Eater contributor Catherine De Orio is a blogger, writer, entrepreneur, Check, Please host, and TV and radio personality. In her bi-weekly Tasting Trends piece, she scours the city for what's trending on the dining scene and where you can taste the trend. Follow her culinary adventures on Twitter @CatCalls. This week's trend: Housemade Sodas.
Red Door [Photo: Zagat]
In the first half of the 20th century, bartenders enticed with intoxicating libations and the soda jerk was their alcohol abstaining cousin. With the renewed interest in classic cocktail culture and slavish devotion to farm-to-table (or garden-to-glass if you will) philosophy, homemade soda production has taken a place center stage.
Jay Schroeder, beverage director at Red Door Kitchen and Bar gives a little fizz ed on the homemade soda trend.
"The cool thing about bringing homemade sodas into a restaurant setting is not everyone drinks alcohol," Schroeder says, "and these provide a thoughtful, non-alcoholic experience."
A made-to-order soda uses fresh ingredients that can't be used in a product designed to sit on shelves for lengthy periods of time. So, now one can get a fresh herb and juice driven sipper instead of the commercially made sugar (and chemical) bombs that used to be the only option.
For a soda you need a flavor base, usually made up of fresh juices, herbs and essential oils. The recipe is crafted like a cocktail in search of the perfect blend of balanced flavors. The process pays attention to all the usual steps of straining, tasting, testing and adjusting for pungency or ripeness of ingredients used. Next, sweetener is added, followed by the bubbles.
Carbonation is key. "Carbonation helps with the mouthfeel and balance of the soda," explains Schroeder. It's getting the right amount of carbonation into a homemade soda that's the trick for barkeeps around the city.
"Yeast," Schroeder explains, "can be inconsistent and unpredictable." Too little CO2 in the bottle leaves the soda flat, while too much CO2 production can cause fermenting bottles to blow up "like tiny hand grenades."
So he opts to fill a Cornelius keg (taller and skinnier than a standard keg) with the soda base and hook it up to a CO2 line. Schroeder explains that after it is injected with the CO2, it needs to be rocked back and forth for about fifteen minutes to increase the surface area of the liquid with which the CO2 can come in contact. Basically, this helps the liquid absorb the CO2 faster. The keg is then placed in the fridge for 1-2 days to allow the CO2 to dissolve into the liquid as it cools. And now it's ready to use.
And Schroeder works smart, explaining that with soda he can do all the heavy lifting in terms of prep on the front end by making homemade sodas to add into a cocktail that can be made very quickly. To this end, Schroeder created a grapefruit-tarragon soda that blends fresh grapefruit and lime juice, plus zests and tarragon. The housemade ginger beer is his baby though.
"I am really proud of my ginger beer," he says. This heady soda is a mix of fresh ginger and lime juice, with added lime zest. He is currently at work on a vanilla cream explaining that back when vanilla was harder to come by, this flavor was the "flagship of any soda jerk."
Some detractors feel a cocktail made with any pre-made component is a cop-out, but Schroeder disagrees. "It's not cheapening the experience," he says, " the time is spent on the back end, not the front?I am being smart with my time?I can get a great tasting cocktail out in thirty seconds or so this way." And let's be honest, how fast one gets their drink from order to arrival is a major factor in the bar experience.
Want to get a quick fix of fizz, head to these spots to taste the trend:
Red Door Kitchen and Bar | 2118 North Damen Avenue | 773.697.7221
Currently Schroeder is serving up a homemade ginger beer that can be enjoyed on its own or in a Moscow mule cocktail. But his dark & stormy made with light rum, ginger beer and a float of extra dark, molasses-y Cruzan black rum steals the show. And his grapefruit-tarragon soda acts as the key ingredient in his take on the classic paloma cocktail which combines the soda with Milagro tequila.
Nightwood | 2119 South Halsted Street | 312.526.3385
Mixologist Eric Davis stays true to the seasonal, local mantra of this Pilsen eatery which offers two seasonal sodas. The rhubarb soda starts with a housemade rhubarb tonic base, some fresh lemon juice and a top off of soda water—but for those that need a bit of a kick, gin can be added. While the unique combination of cherry and sassafras are accented with a bit of lime juice to make up the base of this summer soda which is then finished with carbonated water.
Tavernita | 151 West Erie | 312. 274.1111
The always inventive Tippling Bros. are featuring a few housemade sodas to complement the Spanish-style small plates at this hip River North restaurant. The orange soda gives a nice tangy-sweet sip, while the white grape soda incorporates interesting ingredients like rose water and golden raisins to give a sophisticated take on a grape soda. And if you like your ginger ale with an extra spicy kick, try the ginger chile ale that incorporates spicy guindilla peppers to the mix and is rounded out with soft floral notes from the addition of orange blossom honey.
The Gage | 24 South Michigan Avenue | 312.372.4243
Henri | 18 South Michigan Avenue | 312.578.0763
These Michigan Avenue sister restaurants both offer a blood orange and grapefruit soda. These two specialty sodas are made with Todd Appel, local cordial maker and cocktail consultant's, homemade cordials. The rich and complex blood orange and grapefruit cordials give the added soda water a vibrant burst of fresh, fruity flavor.
2 Sparrows | 553 West Diversey Parkway | 773.234.2320
Depending on how the night before played out, booze-free bevvies at breakfast are the perfect way to start the day. This Lincoln Park breakfast spot offers housemade sodas designed to pair perfectly with their summer menu options. "Cool As A?" combines refreshing cucumber, mint and lime while the "Back Patio's" blend of strawberry, basil and balsamic has a palate pleasing juxtaposition of flavors. The classic flavor combination of raspberry and lemon in the "Birds Nest" get a botanical boost with a hint of juniper.
Little Market Brasserie | 10 East Delaware Street | 312.640.8141
Tippling Bros. strikes again with a variety of housemade sodas that change out seasonally. Currently you can find inspired combinations like apple-lavender, orange-hibiscus-mint, banana-passion fruit or cornflower-yuzu. And even better, they make turning these sodas into a cocktail as easy as choosing one of their two recommended spirit pairings for each.
Catherine De Orio dishes on all things cuisine, cocktail and cosmopolitan for editorial and broadcast outlets locally and nationally. You can follow her on Twitter @CatCalls