,” says Nate Wales, Sway’s beverage director. “Japanese Samurai warriors used to take a dose of vinegars to give them virility and spirit in the fight. In Thai cuisine, vinegar has always been an important component in finding that balance of flavors. It translates with that sort of spicy and really intensely flavorful cuisine.”
The Sway House Blend created in collaboration with Kosmic Kombucha is another refreshing carbonated option, available on tap in the restaurant and in bottles around town. The oolong and green tea blend is enhanced with young coconut juice, lemongrass, lime juice and local honey.
In addition to a creating syrups for a line of housemade sodas that will be released by the end of the month, Wales and his team have also been experimenting with infusing coconut vinegar and apple cider vinegar in house. Look for flavors like herb and basil, ginger, pepper, and pear, among other surprises.
Wales says the intention was to keep things simple when they first opened. Now, he says, “We’re stepping into some kind of mixing. We’ll get the foundation of the sodas going, make sure everyone’s enjoying those, and then it’s likely that we’ll start mixing in some sakes and vermouths to make aperitifs.”
Austin Daily Press
Amazing sandwich creations aren’t the only delicious thing on the menu at Austin Daily Press. “Our chef, Reed Faitak, was coming up with so many innovative sandwich ideas that we needed some creative drinks to match,” says front of house manager Ally Hemenway.
“Nearly all of us at ADP have extensive bar and kitchen experience, so we pooled together our knowledge to make some herbal and unique sodas.”
Using local produce whenever possible, ADP juices or purees fresh fruits and veggies, steeps them with herbs, and reduces them into a syrup to be topped off with Topo Chico. “We chose Topo Chico as our soda water because it's an Austin staple and it's carbonated enough for any thickness of syrup or puree,” says Hemenway.
Flavors change every week and can be found posted on the specials page of the website, but here's a sampling: sweet mint, lavender, lemon and basil, sage and smoked jalapeño, blackberry and Texas grapefruit, green curry, strawberry and lavender, spicy ginger, mint marigold, and pickled cherry, among others.
“We still have so many ideas to experiment with,” Hemenway says. “Part of the creative process for us involves utilizing parts of herbs and other produce that don't fit on sandwiches, such as the tougher stems of lemongrass or mint. Flavors like these tend to become a part of the regular rotation.”
This week, they’re serving up a clean, refreshing lemongrass and ginger with a jalapeño kick, a peppery carrot and celery practically begging to be made into a “Carrot Bloody,” and a divine peach thyme vanilla that would be equally perfect paired with champagne. Because ADP is also BYOB and recently introduced a new brunch menu, you know where to find me this Sunday.
Step inside Con’Olio, and you’ve entered olive oil and balsamic vinegar heaven. Both the downtown and Arboretum locations feature dozens of varietals of extra virgin olive oil, aged vinegar, and infused oils and vinegars.
Each Saturday, owners Jeff and Tabatha Conarko serve their customers samples of balsamic vinegar sodas, which have been quite a hit.
“The thought dawned on us one day during the heat of the summer that we could make a crisp, refreshing drink that has tons of flavor but very little calories and sugar if we simply add healthy, all-natural balsamic vinegar to sparkling water,” says Jeff.
Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena, Italy, is healthy because of compounds like polyphenols and acetic acid, which could potentially fight diabetes by lowering the glycemic index and aiding digestion. It also contains quercetin, which has been shown to fight cancer in clinical studies.
Says Jeff, “When it is authentic, traditional balsamic vinegar contains very little sugar and very few calories, so it can be used as a natural sweetener by diabetics as well as people trying to lose weight and eat healthier.”
The Conarko's recommend trying the cranberry pear, lemongrass mint, and cara cara orange and vanilla white balsamic vinegars mixed with soda and topped with a sprig of fresh mint.
“When balsamic vinegar is made according to the 2,000-year-old method of barrel-aging in the traditional process, acidity ages out and it becomes sweet and thick and rich naturally with time,” explains Jeff. “Our customers are so thrilled with the taste that now we have recipes for not only sodas, but also cocktails using our balsamic vinegar.”
One of Jeff's favorite drinks is made by adding sweet peach balsamic vinegar to vodka or prosecco for a fantastic variation on a Bellini.
In the 1920s, Hillside Drugstore on East 11th Street was owned and operated by Doc Young, Austin’s first African-American pharmacist. Young’s daughter, Yvetta Turner, still lives a few blocks away and still owns the building where she used to pull the soda fountain as a child.
Though it's now known as Hillside Farmacy and the interior has been given a Parisian bistro facelift, it still includes an old-fashioned soda fountain as an homage to the building’s past life. And whether enjoyed virgin or with alcohol, you might say these elixirs are just what the doctor ordered.
Hillside Farmacy creates fruit and herb-based syrups in-house and top them off with sparkling water on tap for a clean, mineral-rich finish. The Pickpocket is a fruit-forward combination of strawberry, basil and balsamic vinegar; The Rosewood is garden-fresh marriage of lemon and rosemary; and Root Cola is made with a spicy blend of carrot, ginger and peppercorn.
Hibiscus lemonade is refreshingly floral, and none of the drinks is overly sweet. Liquor suggestions are noted on the menu beside each flavor.
Also available is a stomach-soothing blend of bitters and soda (perfect for mornings after) and a traditional chocolate egg cream that would go nicely with any of the locally baked items. Each of these effervescent throwbacks is appropriately served in a mason jar: lean back, take a sip and be transported to simpler times.