scotland

Roots Soda Co.: Hoodoo

History: As soon as you hear the first chords of the Muse song “Hoodoo,” there’s an entrancing vibration that echoes your down your spine… but more importantly, there’s also a sense of dread. Like peering into an ocean blue sky before looking off in the distance and seeing a dark wave of clouds barreling forward. Middle Eastern-inspired guitar strings pluck quietly, conjuring up the image of a quiet dessert before the song quickly descends into a rapid, more folksy rendition of itself. Lead singer Matt Bellamy calmly croons about for half the song until the music then trades in its exotic flare for one that’s angrier, churning ahead with distorted guitars and sinister orchestral strings. The song shares the same name with an original creation from Roots Soda Co. in Edinburgh, Scotland. And much like the flow of the music, Roots founder Mark Pool describes Hoodoo the beverage as “Jekyll and Hyde, a split personality that would refresh and then burn.” The story is also the inspiration behind the beverage. He likens it to a fruit punch which is an interesting comparison to us after previously reviewing one of the company’s other sodas, Kaleidoscope, one we felt also tasted like a fruit punch. There’s more parallels to the Muse song too. The two share similar cultural influences. Pool says Hoodoo was “inspired by far eastern and South American drinks.” But there’s another, more important influence on the company’s creations. Roots Soda Co. prides itself on using real ingredients in their soda. They acknowledge and agree with the backlash against a majority of soda on the market. Pool is frank, saying “Soda is going to have to change and artificial sweeteners are not the answer. We started out wanting to make our sodas more healthy that what was on offer.” He hammers the point home, adding “The landscape of soda is one of ruin.” Damn, man – tell us how you really feel. Well, he did. And Hoodoo was his first answer.

“It took months” to perfect Hoodoo, a soda with a bevy of ingredients that make you wonder how the recipe will work when they’re all combined. Pool tells us the soda contains orange, lime, lemon and pink grapefruit juices in addition to pomegranate and chili peppers. That was the reason for the delay. Pool struggled with balancing citrus and heat. “I wanted the burn to come on slowly so that the soda first cooled and refreshed, and let you taste all of the ingredients before the burn started to build,” he says. He’s since mastered the level of heat he desired, but still faces battles with every batch of Hoodoo. Again, it’s the pepper that causes Pool to sweat. “The chillies come from different parts of the world throughout the year, and the heat from them can vary. Just like cooking a meal at home, we have to taste and adjust cooking times for the chillies in the syrup, in order to get the heat just right in every batch.” As with many sodas from Europe, the portion size is slightly smaller than the usual 12 ounces Americans are used to. But what the bottle lacks in size, it makes up in personality with its menacing red label and poetry inscribed on the back. It’s clear the crew at Roots Soda Co. have worked hard to make their sodas an experience from the names to the ingredients to the aesthetics. The only thing we all really care about though: the flavor. So here’s to the Jekyll and Hyde of sodas. It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted a split personality. At least three or four girlfriends ago.

Where to get: Roots Soda is only sold at physical locations in the United Kingdom. Sorry everybody else; you’ll have to travel for this one. But if you’re in the area, here’s a list of where to find the goods. The company also hinted online sales may be coming, so always be on the lookout.

Nose: Smells kind of like a fruitier version of V8 juice. Some savory vegetable and sweet fruits stirred together in a pot .

Taste: Juicy; pepper; orange; chili; lime; tangy. Each sip of Hoodoo reveals something a little different. Initially you might taste the chili, making the soda seem more savory. Then on the next sip, the orange comes through to make it seem more fruity and sweet. Try it again and you might notice the lime or pomegranate most, giving the soda a tangy characteristic. I’d say orange is the soda’s base flavor with chili and lime being tied for second most prominent. It really is kind of a split personality drink. Sometimes it’s more like a semisweet, vegetable-influenced juice cocktail. Sometimes it’s almost like a citrus fruit punch. But the reality is that Hoodoo is somewhere in the middle, both savory and sweet. Refreshing, yet atypical.

Finish: More savoy than sweet with notes of bell pepper and chili being most prominent and just a tinge of sweet and sour lemon, as well as orange.

Rating: So often we get asked for soda recommendations with the qualifier, “something not too sweet.” Hoodoo has shot up to the short list of sodas meeting that requirement. It’s a hybrid between a botanical and sweet soda, while getting its flavors from real fruits and vegetables. Some sips are rich, even savory with notes of bell pepper and chili. Others are sweet and juicy with a base of orange juice supported by tangy pomegranate and lime. It seems to change each time you bring the bottle to your lips. Even the degree of the flavors are different. Sometimes the pepper taste is subdued. Other times it’s vicious. Sometimes the orange flavor is juicy and upfront by itself. Other times it’s just a supporting player in the background as pomegranate and lime take over. Split personality. I’m not even talking about my exes this time. These two words define Hoodoo. And it’s clearly by design. And in that sense, Roots Soda Co. has certainly succeeded. The company is one of Europe’s best craft soda bottlers. If you’re looking for something truly out of the box, something unpredictable, give Hoodoo a try.

Four Stars

Roots Soda Co.: Kaleidoscope

History: “The landscape of soda is one of ruin.” Bleak words from the founder of Roots Soda Co., Mark Pool. Even today in the midst of a resurgence where craft and gourmet soda are putting more and more pressure on the big boys, there is still a monopoly. But before the two mass manufactured brands put a strangle hold on the soda market, your favorite ice cold bottled beverage was made at local soda fountains and bottlers were bountiful from town to town. Ingredients were real. Flavors were unique. Competition was fun and not cutthroat. Roots Soda asks, “what if that never went away?” That’s the mentality they have when making soda. Tired of the current state of the industry, Mark Pool founded Roots Soda Co. in April 2012 in Edinburgh, Scotland. It’s an art to them. You get the sense that there’s this intense drive behind the company. This mission to bring soda back to its roots. They note on their website that they want “to make the best soda possible using and honouring only the best ingredients, and sending it off into a future yet unimagined.” I like to read that quote set to triumphant piano music. Are these guys soda jerks or power ballad writers? One thing’s for sure: they’re motivated to create. Pool notes “At Roots it’s not so much about one ingredient standing out, it’s about the ingredients coming together to make something new.” Pool initially sought to create a carbonated lemonade, a popular flavor outside of America, but felt more inspired by cola and how all of its flavors coalesce to form a signature taste. That really appealed to Roots and led to its two flavors. As you might expect, they’re well thought out, a little strange, and a lot inventive.

Hoodoo and Kaleidoscope. No, those are not the names of strippers at the dodgy club downtown. They’re the two flavors Roots Soda Co. produces. “The names for soda seemed a bit tired,” Pool adds. Hoodoo came first. Pool likens it to Jekyll and Hyde. It’s a soda that both burns and refreshes. Perhaps its no surprise then that Hoodoo took months to perfect. Kaleidoscope is the golden child of the bunch… at least it was initially. The first test batch came out perfect. According to Pool, the flavor was designed to evoke memories of childhood summers or going to a music festival for the first time. But Pool can’t take credit for the idea behind it. It was his buddy Jon Seller who “suggested a soda with strawberry, orange, basil and balsamic vinegar.” It tested off the charts at the farmers market. The problems came later and on a bigger scale. Strawberries proved to be a real bitch for Roots Soda. Basically they had to either double the amount of strawberries to maintain the soda’s optimal flavor and struggle with money or stick with the original recipe, lose a little bit of quality and hit their margins. Ultimately, Roots went with option one and had to re-arrange “everything” to make the money work. “We felt that there is too much stuff that gets made just to turn a profit. We wanted to make something we genuinely cared about,” said Pool. One thing’s for sure: these dudes have guts and they’re not afraid to screw up. They’ll have more flavors out in the future. Knowing their precision and high standards, it’ll likely take some time. Until then, we present to you: Kaleidoscope.

Where to get: In keeping with their old school vibe, currently Roots Soda is only sold at physical locations. And unfortunately, only a lucky few in the United Kingdom have access. If you’re in the area, here’s a list of where to find the goods. The company hinted online sales may be coming, so always be on the lookout.

Nose: Very tropical. Like a fruit punch. There’s a vey distinct smell of mango in this bottle. That’s interesting because there’s no mango in Kaleidoscope. It’s really pleasant though. Definitely smells like something fruity you used to drink as a kid.

Taste: Tropical juices; orange; balsamic; mild tartness. This starts out with those same tropical notes you smell when you hold Kaleidoscope under your nose. Like a fruit punch in the beginning that smoothly transitions into more natural flavors of juice. That fruit punch flavor really reminds me of Fruitopia Fruit Integration, a tropical soft drink from the 90’s. You can really taste the authentic orange juice at the end of each sip too. Orange is the most prominent of the ingredients in this you’ll taste. The natural juices render the carbonation very light, almost frothy with tiny bubbles. The tartness of the balsamic and orange provide a nice balance with the strawberry. For a soda with balsamic vinegar, this doesn’t taste like balsamic vinegar. That should make most drinkers happy. You’ll primarily taste tropical fruit punch that gets balanced out with tart, slightly acidic tasting notes.

Finish: Slightly bitter orange. This is where you can taste the basil, ever so slightly. There’s a little bit of an herbal flavor with the orange too.

Rating: For a soda with only a handful of natural ingredients, Roots Soda Co.’s Kaleidoscope tastes surprisingly like a more mature version of fruit punch. The orange juice is the most prominent element in the soda, interacting with the strawberry to impart a sweetness and the balsamic to provide some bitterness. This is sweet, then tart. The amount of sugar isn’t overpowering. In fact, it works really nicely. The flavors here are really dynamite. Balsamic is an ingredient that might scare some people because of its strong bittersweet flavor, but it’s not strong enough in the flavor profile here to make you notice it. This doesn’t have any sort of vinegar taste. What the balsamic does is help provide some tartness with the orange to balance out the sugar levels. The balsamic here is like the last kid in a big family. It’s there. It has an effect. You’ll probably even like it. But most of you will forget about it. And one day it’ll end up writing soda reviews on the Internet *cries*. This is a modern-day gourmet fruit punch-esque artisanal soda that touches all the right fruity notes with an impressively small list of ingredients. I wouldn’t mind tasting the strawberry profile a little bit more, but the use of orange is exquisite. This is truly one of the most inventive and flavorful fruit sodas out there. We can’t recommend it enough. Roots Soda Co. is currently a two-soda business in Edinburgh, Scotland. If they keep making flavors as good as Kaleidoscope, new creations will be inevitable. We hope they’re just getting started.

Barr: Irn-Bru

History: Put on your manliest kilt because Irn-Bru has made it to Five Star Soda. It’s the unofficial soft drink of Scotland, laddie. Invented in 1901 by Barr Soft Drinks, it contains 32 different flavors and is made with cane sugar. It does not, however, come in a glass bottle. A little part of the craft soda enthusiast in me died telling you that. According to Great Scot International Vice President James Wilson, only two people, the owner and his daughter, know the recipe. “You can’t really describe it,” he says, his voice almost puzzled searching for an answer. Good. This should be easy then. Irn-Bru has faced some challenges getting into the North American market. In Scotland, the original formula uses the coloring agent Ponceau 4R, an additive that is banned by the FDA in America and Canada. I know you’re not reading those, so what that really means is in Scotland Irn-Bru is a little bit darker with more of a reddish hue as opposed to the bright rusty orange color in the American version. Irn-Bru is the title sponsor for the Scottish Premier League. Wilson says in Scottish grocery stores Coca-Cola takes up about half of the shelf space. The rest is just Irn-Bru. They’re serious about it. The drink started as a tonic and to this day still contains Quinine, a flavoring agent typically used in tonic water and something that helps settle the stomach. It also contains .002%  Ferric Ammonium Citrate, which is where the “iron” flavor comes in. Irn-Bru is even rumored to be a hangover cure. “You either love it or you hate it,” adds Wilson. Let’s find out.

Where to get: You can purchase Irn-Bru on Amazon or The Scottish Grocer. Irn-Bru is also distributed nation-wide in the United States by Great Scot International in Charlotte, North Carolina. According to Wilson, pretty much any grocer with a British or UK section should likely carry it.

Nose: Bubble gum; smells very reminiscent of bubble gum cream sodas.

Taste: Bubble gum; citrus; bitterness. Though this smells and even tastes a bit like bubblegum, Irn-Bru definitely isn’t a cream soda. It’s a wave of citrus with a bite from across the pond. The flavor profile here is in three parts. First you get an orange-infused bubble gum taste that quickly evaporates and is followed by a lighter, slightly creamy orange citrus. What comes in last is bitterness. It likely has something to do with that Ferric Ammonium Citrate. That sounds good for you, doesn’t it? The sharp, bitter citrus stays on the back of your tongue a little too long for me. It’s fairly acidic, even for a citrus soda. The lads and lassies from Scotland apparently love this. It’s certainly different than American sodas.

Finish: A tart citrus that sinks itself into the back of your tongue. Leaves a little bit of an acidic taste in the back of the throat. Could be harsh for first-time drinkers of Irn-Bru.

Rating: It’s hard to nail down a rating for this soda. Its taste can be overly harsh on the first few sips, especially on the finish. It’s true. This is a love it or hate it beverage. So naturally, we’re somewhere in the middle. Sharp, acidic citrus stays in the mouth too long to make this a top-tier soda. Could just be a cultural thing. I’ve been told Americans definitely love their sweets and sugars more than the rest of the world. The initial orange bubblegum citrus flavor is fairly unique and pretty palatable. It just doesn’t last nearly as long as the tart acidity and bitter citrus undertones you get near the end. Some of that probably comes from the Quinine. How can I describe this in a way you’ll understand? Hmmm. This is like when you go on a date with that really hot dude who’s got those alluring exotic eyes, but then you start dating and realize he smells kind of like a donkey. He’s fun for a little bit, but even after he goes home, he lingers. In all seriousness, this is pretty interesting. With flavors not typically found in North America, I’d recommend giving Irn-Bru a shot simply because it’s incredibly popular in Scotland, and you should ingest some of that culture to keep yourself well-rounded. Just be careful, looks can be deceiving.