What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?

[soda] round 1

We’re here to talk about sparkling water in cocktails. But first:

My Obsessive Nature, a.k.a. A Briefish, Seemingly Unrelated Disclaimer on Why Its Hard to Buy Things

I like research.

Before I buy something, for example, I tend to comb through reviews. This can be important, like finding the right hotel for a vacation. This can also be shatteringly unimportant, like when I suddenly realize I’ve wasted 90 minutes on a Tuesday morning comparing customer reviews and build specifications between a bunch of $12 can openers. I can’t help it. It’s who I am.

I say that to say this: what follows is an article about what carbonated water is best for your cocktails. My conclusions have changed my thinking about soda water (a little). But even at its most dramatic, we’re talking about a flavor difference of 20% maximum, and usually closer to 5%. Which is my way of acknowledging that what follows is esoteric and largely insignificant, and if you ignore my conclusions regarding sodium content vis-a-vie effervescent cocktails, I assure you that your life won’t be any worse for it.

Anyway.

Carbonated Water & Its Many Forms

[soda] the lineup

Carbonated water is what happens when carbon dioxide and water are hanging out together under pressure. Sometimes it’s natural: mineral-laden water, bubbling up through limestone in underground springs, finds some trapped underground CO2 and self-carbonates. People used to find these special places, and drink/soak there as a medicine. When they’re constantly traveling to Bath to “take the waters” in Jane Austen novels? This is what they’re doing.

Some of the carbonated water you can buy is natural, and while others are imitations of the natural minerals, or the natural carbonation, or both. All in all, you can break down bubble water into 4 different categories.

Four Categories

•  Carbonated Water or Seltzer Water or Sparkling Water: pure water, artificially carbonated.
•  Soda Water or Club Soda: water, carbon dioxide, and small amounts of added sodium salt and/or potassium salt.
•  Mineral Water: naturally carbonated water from a protected underground spring, containing more than 250 parts per million (ppm) dissolved minerals/salts, like  sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, etc.
•  Spring Water: water from a protected underground spring, containing less than 250ppm dissolved minerals/salts.

This alone is fairly simple, but it’s only the very beginning, because each individual brand of sparkling water needs to be evaluated on three traits. And these three traits aren’t in any way predictable from the four categories, because waters within the same category swing wildly from one extreme to the other.

Three Traits:

(1) How carbonated is it?

This is vital, and the only unconditional trait you need in your carbonated water. You want big, ripping carbonation. In something like a Tom Collins, carbonated water is only about 1/3 of the liquid in the final drink, and has to carry twice its own weight in effervescence. The more carbonation, the brighter and more alive your drink will be.

(2) How does it taste?

Carbonating water is like hitting it with a spotlight — bad tasting water tastes even worse carbonated.

[soda] jarritos(3) How does the mineral composition affect the experience of flavor?

As affirmed by Dave Arnold and explained well by Kevin Liu here, a very small amount of salt can make flavors “pop,” even if it’s not enough to actually perceive any salt at all (known as subthreshhold saltiness).

To compound that, we know a small amount of salt is incredibly effective at reducing bitterness, so in the case of bitter sparkling drinks like Americanos or Campari & Soda, it might give the the other flavors a boost.

The Experiments:

I picked up a couple bottles of every brand of sparkling water I could find. Which is, by the way, a good way to look insane in the check-out aisle.

[soda] cost difference supermarket

I got a couple rain-cheap grocery store brands, a few world-famous mineral waters, two ludicrously expensive artisanal mixing waters straight from an advertisement in Imbibe, some super basic carbonated distilled water, and capped off by a gift: the elusive and broadly-revered Topo Chico, courtesy of the excellent Carlos Ochoa.

12 waters in all, and a decently representative sample:

[soda] grid

San Pellegrino and Crystal Geyser were immediately disqualified for insufficient carbonation, and Crystal Geyser doubly because it sucks (In my notes is one line, a cryptic, but damning, “this is shit and the people who make it are shit and I hate them.”).

Then, we did tests. Lots of tests.

[soda] tons of rounds

All in all, I blind tasted all of them, 6 at a time, shuffled randomly:

— 2 rounds all the way through, just water alone
— 6 rounds as Americanos
— 3 rounds as Lillet + Sodas
— 2 rounds as Tequila + Sodas
— 1 round as Gin + Sodas
— 1 round as Vodka + Sodas
— 1 round of Tom Collins’

The round of vodka sodas was particularly difficult.

The round of vodka sodas took an especially severe toll on our tasting panel.

So why did I do this so many times? Because the results were incredibly subtle, and maddeningly inconsistent. I’ve never experienced anything like this. One round of Americanos, Fever Tree is the best. A few more rounds it hovers around 2nd or 3rd place, and then once it drops to last. Mineragua was 3rd place for the first Lillet + Soda test, but then the next time it drops to last. La Croix is an underperformer at Americanos but it makes the 2nd best Lillet + Soda. My homemade soda + a crack of salt made the best tequila soda, but when bittersness came in, it was only 4th best at an Americano. Why is Refreshe Seltzer better than Refreshe Soda? WHY?

I mean really. What the fuck am I supposed to do with this?

Conclusions:

I did it so many times that, yes, I managed to find patterns and draw conclusions:

 

(1) The biggest factor is the amount of carbonation. If you taste the water, hold it in your mouth before you swallow. CO2 in liquids forms carbonic acid, and it should burn. If you can pleasantly hold it in your mouth for 5 seconds, it’s not carbonated enough. San Pellegrino is nice for lunch, but it’s nowhere near bubbly enough for your cocktails.

(2) We’re really only talking about simple Americanos or spirit/wine + bubbles. In the round of Tom Collins’, which introduces sweetness and tartness, I literally couldn’t tell the difference between the 3 or 4 best versions. Just bring enough carbonation, and it’s fine.

(3) The more bitter your cocktail, the saltier your water. Q Soda and Mineragua in particular are salty as hell, but in bitter drinks they make the flavors pop because of that salt + bitterness thing we mentioned earlier. And the top performers, as far as I could tell, just had sea salt. Sodium citrate, an industrial salt in the Refreshe Soda, was not as beneficial.

(4) Enjoying a water alone and its performance in cocktails are two very different things. Both Q and Mineragua, for example, are too salty for me alone, but added to bitter sweetness in an Americano, that ceases to be a problem. Likewise, Fever Tree is the king of sipping waters in my house, but it doesn’t come close to dominating the competition the way I thought it would.

(5) We’re not talking about a big flavor difference here. This ain’t different vermouths, or even different gins. We’re talking about water. For most of these we’re dealing with shades of carbonation and shades of salt. The subjective difference between 1st and 4th in the conclusions could very well have been due to what I ate last.

(6) Water costs money. More on this in a second.

What’s the Best Sparkling Water for Cocktails?:

Q Club Soda.

[soda] q winner

Big carbonation, nice and salty, and well flavored, Q was the best all around competitor, with Fever Tree, Refreshe Seltzer, Topo Chico,  Mineragua, and my homemade water (carbonation technique nicked from Liquid Intelligence) coming in as respectable runner ups.

[soda] winners circle

But.

If I didn’t have my own, would I be buying Q Club for home? No, I would not. I would be buying Refreshe Seltzer and adding a pinch of salt (or Topo Chico, if I could find it). Because of the final column, cost, that I left off earlier.

[soda] grid w prices

If I were in some kind of competition, I’d bring Q Club. But it’s not significant enough of a difference for me to buy boutique imported water at nearly $0.20 a fucking ounce. Q was best, and Refreshe Seltzer is somewhere around 3rd. But Q is 7.5x the cost of Refreshe, and only like 5% better.  And I’m not living that life.

In other words, did I just make you read 1500 words on carbonated water just to tell you it doesn’t matter all that much? Yeah, I did. Sorry. I tried to warn you.

SUPPLIMENTAL CAVEAT: There’s still so much I don’t know about these waters. Sodium, in miligrams, is available on the back. But what about potassium? Or calcium, or magnesium, or fluoride, or nitrates? All that stuff can show up in mineral water, and it tastes like something,  and I don’t have the tools to identify them. And honestly, what tools I could’ve bought (pH strips, etc) I opted against buying when I realized how difficult it is to draw conclusions from such scattered, subtle results in the first place.

TRIVIA #1!: Why is salted water even a thing at all? This is already much too long, but the history of artificial carbonation is pretty awesome, so I’ll just leave this superb article here if you want to know more.

TRIVIA #2!: If you’re wondering if the English town of Bath was named Bath because people bathed in the natural hot springs, the answer is yes.

The Best Mojito in the World

[mojito] recipe porn

The Prologue: Here’s Your Fucking Mojito

As a bartender, I’ve always hated mojitos.

The very word “mojito” has the power to make me shudder. More often than not, I have to fight the urge to say “here’s your fucking mojito” when I drop one off. I know bartenders who have purposefully made horrific mojitos so they won’t be asked to make another — Splenda instead of sugar, Branca Menta instead of mint, etc — and I have celebrated these people as heroes.

I grind my teeth at the dictional and ontological contortions involved in the question, “do you have mojitos?,” and can’t help but scowl at the flinching apology face everyone always gives when they order them.

I really hate mojitos.

The weird thing is, it’s mostly vestigial. There was a time when it was the most annoying drink a bartender would be asked to make, but now it doesn’t even crack the top 20. And yet. Hate.

I can mutter about them them all day, however, and it will have no bearing whatsoever on their two eternal truths:

  1. Whether Havana in July or Manitoba in January, they will be ordered in all occasions until the end of time.
  2. Unlike a Long Island, or Tokyo Tea or Scooby Snack or any of the other drinks favored by that particular cohort, mojitos don’t suck. At all. Mojitos are, actually, intrinsically delicious.

Point #2 can be a problem all its own — if precision isn’t required to make a good drink, it’s too easy to be satisfied with good and not reach for great. And this is where our story begins.

The History:

I wrote it all out, but then erased it because I honestly don’t care. The mojito, like a whiskey sour or Tom Collins, isn’t invented so much as inevitable: mint grows where limes and sugar cane grow, and soda water because it’s damn hot outside. If, as a culture, you’ve got all that stuff and you never think to put them together, I’m sorry but you don’t get to come out to play.

Just know this: it’s from Cuba, and it shows up in print in the 30s. If you need more history than that, David Wondrich does the best job, as usual, here.

The only interesting thing is the etymology: mojar is the verb “to make wet” or “moisten,” and in Cuban Spanish, “mojo” means “sauce.” So a mojito is “a little sauce” or “a little wetness” which, if you remember that “dry” also can mean “without alcohol,” starts to make some sense.

The Good vs. The Great:

That Good vs. Great thing has always been my problem with mojitos. My recipe was fine, and certainly gets the job done, but I wanted better. And I thought, a few weeks ago, maybe I’d feel better about the drink if I knew, without a doubt, that my mojito was so goddamn delicious that that it would force people to stop and take notice. To tap their friend on the shoulder and say “you’ve got to try this.”

[mojito] three glasses

So I did experiments. A lot of them. And after at least 30 iterations spread over two weeks, I dialed in what I believe to be the best mojito recipe in the world, and in the process became tediously familiar with every ingredient, and all their variations.

The Principles:

I am operating under the assumption that the mojito is, first and most, a refreshing drink. That means it can’t be too sweet, lest it be cloying, nor too tart, or the mint won’t come out. It should be shaken — all the built-in-the-glass recipes, even over crushed ice, were too viscous.

It’s important to note that 95% of the drinks I made were good, and so some of this inevitably falls to personal taste. But following these principles, I set out to find the best.

The Players:

[mojito] ingredients

Rum. Limes. Sugar. Mint. Carbonated Water.

RUM: Flor de Cana 4yr silver rum

Use a Spanish style, clear/silver/white rum. What’s Spanish style? It’s an oversimplification of course, but if your rum is from a Spanish speaking country and/or is called “Ron,” it’s Spanish style. It will be light and clean. And probably <$20, which is even better.

An identical side-by-side with Flor de Cana (silver), Banks 5 (silver), Plantation 5 (amber), and El Dorado 15 (dark) yielded not just a winner, but an obvious winner. While Plantation 5 makes my favorite daiquiri, the unavoidable caramel/spice notes in aged rums have no business in tall, refreshing drinks. I love the funk of Banks 5, but it distracted the palate here. With the El Dorado one, a little more rum and less soda would’ve made a handsome drink, but a mojito it ain’t.

[mojito] rums

I then tried Flor de Cana, a 40%, fairly standard Nicaraguan rum, against the robust Caña Brava,at 43%. I earnestly expected Caña Brava to be the winner, and it was close… it seemed better at first, but after a minute and a little more dilution Flor de Cana surged ahead. To be clear: they were both deliriously good, but my guiding principle was refreshment, and in the end the extra ABV points on Caña Brava took away more than it added.

[mojito] lemon hart 151Just for kicks, I tried Wondrich’s recipe of floating a little Lemon Hart 151 on top. Still delicious, but it takes a clean drink and confuses the flavors. Not an improvement.

LIME: fresh lime juice

This was the least examined part, as there’s nothing even close to fresh lime juice. A bunch of cocktail nerds figured out a few years ago that the enzymatic bittering of juiced limes somehow mitigates a little of the lime’s sourness and that limes juiced 4 hours ago are better than limes fresh squeezed. If you feel like timing your drinking to stay 4 hours ahead of your lime juice, go with God. I wish you all the best.

MINT: 6-8 mint leaves, not muddled, shaken with ice in the drink

This was maybe my biggest surprise in the whole thing. It is gospel in the cocktail world: do not over muddle mint. “If you press it too hard,” they say, “you break the little capillaries in the mint leaf and release bitter chlorophyll, thereby ruining your drink.” I’ve lived by this law for years. Until I tried them side by side. One, I over muddled the mint. The other, gentle pressing. The gently pressed mint barely registered, and to my great surprise, the one I practically jackhammered, where I was expecting bitterness, instead presented a full, delicious mint flavor.

[mojito] over muddled mint

Then I shook the mint with ice, and my god: the mint flavor is so much more pervasive and intense, buttressing every point of the palate. Then I took about 3 minutes and tried to over muddle the mint. I muddled the silly fuck out of that mint, then shook it, and still there’s not a single off-putting note in the drink. You cannot overmuddle mint. Please, someone, prove me wrong.

Then, in the spirit of anti-stone-unturnedness, I tried mega mint: 20 leaves instead of 8. It was, predictably, too much. 6-10 leaves, or one small pinch, is magic.

Oh, and there’s no difference between muddling then shaking, and just shaking without muddling. I tried that too. Save yourself the step.

SUGAR: sugar cane, demerara or muscovado syrup

It’s too much with aged rum, but there’s something perfectly soft and subtle about those molassas flavors when they come from cane syrup, or a demerara/muscovado syrup. They are processed much less than white sugar, and add a rustic layer of personality, like a coat of dust on the harvest jeans.

As we learned with the Southside experiments, fresh mint is always better than mint syrup. But some recipes, like the Employees Only one, double down and use both fresh mint and mint syrup. After all, if mint is good, wouldn’t double mint double your delightment? The answer is no. The mint offers a clean flavor; adding mint syrup only muddies it up.

SPARKLING WATER: highly carbonated mineral water

[mojito] soda water back to backQ Soda and Fever Tree are the expensive good ones, and Topo Chico and Mineragua are the cheaper good ones. You want high carbonation and some dissolved sodium to make the flavors pop. If you want to know why, I did a best sparkling water write-up here.

ICE: crushed ice 

Even when you shake it (and you should), the drink benefits from crushed ice. It’s not strictly necessary, but it keeps the inside cold and well diluted, and the outside frosty. No matter the pace of your drinking, the recipe below will stay good to the end.

The Best Mojito In The World:

Look upon it, barkeeps, and despair.

Mojito
2oz Flor de Cana silver rum
0.75oz demerara or muscovado simple syrup (1:1)
0.75 fresh lime
2.5oz-3oz mineral water
6-10 mint leaves.
Add all ingredients except mineral water, including mint, to the shaker. Add ice, shake to high heaven for 10-12 seconds. Fine strain over crushed ice into a collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig. Drink. Then find me, and shake my hand.

[mojito] glamour shot

Cheers.