The city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is a strange place to have an epiphany, but that’s where this story begins. The year was 2018, and the moment felt infinite. It was stop 20 of a 30-stop book tour (for The New Rules Of Coffee), and my co-author and I were feeling both thirsty and social, in need of blowing off a little steam. This was far from a novel impulse; as co-founders of the coffee and wine publication Sprudge, we had spent the better part of the last decade walking the earth for coffee stories, staying in far-flung hotels, traveling from Auckland to Oakland, Rwanda to Roppongi, working long days and enjoying rambunctious evenings in one bar or another. The night out was every bit as important as the next day’s beat. We were authors, journalists and drinkers, in that order.
And then something changed.
“Let me get a soda bitters,” I heard my buddy tell the bartender, after I’d ordered a whiskey highball. We sat down with our drinks in the back corner of the bar—Gooski’s in Polish Hill, I think it was, or maybe the bar at the Ace Hotel in East Liberty—and he proceeded to tell me about his intention to never drink booze again. It was an honest, vulnerable conversation, the kind that comes from having known someone for more than half your life. “You can still drink as much as you want,” I remember him telling me, my highball nearly finished. “I’m just going to stick to ordering these,” he said, gesturing to the pink-hued pint glass stacked high with ice, Angostura and citrus.
I went back up to the bar to get us another round. “Two soda bitters, please. Extra limes.”
Sobriety has long been an ongoing discourse in the bar world, a topic on which I’m no expert. Those who are have declared this moment “The Golden Age of Alcohol-Free,” and thought leaders in the movement (including Punch contributor and award-winning author Julia Bainbridge) are helping move sober bar culture beyond the trappings of Dry January and toward something more resonant, universal and meaningful. In my own selfish, flawed way, the meaning of staying sober while still enjoying a drink at the bar didn’t hit home until someone I truly cared about made it part of my life.
Along the way, I’ve reappraised the power and utility of the soda bitters. Forever committed to a personal interest in water, I’ve learned over the last few years that certain mineral waters can be used in the construction of a fine soda bitters, to marvelous effect; conversely, there are other mineral waters that taste positively disgusting in this format, such as Essentuki or Vichy Catalan, and should be avoided judiciously.
A growing interest in soda bitters has also led me to think more about the bitters I keep in my home, allowing me to appreciate them on their own terms. Maybe it’s the bass player in me, but I love it when an ingredient that’s traditionally kept in the background is allowed to shine and given pride of place, like a Tina Weymouth groove or a Phil Lesh jam in drink form. For me, this looks like as simple and direct as pairing fruit and citrus bitters with Topo Chico, or as complex as melding the soft, sweet baking flavors of vanilla and walnut bitters with a silky mineral-laden water from the Alps. By shrinking the equation—bitters and soda, dead simple—each ingredient can be subjected to a precise level of consideration and tweaking, something bartenders love to do with minimalist cocktails, like the Martini. And that’s what bitters and soda is: a minimalist cocktail, worthy of serious consideration. Let’s own it.
After several years of pleasurable R&D, I’ve committed the below soda bitters combinations, built on equal parts craft bitters and site-specific mineral water, to heavy rotation. Make them at home, order them at the bar, be kind to each other. Delicious drinks are for everyone, no matter what you’re drinking.
Radenska With Cry Baby Bitters Fruit Punch
Radenska is a wonderfully versatile and clean mineral water from Slovenia, one that emerges from the earth with natural bubbles thanks to deep underground mineral traps. It has long been prized as a health and wellness drink, thanks to its high mineral content—in particular calcium, magnesium and potassium—and humans have been bottling it commercially since at least the 1860s. This mineral complexity belies a surprisingly refreshing, light taste, which makes it a wonderful choice for a fruit-forward bitters profile.
I keep reaching for the Fruit Punch flavor by Cry Baby Bitters, a tiny indie bittersmaker located in Salt Lake City, alongside a wedge of blood orange. With dominant notes of hibiscus and sweet pineapple, it’s intended as a plaything for tiki drinks, but really shines on its own, and gives the glass a pleasing pink hue. (I also love Cry Baby’s Bay Leaf bitters, which I’ll splash into nearly anything savory I’m cooking, like pumpkin soup or braised pork.)
Antipodes With Bob’s Bitters Vanilla + Bitter Queens Black Walnut
Antipodes is one of the most gorgeous mineral waters in the world, sourced from a spring near the Bay of Plenty on the North Island of New Zealand, and packaged with award-winning minimalist design in a glass flagon. There’s something reminiscent of cream soda or root beer to this water, and I like mixing it with bitters that play this up. Bob’s Bitters, of Southend-On-Sea, Essex, England, offer one a compellingly culinary range of bitters, drawing on founder Bob Petrie’s experience as a pastry chef. Bob’s Vanilla Bitters are a surprisingly complex combination of sweetness and smoke. When I want to double down on the nutty-creamy notes of this water, I add a few dashes of Bitter Queens’ Joker Judy chocolate walnut bitters, which ups the roasty notes and lands somewhere in the ballpark of a soda fountain Coke float. Garnish with a lemon and you’ve got something special.
Topo Chico With Miracle Mile Ume Plum Bitters
Topo Chico’s broad place in North American drinking culture is perhaps unrivaled by any other mineral water on the market, from cocktail traditions to espresso pairings and beyond. It also makes a delightful canvas for a bitters soda, which can be enjoyed in your choice of glassware, but is perhaps best enjoyed drunk straight from the iconic Topo longneck bottle.
There is a small cult around the Ume Plum bitters made by Miracle Mile Bitters Co. of Los Angeles. Ume, the small Japanese plum, shows up in myriad health and wellness traditions in Japan and is used to flavor sakes, wines and candies. In bitters form you get this lovely pucker sensation that fuses well with Topo Chico’s legendarily robust carbonation. No garnish necessary. The combination has worked its way into my bitters soda arsenal as an all-season drink that’s surprisingly complementary to a range of foods, most especially with a good takeout curry or bento.
Lurisia With Workhorse Rye Pumpkin Bitters
Sourced from the Fonte Santa Barbara di Lurisia in Italy’s Piedmont region, Lurisia is a food-friendly mineral water long prized for its ability to complement a range of wines and cuisines. (It’s also very good alongside coffee.) I pair it with a couple of dashes of Workhorse Rye’s Pumpkin Bitters, which is made using a variety of heirloom pumpkins, alongside beer, artichoke leaf, roasted cocoa beans and spices. One gathers Workhorse made this stuff with the Old-Fashioned in mind, but it sits beautifully within the midrange creaminess of Lurisia, and makes for the perfect autumnal bitters soda. Serve in a lowball over rocks, garnish with a bay leaf.