rating

Old City Soda: Cinnamon Soda

History: “I don’t mind because one day you’ll respect the good kid, m.A.A.d. city,” are the forewarning words uttered by one of rap’s most respected lyricists, Kendrick Lamar, in reference to Compton, California. But what about a new kid from the old city? Could they command the same respect? Mike Gulley wanted to find out. Gulley is the founder of Old City Soda, a craft soda producer out of Cleveland, Ohio. Fortunately for Gulley, his battlefield is the nerd-heavy craft soda marketplace instead of the gang banging streets of Compton. In 2011, Gulley started experimenting with his own ginger beer at a restaurant called Paragon, a wine bar in Cleveland. People loved it. So he kept going, trying other homemade soda flavors until in 2013 he bit the bullet and went all-in, launching Old City Soda in the fall. It’s a labor of love all the way down to the name. If you look up and down Gulley’s family tree, you’ll repeatedly see the German name “Altstadt,” which stands for “the old city.” To this day, his grandparents maintain a newsletter called “The Old City Beacon.” Gulley comes from the bar scene, so he prides himself on making handcrafted sodas big enough in flavor to be enjoyed both out of the bottle and with alcohol to create better cocktails. He says he “wanted to harken back to way soda used to be made,” but with a twist. Gulley wanted to use the old methods, but produce new flavors. My sister has been using the same philosophy with children and currently has five boys… some people never learn. Luckily for the rest of us and Gulley, we won’t need to wait nine months to hold a new Old City Soda bottle in our hands. Quite the opposite, actually.

The company’s biggest selling point is the freshness of the ingredients in its soda. “The moment from bottling to being available to drink is a matter of days,” Gulley explains. Most sodas come in at under 100 calories per bottle, so you shouldn’t have to transition from yoga pants to sweat pants by the end. They don’t even use preservatives in their sodas, meaning that each bottle tastes fresher than what you’re used, but also needs to be refrigerated and has a much shorter shelf life (typically just weeks). Currently, Old City Soda produces 8 flavors, several of them pretty left field, including lemon soda, hibiscus soda, and perhaps the most unique and intimidating: cinnamon soda. Of course, we had to review the latter. For inspiration, Gulley sought advice from the godfather of soda, John Neese, owner of Galco’s in Los Angeles, California. He wanted to know current trends and what was truly unique in terms of craft soda. For a look at the eclectic Neese, watch this video. I know most of you out there think cinnamon soda probably tastes like hot barf, but keep calm. Gulley’s idea for cinnamon soda is not based off red cinnamon candies, despite our photography. We just did that because it looks dope. No, this is a cinnamon soda for the sophisticated. You need glasses and an ascot to drink this. Old City’s Cinnamon Soda uses a blend of a blend of Vietnamese cinnamon, pure cane sugar, allspice, clove, cayane, and Hungarian spicy paprika. The cinnamon is brewed for two days before being blended with the sugar and purified water to create what you taste in the bottle. Gulley admits it’s a sipping soda and also doubles as a great topping for a float. But let’s be real here – it’s one thing to be told all of this stuff. It’s another thing to taste it. To be honest, we’re still a little intimidated.

Where to get: Old City Soda is sold mostly in the Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio areas. You can find out if it’s available near you by looking here. For the rest of you not near Ohio and still wanting to purchase Old City Soda, the company does fulfill orders – just contact them directly (contact information is at the bottom of their website).

Nose: Full bodied, aromatic cinnamon; a cross between cinnamon sticks and red hots.

Taste: Crisp, candied cinnamon; holiday spices. This tastes decidedly different than it smells. To answer your question, yes, this tastes like cinnamon – but it’s a different cinnamon flavor than you’re used to. It’s not like a red hots cinnamon, but more of a stewed, natural flavor. Old City Soda uses Saigon (Vietnamese) Cinnamon in this craft soda. They actually brew it for two days before it goes into their bottles. And honestly, that’s exactly what it tastes like. It tastes brewed. It’s almost like a cinnamon flavor found in teas and coffees. It’s mild. It’s earthy. It tastes real. This isn’t overwhelming, something I was worried about coming in to the tasting. If you’ve ever had cinnamon-soaked red apple rings, the flavor in this is more akin to that than candy. Cinnamon is typically a very strong flavor, so I’m guessing the brewing process helps cook some of that out. That said, this is still cinnamon soda and cinnamon isn’t something you’re likely to drink in bulk. This is a sipping soda on its own and more likely to be paired with something else, like ice cream or liquor.

Finish: Warm-cooked cinnamon sticks with a light Christmas spiciness in the throat. There’s also some notes of nutmeg and burned sugar.

Rating: This is really interesting and surprisingly good. Cinnamon as a base flavor in a soda seems like a difficult task, but this is the best version I’ve ever tried. It really reminds me of the holidays. It’s a perfect drink for the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. This and a little bit of bourbon might actually make spending time with your horrible aunt tolerable. The brewing of the Saigon Cinnamon helps make the soda’s flavor easily approachable. On its own, this is probably going to be a divisive beverage because, let’s face it, not everyone is going to like cinnamon soda. And I’ll be real, it isn’t something you’d probably drink more than one of in a sitting. I’d suggest pairing it with something. Drink half on its own with a nice home-cooked meal, then pair the rest with bourbon and get toasty. Pour it on vanilla ice cream for a cinnamon float. Put half of it in a shot glass with some cheap whiskey and get white-girl-wasted off your own version of Fireball. I’ve already done all of the above, so we need to end this review because the bourbon is hitting me. No matter your niche in the craft soda market, I strongly recommend you branch out and try this. It’s a great example of a bottler taking a risk and the result being worth your dollar.

Four Stars

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Olde Brookyln: Brighton Beach Black Cherry

History: “Every good brand has its own personality,” says White Rock Beverages President, Larry Bodkin. And if you’re Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-raised, or hell, ever just been to the borough – you know Brooklyn’s got personality. Olde Brookyln sodas try to capture that personality in every bottle, offering up favorite flavors of the urban coastal areas. In fact, every Olde Brooklyn soda is named after a neighborhood in the borough. There’s eight flavors in total. Coney Island Cream may be the line’s most recognizable flavor, but for our purposes today, we’re sampling Brighton Beach Black Cherry. Brighton Beach is known for its Ukrainian and Russian immigrant influences. Just did a Google search on Ukrainian food and women. In a related story, we’ll be writing to you next week from Brighton Beach. White Rock Beverages is the same company that produces Sioux City sodas. But whereas Sioux City is distributed mainly throughout the heart of America, Olde Brooklyn is popular on the coasts. This is a brand White Rock actually purchased about 10 years ago from some guys, as Bodin puts it, “with a colorful background.” But the recipes are almost all the same. Bodin also notes that the company’s market research indicates about one in every seven people can trace their roots back to Brooklyn. I’m about to let this black cherry soda put its roots in me. Sorry.

Where to get: Olde Brookyln soda is distributed mainly throughout the two coasts and sporadically in the midwest. Here’s a list of common retailers from the company’s website. Hit up Amazon for 12-packs, Soda Emporium for 6-packs , or single bottles from the same source.

Nose: Fresh Bing cherries.

Taste: Sweet black cherry; vanilla. Small frothy cola bubbles permeate the mouth before a flood of classic black cherry coats the taste buds. But you also get a fresh Bing cherry flavor that follows up the traditional black cherry cola taste. Notes of vanilla weave in and out throughout the body of each sip. My only complaint is I’d like to see that vanilla taste more consistently. It’s very refreshing for a black cherry soda. Not overly sweet or syrupy, but crisp and flavorful. This is a two-toned cherry taste bud flavor-fest of classic and farmer’s market freshness. An excellent execution of black cherry is an understatement.

Finish: Cherry juice and mild sugar with a very long and mild vanilla finish.

Rating: This is black cherry soda done extremely well. I want more of this, which should tell you something because I taste a lot of soda. It has a crisp, flavorful classic black cherry taste that isn’t syrupy or too sugary. It’s light and refreshing, a hard trick to pull off for most darker sodas. It’s light ruby red/burgundy color is eye-catching, almost the color of the ring I gave my first wife. Except, unlike that ring, I won’t regret buying this. The taste is similar to IBC black cherry soda, but fresher on the back end. You really do get a natural, Bing cherry taste with some occasional vanilla notes that add a lot of flavor. This is a perfect summer drink you could run through multiple bottles of in one sitting. This ranks right up there with the best black cherry sodas I’ve tried. Olde Booklyn Bighton Beach Black Cherry has the potential to ascend to your regular rotation of sodas. It’s that good. The vanilla notes really make the soda. I only wish they appeared more than occasionally. If the vanilla notes were more anchored to the black cherry taste, this would be a five-star rating. Still, it’s a minor grip for a major success. Olde Brooklyn nails it here. This is a must-try for all soda connoisseurs.

Bickford’s Creamy Soda

History: G’day mate! Bickford’s is an Australian company famous for producing cordials and craft sodas, among several other beverage-related products. After migrating from England in 1839, William Bickford and his wife Anne Margaret opened a pharmacy. Pharmacies, for those of you who don’t know, were the beginnings of soda. Pharmacists would use carbonated flavorings to disguise the horrid taste of medicine. After William Bickford’s sudden death just 11 years later, Anne Margaret took over the pharmacy business and in 1863, formed A.M. Bickford and Sons with her two boys. And so it began. In 1874, the company began producing cordials, the product it’s most famous for to this day. Craft soda came along later for Bickford’s with Lemon and Lime Bitters being its most famous flavor, followed by their cream soda and their version of sarsaparilla.

Where to get: Available widely in Australia throughout grocers and online, this means nothing to Americans. As a stone cold USA review site, wtf mate? Where can we get it? Lemme be real with you… it isn’t readily available here. BUT… but that doesn’t mean you can’t get it. Bickford’s is a large company that employs very nice people. They’ll be more than willing to be accommodating for orders. Contact them directly and they’ll work with you in getting an order out to you. And starting in June/July of 2015, the company will be doing a slow roll out in America, starting in California.

Nose: Intense bubblegum; fruity and floral notes

Taste: Definitely bubblegum up front, though not as strong as it smells. Then there’s a very hard-to-place flavor that follows. It makes you think. If you didn’t notice it from the photo… it’s raspberry. And it’s damn good. The carbonation is intense very briefly when you take a swig and then fades into a creamy bubblegum-raspberry twist. The raspberry comes in first and hits the back of your mouth with a nice tartness that compliments the soda’s overall smoothness. Raspberry, while not a common flavor in cream sodas, is much more common outside the U.S. So if you get your hands on this in America, you’re likely in for something new. Bubble gum, raspberry and light vanilla highlight this elixir from down unda’.

Finish: Slightly acidic raspberry that quickly fades into a vanilla-bubblegum creamy flavor and lingers on the tongue.

Rating: With its cute-as-hell 9.3 ounce bottle and its unique take on an old classic, Bickford’s Creamy Soda is a must-try. Red cream sodas are often packed with intense bubblegum flavor and loaded with enough sugar to make a diabetic pass out after just reading the label, but Bickford’s does a really nice job using their cane sugar to accentuate and not overload the flavors they want to get across. Bubblegum is a very love-hate flavor in the cream soda world and Bickford’s navigates around that by adding touches of raspberry and vanilla cream to balance it out. The result is something you don’t see often, one you’ll want to put in your mouth. Throw this on some ice and kick back. Cheers, mates.