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Onli Beverages: Do Chef-Inspired Sodas Work?
Coming to us straight out of West Palm Beach, Onli is a relatively new line of sodas—sorry, "all-natural chef-inspired sparking beverages with ginseng"—that turned up at our nearest Central Market. Sold in four-packs with classy, artistic labels, Onli resembles nothing so much as it does an upscale wine cooler, which probably isn't a coincidence.
We got our hands on four flavors of Onli: Huckleberry Pomegranate, Lemon Watermelon, Hibiscus Pomegranate Aronia, and unsweetened Hibiscus Pomegranate Strawberry. (Another, Lemon Mango Passion Fruit Mint, sounded intriguing, but was nowhere to be found on our shopping trips.) Onli is sweetened with sugar, but it's very much on the light side, so while it's not particularly crisp, it doesn't have an overbearing, syrupy heaviness either. The carbonation is light enough to sip smoothly, but strong enough for a good fizzy head.
Huckleberry Pomegranate was our first taste of Onli, and while it was certainly inoffensive, the unbearable lightness of its flavoring was hard to ignore. The distinct deliciousness of huckleberry was present in the aroma, but it was so subtle in the actual taste that it hardly existed; likewise, the tartness of pomegranate had a barely-there quality that made the whole drink go down like a seltzer: nothing wrong with it, but not really worthy of the ambitious ingredients.
But Lemon Watermelon was a vindication of the Onli experiment: clean, brisk, and most importantly, with a distinct and noticeable blend of flavors. Watermelon is one of the easiest flavors to mess up—the tendency is to go overboard with the sugar content. But Onli gets it just right; the watermelon adds flavor without thickness, and the lemon is just tart enough to provide contrast. This would be a terrific summer tipple.
Hibiscus Pomegranate Aronia is pretty tasty, with a complicated arsenal of flavors that can get lost among themselves in a gulp but are nicely complementary with a smooth polish in a sip. Aronia (known to the less fancy-pantsed as chokeberry) is a tricky flavor, as it's extremely sour and astringent and has to be used with a very light touch to make it palatable; Onli nails it pretty well, delivering a flavor that's not as cooly exact as Lemon Watermelon, but probably more precisely lives up to the line's concept as the soda equivalent of a fine wine.
The sugar-free variation has a slightly different flavor, dropping the tartness of chokeberry for the lushness of strawberry, but its total lack of sweetener gives it a whole different vibe, more like an Italian soda than the expected fake-sweet taste of an American soda.
The "chef-inspired", "elevated taste" experience that Onli is trying to sell is a little intimidating. The ginseng that's blended into every variety doesn't add much of a kick (Onli is non-caffienated), but just knowing it's there makes you feel as if you should be keeping it with the good silver; likewise, knowing that this stuff is meant to be paired with meals by your own personal soda sommelier made us feel kind of guilty about drinking it on the couch with a box of Cheez-Its while watching American Idol. It didn't feel like an everyday drink, but if you're throwing a fancy-dress party and want to surprise the teetotalers with something other than ice water with a lemon slice, Onli might get you a mention in the society pages.