botanical

Frïsa: Elderflower

History: “We are soda’s hipper, healthier, edgier – and of course, more delicious! – cousin,” boasts Casey Beard, Frïsa General Manager and COO. I wish my cousin was like that. Had to get a restraining order against him. Frïsa is a new sparkling soft drink out of Minneapolis, Minnesota from Kristian Regale, though this particular brand is marketed as an “ultra-premium European botanical beverage.” It joins a litany of other “sparkling” beverages that further blur the definition of what craft soda is becoming and entails. But for all intensive purposes, it’s still a carbonated soft drink made with cane sugar and premium ingredients. Sounds like craft soda to us. Frïsa is all about creating a soda made with botanicals. For those of you who aren’t aware, “botanicals” typically refer to plant or herbal flavors when it comes to beverages. “We use very unique botanical ingredients, and super surprising flavor combinations. Each ingredient and flavor profile was heavily scrutinized to ensure a delicious taste that rings true on so many different levels,” says Beard. But perhaps their sexiest ingredient is the one we all take for granted in soda: water. Frïsa sources its water from the Pyrenees Mountains. In addition to the botanicals and fancy water, each soda is also made with a modest amount of pure cane sugar. And for you health-conscious soda drinkers, every bottle of Frïsa is gluten-free, non-GMO, and Kosher certified. And every serving clocks in at under 100 calories. Makes me want to strap on a pair of yoga pants and run a casual marathon just thinking about it. Maybe chug a bottle in victory as I gallop past some 60 year-old guy at the finish line. Beard tells us the company’s most popular flavor is elderflower, which has kind of a citrusy flavor and is popular in cocktails. The flavor recently received a BevStar Award from Beverage Magazine in the category of category pioneer, so it’s already receiving some praise despite its newcomer status to the marketplace. It was simply too intriguing for us to pass up.

Where to get: Because Frïsa is still so new, it’s mostly only sold in the midwest and has a small footprint in New York City. You can find it in stores at Kowalski’s Markets and Lunds & Byerlys. As of late October 2015, Frïsa is still not sold online, though we are told online sales should begin within the next few weeks at Frïsa’s website.

Nose: Grapefruit; citrus; hops. Smells like a fruity IPA, almost identical to Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA.

Taste: Grapefruit; floral; mild tartness; light pear. This has a really bright and vivid taste. Very floral and fairly fruity. For a beverage marketed as botanical, this is a little sweeter than you’d probably expect, though not to the level of a typical soda. You taste a subtle and frothy tartness in the beginning that’s full of pear and mild citrus notes. The carbonation is very similar to that of champagne or sparkling grape juice. As the drink settles in on each sip, the sweet, floral grapefruit flavor comes in to balance out the initial tartness. This is full-bodied for a soda with a lot of flavor characteristics and subtleties. For example, and this doesn’t happen often, you can tell the quality of water used in this is high. It’s just a very distinct crispness separate from the flavors. There’s also just a little bit of a hops taste that accompanies the grapefruit. Some drinkers might even taste subtle apple notes. We also tasted champagne grapes. This has lots of layer while maintaining a robust, natural flavor throughout.

Finish: Mild floral grapefruit that’s slightly earthy. The botanical elements come out more near the end of each sip.

Rating: Frïsa Elderflower is going to be a pleasant surprise for most soda drinkers. It’s light, but full of flavor. Definitely a more sophisticated take on soda that fits right in the “sparkling” category. This should probably sipped to enjoy all of the subtleties in the flavor profile. I’d recommend chilled with no ice. This is certainly botanical, but it’s still approachable, and that’s critical. So often botanical sodas are too savory or herbal for the majority of soda drinkers to enjoy, but there are familiar flavors in Frïsa’s Elderflower working in tandem with the botanical notes. While it is a very floral drink, you’ll also taste some general citrus, pear, and most notably, grapefruit. Maybe even subtle apple and/or grape. What’s most impressive about Frïsa Elderflower is its ability to pack so much into the flavor profile, while retaining a fresh taste that’s very drinkable. Honestly, at first glance this probably wouldn’t be in the wheelhouse of most craft soda drinkers because of its champagne bottle packaging and unfamiliar flavor. Sometimes those characteristics can be turn offs instead of intriguing elements of a liquid mystery you want to put in your mouth. But this is one you shouldn’t pass over. Sure, the citrus could probably shine more or the earthier elements could be curtailed, but these are the elements that give this soda its character. I, for one, had my doubts coming in, but I’m here to tell you that Frïsa Elderflower is one of the best off the beaten path sodas I’ve tried in a long time.

Four Stars

Taylor’s Tonics: Chai Cola

History: You could hear the seriousness in his voice. “We would’ve gone out of business,” says Taylor Peck. It was a grave error, one that would’ve cost his new venture over $40,000 in expenses. $40,000 they didn’t have to lose. And then, a break through. “It was kind of a miracle moment,” he says, the tension still in his voice. Taylor Peck is the founder and brewmaster of Taylor’s Tonics soda kitchen and retail soda shop, The Fizzary; both are located in San Francisco. Their flagship product is the one we review today, chai cola. But it was never supposed to happen.

Taylor and his team started out in Santa Cruz, California in 1996 making and importing teas. They quickly got into chai tea and then transitioned into using organic ingredients. Eventually they started making tea concentrates that they sold to clients. Peck become known for his sophisticated, flavorful tea brews. Business was good, so good he relocated to San Francisco in 2002. Six years later, he almost destroyed it all. “I made a major blunder as a brewmaster,” he chuckles over the phone. You see, there are a lot of ingredients and precision that go into making fine tea. In 2008, Peck was making a 16:1 chai tea concentrate. When he went to add the citric acid, he was off by one decimal point, meaning he added 10 times too much. The batch was useless as tea. This was a major problem, a costly problem. Peck estimates he would’ve lost over $40,000 and bankrupted his business if he didn’t do something. So Peck started thinking. And tinkering. And adding things. I mean why not; he had nothing to lose. Just kidding; he had everything to lose. And then one day… voila. Peck discovered that by carbonating this liquid mess and adding vanilla, it transformed into a pretty damn good soda.

Taylor’s Tonics now markets this soda as Chai Cola. It’s the company’s most recognizable product and the one that saved his business. As you might imagine, there’s a strong tea influence. In fact, 98% of its ingredients are also found in teas. In 2009, Peck began selling it to the public. Eventually he and his team sold off the tea concentrate side of the business to focus solely on craft sodas using tea ingredients. He explains, “It’s still our product. We just took it to a different plane.” All of the ingredients are natural and listed right on the bottle. “We do a combination of organic black tea extract, steamed black tea, and yerba maté teas.” You’ll find spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and three different ginger elements. Like most colas, this one also contains caffeine. Taylor’s Tonics also sells two other year-round flavors and a few seasonal selections. Three years ago, they added a retail soda fountain next to their store called The Fizzary. You’ll never hear Peck brag about his soda, but if you ask his opinion, he won’t shy away from giving it you; “We say little, do much. We don’t want to over promote and we make recipes that aren’t based in hype.” Bold. But can you blame him? I would be too if I pulled some wizard shit like he did. Let’s see if his soda is just as magical.

Where to get: At the time of this review, the online shop at Taylor’s Tonics is down for repair. If you’re looking at this way past June 4, 2015… go give it a peak. Until then, Soda Emporium and Galco’s have you covered for single bottles and Amazon has the hook-up on 12-packs.

Nose: Vanilla cola; chai tea; cloves. One of the best-smelling sodas my nose has come across.

Taste: Cola; tea leaves; cardamom; cinnamon; vanilla. This is a mouthful with a flavor profile akin to a fine dining experience. Lots of things are going on here. First there’s the unmistakable taste of black tea with a sweet kick. This segues into a smooth cola body with notes of vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom. The vanilla isn’t quite as pronounced on the tongue as it was on the nose. The cola and black tea flavors sustain throughout the drink, but the cinnamon and vanilla fade in favor of light ginger and cloves. I’d love to see that vanilla linger just a little bit longer. For a soda with black tea as a bold ingredient, it works well with contrasting flavors like vanilla, ginger and cinnamon.

Finish: Creamy cloves; herbal notes; chai. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a creamy soda, but rather a smooth one. However, the finish is certainly creamy, but it’s more of a botanical creaminess instead of one rich in vanilla. Interesting, but also very nice.

Rating: This is certainly an artisanal soda of the highest degree. Its flavor profile is rich with spices and herbs. Black tea leaves, cloves, vanilla, cinnamon and mild ginger are just a few highlights. The highest compliment I can give this soda is this: it’s a botanical craft soda that non-botanical soda fans will enjoy because its flavors work on multiple levels. The company fuses a blend of natural ingredients to form a tasty herbal elixir that really does taste like cola infused with chai. That said, with so many herbs and spices, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Get it? ‘Cuz there’s tea in it. Ingredients like cardamom, yerba maté, and cloves are likely to shock the taste buds of some drinkers, but more likely to delight the tongues of most. I’m still trying to figuring out how to do that with women to this day. This isn’t a soda you’ll drink every day, but you’d really be missing out not to try this work of originality and revisit it every now and then. You can taste the effort Taylor’s Tonics puts in every bottle and the quality of ingredients used. It leaves a lasting impact. Chai Cola is a great fancy alternative to alcohol at cocktail parties and also makes a really fun and weird whiskey and coke, something that certainly won’t stop most of us. Do yourself a favor and sample this botanical beauty.