Month: January 2016

Chazzano Coffee: Fruit of the Bean Cascara Soda

History: There are as many layers to Chazzano Coffee founder and owner Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo as there are to the beans he roasts in his Ferndale, Michigan cafe. But first and foremost, this dude loves coffee – he talked to us about it on the phone for 54 minutes. Most of our interviews are done in under 15. He also knows it about 2940325x better than anyone I’ve ever met. He is a master roaster and takes it seriously. He generously sent us two bags of it. Can confirm his coffee is amazing. He’s also one of the funniest people I’ve ever interviewed. When talking about bad coffee, he quipped, “It’s against God to do that.” It’s a topical quote because religion is another big part of Lanzkron-Tamarazo’s life. He’s Jewish with Italian heritage and grew up in New York City. Religion is actually what led Lanzkron-Tamarazo to his own coffee business because he originally moved to Michigan to take a job in a synagogue that didn’t work out. It even impacted the cafe’s name. You see, Lanzkron-Tamarazo is a Cantor, which is the main Torah reader and singer in Jewish synagogues. In Hebrew it’s called a “Chazzan.” So he took the Hebrew spelling, added an “O” to it because he’s Italian and basically every Italian word ends in “O”, and voila – Chazzano Coffee was born in October of 2009. Lanzkron-Tamarazo’s journey to become one of America’s most knowledgeable sources on coffee started 16 years earlier when his mother-in-law bought him a roaster for his birthday. After buying beans from around the world, his “night time hobby” escalated from brewing ounces to pounds to hundreds of pounds to thousands. And after buying bigger and bigger roasters to satisfy his greater yields, the dollars were adding up and the passion was no longer pacing at a slow drip. Lanzkron-Tamarazo says he decided “Life is short. It’s time to do something that will really bring joy to my life.” Why, you might ask? “I could not find anyone else’s coffee that was better than mine,” he admits. Over the phone, you can tell he isn’t being condescending – this dude believes he’s it when it comes to coffee. Chazzano Coffee’s catchphrase is “Good coffee makes you sing!” Seems appropriate since Lanzkron-Tamarazo and his wife are both opera singers. “My kids will probably need therapy because of that,” he jokes.

Six years later, Chazzano Coffee gained a new relative on the shelves in the cafe: soda. As a youngster, Lanzkron-Tamarazo’s grandmother loved Manhattan Special Espresso Soda, a beverage you can still buy today. It was always his duty to bring it to her. As an adult, it was his dream to create his own coffee soda. So in October of 2015, he did. But he also created another, arguably much more interesting soda based on cascara, also known as “coffee cherry.” Cascara is the husk or skin of coffee cherry, the fruit of the coffee bean. Lanzkron-Tamarazo describes the taste of coffee cherry as honeydew-esque. It’s often used in teas. He notes many coffee farmers use the fruit as compost for trees, however others in countries like Yemen use it to create beverages. Lanzkron-Tamarazo first tasted coffee cherry at Gold Mountain Coffee Growers in Matagalpa, Nicaragua in January of 2015. It wasn’t long before he started making his own tea using cascara. That tea is a central part of Fruit of the Bean Cascara Soda. In fact, it is the soda… because the soda is literally just the tea and carbonated water. No sugar. No preservatives. No added flavors. Just two ingredients. His coffee soda follows the same principle. “There’s nothing like it that has no preservatives, that has no sugar,” he boasts. And while Lanzkron-Tamarazo describes coffee cherry’s flavor as tasting like honeydew, he says the cascara soda is sweet with notes of apple and pineapple. It’s not often we taste sodas based on something we’ve never even heard of, but I suppose there’s a first for everything. Chazzano Coffee is already ahead of the game when it comes to originality.

Where to get: Chazzano’s Fruit of the Bean Cascara soda can be purchased in the Ferndale, Michigan cafe. For those of you not able to make the trip, Lanzkron-Tamarazo takes orders for his soda via email or phone. You can find their contact information on their website.

Nose: Prunes with just a touch of mild cherry.

Taste: Unsweetened prunes; slightly fruity tea; tobacco; mild coffee. There’s an interesting combination of flavors going on that all go back and forth. Typically with sodas you taste an initial flavor, then some more tasting notes that come in to blend and form the soda’s base, and then a finish. Here, the three flavors of mild prunes, tea, and coffee all make up the soda’s body and intermingle throughout each sip. This is not a sweet soda as it contains no sugar. Each of the three flavors have equal balance throughout the bottle, though some flavors are stronger on some sips and milder on others. The prune taste provides a little bit of natural fruit flavor with some floral hibiscus notes, while the tea has slightly fruit, almost cherry-like notes. The coffee flavors are pretty straightforward and provide some mild bitterness. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact coffee flavor with the fruity notes also in play. An interesting taste worth pointing out that comes from the brewed cascara tea used to make this soda is tobacco. It’s not strong, but it does provide some subtle smokey and savory notes for a more full-bodied flavor. Both are mild in nature. It’s a mild soda in general, but is very drinkable for one with no sugar.

Finish: There’s a very light coffee flavor at the end of this soda, kind of like a blonde roast. It’s a unique sensation going from a tea flavor in the soda’s body to a coffee one on the finish.

Rating: Fruit of the Bean Cascara Soda is truly a pioneering soda in the industry. It’s the only bottled soda made from “coffee cherry” or cascara that we know of… and trust us, we’ve looked into it. It’s a coffee shop connoisseur’s dream. This is a soda you can drink as an alternative to tea or coffee and still get a little caffeine kick from, as cascara contains about a quarter of the caffeine of normal coffee. The flavors are truly… odd. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a swirl of prune notes, blonde roast coffee, and steeped tea with notes of hibiscus and tobacco. The tea flavor brings both floral and savory elements to the table, while the coffee brings a little bit of a roasted bitter taste. But the biggest flavor I notice is that fruity prune taste. It’s there just enough to stand out the most to me, but all three flavors are balanced throughout the beverage. Like Chazzano Coffee Soda, Fruit of the Bean Cascara Soda also contains no sugar. For some, that’ll be a turn off. Personally I’m not a fan of sodas without sugar, whether they are labeled diet or not, but I don’t know – this one is so light and drinkable that I do actually enjoy it. It has real flavor despite the absence of sugar while maintaining a sophisticated flavor profile. It doesn’t surrender taste. Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo has said he won’t make a soda with sugar in it. I’d be interested to how this one would taste if that were to happen. I also think adding sugar would strengthen its appeal to a larger audience. It’s hard to critique this soda beyond that because there’s no basis on which to judge it seeing as its the first of its kind to be bottled. I have to praise Chazzano Coffee for being truly original and I’m interested to see where this pioneering soda takes the flavor in the industry and how it might inspire its creators to branch out even farther.

Four Stars


Vermont Sweet Water: Country Apple Jack

History: Apple is a vastly unexplored flavor in craft soda. It’s like the deep sea; we don’t really know how to approach it. Maybe it’s a little scary, but it can also be pretty neat. The biggest difference, I guess, would be that most of the stuff at the bottom of the ocean looks like it could eat your soul, while apple soda seems like a small blessing. Vermont Sweetwater is a small soda bottler founded in 1993 by brothers Rich and Bob Munch. The company tries to cater to the slightly more adventurous craft soda drinker. I mean, they founded the company on a carbonated maple seltzer water. Some of their flavors include Mango Moonshine, Raspberry Rhubarb, and Tangerine Cream Twister. They’re one of only a small number of companies that dared to seek out and try apple in soda. They call it Country Apple Jack, an apple soda with a dash of cinnamon. We don’t know a whole lot more about it than that so let’s get to tasting.

Where to get: You can buy Country Apple Jack or any other of Vermont Sweetwater’s sodas at the online store in either 24-packs or 6-packs, as well as on Amazon.

Nose: Faint apple; cinnamon; honey.

Taste: Honeycrisp apples; Ambrosia apples; tartness; cinnamon; sugar. This tastes like a soda your grandma made at about 6:30 after supper to be served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s got really good, authentic apple flavor. The biggest tasting note is honey, so it’s likely this was made using the flavors of Honeycrisp and/or Ambrosia apples, both rich in flavor and yielding a good honey taste. You’ll also taste cinnamon more along the backend of each sip. It’s not overly sweet, but there’s definitely enough sugar to make this feel like soda. There’s a definite tartness to this when you first drink it, but that fades with each continual sip in favor of a creamy honey flavor. The name “Country Apple Jack” seems very appropriate for this soda, as it feels like a down home, old fashioned recipe you’d encounter on a farm. Big on apple flavor with corresponding notes of honey and cinnamon and the slightest amount of tang for contrast.

Finish: Kind of a creamy apple and cinnamon thing going on. Think of the gooey inner portion of an apple pie.

Rating: Vermont Sweet Water does an excellent job of taking a soda that most will assume tastes like carbonated apple juice and rewriting the script on it. Instead, Country Apple Jack is somewhere in between biting into a Honeycrisp or Ambrosia apple and a piece of grandma’s apple pie. It has some striking similarities to Pure Soda’s Apple Pie Soda, though this is more of a spiced fruit beverage than one trying to emulate a dessert. It does a good job of living up to its name. It just tastes a little country, a little southern, even. Ironic for a soda from Vermont. Country Apple Jack is highlighted by a distinctive blend of honey and cinnamon flavors. If you’re an apple aficionado, you’ll probably taste the aforementioned Honeycrisp or Ambrosia flavors. If you’re normal like the rest of us and can’t identify specific apple flavors, just know those are the ones that have a honey taste to them. There’s also a slight tart or tang to this for contrast. It’s stronger at the beginning and fades as you drink it. I’d like to see that tartness hang around and give this more of a full-bodied flavor, something to push back a little more. On the flip side, a nice surprise with this soda is its creaminess. I’ve always wondered what an apple cream soda would taste like. This isn’t it – but it’s as close as I’ve seen anyone get. As you drink Country Apple Jack, it loses its tartness and becomes velvety in both mouth feel and flavor, similar to the inside of a pie. It’s easily the soda’s best element. Still, I see this being a divisive soda. Some will want this to be what it isn’t – a carbonated bottle of apple juice. I wouldn’t argue with you if you ranked this three stars, but I don’t see how it could go any lower than that. Personally, I think you have to applaud inventiveness, especially when it works. Country Apple Jack isn’t a soda you’ll likely put in your regular rotation, but it’s a nice change of pace that any soda lover should sample at some point.

Four Stars


Green Bee: Lemon Sting

History: According to Michigan State University, “It has often been said that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat.” Chris and Lori Kinkcade thought they should be responsible for four flavors of soda as well. Chris Kinkade is a beekeeper in Brunswick, Maine and the founder of Green Bee Craft Beverages. He remembers looking at a jar of honey and thinking, “I could make something out of this.” Local honey might be the source of Green Bee soda’s flavor, but Kinkade’s kids are really the reason it exists. “They were always bugging me for soda, and I never wanted to give them what’s on the market,” he conceded. This led to the company’s first flavor of soda: Lemon Sting. As you might expect, with the health of children as the inspiration, Green Bee approaches soda in more of an organic, lower calorie way than what’s typical to the marketplace. “To us, it’s about fresh soda,” he says. As described in the company’s motto, “The Green Bee Way,” they say they “always use whole ingredients,” including “fresh pressed juices, natural herbs and spices.” They also do not use preservatives or extracts. When it comes to Lemon Sting, our review today, Lori Kinkade notes it’s made “from freshly squeezed lemon juice, rosemary and wildflower honey.” Sounds like a drink that would make Julia Child proud. The Green Bee website describes Lemon Sting’s taste as “fresh, clean flavor with crisp finish.” We like to call beverages like these “farmer’s market sodas” because they’ve just got that mom n’ pop feel to them and are made with minimal sugar (in this case solely honey) and use real, fresh ingredients. Buzz, buzz.

Where to get: Green Bee lists out where you can find and purchase their soda right here. For those outside of New England, you can buy it online via Green Bee’s official retail partner Jackeez.

Nose: Honey. Earthy honey.

Taste: Lemon; herbs; honey. The three main components of Lemon Sting are lemon juice, honey, and rosemary, and that’s spot-on in terms of what you taste. The lemon and honey are immediate and hit flush in the center of your tongue. There’s initially just a touch of sweetness from the honey that comes out, but soon the lemon juice becomes the dominant of the two flavors, though it does retain the honey’s earthy notes. This is not a sweet soda, but also not bitter – pretty typical for “natural sodas” in that regard. After a couple sips, the lemon and honey form a light, sweet lemon flavor like one might find in a tea. Then there’s the rosemary. I always taste this separately from the lemon and honey. It definitely imparts and herbal flavor to the soda near the back half of each sip, but doesn’t really add anything to the initial flavors. The lemon-honey combo is the star of this soda. The honey isn’t overly strong and the lemon isn’t too sour. The flavors compliment each other well.

Finish: Strange aftertaste. It’s like what a corn tamale tastes like. Not sure how this happened, but it needs improvement.

Rating: Natural sodas are a polarizing category, often looked down upon by old school soda drinkers and lauded by the new farmer’s market wave of diet-conscious hipsters. If you’re a rootin’ tootin’, sugar lovin’ root beer or cola fanatic, this probably won’t be your thing. For the rest of you, read on. I don’t know many people who’d drink a soda where lemon is the primary flavor, so it’s good Green Bee has recognized that and used local honey from Brunswick, Maine to cut into this powerful ingredient. When paired with with honey, the lemon flavor in Lemon Sting is present enough to make an impact, but transformed in a way that should appeal to fans of both natural beverages and citrus soft drinks. The honey has a very natural, earthy flavor. It is not sweet. The lemon tastes authentic, like something you’d find in lemon-lime soda with the volume turned up. My biggest disappointment is the soda’s third ingredient: rosemary. It’s such a fantastic herb with great flavor, and if you didn’t look at the ingredient list, you’d probably never know it was in Lemon Sting. You can occasionally taste it as kind of a general herbal flavor on the back half of some sips here and there, but it’s not prominent enough to affect the overall flavor profile. It’s exciting to read about, but ultimately never happens… reminds me of my sister’s wedding. If the rosemary was brought up higher in the flavor profile, I think if could play off the honey’s sweetness and give Lemon Sting’s earthy flavor more character. If you enjoy tea with honey and lemon, this is tailor-made for you. Lemon Sting is a solid offering for a natural soda with notes of earthy sweetness. I think you’d be best-suited drinking this on a hot day in the sun, perhaps paired with a sweet treat in hand.

Three Stars

Fiz: Classic Cream Soda

History: After introducing myself and informing him of my intentions, Lou Petix greets me on the other end of the line with a guttural New Yorker’s, “Hey, how you doin’?” His disposition is friendly and talkative, yet his accent is deep and gritty, making him sound two stories tall. He and his brother Joe are third generation owners of College Club Beverages in Rochester, New York. “We started as kids here at 8 years-old…. It was just a natural progression” he explains. His grandpa, Luigi Petix, was an Italian immigrant who came over and started Family Bottling Works in 1922 before the business was renamed College Club Beverages after World War II. The company became famous for their refillable bottles and to this day still employs that method for their 18 flavors of College Club sodas. They’re old school. They don’t even have an official working website. Just a Facebook page. They still buy the raw materials and make their soda syrups in house, something that’s becoming more and more rare these days with the advent of flavor houses and culinary chemists. Now here’s the slightly confusing part, so follow closely. College Club has multiple brands under its company umbrella. You can only buy actual College Club soda in Rochester. The sodas you’ll see on the shelves around the greater New York area and available online are labeled “Fiz” and “Primo.” Fiz covers the 13 flavors of craft soda the company sells, while Primo is a line of two Italian sodas. You’re probably thinking… why? Why not just consolidate all of them? The answer is because while there is some overlap in flavors between College Club and Fiz (both brands have classics like cream soda and root beer, etc.), the recipes aren’t exactly the same. This is because up until the 1950’s Fiz was a totally different soda company that ran on its own. After calling it quits, the Petix brother liked their flavors, labels, and bottles so much, that they bought out the entirety of the company’s resources. Today, they use Fiz as their craft soda line. That’s the story. We promise there’s no more twists. This isn’t a review directed by M. Night Shyamalan.

When trying to decide which flavor of Fiz to review, we consulted Lou. He suggested the root beer or ginger beer (Fiz’s most popular flavor) before mentioning in passing an interesting tidbit about the cream soda. There’s a secret ingredient in it atypical to cream soda. “There’s a little trick to it that my father taught me,” he teased, noting it’s mild, but there. My reaction anytime someone tells me there’s a secret ingredient is to immediately crack the case. What could it be? Something New York-y? Petix did say “we try to access our raw materials as locally as possible,” while also adding they prefer natural flavors. Intrigued, I prodded him further about the cream soda. “This is what we call our classic cream soda,” saying it was very heavy on vanilla flavor. So in the end, he didn’t budge. But that makes it more fun for us, and for you.

Where to get: These aren’t the easiest sodas to get a hold of if you’re outside of the New York area. You can, however, order Fiz soda online from New York Style Deli. I know the website looks a little amateur, but we called and checked it out; it’s legit. Your best option might just be to call the company at (585) 328-6665. They take orders over the phone and will ship anywhere in the continental U.S.

Nose: Almond; cherry; pound cake. There’s a faint cream soda smell here, but it’s infused with chocolate, cherry and almond scents. Interesting and intriguing.

Taste: Fizzy; chocolate-covered cherry; vanilla; mild nuttiness; sugar. There’s elements of traditional cream soda here, and then there’s the part that gives the soda its flavor identity. You notice an initial burst of carbonation immediately, more so than an average soda, and then the unique flavors come out that separate Fiz Cream Soda from the crowd. You get all of the soda’s flavors up front spun together in a cocoon of sugary uncertainty. There’s definitely a fruity element to this that tastes like it’s paired with chocolate. After repeated tasting, I’m thinking it’s cherry. Almost like a Cherry Mash candy flavor. This is paired with vanilla and a corresponding mild almond nuttiness, but not like biting into the nut itself; more like how almond syrup tastes in pound cake. This isn’t a creamy soda, but that almond flavor gives the soda’s body a richness, something that’s pretty unusual for cream sodas that don’t have a particularly creamy mouth feel, and/or aren’t made with honey. I’m also getting some undertones of brown sugar and maybe a little bit of caramel. But the soda comes down to three flavors: vanilla, cherry-chocolate, and almond.

Finish: Vanilla sugar with notes of creamy cherry that linger for a few seconds and slowly fade. Excellent.

Rating: Fiz Classic Cream Soda by College Club Beverages ascends beyond the category’s normal realm into a distant plane of flavor even we can’t fully comprehend. But it’s good. It’s damn good. No… no, this is great. I am fanboy-ing out over how exquisite this is and I don’t even care. And it’s all about the taste. There’s a mystery flavor to this cream soda – sure you taste the vanilla and maybe a little caramel, but WHAT IS IT? It’s like a combination of chocolate and cherries with mild almond extract and maybe a little creamy brown sugar. Whatever it is exactly, it makes the soda. You won’t taste another cream soda like this one. Guessing the secret ingredient in Fiz Cream Soda is like being an 18 year-old boy and trying to hit on a 27 year-old woman: it’s fun to try, but you’ll never figure it out. Our best guess at the signature flavor is similar to what a Cherry Mash candy tastes like – a creamy cherry-chocolate flavor with notes of vanilla and nuttiness. To be clear, this is definitely more vanilla than cherry, chocolate, or almond – but the accompanying tasting notes are so unprecedented in cream soda that they stand out with noticeable contrast. We always try to find a few points to critique in sodas, but I’ve gotta admit I would change nothing about this. It’s so unique, flavorful, and delicious that it rises to the top of the cream soda category. It’s a little on the sweeter side at 46 grams of sugar per bottle, but those aforementioned flavors will keep your mind preoccupied until the last sip. Try the first half chilled straight out of the bottle for a crisper cream soda and the other half on ice for a creamier transformation. You’ll want more of this. I know we do. Fiz Cream Soda’s greatest trait isn’t even how good the soda tastes; it’s that it keeps you guessing long after you’ve finished it. There’s something special about this one. Go out of your way to taste the mystery.

Five Stars

Original New York Seltzer: Lemon & Lime Soda

History: The 80’s were some of American culture’s most glamorous years. Big hair, neon signs, leather jackets, cocaine flying everywhere, acid wash jeans, baggy suits. It was a hell of a time. Original New York Seltzer (hereby referred to as ONYS) was a drink born in the 80’s and it personified that time. The independent brand became known for its flashy presentation with brightly colored labels that popped, big lettering on small bottles, and signature clear liquid in all flavors that separated it from the major labels. To be specific, ONYS was started in 1981 by the father-son team of Alan and Randy Miller. You might know Randy Miller’s other work because today he runs a company that trains big animals like bears and tigers often used in movies. As ONYS rose to prominence, the big boys took notice and eventually came calling. Anheuser Busch offered the Miller’s $180 million to sell. Because keeping the business independent was their top priority, they declined. Soon after, due to a damaged distribution network, ONYS stopped production, and everyone’s favorite 80’s soda disappeared just as fast as the jheri curl. But the beauty of nostalgia is that young fans grow up and old favorites die hard. So over 30 years later, Ryan Marsh resurrected the company, relaunching the brand in May of 2015. The new ONYS President said, “As a kid growing up in the ‘80s, my family and friends all knew and loved Original New York Seltzer. It was the only brand our parents would allow us to drink…. We’re committed to upholding everything that has made this brand unique.” That includes making soda that’s free of preservatives, coloring, and artificial flavors. Now some of you might be confused that we’re calling a brand with the word “seltzer” in it a craft soda. Don’t be. Here’s why: ONYS is carbonated, has a shared range of flavors with soda, is made with pure cane sugar, and contains a calorie content not that far removed from a normal craft soda. When Marsh said he wanted to restore things to how they once were, he wasn’t kidding. He elaborates by saying, “The carbonation has been set to 1987 levels. Original New York Seltzer is bottled in the original-sized bottles in the original factory. The same employees that brought ONYS to life in the factory are still running the lines and are monitoring the quality control process.” How ’bout that? A single nostalgic tear runs down my eye. Something that’s kind of funny? ONYS is and always was headquartered in Los Angeles, not New York. Marsh notes that vanilla cream and black cherry are the current most popular flavors, so we wanted to give some love to one of the other kids, lemon and lime.

Where to get: You can purchase Original New York Seltzer Lemon & Lime plus the rest of the company’s flavors directly from the ONYS online store and from Amazon.

Nose: Lemon-lime, ala 7-Up more than Sprite. More of a lime scent than lemon.

Taste: Lime-y; sugar; light lemon; bubbles. The lime here is more prominent than the lemon, but the lemon has a better flavor. First, the lime. Think along the lines of candy lime like you’d taste in a green Life Savers. The lime is accompanied by lots of little bubbles that amplify its intensity. The carbonation isn’t overly intense, but there’s definitely a lot of it. After a couple seconds, the lime fades and you’re left with a soft lemon flavor, similar to Sprite. However, the second half of each sip is also what distinguishes Original New York Seltzer’s Lemon & Lime Soda from Sprite or 7-Up. There’s no syrupy aftertaste. That said, overall this is pretty similar to a cross between Sprite and Howdy Lemon-Lime Soda.

Finish: Mild, crisp lemon flavor with sugar that slowly fades out.

Rating: To be fair, there’s not a whole lot of wiggle room to start with when it comes to lemon-lime sodas, but Original New York Seltzer’s take on the category tastes remarkably similar to the major brands already on the market. And I’m not saying it’s bad. No, no. It’s good. It’s pleasant. It’s light and refreshing. It’s just doesn’t taste significantly different from a mass-produced brand like Sprite or a craft classic like Bubble Up. While a craft soda connoisseur might be able to taste that this is made with real sugar and not corn syrup, most drinkers will overlook a subtlety like that. And while an enthusiast might be able to differentiate the strength in lime flavors between ONYS Lemon & Lime vs. its competitors, most drinkers will just think it’s another lemon-lime soda. You could probably hand this to most people in a blind taste test and they’d tell you it was Sprite. Again, it’s not a bad thing. It’s a hard flavor to infuse with uniqueness. Put it this way: I think this tastes better than 7-Up and Sprite and is better for you. There’s no reason you shouldn’t be drinking this instead. Most may not find many differences between this soda and others like it, but I’d be willing to bet most people also wouldn’t turn down a bottle of this after having a few sips. This is a soda you bring out of the bullpen when you need a drink to rely upon. Old girl is solid.

Three Stars

Q Drinks: Kola

History: After taking a bullet in the Battle of Columbus, John Pemberton needed a drink, and boy did he craft a knockout: wine, kola nut, and cocaine. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He eventually replaced the wine with sugar, carbonated water, and phosphoric acid to create Coca Cola. Coca Cola still contained cocaine in the recipe up until 1906 with the bitter caffeine-infused kola nut mostly present to mask the drug. Brooklyn-based Q Drinks founder Jordan Silbert believes the giant company’s monopoly on the category is a reason more bottlers don’t attempt their own version.”What the heck do you do? There’s no such thing as cola flavor,” he argues. Silbert’s company is a staple in the cocktail industry and is arguably the most recognizable line of craft mixers on the market. He only started making sodas in 2011. But first you need to know his story because it’s hilarious. Silbert remembers having a gin and tonic with some friends in his backyard in 2004. Then another. And another. He noticed his teeth started to feel sticky. Glancing at the ingredients list on the bottle of Schweppes tonic water he was using as a mixer, he noticed lots of artificial additives and high fructose corn syrup. Same thing when he looked at the bottle of soda his friend was drinking. Now drunk and motivated, he idealized his own version of tonic water. The difference between Jordan and most young adults who get drunk and have good ideas is that he remembered it the next morning. “The idea of creating something better didn’t go away,” he said. Q Drinks indeed was founded on tonic water where it was initially served at three restaurants in the New York area. This led to a big write-up in the New York Times and the brand took off. Q Tonic bottling began in 2008 with ginger ale in 2011 and then club soda, citrus soda, and kola in 2012. Today, Q Drinks offers 8 different flavors. “We use awesome ingredients. We agonize ingredients,” Silbert boasts. It’s those same ingredients that Silbert says sets the company’s kola apart from its competitors.

To quote Iron Chef, Q Kola is made with a veritable pantheon of flavors. A quick review of the Q Drinks website reveals a long list: “kola nut, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, lemon, lime, orange, and nutmeg.” Quite a list when compared with a drink like Coca Cola where most of those flavors are foreign. Silbert admits cola was the hardest flavor to concept out, but he had a distinct vision for the it. “It’s a blend of spices and fruits that give you four tasting elements: tang, sweet, spice, and savory,” he explains. He believes the bitter kola nut, phosphoric acid, and citrus impart a nice tanginess to the flavor profile, while the cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg bring some needed spice and savory elements. One of those “amazing ingredients” mentioned above focuses on the soda’s sweetener. Q Drinks uses “organic agave from the Mexican countryside ” instead of cane sugar to give the kola a “dirty sweetness that’s warming” as Silbert describes. Another point that sets Q Kola apart from other colas is that the soda is only 70 calories per bottle. So you don’t have to shed tears of self-hatred as you type it into your daily fitness app calculator. To be fair, the soda comes in a smaller bottle, but let’s be honest – most of us aren’t in a position to judge about size. One last aspect to pay attention to with the cola, as with all Q Drinks beverages, is the carbonation. The company uses custom-built thick glass bottles engineered to hold more bubbles. Silbert admits Kola is a little less popular than other beverages in the Q Drinks portfolio, but to us it was the most soda-ish, so we start our journey with the brand here. He finishes our conversation succinctly by putting a bow on the company’s philosophy, saying “We care. We give a shit.” Us too, Jordan. Us too.

Where to get: Q Drinks sodas are found nationally throughout the U.S. Safeway, Whole Foods, and BevMO stores are just a few of the more common options. But honestly, I’d be surprised if you couldn’t find this at your local grocery or liquor store in bottles or cans. You can find your nearest retailer by checking their online locator. You can also purchase it online from a variety of stores like Amazon, Walmart, or from Q Drinks directly.

Nose: Classic cola; cloves; cinnamon; nutmeg. Smells of a classic cola with a touch more spice, most notably nutmeg.

Taste: Cola; orange; lime; citrus; nutmeg; cinnamon. Definitely a softer cola in terms of mouth feel than most on the market. Also definitely not as sweet at 20 grams of sugar for a 9 oz. bottle. This doesn’t have the harsh, bitter carbonation you’re used to with Coca-Cola. The lighter carbonation helps the flavors come through more, and several are recognizable to the tongue. Besides traditional cola flavor, what’s most striking about Q Kola is the citrus. You taste orange and lime the most and they give the cola a unique twang you won’t find in many others – you feel it in the back of the tongue most. It’s important to note the citrus elements don’t render the cola overly acidic – just a little tangier than most. You’ll also taste undertones of cinnamon and nutmeg. These are ingredients found in many craft colas, but they’re more subdued in Q Kola, more of a lingering flavor in the background. There’s also just a touch of earthiness to this, which comes from the kola nut, a bitter ingredient in general. As a whole, it’s not overly strong in flavor, but you can taste a lot of the different components that make it what it taste fresher than a majority of what’s out there. Very easy to drink on its own or with your favorite liquid encouragement.

Finish: Kind of a tangy caramel finish with subtle spices, most notably cinnamon. Definitely pleasant.

Rating: When tasting Q Kola, it’s clear the soda’s composition was tailored to fit with cocktails more so than drinking on its own. And that’s not a bad thing. Out of the bottle, Q Kola is defined by how easy it is to drink. It’s a very soft cola with less carbonation than its relatives. All the traditional craft cola ingredients are here – cinnamon, nutmeg, citrus – but they stand out in ways you aren’t used to in colas. Where Q Kola really shines is its use of citrus. The orange and lime tasting notes in this are bold and stand out near the beginning of each sip, giving the soda its signature tangy flavor. And listen, I’ve had some tangy things in my day, including the girl from the other night – they’re rarely good. This is an exception. That tangy feeling you taste near the back of your tongue contrasts well with the spices you taste later in each sip. The spices we tasted the most were nutmeg and cinnamon, in that order. The nutmeg imparts a nice savoriness, while the cinnamon enhances the soda’s traditional cola flavor. Bottom line, this tastes more refreshing than traditional cola with a strong citrus influence and mild spices. The only drawback we found with this cola is the fact that its pretty light. But that’s by design because its primary objective is to mix with spirits. I’d probably turn the volume up a couple levels on everything and I think Q Kola could become one of the best colas you could purchase to drink unencumbered by alcohol or ice. Still, I’d definitely recommend this, particularly if you’re a cola or spiced soda fan. It’s a nice change of pace. For those of you who partake in the spirits, Q Kola is a monster of a mixer. Perfect for bourbon and excellent with rum. Drink half the bottle on its own, then mix it with your favorite liquor. It’s easy drinking out of the bottle and easier drinking paired with booze. Don’t overlook Q Kola as simply a sidekick for alcohol; this is a cola that holds its own with the best of them.

Four Stars