Go into convenience or healthy eating stores all across the country and you'll find so-called gourmet sodas, made with real flavors, sugar rather than corn syrup, with a better, less sweet balance and adult flavor profile. In other words, the non-alcohol equivalent of super-premium and fine craft spirits. But rarely do any of these products appear at the bar, either as a long drink finisher or offered by themselves for non-drinkers.
Why? I think I know: soda gun profits and convenience are too tempting for any operator to turn down. But it doesn't matter whether it's cola, club soda or tonic, soda guns generally deliver a less precise product and convey a message to your customers that you don't really care that much about quality.
I was thinking of this when speaking recently with Amy Smoyer, manager of Gin Joint, a small bar underneath New Heights Restaurant in Washington, D.C., where flights of three gins are offered in a rotating monthly schedule, selected from the 40 or so she stocks at the bar. Flights can be served in a variety of ways, and guests ordering them or a simple gin and tonic also get to pick from five commercially produced tonics and three that she concocts in-house. One is made with grapefruit, another, a more middle-of-the-road variety, is made with orange flower water and lime, and a third brings in baking spices including cardamom, allspice and cinnamon. She serves her most popular variety out of a soda siphon carbonator, but the other two are kept as syrups and mixed with seltzer per order; it's as easy as a one would make an Italian-style soda with commercial syrups.
Many bartenders spend long hours creating their own tinctures and bitters and such, which is expected today from most high-end bars. And lately, ice is getting the scrutiny it deserves, as more complicated drinks demand a specific type of frozen water to achieve their ends. Not every bar or bartender can or has the time to tackle their own bitters, and with so many varieties exploding onto the market - Fee Brothers is introducing a plum bitters right about now - most places can do fine with a few of those for drinkmaking.
I'm not seeing the same commitment to carbonated alcohol-free iterations, and it seems to me that, if you expect customers to pay extra for the long drinks you so lovingly create and present, hand-crafted carbonation - either house-made or better quality commercial brands - needs to be part of the mix. I know the next time someone offers me a selection of tonics for my G&T, I'll certainly try the house-made option, and if it's good, that hard to achieve "wow" factor will make me a fan for life of the place and the bartender.