As I see it, there are three kinds of bars.
First, there are the handful of spots that get modern mixology right. I’m happy to try my luck on a wryly named concoction of small-batch spirits, handmade bitters, Old World botanicals and fresh juices.
Then there are the places — often slick chains — that might make a stab at a cocktail menu, but are overfond of both artificially flavored liqueurs and the suffix “tini.” Not to worry, there’s often a seasoned old guy behind the bar who takes pride in mixing the perfect Manhattan and a few other classics.
But, let’s face it, the vast majority of watering holes don’t have the wherewithal to do right by their cocktail shakers, and your best bet is the simplest. Rum and Coke. Gin and tonic. Jack and ginger.
Nothing wrong with that. Spirits mixed with soda can create a delicious cocktail — a drink to quench your thirst, effervesce under your nose and make itself welcome on a hot summer evening.
At home, I’ve put away my barkeep paraphernalia and have instead been experimenting with a wide variety of carbonated mixers, from the obvious to the esoteric. Gordon’s gin and Schweppes tonic with a wedge of lime is kind of hard to beat. Then again, it can be fun to try some of the upmarket brands of cocktail mixers that boutique liquor stores like H&F Bottle Shop now stock. I’ve also played around with some of the international brands of soda available at the Buford Highway Farmers Market.
Here are a few mixers that have been keeping me in good spirits:
Bleinheim Ginger Ale: This South Carolina brand is a Southern classic, and though liquor stores sell it for a healthy markup, you’ll be hooked once you try it mixed with whiskey and a healthy squeeze of lemon. The color of the bottle cap indicates the spice level; gold has a little kick, while red is flat-out spicy. I’m all about the red.
Fever-Tree Bitter Lemon: I don’t love the flavor of Fever-Tree’s tonic water, but the bitter lemon makes a great mixer for gin or vodka. If you try it and Canada Dry side by side, you’ll notice how much fresher the lemon and sharper the quinine is in Fever-Tree. The latter tastes more of bottled lemon juice.
Fentimans Tonic Water: Though I’m a fan of Schweppes, I like this boutique brand for a change of pace. It tastes less sweet and more acidic and has a lot of character. It makes for a G&T you’ll want to sip slowly.
Kvass (any brand): Russians have traditionally made kvass by fermenting stale rye bread and water into a kind of low-alcohol beer. While you can still find this old-style kvass today, it has by and large morphed into a mass-produced bottled soft drink. Sweet and fizzy, with a distinctive rye flavor, it serves as a Slavic alternative to cola.
After enjoying kvass in Russia recently, I went looking for it at the Buford Highway Farmers Market and found a huge variety of brands and bottles, some in miniature plastic kegs. It’s a fun mixer for rye whiskey, creating a rye-on-rye flavor that leaves little doubt as to its main ingredient.
I took some to Miles MacQuarrie at Leon’s Full Service, who went one better, mixing it with rye and caraway-heavy aquavit.
If you go to the Russian beverage section at the market, look also for the bright green bottles of tarkhun, a Georgian soft drink that tastes strongly of tarragon.
Jarritos Toronja: Of all the flavors of this popular Mexican soft drink, the toronja, or grapefruit, is my favorite. It goes beautifully with a shot of silver tequila and a wedge of lime. If you see the Jamaican grapefruit soda Ting, it works just as well.
Coke: The more I play around with soda mixers, the more I come back to the Atlanta classic, which has an excellent balance of acidity, sweetness, effervescence and caramel undertones — all the qualities you look for in a mixer.
Those new 7.5-ounce cans work well as a portion and serving receptacle. Get one nice and chilled, pour out a shot glass of Coke, add a shot glass of bourbon and get sipping.