Everyone likes to talk about the great presents they receive over the holidays. What often goes unmentioned is the laundry list of crappy gifts out there. You know you got them, likely from some far-flung aunt who just can't believe that anyone wouldn't want a collection of salt-water taffy she found in the house-wares section of her local discount chain, or from the broke-ass brother who insists on getting everyone Christmas-themed tea towels every damn year.
I didn't get any real stinkers this year, but I finally found a use for one that had been sitting unused in my pantry for half a decade. Back in 2005, my wife surprised me on Christmas with a holiday pack of Jones Sodas. Jones has been releasing these since 2004, every year featuring a different set of holiday dinner-themed sodas.
In 2005, the set consisted of "Turkey & Gravy," "Cranberry Sauce," "Pumpkin Pie," "Brussels Sprout" and "Wild Herb Stuffing" flavored sodas. Apparently, they were instant collectors' items and, had I sold them then, could have fetched up to $100 for the set. Instead, I left them in my pantry until this holiday season. That's when I lit on the idea of seeing if I could find a way to turn these ill-conceived sodas into well-conceived cocktails.
Not wanting to go it alone, I enlisted the help of Chris Frankel, bartender at Anvil Bar and Refuge, and something of a cocktail mad scientist. He's been the brain behind many of my favorite drinks there, and he seemed the perfect partner in crime for such an undertaking. Chris agreed to lend his skill and knowledge to such a patently ridiculous undertaking. We arranged a tasting, poured out small samples of each successive soda, and Chris began shaking and stirring up a wide array of liquors, bitters, and juices to complement the sodas. It was interesting to watch the thought process at play, as Chris reduced each soda down to individual flavor components and elements in an effort to make best use of them in an overall recipe. My one caveat was that he was not allowed to intentionally mask the flavor of any soda, and that the sodas must be utilized in a significant ratio to the rest of the ingredients. No "dash of Brussels Sprout Soda" nonsense allowed.
The most surprising thing about this project was that most of the sodas weren't disgusting. In fact, they were all kind of disappointingly "meh." I was kind of hoping for more gag-reflex, and a correspondingly difficult task of turning them into drinkable cocktails. The reality was quite different, and the cocktails were quite good, all things considered. Most, I would never order again, but none would I outright reject.
Below are my tasting notes on the sodas, and the recipes Chris concocted for each.
Turkey and Gravy Soda:
A soapy aroma which repeats on the palate. No turkey flavor whatsoever, but there is a subtle savoriness at play, balanced by a hint of saccharine sweetness. Very little carbonation, due to sitting around for five years.
- 2oz bourbon
- 1/2oz honey syrup
- 1/2oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
- 1/2oz unpasteurized apple juice
Shake, strain into rocks glass, fill with ice cubes, top with 3oz Turkey Soda. Garnish with an apple slice.
This was surprisingly light and refreshing for a cocktail based around Turkey, largely due to the apple juice. The savory element in the soda played well off of the robust whiskey, and the spicy notes from Allspice dram and Angostura Bitters rounded out the cocktails nicely.
More carbonation in this one. Smells of both cranberry and tomato, tastes like tonic and Splenda with just a subtle tartness.
New England Sour
- 1oz Aquavit
- 1/2oz Aperol
- 1/2oz lemon juice
- 1/2oz orgeat syrup
Shake, strain, serve up in a cocktail glass, top with 1/2oz Cranberry Soda, garnish with flamed orange peel.
Tart, sweet, and light, this is exactly what you'd expect from a cranberry-based cocktail, marred only by a Splenda aftertaste. The tomato aroma is lost in the cocktail, leaving the senses able to focus on the tart cranberry notes. The earthy nuttiness of orgeat provides the anchor for the drink, while the flamed orange peel and resulting orange oil on the surface of the drink add a citrusy-spicy kick.
Wild Herb Stuffing Soda:
This tastes almost exactly like an unsweetened cream soda, with hints of vanilla providing the bulk of the flavor.
- Muddle 5 small pieces cucumber in a mixing glass
- 1/2oz simple syrup
- 1/2oz John D Taylor Velvet Falernum
- 1.5oz London Dry Gin
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Shake and strain, serve over cubed ice in a rocks glass, top with 2 oz Wild Herb Stuffing Soda, garnish with 2 pieces cucumber on a skewer.
This drink was light, but had a vague underlying bitterness that was quite pleasant. Cucumber and gin combined for a very fresh, herbal and floral edge that worked well both in spirit and reality with this soda. The cream soda notes shined through mid-finish, and the overall effect was much like a cucumber cream soda I once enjoyed at Big Top Candy Shop in Austin, albeit with a ginny, boozy backdrop.
Brussels Sprout Soda:
This one was by far the worst, yet not as bad as I'm sure you're thinking it was. Sour faces all around, but no actual gagging. It smelled and tasted like artificial butter spray, with underlying hints of butterscotch and caramel. It did not, thankfully, have the sulfurous flavor of overcooked sprouts, as I'd feared it might.
- 1oz Jamaican Rum
- 1oz Oloroso (Sweet) Sherry
- 2 Dashes Angostura Bitters
- 1 teaspoon Raw Sugar Syrup
Stir with ice, strain up into a cocktail glass. Top with 1oz Brussels Sprout Soda, garnish with a cherry.
This was my favorite cocktail, by virtue of the degree of transformation. The dark, spicy molasses notes in the rum, the sherry, and the spicy Angostura highlighted the buttery, rich flavor in the soda, but mostly eliminated the plastic, artificial element so prevalent in the soda itself. The butterscotch and caramel elements in the soda were an ideal match for the flavor profile of the drink, and the Bourbon Cherry was a nice finish, revisiting many of the flavors in the drink itself.
Pumpkin Pie Soda:
This smelled and tasted like pecan pie, full of nutty and caramelized notes.
- 1oz Mezcal
- 1oz Orange Juice
- 1/2oz Carpano Punt e Mes
- 1/2oz Creme de Cassis
Shake and strain. Serve up in a cocktail glass, top with 1oz Pumpkin Pie Soda. Garnish with an orange wheel and a blackberry.
The smokiness of the mezcal and the heady bitterness of the Punt e Mes acted as a nice foil for the somewhat cloying sweetness of the soda, while the crème de cassis picked up the darkly sweet elements and added its own fruity, dark sweetness. The orange juice was a much needed hit of acidity, adding vibrancy to what might otherwise have been overly heavy.
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Yao Lu, who had been looking on with a mix of bemusement and disgust on his face as we worked through the cocktails, finally jumped in at the end, offering his spin on the John Collins, a Tom Collins variant which replaces Old Tom Gin with bourbon.
- 2oz Bourbon
- 1oz Lemon Juice
- 3/4oz Simple Syrup
Shake and strain into Collins glass. Add ice cubes, top off with Pumpkin Pie Soda. Garnish with a lemon wedge.
Bright and punchy like a Collins should be, the bourbon played well with the soda, adding a more robust undercurrent that made for a very interesting rendition of a classic.