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.