Before we get started, let's try a little exercise: How much sugar is in a 20-ounce bottled soft drink, the one you grab at the gas station and slam into the cup-holder of your car?
65 grams, or more.
You know what else contains 65 grams of sugar? About 16 teaspoons of ... straight sugar. To get a visual, take the empty bottle, the one you sucked dry while driving home from Tiger Mart, and ladle 16 spoons of Domino crystals into it. Now, do you still wonder why your soda-fueled kids are re-enacting Temple Run in your living room while your dentist is retiring early to the sugar-sand beaches south of 30A?
If you display that sugar-weighted bottle on your kitchen counter for a while, you might find that your family's appetite for Big Soda diminishes. Then what? You could drink more water. But where's the fun in that?
Fortunately, innovative soft drinks — lower in sugar and higher in creativity — are popping up across town, as the artisanal approach to cocktails trickles down to nonalcoholic liquid assets. Here's a sipping sampler of a few fizzy favorites:
The predecessor of today's fructose-filled fountain drinks, phosphates were popular soda-counter specialties of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that layered ingredients such as fruit, egg and wine with the fizzy finish of acid phosphate. At The Pharmacy Burger Parlor & Beer Garden in East Nashville, you can quench your nostalgia for the bygone soda fountain, while indulging in a feast of burgers and house-made sausages. Leave it to owner and veteran bartender Terrell Raley to envision a menu of old-school phosphates — infused with handcrafted syrups of mint, ginger, maraschino, vanilla and lemon — that is so retro it's modern all over again.
If you think you've had your fill of the dorm-food duo pizza and soft drink, you haven't tried the updated version at Bella Nashville. Located in the Nashville Farmers' Market, the tiny brick-oven-fired pizzeria uses every square inch and every available calorie to showcase fresh handcrafted fare. When the pizza's as good as Emma Berkey and Dave Cuomo's thin-crust pies — topped with locally cured meats and artisanal cheeses — you don't want to drown it with a Big Gulp of high-fructose corn syrup. You want to savor the flavor of a handcrafted beverage worthy of the main course. To that end, Berkey and Cuomo blend house-made citrus syrups with fizzy water from an in-house carbonation system. That way, the soda arrives fresh and bubbly ... just like the piping-hot pizza.
Small wonder that Alexis Soler has become a media poster child for the burgeoning food-and-drink scene in East Nashville. Trendspotters from Garden & Gun to The New York Times have found their way to her Gallatin Road bar, where she upgrades familiar favorites such as rum and Coke and Jack and Ginger with house-made cola and ginger ale. Her mixers are made with laborious recipes, with ingredients such as fresh ginger, citrus and cassis and "significantly less" sugar than brand-name fountain drinks. "We want to elevate the thing that is so regular to most people and make it exceptional," she says. How sweet is that?
For her much-lauded drink flights accompanying the dazzling chef's menu, Jane Lopes has a few nonalcoholic fizzy sippers, carbonated on the spot in small batches. She doesn't mess with catchy names, but one booze-free beauty is a lemon tea infused with cardamom, ginger and mint and stirred with a hint of simple syrup. Another is an apple cider steeped with lavender and fennel seed, then carbonated for a sparkling finish.
Don't get too used to this iced coffee with hints of sour cherry juice and demerara simple syrup, which is carbonated à la minute and served in a glass laced with Angostura and cherry bitters — because it will only be around as long as the current inventory of beans from East Africa lasts at Rachel Lehman's Hermitage Avenue coffee counter. But when the Burundi Gatare lot is gone, you can bet Lehman and her artistic crew of baristas will dream up another caffeinated concoction that, well, pops.
The best new restaurant accessory just might be the carbonation sink, and Terri-Ann Nicholls puts the dedicated faucet at her gelato emporium to good use, mixing bubbles into gem-colored syrups imported from Jo Snow in Chicago. The colorful and preservative-free elixirs — in flavor combinations such as tamarind-chili, grapefruit-rosemary, blueberry-lemon, ginger-passion-fruit and hibiscus-basil-orange — are mixed to order with bubbly water, for an intriguing taste sensation that doesn't make your teeth itch from too much of a sweet thing.
Miranda Whitcomb's 12South hot spot has lifted the burger to a locally sourced art form, so we'd expect no less attention to Burger Up's beverages. Bartender Eric Wilson delivers with a citrus-and-herb-infused concoction that blends rosemary simple syrup with lemon juice and soda water. Mindful of sugar content, Wilson and Whitcomb dialed back the sweet stuff from the original recipe to highlight the citrus and herb. "I like it better," Whitcomb says. "But kids might not."
Best known for her decadent handmade marshmallows, Sarah Souther also carries an innovative inventory of syrups in herbaceous mash-ups such as ginger-rosemary, lavender-rose, peach-basil and habanero-lime at her new store in the former Marathon Motor Works. Bang's website offers recipes for do-it-yourself cocktailers who want to elevate their vodka or Champagne with dashes of unexpected flavor. But for everyday sipping, Souther suggests a simple mixture of one tablespoon of syrup to 10 ounces of bubbly water, with a squeeze of citrus and a garnish of herb. That's about one-third the sugar in a similar-sized serving of soda.
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