Step into a bar in Texas—any bar worth a damn, at least—and you’ll find Topo Chico. The glass bottles might be pulled from a low boy or antique ice box, or served with a glass and wedge of lime, but the ubiquitous sparkling water with the assertive bubbles and thirst-slaking powers is as much a part of Texas culture as Lone Star Beer, football and barbecue.
“I’ve heard people say Topo Chico ‘will clean your teeth,’ about its intense level of carbonation,” says Texas-born Jesse Griffiths, a former bartender and the chef/owner of acclaimed Austin restaurant Dai Due. Griffiths, like many Texas bartenders, is a diehard Topo Chico fan; in fact, one summer he drank so much of it that he landed himself in the ER. “I have been to the hospital exactly once in my life,” he says, “and this was due to overconsumption of Topo Chico, which attacked my upper GI tract. The answer was simply to drink less of it.”
While the fizzy spring water from Monterrey, Mexico’s Cerro del Topo Chico was first bottled in 1895 as a thirst-quenching curative, its inherent salinity—what Travis Tober of Old Pal and Nickel City calls “a dose of steroids for flavor”—and forceful natural carbonation are what make it indispensable behind the bar. “Topo keeps its bubbles after mixing,” says Justin Lavenue, co-founder of The Roosevelt Room in Austin. “I’ve tried making drinks with other sparkling waters at home, and the result is never as satisfying, because Topo has that knock-your-skull-back, refreshing quality. I’ve introduced many, many friends to its bubbly wonders.”
Topo’s current place in the cocktail pantheon, however, is at least partly attributable to one infamous West Texas staple. “I think the revival of the Ranch Water helped launch Topo Chico to cult status, but the fact that you can open a bottle, leave it in the hot car all day and come back to a still-bubbly drink is a very strong selling point,” says Stephan Mendez, general manager of The Esquire Tavern in San Antonio. “The fact that it never goes flat is hugely helpful during service.”
That staying power—Texas Tough, as they say in the Lone Star State—and clean, crisp profile are why Topo Chico has become part of many a bartender’s arsenal. To get a sense of how broad the Mexican mineral water’s use has become behind the bar, we asked Tober, Lavenue and Mendez to break down their favorite drinks created with Topo Chico in mind.
Salty Chihuahua | Old Pal, Lockhart
Travis Tober, a native of Buffalo, New York, says he’s been “obsessed” with Topo Chico since moving to Texas in 2010, so much so that the brand’s logo is even incorporated into the sign for Old Pal, his new bar and honky-tonk in Lockhart. “While I love Topo with gin because it makes the botanicals pop, it’s also perfect for Mexican agave spirits because its salinity acts as a bridge. You can essentially eliminate a step because that salt is already there, which is a huge bonus when you’re serving a crowd.”
The Salty Chihuahua is Tober’s Sombra Mezcal–based take on a Salty Dog. He adds Key lime to adjust the pH balance, while Texas-grown Rio Star red grapefruit adds a “sweeter, richer” component than other varieties. The juices are squeezed à la minute to capture the fruits’ essential oils, but it’s the Topo that unites the flavors. “Topo is like Sparkling Water for Dummies,” says Tober. “This is such a simple build, but Topo Chico turns it into a super crushable drink.”
Death Valley | The Roosevelt Room, Austin
At this craft cocktail bar known for complex but restrained builds, Lavenue’s Death Valley is an outlier: It has just three ingredients and is built in the bottle. While inspired by Death in the Afternoon, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drinks, the format and use of Topo Chico are a nod to Lavenue’s Texas upbringing.
Carbonation is key for this simple, sparkling drink, adding dimension and elevating the fennel and anise in the absinthe. “You can use any brand,” says Lavenue of the latter. “We use Kübler because it’s slightly sweeter than most and tempers the citric and malic acid in the lime juice and carbonic acid in the Topo Chico.”
Lavenue is also fond of pairing Topo Chico with Mexican spirits. “I’m all about ‘if it grows together, it goes together,’” he says. “Mezcal, raicilla and sotol are great with Topo; if I’m drinking at home, it’s definitely either a Death Valley or a simple mezcal highball.”
Rebel Without Applause | The Esquire Tavern, San Antonio
The only carbonated water used at this legendary 88-year-old Riverwalk watering hole (it was established to celebrate the end of Prohibition and boasts the longest wooden bar in Texas) is bottled Topo Chico, says Mendez. “Pretty much every Texan orders a drink ‘with Topo,’ so we don’t even have a soda gun line.”
Mendez grew up drinking Topo Chico, and his fondness for the “super refreshing” beverage extends to his go-to bar order. “Topo with gin—preferably Ki No Bi Sei navy strength or Monkey 47—with a squeeze of lime,” he says. On the rare occasion he makes a drink at home, Mendez reverts to a time-honored Texas recipe to cool off. “A Paloma with Topo Grapefruit smacks real hard.”
For Rebel Without Applause, Mendez wanted something “light and bright” and built in the bottle for guests to enjoy on the bar’s waterfront patio, but he didn’t want to sacrifice flavor. By adding Giffard Caribbean Pineapple Liqueur and lime juice to Wray & Nephew White Overproof Rum and Macchu Pisco, the cocktail gets a jolt of juicy, caramelized tropical fruit flavor and a bright finish. “It drinks like a funky, tropical Collins,” says Mendez. The powerful carbonation and salinity of the Topo Chico also soften the impact from this high-octane cocktail, and the bubbles stay the course, even when the heat index is off the charts.