On a recent morning, I walked into one of the coffee shops where I usually kick off a day of writing over an iced Americano and a Swedish cardamom bun. It was unusually warm out, so I sprang for an especially quenching, effervescent espresso tonic, one of their seasonal specialties. The owner was behind the register and said to me, rather apologetically, “I’m sorry, but we’ve raised the price this year. We’ve started using a more premium tonic water.”
I didn’t roll my eyes or ask if I could have a mug of the more affordably priced “batch brew” as he might have anticipated. Instead, I asked, “Are you using Fever-Tree?”
He looked surprised, and then responded, “Yes, how did you know?”
“Because I think it’s the best brand you can buy,” I said.
He nodded. “We used to use Fentimans,” he explained, “and it was pretty good, but there’s something about the Fever-Tree that just works so well with the notes of the espresso.”
Upon tasting it, I agreed. The drink seemed brighter than it usually did—a zippy, balanced a.m. mocktail, if you will. This alluring composition also got me thinking about the important role of the nonalcoholic mixer in cocktails. Thankfully, today’s bartenders are inclined to labor over their concoctions, passionate about making the best drinks possible, whether it’s a simple highball or a time-consuming Ramos Gin Fizz. They seek out the finest spirits, they use only the freshest ingredients, and they serve them in stunning glassware so guests can savor a complete sensorial experience. But all of this can certainly be demeaned by the addition of a less-than-stellar supermarket soda water.
When I first started writing about cocktails, the idea of bartenders tinkering with their own tinctures, syrups, and purées was considered revolutionary, especially in the wake of the dark ages’ cloying, muddled, pre-packaged flavors. Of course, such homemade creations are now the hallmarks of great bars across the globe, but it’s certainly not a simple, inexpensive endeavor. Whether you’re a small operator running on razor-thin margins or a restaurant with a buzzy, high-volume bar cranking out Margaritas, time and economics don’t always make it feasible to use from-scratch turmeric purées and lemongrass tonics.
A few years ago I wrote a feature on these very pages in which I talked to a number of bartenders who were as smitten with Fever-Tree products as I am. I’m delighted to see there is now a rise in other quality mixers that bars short on time and budget can rely upon to help craft imaginative and satisfying cocktails.
Consistency is perhaps the greatest draw of the mixer. Sourcing reliable produce, especially in certain parts of the country, can be challenging. Well-made purées, for example, promise robust fruit flavors no matter the season.
Having a top-notch tonic on hand is key to any beverage program, and Fever-Tree isn’t the only player. Q Tonic, which was just certified non-GMO by the NON-GMO Project, is another that puts quality ingredients at the forefront. The founder, Brooklyn, New York–based Jordan Silbert, was upset to learn many of the usual tonic brands were loaded with soda-like amounts of sugar. His devotion to a natural alternative has since spawned other bartender-friendly incarnations: Q Ginger Beer, Q Ginger Ale, Q Club Soda, Q Kola, and Q Grapefruit Soda. The most recent addition, Q Indian Tonic, is meant to mingle with bolder, juniper-heavy gins.
Another brand an increasing number of bartenders are falling for is Jack Rudy, launched in Charleston, South Carolina, by bartender Brooks Reitz and also mentioned in my previous feature. There is its flagship Small Batch Tonic, as well as an elderflower version, Small Batch Grenadine, and sweet tea syrup. Additionally, the portfolio has now grown to include bourbon cocktail cherries and Extra Bitter Tonic, which was originally meant for the U.K. market but struck a chord with the American palate to boot. Soon-to-arrive lavender bitters follow the classic aromatic variety, giving bartenders yet another tool to buoy their libations.
“A drink is typically three to four ingredients, maybe five—you don’t have the opportunity to hide behind a sub-par product, and every element counts,” Reitz tells me. “Using the best possible ingredients is essential—from the liquor, to the mixer, to the ice.”
David Kravitz, beverage director of the small restaurant group the Smith, with locations in New York City and Washington, D.C., also underscores the importance of a bar turning to proper mixers. “A well-made cocktail is a relatively small serving, anywhere from 3 to 6 ounces. Every drop that goes in affects the taste,” he explains. “It is a shame to carefully construct something with quality ingredients only to sabotage yourself with a mediocre mixer.”
Beyond a range of tonics, bartenders should consider the lineup from Powell & Mahoney. This Vermont-made line of mixers includes Ginger Beer, Blood Orange Ginger Beer, and Mojito, made with fresh juices and pure cane sugar and conveniently packaged along with a tonic in a four-pack of 12-ounce cans.
In 2014, Michael Dietsch wrote the book Shrubs: An Old-Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, and these drinking vinegars have continued to make a splash at bars. One successful brand is Berkeley, California’s Shrub & Co., which unites ingredients like strawberry or Yucatán honey with cane sugar and vinegar for cocktails laden with sweet and tart notes.
New York–based Owl’s Brew also thinks that tea makes a nice companion to liquor, with botanical mixers designed specifically for cocktails, in such flavors as classic English Breakfast or Pink & Black with Darjeeling and hibiscus. Last year, the tequila- and mezcal-friendly Wicked Green, uniting green tea, habanero, and lime, arrived.
Then there’s The Perfect Purée of Napa Valley, which has been beloved by bartenders around the country for years for its number of purées, concentrates, zests, and blends that star real fruit and citrus. One of the newest is the Ginger Sour, spiked with key lime and lemon juices that work well in the form of spritzers, fizzes, and jacked-up Margaritas.
Joe and MariElena Raya preferred homemade syrups and mixers for their Charleston, South Carolina, bar, the Gin Joint. Once they realized how difficult it was to procure a constant stream of produce, they launched their own line of mixers, Bittermilk. Like Crafted Cocktails, which is based just outside of San Diego and offers all-natural, ready-to-serve renditions of the Gimlet and Piña Colada, Bittermilk is good news for home bartenders even more so than professionals. The Rayas also unveiled Tippleman’s, a line of artisanal syrups that give drinks a new depth in flavors of Burnt Sugar, Ginger Honey, Barrel-Aged Cola Syrup, Barrel-Smoked Maple Syrup, and—ideal for tiki-style drinks—Double Spiced Falernum.
Fresh Victor is the newest to the party. Launching first in California, the brand—cofounded by Tim Brown and Ken MacKenzie, and counting H. Joseph Ehrmann, the celebrated barman behind San Francisco bar Elixir, as a partner—revolves around bottles of chilled, inventive blends made in the Sierra Foothills with organic agave nectar and cane sugar: Mexican Lime & Agave, Three Citrus & Mint Leaf, Poblano Heat & Wild Lime, Pineapple & Ginger Root, and Cactus Pear & Pomegranate. All of these can lead to myriad permutations when paired with various spirits—as well as with wine and sparkling water.
With so many ready-made, prepared mixers in the superlative category, it’s understandable that house-made craft cocktails don’t always have to rely on homespun ingredients. “While any craft program should be making many ingredients from scratch in the kitchen, there is the reality of manpower, time, and consistency,” says Kravitz. “Sometimes you have to recognize that someone is making one thing so well that you are not going to improve on it.”