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Cocktails

Dew the Suze

October 26, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

Cocktails

Dew the Suze

October 26, 2021

Story: Aaron Goldfarb

photo: Lizzie Munro

Fanta Orange and mezcal. Grape soda and green Chartreuse. Mountain Dew and Suze. These bartender-backed highballs play by their own rules.

“I don’t think I’ve had a Mountain Dew in two decades,” says Sother Teague in an Instagram video posted earlier this month, as the New York bartender married a pour of Suze, a gentian amaro, with the brashest of American sodas. The offbeat idea was born at a recent backyard barbecue as Teague and his friends tried to brainstorm a cocktail and corresponding name to match the genius of the Ferrari (fernet and Campari) and Maserati (mezcal and Ramazzotti). After some unsuccessful spitballing, someone suggested: Why not a Mountain Suze?

“Holy shit, this is delicious!” exclaims Teague in the video, inspiring his followers—many of whom are themselves professional bartenders—to reveal what unexpected soda-spirit combinations they (guiltily) adore. Barolo Chinato and Cherry Coke. Black currant vodka and Sprite. Green Chartreuse and grape soda.

Some were trolling, perhaps, but others were unabashed in touting their favorite “oddball highballs,” as Teague calls them. Of course, it’s only recently that a bar professional would dare proclaim their allegiance to corn syrup–crammed soft drinks; in the thick of the cocktail revival even the timeless Rum & Coke was pooh-poohed as anti-craft. Today, bartenders show no such reticence.

“I live for trash highballs, honestly,” says Dustin Amore, a bartender at Butchers & Bakers, an upscale gastropub in Farmington, Connecticut. His favorite, dubbed Wanta Campa, features the unlikely combination of mezcal, Campari and Fanta Orange. When creating it, he leaned on mezcal’s inherent affinity for citrus. But when the orange soda, the only other ingredient, proved too saccharine, he balanced the drink with a splash of bittersweet Campari. Amore regularly serves it to customers both at the restaurant and as part of a recurring pop-up he runs called Dustin’s Dive.

“At work, all my peers are superfocused on utilizing the freshest fruits and herbs to create familiar flavors,” he explains. “No one thinks that items like Fanta, or Tang, or even SunnyD have a place at the table.”

While it’s easy to dismiss commercial sodas for their artificiality, there are certain examples that, with the right flavor pairing, appear almost tailor-made for mixing. “One of my main inspirations for this highball was the classic Fernet con Coca,” explains Dylan Bonacore, a cocktail-loving pizza cook at Roberta’s Pizza in Brooklyn, referring to the simple highball that has become the national drink of Argentina. However, in his version, he opts for a milder, less-medicinal amaro: Ramazzotti.

“I wanted to choose a soda that is produced using some kind of bark to complement the botanicals in the amaro,” he says. That’s when it occurred to him that root beer, which typically employs sarsaparilla bark, might be the perfect fit. While Bonacore opts for A&W for pure nostalgia reasons, Canadian bartender Warren Johnston, owner of ready-to-drink beverage company, Above Average Drinks, goes with Boylan Root Beer when topping off Vieux Pontarlier to make his Above Average Absinthe + Root Beer.

“There are still a huge number of drinkers, especially in my local community here in Alberta, that are less exposed to current trends in the cocktail world,” says Johnston. “Our team has found that simple drinks like this can often be the spark that leads them down the rabbit hole towards a lot of the products that, as bartenders, we love sharing and want to evangelize.”

Root beer, after all, is not unlike a nonalcoholic amaro—a robust, complex drink layered with sarsaparilla and other botanicals. It kind of makes sense that it works in a highball. (Teague himself has noted that “were Coca-Cola less sweet, not carbonated, and alcoholic, it would be the best selling amaro in the world.”)

Similarly, “Mountain Dew” has long been Southern slang for moonshine, and was even expressly designed in the 1940s to be mixed with alcohol. Maybe that’s why it was also the soda of choice in the last oddball highball to go viral in the cocktail community. “It’s essentially a quite tasty, carbonated, commercial sour mix,” says Josh Seaburg, a Norfolk, Virginia–based bartender. “Sweet as shit, but also more acidic than most other sodas.”

Back in 2017, Seaburg stumbled upon a mix of Wild Turkey bourbon and Mountain Dew while attending Camp Runamok, a bartender education getaway. “Turkey Dew” was an ironic love for Seaburg at first, but quickly became more than that for him and fellow bartenders like Meta’s Jeremy Johnson. By March 2018, Louisville’s Meta was hosting the first-ever Turkey Dew pop-up.

Meanwhile, Mountain Suze has experienced an even faster rise to virality, quickly becoming material for memes and even T-shirts. And though he’s workshopped a more upscale version in which he adds wormwood bitters, for Teague, the appeal of Mountain Suze shouldn’t be overthought.

“I think we’re in a position now in the pandemic where everybody is looking for a bit of levity and lightness,” he says. Or maybe it’s just an excuse to indulge in a Dew for the first time in two decades.

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Tagged: highballs, Suze