Most people’s early experiences with alcohol go something like this: Take whatever cheap liquor you can find, mix it with whatever sugary soda you’ve got on hand, allow chaos and vomiting to ensue. Save for a few old standbys that have stood their ground as respectable bar orders, like whiskey and ginger ale or Bacardi and Coke, soda and booze are often seen as a juvenile combo. I mean, look, do your thing — liquor hierarchies are fake, and anyone who rags on your preferred drink is a pretentious wet blanket. Maybe you like throwing up! That’s your business! Sometimes I drink Mountain Dew mixed with white wine, so that’s where I’m at.
But, if you feel like adding a little refinement to your cocktail or want to switch things up, with some careful pairing, you can get a soda-based mixed drink that actually tastes good and interesting.
Gotta keep up the small thrills, right?
Duh, Tonic Water and Club Soda Count
Of course, club soda/seltzer/soda water/whatever you might regionally call it get a pass from the usual criticism because they’re sugar-free. There’s no denying that some bubbles make the liq go down easier. But allow your allegiance to vodka soda to be the gateway to experimentation. Per bartender and MEL contributor Haley Hamilton’s advice, a “press,” or half seltzer, half Sprite, is a “nice easy way to add a hint of sweet to a classic highball.” Though a press refers specifically to using half Sprite or, in some cases, half 7 Up, it’s a technique that can be applied to lots of other choices. While Coke or root beer may not lend well to dilution, orange soda or other fruity varieties could add just the right amount of sugar to smooth out your drink.
Tonic itself is basically regular, sugary-y soda, despite its bitter taste. Most varieties actually contain just as much sugar as Coke, at 33 grams per 12 ounce can. In other words, you aren’t really doing yourself any better drinking a gin and tonic than a Bacardi and Coke, so don’t try to pretend your drink is somehow more mature. Still, there’s plenty of room for creativity with tonic, if it’s your preferred mixer. “Tonic water is gravely underutilized: Cognac and tonic is fucking bomb, as is a dark rum like Mount Gay,” says Hamilton.
Squirt Is Sexy
Squirt, the retro-ish citrus soda, mixed with tequila is a notably respectable cocktail, sometimes called the “Poor Man’s Margarita.” Some Paloma recipes call for it specifically, instead of grapefruit juice. Grapefruit soda was basically designed for tequila — Hamilton particularly likes Fresca, if you can find it. “Fresca is like the long-lost forgotten ultimate mixer: It literally works with everything,” she says.
Alternatively, if you can’t find any grapefruit soda, Sprite or 7 Up will work here as well. Maybe — just maybe — you could even attempt to mix tequila with Mountain Dew.
If You Wanna Get Really Experimental, Go for Root Beer
“If it’s around, people really oughta fuck with root beer more,” says Hamilton. For those into funky combos or more botanical cocktails, root beer can be an interesting base. “The herbal quality plays off gin really well, and you can also just spike it with vodka,” she adds. Dark liquors like whiskey would work, too, but that’s not quite as adventurous. Root beer can also make a more dessert-forward cocktail, utilizing Kahlua, Baileys or just straight-up cream and vodka. Alcoholic root beer is already a thing on its own, so when you really think about it, it’s not all that weird.
Obviously, mixing Mountain Dew and tequila doesn’t scream “refinement,” but ultimately, nobody cares. If you want to drink the combo out of an old McDonald’s cup, more power to you. But if you’re trying to evolve the drink away from the mistakes you made at 18, at least put it in a legit glass, and maybe add a garnish. A lemon or lime would work with just about any cocktail mentioned here, save for the dessert-y root beer ones.
Unless that sounds good to you, in which case, you are a true individual who doesn’t need my advice.