Care for some carbonic acid in your Americano? Things haven’t exactly reached this point in cocktail geekery, where bartenders suggestively sell by leading with laboratory science, but the recent trend of carbonating cocktails has indeed left an interesting taste in many mouths.
Bartenders have taken to the idea of charging beverages on their own—part of the movement of creating signature beverages with a decided difference. For operations like Chicago’s new SpritzBurger, that means housemade sodas with adult flavor profiles that are suitable on their own or in cocktails. For other operations like Spoonbar, in Healdsburg, Calif., it means batching large quantities of a drink in advance and pressurizing them either à la minute or in a draft system. Those that are carbonated and stored in either a tap system or in bottles can allow operations to serve unique drinks quickly, as well as offer an intriguing twist on established flavor profiles. Or they can create new drink experiences, as many bartenders are carbonating beverages originally designed to be served still. If converted to a carbonated cocktail à la minute using contemporary handheld devices, the process may not be as speedy, but it still provides some added froth, service flair and uniqueness to drink making.
Spoonbar is a good example of an operation that has taken the concept from gimmick to essential beverage program ingredient. Six cocktails, frequently rotated, are available at any one time there via a draft system, including carbonated Cuba Libres, Palomas and Moscow Mules. Even a housemade Gin & Tonic is poured from the tap system.
Tara Heffernan, head of the bar program at Spoonbar, says the flavor and textural differences that result from carbonated cocktails can be stunning. “Doing this really carbonates all the ingredients, not like when you just add sparkling water, and it intensifies the fizziness of the drink and gives a really nice mouthfeel. The carbonic acid we find actually gives a flavor—a dusty, tart, side-of-your-cheek sort of brightness that you can’t really get any other way.”
In addition to speed of service, enhanced flavors and the textural differences in fully carbonated cocktails, visual appeal matters—the drinks at Spoonbar arrive with an inch of frothy foam on top, as if lightning has been caught in a charger. The carbonated drinks have proven popular enough that Heffernan has removed the non-carbonated, tap-served cocktails to make room.
Six cocktails on tap at any one time is quite a commitment, and not all operations will serve enough of them to justify the labor. For Jeffrey Morgenthaler, head barman at Clyde Common in Portland, Ore., who is credited with pioneering the bottled carbonated cocktail trend, carbonating drinks in advance is mostly about cutting service corners so that customers can get their drinks swiftly. He hit upon a group of drinks that made sense to pre-batch, carbonate and bottle—what he calls café cocktails.
“I’m always looking for shortcuts because we are so busy and we run a very lean bar staff. We’re always looking for ways to get drinks into customers’ hands quickly, and bottling these drinks, like the Americano and the Broken Bike, made perfect sense to me,” says Morgenthaler.
The recipes for these low-alcohol, Italian aperitivo drinks originally called for soda water. At Clyde Common, Morgenthaler makes the cocktail in two-liter batches, figuring the dilution rate of a perfectly made drink and adding water, charging them, then filling individual 187-milliliter bottles sealed using a home brewer’s capping device. When served chilled, customers are offered the bottle alone—no glass, ice or garnish.
“We want people to take advantage of the experience, to drink them right out of the bottle. It becomes a very tactile experience for the guest,” he says. Clyde Common will typically go through about 50 bottles per week of the two cocktails served this way at any one time. They have the added advantage of being essentially shelf-stable—Morgenthaler let one sit at room temperature for three months and found it perfect.
“If you look at the Americano and drinks like it, they always have a bitter component and a sparkling component. These are drinks that are normally carbonated, but when you make an Americano at the bar with Campari and sweet vermouth and soda, it isn’t super bubbly. When we do it in a bottle you get much better effervescence.”
The Science of Spritz
In addition to adjusting recipes for dilution, sweetness also needs to be judged when these drinks are crafted. “If you carbonate something, it’s going to become more tart,” says Heffernan. “So we make up for that by adding a little more sweetener.”
While most of us think of the bubbles in our drink as causing the sensation of higher acidity, researchers say the refreshing bite a sparkling beverage provides comes from a chemical reaction that’s going on inside your mouth, one that turns the beverage’s carbon dioxide bubbles into carbonic acid. In other words—it’s not just the bubbles, it’s the acid. Carbonation bite is an acidic chemical sensation as well as a tactile one, with bubbles enhancing the overall sensation of carbonation by stimulating the sense of touch as well as taste.
Whether these drinks are carbonated in advance or à la minute, the main difference is that all ingredients are carbonated, not just the mixer, resulting in a livelier cocktail and one in which the ingredients are fully mixed and slightly heightened in mouthfeel and flavor.
Veteran San Francisco bartender Jennifer Colliau, who has developed her own line of products under the brand Small Hand Foods, is in the midst of preparing the opening of the café and bar Long Now Salon, where she is planning to serve a bottled Gin & Tonic and a tap-delivered Tom Collins.
Since she already makes her own tonic syrup, a house-carbonated Gin & Tonic makes sense for her to try. She’s bottling them with a serving idea that’s an homage to what she has often seen in California’s Mexican restaurants: buckets of ice and frosty bottles of beer brought to a group table, limes tucked into the neck of each bottle. “Since the only citrus in the G&T is a lime wedge, I figure I can serve a bucket of them the same way. In a busy bar, having kegged and bottled cocktails are much faster ways of delivering something delicious, and I would love to be able to do that with a cocktail like the G&T.”
She points out another issue with pre-batched and carbonated cocktails: Citrus may oxidize or discolor quickly, so few of these cocktails made in advance employ fresh citrus successfully, instead developing different forms of acidity. Spoonbar uses clarified grapefruit juice in their Paloma, for example, and Colliau will be using a lime cordial in the kegged Tom Collins.
Building on Savory Sodas
At Chicago’s SpritzBurger, the original idea behind à la minute carbonation was to make sodas with drier and unusual flavor profiles, says co-owner Steve McDonagh. Its Mandarin orange soda is made with orange, herbes de Provence and agave syrup, then “spritzed.” The Dark Cherry is made with fresh cherries, coffee and chocolate bitters. The sodas are also key components for cocktails like the very popular Sabai Fizz (Cruzan aged rum, Batavia arrack and Thai curry shrub) and the New York Sour (Evan Williams whiskey, lemon-lime and red wine). Mixed and charged with fresh soda water to order, the drinks differ from others in that they aren’t carbonated in advance or together, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive for the less sweet, adult flavors, he says.
SpritzBurger isn’t the only Chicago soda pioneer. At Tavernita, a line of four adult sodas—cola, Valencia orange, white grape and ginger chile—are batched and stored in 30-liter kegs and have proven exceedingly popular, both alone and with alcohol added. The flavor profiles are consciously different from what’s commercially available; the Valencia orange soda has some pleasing bitterness, and the white grape is barely sweet.
Deciding to invest time and labor needed to pre-carbonate or bottle cocktails is an individual choice. It can take four days, for example, to fully carbonate a kegged drink, says Heffernan. For H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of San Francisco’s Elixir, bottling wasn’t as appealing as using a device that allows his bartenders to charge cocktails to order. (Spoonbar also uses the devices for a handful of drinks not on the tap menu.)
“These drinks appeal to people who are looking for something different,” says Ehrmann. “For most consumers thinking about a sparkling drink, they are just thinking about a simple highball, but this allows a bartender a way in to perhaps change or open their minds to something new and different. It can surprise them with a unique and wonderful experience.”
He favors carbonating the drinks per order, despite the extra time per drink in production, especially for the attention the process attracts. When thinking about which drinks to carbonate, he avoids those that are viscous or strong in alcohol. While numerous bartenders have carbonated cocktails like the Negroni, he instead focuses on new creations. Typically placed on his “low impact,” moderately alcoholic menu are such drinks as the Winter Solstice Soda (pomegranate liqueur, Benedictine, lemon juice and Demerara syrup). His Cubierto de Sangre is made with pomegranate-flavored tequila, blood orange juice and clove syrup. Ehrmann offers this drink three ways: carbonated, flat over ice or shaken with an egg white.
Since Ehrmann’s drinks are carbonated to order, he doesn’t worry about fresh citrus oxidizing or falling out of solution. But he suggests using care because the drinks are so texturally oriented, they have to be somewhat thin in solution, with the citrus very finely strained with pulp removed and no extra nucleation.
But otherwise, trial and error seems to be the rule. Spoonbar has had success with its version of an Aperol Spritz, in which all the ingredients, including Spanish cava and sparkling water, are combined and then carbonated once again. The drink has all the prerequisites of a potentially successful charged cocktail: moderate alcohol, meant to be served quite cold, with bitter, sweet and acid flavors benefiting from the blending provided by pressurization. And then there’s that eye-catching presentation, something increasingly important as beverage professionals strive to make their drinks stand out in a very crowded field.