When bars become soda fountains


The Hanky Panky "Hill Style" cocktail at Hank's Oyster Bar is made with gin or vodka and a house-made citrus-sage soda. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post) (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 16, 2012

Top bartenders are engaged in a professional arms race to craft cocktails with flavors no one else can offer. We’ve seen house-infused vodkas and house-made bitters, and the newest things to make from scratch are flavored sodas.

These are nothing like the syrupy sugar-water dispensed at the vending machine. Made with seasonal fruit or exotic spices, they’re on trend because they’re seasonal, fresh and work equally well as a cocktail mixer or as a fun alcohol-free drink.

If you want to sample a soda without the high-fructose corn syrup, try the ones at these four bars. The sodas come in cocktails and as brisk, fizzy beverages. I love them both ways.

Hank’s Oyster Bar

The 20-seat Eddy Bar at the center of Hank’s on the Hill is where award-winning mixologist Gina Chersevani and her team craft all kinds of cocktails. But her passion these days lies in the short list of homemade sodas on the back of the menu.

Pick a flavor, which might include blueberries or a citrusy fusion of oranges and sage, and then drink it over ice. You also can get creative.

“I wanted to create an environment where the customer is in control of everything,” Chersevani says.

The easiest way is to add a spirit to your soda: The Strawberry Field — made with fruit and sugar water in a Mason jar then punched up with house-filtered soda — is gorgeous with a bit of tequila and lime juice.

“[Soda’s] great with gin,” Chersevani says. “Those bubbles really bring out the spirit. It’s like decanting.”

For $1 more, she’ll add cream and use a long-handled spoon to mix the ingredients into a frothy concoction. I tried the pineapple and white pepper soda with dark rum and cream, and the result was a smooth, easy-to-sip tropical beverage that practically begged for a little umbrella.

Next month, Chersevani will open a soda fountain at the restored Union Market on Fifth Street NE called Buffalo and Bergen, after her mother’s childhood address in Brooklyn. She’ll serve 16 house-made sodas that can be turned into malts, floats and even “an authentic old-school New York egg creme,” with the help of soda siphons, fresh cream and vanilla ice cream. Adults can add rum, tequila or gin to the mix.

633 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-733-1971. www.hanksoysterbar.com. $3. Add $1 for fresh cream or $2 for an ice cream float.

El Chucho

El Chucho mixologist Gordon Banks always used house-made sodas in his cocktails at Jackie’s Sidebar in Silver Spring, but they were for cocktails, not sold on their own. In his job at the newly opened taqueria from the owner of Jackie’s, he’s enjoying experimenting to create sodas that have Mexican influences but global appeal: A bracing spicy pineapple, a blend of savory coconut milk with the gentle bite of kaffir lime, and a surprisingly refreshing cafe del ollo that tastes like a fizzing cold version of the sweetly spiced Mexican coffee. “If you do brandy with that one,” Banks says, “it’s awesome.”

El Chucho’s menu isn’t shy about encouraging diners to “spike” the eight seasonal sodas with tequila and mezcal for an extra charge. Customers get to play mixologist — I paired spicy pineapple soda with spiced rum — and the bartenders are game to go along. Soda-and-spirits cocktails are easy to make.

“You’ve got people ordering drinks that have egg whites and need to be shaken, drinks that need a lot of stirring — but these are like an old-fashioned highball,” Banks says.

Ask about the seasonal mix that involves a touch of mezcal, a tart soda made of pomegranate and Granny Smith apple, and sweeter Crispin alcoholic cider.

The sodas came onto the menu so that “pregnant women and people who don’t drink can feel like they’re a part of what everyone else is doing, while getting some interesting flavors,” Banks says. For the younger set, he recommends the lemon-lime soda naturally sweetened with agave: the drink of choice for “every person under 10 who comes in here.”

3313 11th St. NW. 202-290-3313. $2.50.

Green Pig Bistro

Mixologist Andrew Shapiro’s love of unusual sodas started as a child in Chattanooga, Tenn. “Sodas were a big part of my diet,” he says, laughing. He spent time at a “real old-fashioned soda fountain” in his home town, but on family trips, they would stop in tiny little hamlets “where you could find really obscure sodas. . . . I still remember one that tasted like a cherry-lime rickey.”

When he ran the bar at Dino a few years ago, Shapiro began making his own sodas with seasonal ingredients. “There were always a lot of kids [drinking the sodas at the restaurant], but it was also a really easy way to expand the cocktail program.”

Now at the Green Pig in Arlington, Shapiro makes some of the most delectable seasonal sodas around: Sipping the French melon soda, you’re struck by the unmistakable smell of a fresh-picked cantaloupe, because the only ingredients are melon, sugar “and a touch of anise flower to cut the sweetness.” His uncomplicated soda flavors — hibiscus and lemon, blueberry and kaffir lime — let the natural flavors shine through, accentuated by the pleasant fizz of carbonated water.

Shapiro calls the non-alcoholic drinks “my favorite part of the bar.” They’re not used in any of the house cocktails on the menu, but people do mix them with gin or vodka — and his spicy ginger beer makes a mean Dark and Stormy.

“The lineup will change at least every two to three weeks, depending on what’s coming in,” Shapiro says. “During the summer, it’s been every 10 days.”

1025 N. Filmore St., Arlington. 703-888-1920. www.greenpigbistro.com. $4.

Estadio

Some of most clever and creative cocktails in the D.C. scene come from Adam Bernbach, who’s known for his inventive use of dried fruit and herbs. Look at the cocktail menu, where ingredients in some items include thyme soda or elderflower citrus tonic. All of those can be used as the base of refreshing and esoteric non-alcoholic drinks, too. They’re not listed separately on the menu and they’re not designed to be served solo, but bartenders are happy to use them to create something new.

“Because we have so much in the way of different flavors of tonics and sodas in house, and we use a series of herbs and ginger, we can pretty much sculpt anything” to a customer’s taste, Bernbach says.

Take his new apricot-and-tarragon tonic, which Bernbach created to pair with Small’s, a cardamom-heavy small-batch gin. It’s richer and denser than most sodas, so Bernbach wouldn’t recommend serving it by itself.

“If you take away the gin, you’re taking away one element of the drink,” he says, “but you can always add something else.” Instead, he would pair the tonic with “a little lemon and muddle, and if available, [licorice mint].”

1520 14th St. NW. 202-319-1404. www.estadio-dc.com. $6.

Fritz Hahn has written about bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. A product of Prince George's County public schools, Fritz majored in journalism at the University of Maryland and lives in the District.
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