While your friends are drinking their summer beers, what if you don’t want to dehydrate yourself? What if you’re teetotaling, permanently or temporarily, and you still want something local and refreshing and carbonated to drink? Or what if you want to mix that local, refreshing, carbonated thing with something stronger than beer? There are at least four options in Athens—three if kombucha’s low alcohol levels put it out of the running for you—and they’re available at a variety of places.
Best among them, but limited to a single flavor, is Ginger’s Bunkhouse Spicy Ginger Ale, designed by local bar owner Joey Tatum to mimic South Carolina’s Blenheim Ginger Ale. Tatum mentioned the mixed drink that his bar The Manhattan is known for, a combo of spicy ginger ale and bourbon. Initially, it used Blenheim as its nonalcoholic component, but when that company ran into supply chain issues, Tatum resolved to create his own version. It is as tastebud-meltingly hot and good as its inspiration, too spicy to chug, and perfectly pleasant to sip. Plus your kids likely won’t come up and take a swig out of your bottle—not without an unpleasant surprise to them. Tatum plans to add more flavors, but for now, there’s just the one.
New Creation Soda Works, based out of Bishop (halfway between Athens and Madison) makes a smoother product in a variety of flavors, sweetened with cane sugar. Its flavors are intense and natural, with a whole bunch of vanilla. Its root beer (Root Beer 42) almost tastes like a root beer float without having to add the ice cream. If you’ve ever chewed on a birch twig, it’s kind of like that but more pleasant, a little milder than most root beers, but with a clean flavor.
New Creation also makes a butter pecan soda called Krümkake that ups the pecan and vanilla substantially from the root beer, and a nice ginger ale that won’t make steam come out of your ears and uses hops to create a delicate floral flavor. Its strawberry habanero soda is sweet and juicy and nicely balanced. On the other hand, I don’t want to taste its hopped water, Hopfin, ever again. But that’s me! I don’t really like hops, and while I can tolerate them if there is also alcohol present, I cannot imagine seeking them out in my water. If you feel differently, you might really enjoy Hopfin, which comes in several flavors. I did not taste the Banana Cream Soda New Creation also makes, but it ventures into limited-edition flavors from time to time.
Mesca, also out of Bishop, is in some ways the other end of the spectrum from its cane-sugar-sweetened competitors, using something called MESCA (Monkfruit extract, Erythritol, Stevia leaf extract, C vitamin and Antioxidants) that results in zero-calorie beverages that manage to be kind of natural. It makes both flat and carbonated beverages, although the former are better than the latter. Mesca’s serrano strawberry flavor, although sans bubbles, has some good strawberry flavor and a lil’ hint of heat. The cola and “Scarlett Citrus” flavors, both with carbonation, are pretty hard to distinguish from one another. There’s also a lemonade that was out of stock.
And then there’s Figment Kombucha‘s offerings, now available in cans around town and nearly as nice that way as they are fresh at the store or farmers market. Is kombucha a soda? Eh, kinda. I mean, technically it’s a tea, and you can certainly taste the tea in Figment’s brews, but it’s fizzy and often fruit-flavored and somewhat sweetened, so really, what’s the difference? If you’re looking for something with an extremely low alcohol content and absolutely lovely natural flavors that will make you feel virtuous as you savor it, Figment really is a good option, although it can be a bit pricey. You might not think you want the blueberry lavender flavor if I describe it as a gigantic whiff/mouthful of a summer garden, as though you’ve just hoovered up everything in the yard, but it’s damn evocative. The orange blossom is a little gentler in its flavor profile but also intensely real in its floral bouquet. They both make a nice addition to the local fizzy-drink-that-isn’t-beer scene.
You can buy these things at most places (package stores, Half-Shepherd, Daily Grocery), except for Mesca, which you can get from Terrapin’s brewery online store.
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