Flu-Season Sodas: Taylor's Tonics

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[Photograph: Jed Portman]

A friend of mine came down with pneumonia last week. It hit him hard. Laid him up at home for a day or so. Then I saw him at a concert, not forty-eight hours after he'd been in the hospital, with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. It was a good show, and I couldn't blame him for wanting to be there, but I was a little bit worried for his health.

I didn't preach. He was having a good time, and I knew that I'd probably be doing the same thing if I were in his position. Later on in the night, though, when I saw him doing shots at the bar, I had to say something.

"Man, are you sure you should be doing this?" I asked him.

"It's all good," he said. "It's Jägermeister. It's a tonic."

I won't endorse the use of Jägermeister to treat pnuemonia, but it seemed to work for him. He's gotten better. A few days later, though, I began to feel some symptoms. My throat hurt, my head ached. I had a hard time waking up. Willpower couldn't stop the trickle of complaints from erupting into a full-blown flu that kept me in bed for a couple of days. I thought I'd recovered, then woke up dizzy and feverish again this morning. Damn. I needed a tonic.

For lack of Jäger, I turned to soda. Several weeks ago, I came across Taylor's Tonics at a World Market in Charleston. I bought the two sodas on the shelves, Chai Cola and Maté Mojito. Not present were the Cola Azteca, with coffee, cocoa, cinnamon, and cayenne; the Maté Colada, with yerba maté, coconut water, and aloe vera; or seasonal gingerbread, candy cane, cranberry, and eggnog sodas.

Taylor's Tonics is a small company based in San Francisco, where founder Taylor Peck also owns a specialty-soda emporium called The Fizzary. The sodas and store are decorated with Victorian flair—Art-Nouveau drawings, curlicues, snake-oil script. Peck's sparkling herbal tonics do call back to the era when Coca-Cola was marketed as a medicinal drink. But, like many of today's small producers, Peck practices revisionist history. His flavors are fresh, with historical points of reference but no historical precedents.

Chai tea and cola are two iconic spice blends with some overlapping ingredients. The elements of Chai Cola, per the side of the bottle: black tea, ginger root, cinnamon bark, yerba maté, cardamom, clove, cane sugar, vanilla, ginger.

The soda—sedimented with dark spices—pours with a tall head, smells like a musky tea shop, and tastes like a wintry blend of sweet, vanilla-rich cola and fiery chai. The chai takes top billing, but the cola tempers each sip with a familiar acidity. The mixture is too spice-heavy to chug. Drink it over ice, and slowly—the concurrent processes of cooling and watering-down keep a rocky group of seasonings in line.

The Maté Mojito is marketed as a "sparkling, soft version" of the mojito cocktail, energized with an infusion of yerba maté. At 28 grams per bottle, the sugar content is around half that of other sodas I've reviewed. The added nettle leaf promises to "soothe the system." Not a bad drink for a bedridden patient looking for a little energy.

It pours clear, from a sediment-flecked green bottle, and smells like mint tea. It tastes like mint tea, too, with a squeeze of lime and just a hint of grassy maté. The Maté Mojito is bright and fizzy and, though well-caffeinated, wonderfully under-sweetened by industry standards.

I would not keep either of these sodas in twenty-four packs in the refrigerator. I would not pack one in my lunch every day. I will, however, keep them on hand to sip from time to time. They are tonics, after all. Strong ones. Interesting ones. In small doses, very good ones. And maybe it's the maté talking, but, since I finished that glass of Maté Mojito, I think I am feeling a little bit better.

About the author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.

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