Paul Roberts didn't know what he was starting when he decided to create a soda- pairing menu at the seminal French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California. Roberts, director of wine and beverages for the Thomas Keller group, spotted a gap in the market when a restaurant reviewer arrived with his kid. "I thought, 'Why don't I have something to offer him apart from water?'"
Three years on, and grown-up sodas have become quite a cult in America. An ever-expanding array of flavours - such as birch, dry Valencia orange, crème vanilla and grape - are increasingly available on shop shelves. The trend has become so big that Manhattan restaurants now make batches of their own fresh sodas. The process allows them to create drinks that not only pair naturally with their existing menu but can also change with the seasons.
All of star-chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten's 17 restaurants serve fresh homemade sodas, explains the beverage director Bernard Sun: "Our cocktail programme is actually an extension of our soda programme, not the other way round." At Vongerichten's latest restaurant, Perry Street, you will find spiced maple, ginger ale and orange elderflower. "We can easily recommend pairings if a guest wants it."
Clearly, the days when a chef famously refused to serve an American tourist a Coca-Cola to wash down his duck à l'orange at Parisian restaurant La Tour d'Argent are long gone. And it's not just the big guns that are making their own soft options. "We want the drinks to be as good as the food," says Judy Tu, co-owner of the funky New York restaurant Tigerland. Tu serves lime, ginger and tamarind sodas to pair with spicy Asian fusion food. "Sodas, just like beer or champagne, team well with fiery food; the bubbles tame the heat."
Audrey Saunders, doyenne of New York cocktails, will be launching herbal-infused sodas at her Pegu Club in the summer and gets most call for her ginger ale in the winter. "I go through a gallon a day," she says.
And the soft option craze is not restricted to the US. Below are half-a-dozen drinks available nearer to home. Roberts, though, is a little rueful of the trend he helped kickstart. "I studied to become a master sommelier," he laughs. "But we've got the most attention pairing sodas with the menu rather than a $1,000 bottle of wine." s
London's Moti Mahal offers this accompaniment to fish or shellfish. A perfect alternative to a good Muscadet Sur Lie.
Juice of 2 limes
A knob of ginger, chopped
Pinch of black salt
2 pinches roasted cumin
Mix all ingredients and pour into a glass. Add two cubes of ice and water to taste.
Mango, mint and cumin
Again from Moti Mahal. This goes well with lamb and is a non-alcoholic equivalent of a Cabernet Franc from the Loire.
2 sour mangoes, peeled
1tsp cumin powder
10 sprigs mint, chopped
Purée all the ingredients. Strain and chill for 2 hours. Serve over ice in a tall glass.
Fresh citrus juice
Clarke's in London recommends this with granola or eggs benedict. Perfect for days when you can't face Buck's Fizz.
Pink grapefruit juice
Valencia orange juice
Mix in equal proportions and serve with ice.
Pomegranate and pepper juice
Roussillon in London suggests this with rhubarb millefeuille. A wine-free Jurançon, if you like.
200ml/7fl oz water
Juice of 4 pomegranates
60g/21/2oz brown sugar
2 slices of lemon
1tsp Indonesian pepper
Boil everything in a pan. Cool and serve cold on ice.
Epistome sans fun
A good pairing to Asian food says Glasgow's ABode Vibe Bar. Try in place of a fine Gewurztraminer.
1/2 lemon cut into 4
5 stalks of coriander
1tsp sugar syrup
Mix everything. Pour into a glass, add crushed ice and top with soda water.
Ginger and caraway cordial
Roussillon also recommends this with scallops and asparagus. To be taken instead of a Viognier from the Languedoc, perhaps.
1 litre/13/4 pints water
120g/4oz white sugar
30g/1oz grated ginger
30g/1oz caraway leaves
Boil the water and sugar. Turn off heat, add the ginger, sultanas and caraway. Cover and leave for 3 hours, then refrigerate for 24 hours. Pass through a towel and refrigerate. Leave for a week before drinking.