Big Al's Bites: Gourmet sodas you must try

Soda pop is an American pastime. Some may say baseball, others would point to bigotry as the nation’s most consistent heritage, but when push comes to shove, more people like soda than they do baseball. Take away the MLB, you’ll have some majorly pissed men. Take away Diet Coke? Watch as the Wasatch Front turns into a mosh pit of Mormon mothers.

Yes, soda is the great equalizer. Rich or poor, educated or simple, diet or sugared, most can agree that soda levels the socioeconomic playing field. An equalizer it may be, but not all soda is created equal. While Coke may be a national hallmark, it is not the best cola made. Sprite does not reign in citrus sipping, and if one more person tells me that Barq’s is the best root beer out there, they will be slapped immediately.

I bring to you my picks for the best sodas in four categories — namely cola, root beer, lemon-lime, citrus and cream soda.

The kola nut is native to the jungles of Africa, and is a ceremonial offering to kings and guests. Similarly, cola products are offered as hospitality in America. I remember serving my LDS mission in Georgia (Atlanta is home to the Coke World Headquarters) and quickly acclimating to the offering of Coke at first meeting. While Coca-Cola and Pepsi have the corner on name recognition, one cola trumps them both.

Mr. Cola comes in an unassuming, black-label bottle. This cola has managed to strike the right balance between the caramel sweetness and the aromatic lime that good cola needs. Coke tends to focus on the caramel, Pepsi on the lime, but Mr. Cola marries them perfectly.

Root beer is actually made from roots. No joke, that’s why they call it root beer. The main ingredient comes from the roots of sassafras trees, and is usually paired with sarsaparilla roots. That’s the main difference between root beer and sarsaparilla soda: One is a blend of roots, and the other is exclusive.

My vote for the best root beer goes to Virgil’s. Virgil’s is brewed with all organic, fine ingredients. You should be warned  this is not your run-of-the-mill, tepid Barq’s variety. The anise, licorice and bourbon vanilla run together over the low notes of the sassafras and sarsaparilla, finishing with a creamy, spicy head layered with cinnamon, clove and cassia oil. This is the king of root beer, and you should drink it soon.

The lemon-lime community is much more diverse than people think. It goes well beyond the world of Sprite and into the far reaches of culinary prowess. I’d like to highlight two very different picks. The first is a bittersweet soda from the Australian Bundaberg Brewing Company. The lemon-lime bitters soda is brewed for seven days to produce a robust, perfumed lemon with a sharp lime, spiced with clove and ginger, and sweetened with cane sugar. It’s every bit as good as it sounds.

The second lemon nominee is Nesbitt’s Honey Lemonade. This sweet and sour concoction leaves nothing to be desired, as the high notes of the lemon round out to the rich sweetness of the honey. Lemonade is good. Lemonade with honey is better. Lemonade with honey made into soda is divine.

Citrus soda includes everything from sappy-sweet orange soda to a biting ginger ale. My particular favorite is Reed’s Premium Ginger Ale. This brewed concoction starts with a sweet pineapple juice, rounds out with cane sugar, and then finishes with the spicy bite of real ginger. If you’re feeling more adventuresome, there is an extra-strength version that has whole bits of ginger floating in the drink. Reed’s also makes variations of their wonderful stuff in raspberry, cherry and spiced apple cider. All are wonderful.

While all of these other drinks are good, I have found a brew that puts them all to shame. You could have told me that this cream soda was exported from Valhalla and I wouldn’t have blinked twice. Sprecher’s cream soda is the king of all soda. Anyone familiar with my writing knows that I rarely say that something is the best. I will give credit for being one of the best, but never before have I made a sweeping declaration of supremacy, because I generally don’t believe in them. That rule holds the exception to Sprecher’s Honey-Vanilla Cream Soda. This brewed concoction is mixed together, and the gas-fired kettle caramelizes the honey and vanilla into a rich caramel flavor that simply cannot be surpassed.

All of these fine products can be picked up at the new Rocket Fizz store (my favorite beverage shop) in the Gateway Mall, as well as in select supermarkets’ specialty beverage sections.

Drink up! Only do it well, with these sodas.