For the novice home mixologist, options were pretty limited in the past. Let’s say you didn’t have a fully stocked bar, or much experience precisely stirring a round of cocktails in a seamless Yarai mixing glass before straining them into a set of fine coupe glasses. Then what? You could pick up some soda at the store, or some generic margarita mix or the like, and that was about it. Luckily, times have changed, and mixers are moving on up.
Undoubtedly, the debut of Fever Tree and its quick growth spurred on the category. They produced tonic and ginger ale and assorted other flavors that were clear steps ahead of their supermarket counterparts. Building on that success, in the past few years, a whole host of new options have become available, allowing any would be home bartender, and even those actually tending bar, to deploy a more exciting and high quality range of mixers than ever.
One new contender is Q Drinks, which produces a lineup that includes options such as tonic, ginger beer, soda, and cola. They place a premium on the quality of their ingredients, using real quinine and ginger root, and avoiding sugar and high fructose corn syrup in favor of organic agave. The result is an all-natural and low calorie lineup, but the key to its popularity is its high carbonation level.
“We achieve higher levels of carbonation by first treating carbonation like an ingredient and agonizing about what carbonation level to put in each flavor,” explains founder Jordan Silbert. Q also uses thicker glass which, “enables us to put more carbonation in our bottles.”
Increased carbonation basically helps to spread flavor around. “Carbonation adds a ‘zing’ to drinks, a tart effervescence,” says Silbert. “The bubbles from carbonation also help bring flavor up into your nose, so carbonation also makes the flavors in your drink seem more intense.”
Bartenders have noticed. In a conversation discussing the highball program at San Francisco’s Pacific Cocktail Haven, Kevin Diedrich called out Q Soda as his go-to choice for highballs due to it offering the highest level of carbonation he could find. Offering that level of carbonation is one of his key principles for producing superior, authentic highballs.
Silbert recalls a moment after he founded the brand, when Jim Meehan and Sasha Petraske reached out to him as they were unsuccessfully searching for higher carbonation in tonic water. “They were already looking for something like what I came up with,” says Silbert. Others perhaps needed an introduction to the concept, but particularly for highballs, which are generally 75 to 80 percent mixer, the difference stands out immediately.
It’s not only new companies though, there are often old school mainstays which just have to be sought out. That’s the case with Franklin & Sons, who showcase a range of flavored tonics and sodas, and their in demand ginger beer. They even won a gold medal in the 2016 NY International Spirits Competition for their ginger beer.
Even in the realm of the margarita mix and similar mainstays, there’s always a better option out there. A few standouts to try include all-natural Tommy’s Margarita Mix or the well-liked Tres Agaves lineup (both also gold medal winners in NYISC 2016). The same holds true for your home Bloody Mary needs, too. Tres Agaves also has an option there, while other award winners from the New York International Spirits Competition include Bloody Mary mixes from Taste of Florida, and Habla Diablo.
Back to emerging trends though, a much wider net is now being cast in terms of available flavors. This includes those with unique ingredients, as well as an overall more diverse lineup of cocktail ready mixers, so you’re not limited to Margaritas if you wanted to make a round of drinks with minimal effort.
Take Stolen Fruit, a lineup of verjus —fresh press juiced from green grapes— grape varietal cocktail mixers. Exotic flavor offerings include options such as Lemongrass Ginger Sauvignon Blanc, Jasmine Juniper Viognier, and Blood Orange Muscat. Each comes with a few easy mixing suggestions on the label to guide you in the right direction.
The lineup comes from chef Peter Brown, and Dry Creek grape growers Doug and Susan Provisor. The intent is not only to elevate easy at-home cocktails, but to offer flavors which complement food, while also “bringing the nuance of wine to cocktails.”
Staying in wine country, there’s also Perfect Purée. The Napa Valley company began with a focus on prepared fresh fruit purees for chefs. Now though, they also offer a lineup a cocktail mixers and blended flavors. Choices here include options such as Chipotle Sour, Thai Basil & Black Pepper, Yuzu Luxe Sour, and Passion Colada.
Then there’s the Swig + Swallow line from founders April Wachtel and Gates Otsuji. They’ve set out to eliminate even more of the guesswork by offering pre-batched cocktail mixes in bottles which the measurement lines already in place. Simply pour your booze straight in the bottle to the right line and you’re set. Plus, they’re thinking beyond the home bar, too, with plans of revolutionizing the way you drink elsewhere too, like your hotel room, with smaller minibar-ready sizes.
Cocktail choices include yes, the Margarita, but also Mojito, Daiquiri, Cosmopolitan, Moscow Mule, and sours. They use natural ingredients and custom syrups, and a bottle pressurizing system which allows the mixers to stay fresh for up to three months when kept unopened in the fridge.
If you’ve been wanting to make better cocktails at home, even without all of that fancy glassware and with minimal effort and experience required, then clearly your time has come.
Jake Emen is a spirits, food and travel writer currently based in Washington, D.C. His drinks coverage has been published in Whisky Advocate, Eater Drinks, Tales of the Cocktail, Washington Post Express, Distiller, The Whiskey Wash, Tasting Table, and a range of other outlets. He also runs his own site, ManTalkFood.com, and can be followed on Twitter, @ManTalkFood.