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I started working in wine in 2009—wine tasting at the office was part of the company culture, and since I lived in San Francisco at the time, afternoon wine sampling would roll over into an extended happy hour at any of our local bars. My bartender friends loved creating drinks with complex flavor profiles, often using a dash or two of bitters—from traditional Angostura aromatics to house-made chocolate or ancho chile versions— to incorporate them as a chef would use different seasoning salts or flavored oils. I happily served as a test audience for their cocktail inventions, sipping on their experiments well into the evening, and always gravitating towards the bitter drinks. These nights were often punctuated with a bitter shot of Fernet Branca, partially out of tradition, but also to help settle our stomachs after the mishmash of booze and bar food.
To this day, I still love a well-crafted bitter drink, like a Negroni or a Black Manhattan. But when I’m not in the mood for a stiff cocktail, I want something more elevated than tonic with a twist, and less cloying than flavored syrup and sparkling water. Enter Bitters & Soda by Hella Cocktail Company, a canned, sparkling aperitif that marries club soda with flavors from the company’s own aromatic bitters and drinks wonderfully, with or without alcohol.
A Bit(ter) of History
Bitters have long been used for medicinal purposes, from ancient tinctures in China and Egypt to more commercial preparations in Angostura, Venezuela, or the apothecary-created Peychaud’s “Aromatic Bitter Cordial” in New Orleans. These concoctions were made from herbs and other botanical matter infused in some type of alcohol and used most commonly to aid digestion or as a remedy for sea sickness.
Today, bitters are more often recognized as a cocktail element—a key ingredient in Old Fashioneds and Sazeracs, for example—and come in a wide variety of flavors. Hella Cocktail Co boasts its own range of bitters from traditional aromatics (made with French gentian root and other whole spices), to more esoteric flavors like Apple Blossom or Mexican Chocolate. They still retain their healthful benefits but add nuance and complexity to any beverage—alcoholic or not.
Hella’s flavor collection really piqued my interest, so I picked the variety 12-pack that includes all five (you can order directly from Hella Cocktail Co). You get four cans of the Spritz Aromatic, and two each of the other four flavors (Dry Aromatic, Ginger Turmeric, Lemon Lime, and Grapefruit), and it retails for $39.95.
This classic version is flavored with Gentian root grown in the South of France. It has zero grams of sugar, and is also laced with notes of allspice, rose hips, caraway, star anise, and a handful of other spices. There are also hints of citrus peel and warm clove. This is the most bitter of the bunch, so if you enjoy bitter-forward spirits like Cynar or Fernet, you’ll enjoy this straight out of the can. If it’s a bit overwhelming, you can temper it with equal parts rosé and a few cubes of ice.
Like the Dry version, this flavor is made with the same Gentian root extract and mix of spices found in Hella’s Aromatic Bitters, but also incorporates a bit of sugar to help take the edge off of its bitterness. Bold flavors of allspice are intertwined with the brightness of citrus. This one is slightly more balanced than the dry version, so it’s easier to drink straight up, but it also makes a fantastic mixer with all types of spirits—I like this one with bourbon.
The elements of ginger and turmeric make this version sound more like kombucha than a typical sparkling beverage and add a little something extra to the mix of Gentian root extract and aromatic bitters. The ginger is present but not overpowering and adds emphasis to the sweet side of this otherwise bitter drink. Hella suggests enjoying this as a mixer with whiskey or fresh lemonade and they’re absolutely right—it’s delightful both ways. If you prefer to drink it on its own, you can also garnish it with a slice of lemon, a flavor that also goes well with ginger and turmeric.
This bright, citrus-spiked version also boasts zero added sugars so it can be a little heavy on the bitters for some, but it’s quite refreshing. The warm notes of allspice and clove rise to the surface here, but the citrus somehow manages to pull back the bitterness, making it really pleasant to drink. If you’re using this as a mixer, it works well with dry gin or equal parts lemonade, but might also work really well with rum and mint, adding a Caribbean touch.
The grapefruit version of Bitters & Soda is one of my favorites to drink, just because I’m already a fan of the bittersweet nature of grapefruit juice. Made with no sugar, Gentian root tincture, and aromatic bitters, this already tastes like a cocktail in a can, but can also be enjoyed with tequila or mezcal for a Paloma-inspired highball. I’ve also mixed this with a bit of jamaica agua fresca—a sweet hibiscus drink—garnished with a touch of lime.
If you’ve been seeking out a sparkling beverage that feels more grown-up than your typical bubbly water, pick up the variety pack to try all the flavors. Sip on a can poolside this summer—straight or mixed with your favorite booze—they’ll also be a chic addition to the drinks cooler at your next picnic or BBQ.
5 More Reasons to Reach for Hella Cocktail Bitters & Soda:
1. Drinking bitters activates your bitter receptors, which in turn can help aid digestion and relieve overall stress.
2. These zero alcohol libations are a sophisticated alternative to flavored sparkling water.
3. They play well with alcohol too, so you can create delicious highball cocktails on the fly by just adding your favorite spirit (lemonade and rosé work too).
4. With the exception of the Aromatic Spritz, all of the flavors have just 10 calories a serving and zero sugar.
5. You can easily find them at many major supermarkets around the country, via Amazon, or get a subscription and save.