Joseph D’Angelo remembers the first time he tasted sarsaparilla. The Hartsdale chef was 10 years old and on a Long Island retreat when he discovered the root.
“I’ve always loved sarsaparilla; I don’t know why,” says D’Angelo, who offers the artisanal flavor in a custom soda pop at his Hartsdale restaurant, Copper Kettle Café. “It’s kind of toffee-ish, with a spice to it.”
Like D’Angelo, many consumers continue to gravitate to nonalcoholic refreshments that possess soul. We want the effervescent pop and fizz of a soda but with integrity. We seek the fragrance of recently plucked produce in our iced tea-juice infusion. We expect the meticulous mixing of components that are created in-house down to the last ingredient and sourced sustainably, of course. Or, we latch on to the nostalgia of vintage glass bottles of the fizzy stuff. (No high-fructose corn syrup in sight, thank you.)
Since the downfall over the last decade of mass-market soda and its elimination from many schools, there’s been an evolution in soda and other soft drinks. Now, these craft drinks are rising to the top shelf.
The craze for “craft” food that also turned up in cocktails has now seeped into nonalcoholic drinks—those previously insignificant beverages that, until recently, often didn’t even get a listing on the menu at bars and restaurants. Today, there’s a movement toward artisanal, small-batch, sometimes local, sometimes house-made, thirst-quenching drinks packing no buzz besides the organic cane-sugar high.
Considered the executive chefs of the bar, mixologists have definitely influenced the sophisticated-soda sector. But while “mocktails” are rad and all, this trend isn’t about drinks dressing up like a worldly older cousin. Instead, drink-makers are inspired by hyper-detailed craft-production techniques, unique flavors, and naturally sourced, premium ingredients.
At Pumpernickel Bar & Grill in Ardsley, root beer flows from a tap next to its more potent brothers. A local brewer helped specially formulate the recipe, says Pumpernickel owning partner Charlie Armchir.
“The root beer has always been a big draw for us,” Armchir says. “It’s an old recipe. It’s actually brewed, and it’s a lot smoother, almost like a cream soda. We wanted it to be an authentically brewed root beer, not just club soda with syrup.”
The recipe uses less sarsaparilla, the drink’s namesake root, than mass-market brands. This exclusive blend outsells other sodas, except maybe Diet Coke, Armchir notes. Customers drain two to three kegs of root beer a week at the family-friendly sports bar and restaurant, which is undergoing a makeover.
Hassan Jarane, owner of nearby Mint Premium Foods, opened the American-barbecue-themed Pik Nik on Tarrytown’s Main Street in April. There, staff crush watermelon every morning for the signature watermelon lemonade with strawberry juice served over ice. Pik Nik also carries Orca Beverages, a line of vintage sodas bottled in glass with original, old-time designs and flavors. Guests enjoy collecting the bottles of Howdy Cherry Jubilee (est. 1920) and Goody Red Pop (est. 1923), which tastes sweet, like a Shirley Temple. Pik Nik also has the oldest bottled carbonated beverage in the US, Moxie Original Elixir (est. 1884), which began as a patented nerve medicine. It’s not as sweet as most other sodas, (the taste is a little bitter, actually), yet it coined the cool moxie slang, as in: “This guy’s got moxie.”
“At Pik Nik, I’m trying to have everything as American as it gets without having it mass-produced with no taste. We’re doing it the way Grandma used to do it,” Jarane says.
Also in Tarrytown, The Taco Project’s menu sings with old-world Mexican inspiration. Owner Nick Mesce strikes the right notes with his agua frescas, which means “fresh waters” in Spanish. “Horchata, hibiscus, and tamarind are house-made daily and lightly sweetened,” Mesce says.
Artisanal fare used to be nothing special, the status quo, before the industrial revolution and the rise of convenience foods. But now, this old-fashioned, slow, from-scratch way of doing things is thoroughly modern. That’s the idea behind the Drink More Good line of artisanal sodas, founded by Jason Schuler in 2012. Manufactured in Peekskill, Drink More Good uses locally sourced and organic ingredients to create handcrafted soda-syrup concentrates, tea concentrates, and bitters.
Connecticut-based and family-owned Foxon Park has been producing soda since 1922.
With eight New England locations, and one outpost in Yonkers, Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana is also embracing the old-timey drinks theme, offering Foxon Park Sodas in glass bottles. Foxon is a family company founded in 1922 in East Haven, Connecticut.
“My father started serving it in 1925,” says Gary Bimonte, grandson of Frank Pepe and co-owner with his three sisters and three cousins. “It’s a third-generation company, like ours. It’s locally made soda, and people like that.” Pepe’s carries eight different flavors, including white birch, gassosa (lemon-lime), root beer, and orange cream.
Back at Copper Kettle in Hartsdale, D’Angelo serves up Harmony Springs Soda Pop in flavors such as sarsaparilla (D’Angelo’s favorite), black cherry, orange, cream, lemon, cola, ginger ale, and seltzer. “That’s the only soda I sell. I don’t carry Coke or Pepsi, none of that,” D’Angelo says. “I like the idea of using a natural product. It’s just a better flavor. There’s not that aftertaste.”
Amy Sowder is a sucker for anything artisanal. She works at chowhound.com and is a freelance writer based in New York City.