This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.
"No, I would not like a glass of vinegar," is usually the response when I offer people a taste of one of my homemade shrubs.
So, I'll explain that a shrub, sometimes referred to as a "drinking vinegar," is an old-fashioned – 15th century by some estimations – type of cordial that blends fresh fruit and sugar with the vinegar. That rarely helps.
Among the more beverage enlightened, however, shrubs are once again gaining popularity – award-winning Oregon chef, Andy Ricker, recently launched a line of Som drinking vinegars – not only for their brisk, refreshing flavour and ability to enhance cocktails, but also for their perceived health benefits. In small doses, vinegar is thought to help with everything from preventing indigestion to decreasing glucose levels.
Personally, I just think they're fun to make and taste great. As they age, the fruit and vinegar flavours harmonize and become increasingly complex. They're also helping me get over my Coke addiction. For years I had a can-a-day habit, but now I'm down to a couple of times a week with the occasional Slurpee thrown in over the course of a summer.
Seems that a lot of us are getting the soda monkey off our backs. Sales of big soda are in freefall, down an estimated 3 per cent in 2013 maintaining a nine-year decline and, according to Beverage Digest, more than doubling the 2012 contraction of 1.2 per cent.
Changing attitudes and an increased awareness of health have contributed to that decline – a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans consider sugar more harmful to a person's health than marijuana – but also an explosion in the number of artisanal purveyors that emphasize natural ingredients and focus on traditional recipes served with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
Fentiman's, a 100-year-old, family-owned British purveyor of "botanically brewed beverages," is the standard bearer. Their lineup includes drinks flavoured with dandelion and burdock, rose and Seville oranges and their packaging is chockablock with Edwardian signifiers.
A similar aesthetic informs the labels of Muskoka Dry Ginger Ale, a Canadian company with roots dating back to the late 19th century that all but disappeared in the 1970s before being resurrected and returned to its original bottling plant in Gravenhurst, Ont., after a 20-year absence.
Even new companies like Nickel Brook Brewing Co., which creates its ginger beer based on a nearly 300-year-old recipe, and Harvey and Vern's Olde Fashioned Soda, from Ottawa-based Kichesippi Beer Co., seem to tap into a simpler time.
Specializing in just three products, root beer, cream soda and ginger beer, made with all-natural ingredients and cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, Harvey and Vern's has branched out from a few choice local restaurants to grocery stores across Ontario in less than a year.
"I think it's following the trend of looking for better crafted food and people being more conscious about what they're putting in their bodies," brand manager Grayson McDiarmid says of the company's success.
Recognizing that customers are losing their taste for big soda and wanting to have more precise control over their creations, bartenders are embracing small batch soda and even creating their own.
"In today's society as a whole the idea of having a can of Coke or Sprite is working its way out," says Cooper Tardivel, head bartender at Vancouver's Hawksworth Restaurant. "Those overly sugared pops are becoming a thing of the past, especially with cocktails. People are going for more of the flavour of the spirit, maybe adding a little water or soda on the side, but not really diluting it or drowning it with a sugary pop."
Instead, Tardivel, who also offers a complete non-alcoholic beverage pairing with the restaurant's tasting menu, has concentrated on making things such as ginger beer, house-made tonic water and fresh cordials that he charges with carbonation.
Consumers have embraced the idea of creating their own sodas and cordials, as well. Combined sales in the United States of at-home carbonating equipment such as SodaStream, Cuisinart's Sparkling Beverage Maker and Fizzini, increased 30 per cent in 2013 with sales of accompanying products – syrups, CO2 cannisters – more than doubling.
Even the once almost extinct soda delivery man is making a comeback with entrepreneurs in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York and Toronto offering home delivery of seltzer in old-fashioned glass bottles.
At my house soda gets delivered by the case every other week in vintage glass bottles by Frank Samel of Magda Soda Water, a second-generation seltzer man who inherited the company from his father. Samel uses regular Toronto tap water, putting it through a four-stage filtration that renders it 99.9 per cent pure. The finished product is super crisp and scratchy, just the way good seltzer should be.
I promise it tastes even better with a hearty slug of shrub.