Carbonation plays a larger part in drinks once the weather warms, but for some, year-round, housemade adult sodas make sense for lots of reasons. That's the case with Bryan Dayton, co-owner and beverage director of the newly reopened OAK in Boulder, Colo. By including adult flavors — kumquat-tarragon, cucumber-basil — he's created a base that allows him to list menu drinks in ascending potency. Here's how:
Mix: You've laid out your menu in a way I haven't seen before: organizing drinks by alcohol potency. How did that idea arise?
Bryan Dayton: Well, it kind of arose from how I like to drink. If I had a true day off I would have three drinks throughout the day — non-alcohol in the morning, low alcohol at lunch and high alcohol at dinner. It’s also a very European school of thought; there, having a drink with lunch and then another with dinner isn’t taboo. The other reason is that it really gives our diners several options on how exactly they want to enjoy their evening. If someone is driving or, say, getting up early the next day to work out, they can still enjoy a beautiful, seasonal, vibrant non-alcohol or low-alcohol drink with the rest of their group. Everyone gets to have a good time, with a great drink in hand.
Mix: You've been able to build that on a range of housemade sodas, some unexpected, like kumquat with tarragon. Do you believe adult sodas have a big potential, both alone and in cocktails?
Dayton: I definitely think that the “adult soda” trend has taken off, everyone is kind of doing their own spin. The jerk-style soda is hot right now, too. With today’s technology, you can really do anything you want to do if you’re motivated enough to figure it out. People are really loving it as well; we bought four cases of Izzie’s sodas and haven’t sold one of them — everyone wants to try our housemade sodas. At OAK, we are definitely doing new and exciting things with the beverage program every day. When we first opened, we played with mixing in soda water, then we had a dinner a few years ago and carbonated cocktails in 2-liter containers, then we wanted to take that idea but make it even better, by carbonating directly in individual bottles. Now that we have mastered that, we are constantly playing with new, seasonal flavors; working on a Blood Orange Rosemary one right now actually. Of course, when you add alcohol to this base, it’s even better.
Mix: The sodas helped you craft a good range of High Ball-like drinks. Which came first, the sodas or the High Ball idea?
Dayton: Well, High Balls definitely came first — they are a classic. But it was just a natural easy fusion to add our sodas in.
Mix: House carbonation is to getting greater scrutiny now. What does it take to create your own program, such as the one you've put in place?
Dayton: Yes, I definitely think that this trend is under the microscope right now; personally, I know I constantly am scrutinizing and looking at what other people are doing with it. For me, I really think the further you push the envelope, the better the product becomes. You look at a lot of the people that are getting recognition for housemade soda programs, and most of the time they really aren’t taking it to the next level — their system is more based on the home-soda system. They carbonate in a larger bottle, then funnel into smaller bottles. But you get better product when you individually carbonate each glass bottle like we do at OAK. Many of our drinks have seasonal fruits and herbs, which create particles in the beverage — so, even if you strain it multiple times, those particles will still be there. If you have an advance system of carbonation, you can literally impart those bubbles deep into the final product and into those miniature particles. This creates a superior carbonation experience.
Mix: Are there styles of drinks that are easier or more interesting to make when you have control over your own carbonation?
Dayton: Easier and interesting are definitely different. Anything that doesn’t have particles is easier — like a bottled Americano. When there are interfering particles, you really need to put some more science behind it. So that part of it is more interesting, but also more difficult.
Mix: Some regions of the country tend to favor certain styles or types of drinks. Is that true where you are, and if so, how did that affect your menu?
Dayton: You always hear about East Coast vs. West Coast, hard cocktails vs. fruity, lighter cocktails. Neither label is necessarily a bad thing, it’s really just a product of the environment. Look at climates, in L.A./San Fran you get beautiful farmer's markets with fresh produce year-round and people like Scott Beattie using these products to make farm-to-glass cocktails; in New York, it’s fast paced, harsh and at the end of the day, you really need some hard liquor. In Colorado, you get a little bit of both, so we get to play with it all.
Mix: What's your favorite drink right now?
Dayton: One of our new drinks: the Blazing Saddles. It has Don Julio Anejo, Sombra Mezcal, Averna, Nocino, Snap and Angostura Bitters.