In Japan, people are drinking vinegar. Not the stuff you have on chips, but specially formulated fruit vinegars in a wide range of flavours. According to a recent report in the Japan Times, the market for potable vinegar has increased almost threefold between 2000 and 2004. At the Oaks Heart vinegar shop in Tokyo, sales have increased 10-fold over two years. The shop sells over 40 varieties, including mango, pear, raspberry and strawberry.
As you might expect, there's a health angle to this craze. Vinegar is said to aid the circulation and digestion, combat fatigue and stimulate the appetite. I've never had any of the Japanese drinks, so I don't know about either the health or the enjoyment angles here. But I'm making enquiries even as we speak, and will report on both in the near future.
In the meantime, we Westerners have plenty of activity in our own huge and growing soft-drinks market. Hardly a day passes when I don't hear of a new launch, especially of "functional" drinks imported from the USA – where supermarket shelves must need special reinforcement to accommodate the weight of all these drinks. We're catching up over here. Sales of chilled juice have gone up 60 per cent in the last two years, according to Mintel, now amounting to some £768m.
One of the latest is Coca Cola's launch of its Minute Maid orange juices, to take on Pepsi Cola's dominant Tropicana brand. Makers of fizzy drinks are branching out seriously into "healthy" alternatives, hedging their bets as consumers get the message about the spoonfuls of sugar hidden in fizzy cola drinks and the like. A 240ml serving of the average fizz contains around 6.5 teaspoons of sugar.
My own preferred US import of the moment is highlighted to the right. The AriZona company is a good one, justly successful in America for its large range of flavoured tea products, and it's now getting broader exposure over here. Please note: these teas are not for sugar-avoiders. A 240ml serving of their Ginseng and Honey, for instance, contains the equivalent of just over 4 teaspoons. But these are not drinks for every day, even if the company is proud to boast Jennifer Lopez and other celebs among its devotées.
But you don't need to go to the US for superior soft drinks. Two excellent UK companies are making a major splash with their entirely home-grown products. These too are highlighted below, but I have to make special mention of other bottles. One is Fentimans, a frequent visitor to these pages, which is celebrating its centenary by giving away 50 gold sovereigns in a competition over the summer. Details are published on each bottle, from a range that includes terrific lemonade and "Curiosity Cola", my personal favourite, in addition to the bottle pictured here. The products are widely available, and worth seeking out even without the incentive of the gold coin.
The other product is one of the most delicious drinks to ever pass my way. Cream soda is a vanilla-flavoured carbonate which has nourished millions of American children, even if its popularity has waned in recent decades. Mawsons is selling it as a cordial, in a nicely retro swing-top bottle, and the cordial can be diluted by as much as 6:1 while still delivering full flavour. I recommend fizzy water over still, though still water will do just fine as long as it is really cold. Stockist details are the same as for their sarsaparilla (see below), and I urge you to make its acquaintance. It won't prevent global warming, but it will make the heat more tolerable by far. And will give you something to smile about while you're waiting to get your first taste of vinegar. *
Top Corks: Three fine softies
AriZona Pomegranate Green Tea (around £2, Holland & Barrett or www.arizonabev.co.uk) Two current health-drinking buzzwords in one bottle. Sweet, but lovely fresh astringency too.
Fentimans Ginger Beer (around £1/275ml, from most supermarkets and Oddbins) Echt ginger beer, just as it's supposed to taste. Rich and warming, but refreshing over ice.
Mawsons Sarsaparilla (£4.99/375ml, www.mawsonstraditionaldrinks.com) With sarsaparilla, ginger and liquorice. More for grownups than for children, but you never can tell.