Over the past decade, seltzer has exploded. Sales have doubled, and companies like Coke and Pepsi are buying up brands and creating their own sparkling waters. A few years ago, everyone was drinking La Croix, but now people can't stop raving about Spindrift. So in this crowded field, which seltzer is the best one? We talk to the hosts of the podcast Seltzer Death Match to find out.
Also, what exactly is carbonation, and how does it affect the taste experience? Dan Souza, editor-in-chief of Cook's Illustrated, geeks out on the science of carbonation, and explains how bubbles affect what you smell and taste. He talks about his own home rig that lets him carbonate cocktails, and he reveals the secret to making the best seltzer with standard home devices.
If you want to make your own carbonation rig at home, Dan Souza recommends this step-by-step instruction guide.
And if you're looking for some seltzer recommendations, here are the favorites of our guests. Rachel Ward's favorite is Mountain Valley Spring, Travis Larchuk is a big fan of Black Cherry Schweppes, and Dan Souza's favorite is Polar Original.
Music in this episode by Big Dipper, Rak Salt, and Black Label Music:
"Star Shootin'" by Hayley Briasco
"LaCroix Boi" by Big Dipper
"Sippin' on La Croix" by Rak Salt
"Party Hop" by Jack Ventimiglia
"Slightly Carbonated" by Erick Anderson
"New Old" by JT Bates
Photos courtesy of Marshall Photography and Dan Souza.
Dan Pashman: So Rachel and Travis, I'll have you know that in the several hours leading up to our recording, I drank La Croix, Spindrift, Polar, Vintage and Topo Chico.
Rachel Ward: Was that on purpose? Were you doing a taste test or is that just your lifestyle?
Dan Pashman: Yeah, I mean, you know, journalism I did it for journalism. Okay, you guys. I can't say that was the most hardcore. I didn't control for all the variables.
Travis Larchuk: And how much are you burping, right now?
Dan Pashman: I know. I was going to tell you today.
Travis Larchuk: Are you going to be okay?
Dan Pashman: I have to interrupt our taping several times to pee.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it's not for foodies, it's for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. As if it’s been shaken up before being opened, seltzer has exploded. Sparkling water sales have more than doubled in the past ten years. That’s why the blog Grub Street referred to the 2010s as “The Seltzer Decade.” Now, look, we still drink way more soda overall, but soda sales have basically stayed flat, as if the soda was shaken up a long long time ago.
Dan Pashman: That’s why companies like Coke and Pepsi are getting into the seltzer game, alright? Coke bought Topo Chico, the Mexican sparkling water company with a cult following in Texas, for 220 million dollars. Pepsi bought Soda Stream for 3.2 billion. What's going on? Well, people want less sugar, fewer carbs, less artificial stuff, but they still want something bubbly and refreshing. It is seltzer’s moment. Later in the show we’ll do a deep dive on the science of carbonation with our friend Dan Souza from Cook's Illustrated. But first, there are all these sparkling waters out there. Right? And let’s face it, and in a blind taste test, could you even tell the difference? I wanna know: How do you judge seltzers when they all seem so similar? Well, Rachel Ward and Travis Larchuk, they're audio producers by day. They’ve worked for places like NPR and Gimlet, but by night, they host the podcast Seltzer Death Match. They call their listeners Carbo-Nation.
CLIP (TRAVIS LARCHUK): Hello Carbo-Nation, this is Seltzer Death Match. The quest to find the best seltzer in America. We’re your judges. I’m seltzer skeptic Travis Larchuk.
CLIP (RACHEL WARD): And I’m seltzer supporter Rachel Ward, and today’s special guest judge is Theo Balcomb. Theo, welcome back…
Dan Pashman: In each episode they invite a guest judge, pit two seltzers against each other, and pick a winner, analyzing every detail first...
CLIP (RACHEL WARD): So it’s definitely got that stinging blanket bubble effect of like a very very fine bubble. But then in the glass, it’s that erratic...
Dan Pashman: Travis didn’t even really enjoy seltzer until they started the podcast. But as Rachel told me, her history with the bubbly stuff runs deep.
Rachel Ward: So when I was a kid, we weren't allowed to have anything fun. If we wanted juice, it had to be cut with water or seltzer. And so seltzer was preferential, obviously.
Dan Pashman: You say, obviously. But I mean, I never liked seltzer until relatively recently. Like I when I was a kid, I hated that flavor, the CO2 flavor, whatever the flavor is.
Rachel Ward: Yeah. Yeah, but Dan think about it. Seltzer plus grape juice, that almost is soda.
Dan Pashman: Right, I guess if you're not allowed to have soda. Right. Right.
Rachel Ward: The thing that I called it when I was very little was —I called it Hahh because when you drink it, you like take a sip and you go, "Hahh."
Dan Pashman: Are you aware that Coke is launching its own flavored seltzer line and it's going to be called Aha?
Rachel Ward: I hope Aha sues them.
Dan Pashman: Aha, the Swedish ‘80s pop band?
Rachel Ward: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Why don't you sue them?
Travis Larchuk: Yeah, Rachel, you've got you've got prior art on Hahh. Our season finale. It’s on tape.
Rarchel Ward: That's true, that is true.
Travis Larchuk: They probably listened to it and stole the idea from you.
Rachel Ward: Yes. That is almost certainly what happened.
Travis Larchuk: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: First, a correction: AHA the band is Norwegian, not Swedish. I apologize to both countries. Now, before we go too far, I ask Rachel and Travis to define our terms here. There’s seltzer, sparkling water, mineral water, club soda. What’s the difference? They explain that sparkling water is the big umbrella term. Any water with bubbles, with or without flavor, is sparkling water. Mineral water comes from a natural spring. The bubbles may come from the spring, they can be added later, or it may be some combination of both. Club soda has some type of salt added, which is why it’s favored by bartenders. That savory note brings out other flavors. Seltzer is just water with CO2 added for carbonation.
Rachel Ward: But like it if these differences are keeping you up at night, I think there's a larger concern to attend to. So...
Dan Pashman: Well, now I'm really curious. Hang on one second. I'm gonna go get the seltzers that I have upstairs. I want to look at the labels.
Rachel Ward: Okay.
Dan Pashman: You guys stay right here, I'll bring it right back.
Dan Pashman: As I said, I loaded up on seltzer at the store, in preparation for this interview. But I couldn’t find Topo Chico, the one with the cult following in Texas. So I enlisted the help of my friend and neighbor Rohith. He’s such a hardcore Texan, that when his first child was born, he had his parents send dirt from Texas up here to New York, so his son’s first steps would be on Texas soil. Rohith came through. I got back to my basement recording setup with the Topo Chico, and everything else I had.
Rachel Ward: Wow. Dan just walked into the frame with his arms completely full. Dan, first, do you think your family's worried about you, that you just went upstairs, grabbed an armload of seltzer, then came back into the basement?
Dan Pashman: Back into my cave?
Rachel Ward: What’s he building in there?
Dan Pashman: Honestly, Rachel, They've seen a lot weirder. Trust me. So Topo Chico. Mineral water, carbonated. Ingredients, mineral water, carbon dioxide. So they're adding the bubbles to Topo Chico.
Rachel Ward: Yep.
Dan Pashman: Quick correction: Topo Chico does have natural carbonation, but then more carbonation is added in processing to make up for the bubbles lost during the purification process.
Dan Pashman: I have Lime Polar here.
Rachel Ward: That's the daddy on the East Coast
Dan Pashman: Contains carbonated water, natural flavors. It says zero grams of sugar. And then I got the Spindrift. That's just...
Rachel Ward: That’s soda
Dan Pashman: No, no. It's unsweetened, but it is made with real juice.
Travis Larchuk: Disqualified.
Dan Pashman: In terms of the spectrum between like Coca-Cola and plain seltzer, it's a lot closer to plain seltzer.
Travis Larchuk: I think Spindrift is great. I just don't think it's a seltzer. I don't think you can add juice, which is sugar to something, and then have it be in the same category as like the thing that you drink because it doesn't have anything in it. You know?
Dan Pashman: But there's no added sugar in Spindrift. It's just juice.
Rachel Ward: But they added juice, Dan.
Dan Pashman: Right, but...
Travis Larchuk: It uses sugar, Dan!
Dan Pashman: After our conversation I took a closer look at Spindrift’s can and realized they don’t actually call themselves seltzer. They call themselves sparkling water with real squeezed fruit. Trader Joe’s sells essentially the same thing and they call it seltzer with a splash. So the line there is murky. But generally speaking, straight up seltzer does not contain any calories, and it’s either plain or made with what’s labeled as natural flavors, extracts and things that add flavor without sugar or calories.
Dan Pashman: So, we have defined our terms. Now that we know what we’re talking about, let’s get to brass tacks. If seltzers have almost nothing in them besides water and CO2, what makes some better than others? I asked Rachel and Travis, what are the key metrics for evaluating a seltzer?
Rachel Ward: Oh, we've built a rubric.
Travis Larchuk: Yeah, so our rubric is based on three factors which are aesthetics, bubb and flava
Dan Pashman: Aesthetics meaning the label on the can, the logo?
Travis Larchuk: Yes.
Rachel Ward: Yeah, the sort of whole presentation
Travis Larchuk: The whole non-drinking, yeah, the sound that it makes when you open it up.
Dan Pashman: Let's talk audio aesthetics. Which makes the best sound on average: a can opening, a glass bottle opening with a pop top, or a plastic bottle opening with a twist top.
Travis Larchuk: Oh my God, what a great question. Here's my political answer, which is, I think that opening a can is always going to give you a great sound. It’s 100% reliable.
Dan Pashman: You mean this?
Travis Larchuk: Yes! So, good.
Dan Pashman: It's such a good sound.
Travis Larchuk: Now, your bottles, those are a riskier proposition. So with bottles, I think it could be great. It could be terrible. You know, we've opened some bottles and it hasn't made any sound, and it's a real bummer.
Rachel Ward: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I personally would vote for the can, because to me it's not just about the fiz, it's about the sound of the actual opening of the vessel.
Travis Larchuk: No, I totally agree with you. But the sound of the fizz escaping when you unscrew the top of a plastic bottle, like if it's carbonated well and like that ffsssst sound. Did I make it well?
Rachel Ward: Yes.
Dan Pashman: Yes.
Travis Larchuk: Yeah, that's really good too. I mean, there's there's just, you know, the world of seltzer ASMR is, there's a lot out there.
Dan Pashman: So there's aesthetics, which is audio, and visual aesthetics, or the presentation of the seltzer.
Travis Larchuk: Mm-hmm.
Dan Pashman: Then what are the other major metrics for evaluating the seltzer?
Travis Larchuk: Bub, which is what it sounds like.
Dan Pashman: Carbonation.
Rachel Ward: Bub is about a visual experience and a taste experience. So it's like how did the bubbles look in the glass? Are they big? Are they small? Are they erratic? Do they climb? Do they cluster? Like, what's going on with a bubble? And then when you drink it, what is the physical experience of drinking it? So, like, does it carpet your tongue with fine bubbles? Does it climb up the sides of your tongue because it's got flavor in it and so you notice it on parts of your tongue that have taste receptors that are related to that flavor. Does it sting your cheeks a little bit? Do you get a little bit of like bubble up in your like, sinus cavity because it's so strong like that? Those are all sort of the elements of Bub. I think Bub is my favorite category and it's what often makes the decision for me, because that's the unique selling proposition of seltzer. It doesn't have any flavor going for it. What it has is this physical sensation that most drinks don't have or that we don't notice if they're like, highly sweetened. So I think that paying attention to how seltzer feels actually gives you a new vocabulary, or a new, a new catalog of sensations that you can, you can talk about when you're eating or drinking something.
Dan Pashman: I like the idea that part of seltzer’s appeal is that it forces you to notice small details that get covered up in drinks with stronger flavors. But let’s face it, sometimes you just gulp it down and don’t notice much of anything that distinguishes it. And yet, despite the fact that seltzers don’t taste that different from each other, some brands become huge hits and others don’t. And in the mid-2010s, no seltzer brand was exploding more than La Croix. It had a hardcore following that inspired multiple music videos.
CLIP (BIG DIPPER): ["La Croix Boi" plays]
Dan Pashman: La Croix was started in 1981 by a beer company in La Crosse, Wisconsin, and took its name from the St. Croix river. It was a popular drink in the midwest, then it got a brand makeover in the early 2000s, after being acquired by National Beverage Company in Fort Lauderdale. In 2014 it became the “it” drink in Hollywood and Brooklyn. From 2015 to 2016, sales of La Croix jumped 73 percent, so it probably wasn’t all just hipster appeal. So what was La Croix’s secret? I mean, it wasn’t the taste. Right? At the same time it was blowing up there was a running joke on Twitter to the effect of, "Drinking a La Croix is like drinking carbonated water and hearing someone shout a flavor from the other room." So what made La Croix stand out?
Rachel Ward: Their nostalgia factor has been a really powerful engine for them. Like, I think a lot of people whose moms wore leg warmers in the eighties and had the big shoulder pads would drink La Croix, or Tabb, and like, you know, you're growing up in the Midwest. So it's like a regional thing and it's got this like very like L.A. Gear aesthetics. And then when you become an adult and you realize you just can't mainline Coca-Cola anymore, you have to, you have to make the switch.
Travis Larchuk: I think another part of it is, you know, in the case of La Croix, there was this sort of weird authenticity, like an ironic sort of situation where this can is so ugly—like it's ugly, it's garish, but it also stands out. And when you're walking down the street or when you're on Instagram, people immediately know that that's what you're drinking because it's just so vivid.
Dan Pashman: But then, just a few years later, La Croix took a nosedive. The CEO was sued for sexual harassment. That suit was settled out of court. A different lawsuit alleged that the drink contained dangerous chemicals. That suit was dismissed, but the drink’s reputation took a big hit. Also, no fad lasts forever. And a lot of competitors moved into the space. In 2019, the stock price of National Beverage Company, which owns La Croix, sank 24 percent. Now it seems Spindrift is the new darling. Their sales went up 127 percent in 2019. I find of feel like in the Instagram age, there can be only one hot brand in a category at a time. But being a hit on social media, or having the coolest bottle or can, none of that matters in a blind taste test. Which is the method Seltzer Death Match used to crown a winner in their Season 1:
CLIP (TRAVIS LARCUK): When we find out what seltzer B is, we’ll know who the winner of Seltzer Death Match is.
CLIP (RACHEL WARD): That’s true
CLIP (TRAVIS LARCHUK): What is seltzer B?
CLIP (RACHEL WARD): Seltzer B is Vintage
[Gasps and cheering]
Dan Pashman: In Season 1 of Seltzer Death Match, the winning seltzer was Vintage.
Travis Larchuk: That was a controversial outcome.
Rachel Ward: That was an upset.
Travis Larchuk: Yeah. So it was going up against Saratoga which presents itself in a completely opposite way. It comes in a blue glass bottle with a very like upscale looking logo, like it’s almost trying to look like wine maybe? You know we had people vote, and that was the one that won the vote, and it was the one that we both thought that we were drinking when we did the blind taste test. And then it turned out that the one that we liked when we stripped away everything else, was the Vintage.
Dan Pashman: So without its fancy, cobalt blue glass bottle, Saratoga fell apart. Vintage prevailed. Before I said goodbye to Travis and Rachel, there was one more thing to do.
Dan Pashman: Are you ready for the lightning round?
Travis Larchuk: Sure.
Rachel Ward: Oh, fancy
Dan Pashman: What is the best overall flavor of flavored seltzer? Forget brands. If you're picking a flavor...
Travis Larchuk: Black Cherry.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Travis Larchuk: Black Cherry.
Rachel Ward: The elusive strawberry. Don't see it very often.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Travis Larchuk: Blech.
Dan Pashman: Is sparkling water actually water?
Rachel Ward: What?
Travis Larchuk: Ohh.
Rachel Ward: It's water.
Travis Larchuk: Is this a trick? Well water’s just H2O, man.
Dan Pashman: Well, but if you add CO2 to that H2O, why does it then no longer become water?
Travis Larchuk: You'll need to ask a chemist about that. All I would say is that if I...
Rachel Ward: Or a philosopher
Travis Larchuk: If I asked for a water and someone brought me a seltzer, I would be like, "Eh, close enough, I guess."
Rachel Ward: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: All right. Last question in the lightning round. What's the next trend in seltzer? Next big thing.
Travis Larchuk: Yeah, I have a few pitches here. One would be, for people who have easily upset stomachs, de-carbonated seltzer. So they take a seltzer and then they remove the bubbles from it. I think a lot of people would like that product. Another one that I would be curious about is a savory seltzer.
Rachel Ward: Oh yeah.
Travis Larchuk: You know something along the lines of, you know, of like a rosemary or thyme situation.
Dan Pashman: I would love that though.
Travis Larchuk: It's something I would love to try.
Rachel Ward: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I love those flavors, I think it's a great idea
Travis Larchuk: Maybe a spicy seltzer?
Rachel Ward: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Spicy. Yeah, basically, what you're saying, Travis, is some of the same trendy flavors we're seeing in cocktails.
Travis Larchuk: Sure.
Rachel Ward: Yeah, Cardamom, clove, star anise
Dan Pashman: Why not bring those. Yes. Yes.
Travis Larchuk: Give me that anise
Dan Pashman: Well, you guys, I really have to pee now.
Travis Larchuk: Okay.
Dan Pashman: So I got to go.
Rachel Ward: Fair.
Dan Pashman: But this has been a lovely conversation.
Travis Larchuk: Thank you. Thank you for talking to us. It was a real dream.
Rachel Ward: CO2 you later.
CLIP (BIG DIPPER): ["La Croix Boi" plays]
Dan Pashman: That’s Rachel Ward and Travis Larchuk, their podcast is called Seltzer Death Match, it’s a lot of fun, check it out. And if you are looking for some more seltzer recommendations, Rachel’s personal favorite is Mountain Valley Spring. Travis is a big fan of Black Cherry Schweppes. As Rachel said, because seltzers don’t have a ton of flavor, a huge part of the experience is the carbonation. Right? But I still wanna know, what exactly is carbonation? What makes the carbonation in different seltzers different? And how can you get the best results from a home carbonation device? Coming up, we get answers. We’ll nerd out on the science of carbonation with our friend Dan Souza from America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. Hey, make sure you check out last week’s show, where I talk with best selling writer Samantha Irby. She wrings comedy out of her own personal tragedies, whether it’s bad dates or her struggles with mental and physical health. Sam talks about the difficulty of being an emotional eater who has serious digestive issues:
CLIP (SAMANTHA IRBY): I think anytime you get a diagnosis, it's like, "Oh, what a relief."
CLIP (DAN PASHMAN): Right, at least you have an answer, an explanation to what's happening.
CLIP (SAMANTHA IRBY): Yeah, so there's that part of it and then there's the sinking feeling of, "It's a disease that messes up my favorite thing. How sad for me."
Dan Pashman: There’s one part of this conversation that is so raunchy and so hilarious that Janie was listening to it while she was out for a run and she actually had to stop her run because she was laughing too hard and could not continue. This is a great conversation, that episode with Samantha Irby is up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now, back to seltzer. I wanted to really nerd out on carbonation, so I called up my friend Dan Souza, editor in chief of Cooks Illustrated. He does a video series about the science of cooking called “What’s Eating Dan?”, and he even did one specifically about carbonation.
Dan Pashman: We've fallen down a bit of a rabbit hole here on The Sporkful. And when I fall down a scientific rabbit hole, you're always one of the first people that I think I need to talk to.
Dan Souza: That's great. I'm happy to pull you out of the rabbit hole or send you further down.
Dan Pashman: Or send us deeper, exactly.
Dan Souza: Depending on what you're looking for.
Dan Pashman: Dan, knowing you as I do, I suspect that beyond SodaStream, whatever commercially available carbonation devices there are for home use, you may have some Rube Goldberg type situation in your house.
Dan Souza: Yeah, I wish I could call it truly Rube Goldberg, but I do, I do have kind of a carbonation rig set up at the house. I basically have a 20 pound CO2 tank. This is, this is like maybe the size of an industrial fire extinguisher, like a really big fire extinguisher.
Dan Pashman: Okay, Got it
Dan Souza: So it can sit like on the ground. It's like a toddler, basically, in your house. And then there's a hose that runs to this pretty cool connector that you can attach to your soda bottle tops. So you fill it up with whatever liquid you want. You squeeze out any air at the top. And then you lock it in place. And then as you pump CO2 into it, you shake it. And you can carbonate basically anything.
Dan Pashman: Dan got this gear at a homebrew store. He says this ability to carbonate anything is what sets his rig apart. The typical home carbonation systems...
Dan Souza: They are definitely just for carbonating water, which I think they warn you pretty strongly about that. So if you are trying to do a cocktail or something like fruit juice, that has a lot of foaming potential, it could back up into a system and really screw it up.
Dan Pashman: But Dan’s rig?
Dan Souza: Let's say you like an Americano, right? Which is Campari and sweet Vermouth, and seltzer. You could you could just combine water, sweet Vermouth, and Campari. So it's not bubbly at all. And then forced carbonate, the whole thing. So you actually get something that's more carbonated because you're not diluting that carbonation with still booze.
Dan Pashman: Is that actually better, though? Because I feel this is one of the situations where I at least I'm so accustomed to the ratios that you would get in any bar or any home cocktail, where like the only carbonation comes from the thing with pre carbonated. If you carbonate into the whole thing, it might be kind of weird for me. I don't know if it would be what I wanted.
Dan Souza: And it may not be. So I think I don't know, if I got this this point across. But like I'm a—I really like carbonation. Like I like, you know, if it doesn't, like hurt and it's not really, really carbonated, I feel like it's just like disappointing.
Dan Pashman: What is carbonation?
Dan Souza: Yeah. So it's actually pretty simple. It's basically you've saturated water with carbon dioxide. That's really all it takes to meet the requirement of a bubbly beverage.
Dan Pashman: So Dan, when you buy seltzer in the store, if it's in a clear container, you're holding it in your hand, it looks like water. It's only when you crack it open and break that seal that this magical thing happens. All of these bubbles appear out of nowhere. What's happening there?
Dan Souza: So basically you've destroyed equilibrium. Inside that bottle, you have that little head space at the top and then you have that liquid and it's all this it's all the same pressure throughout. And because it's all at the same pressure and it's in equilibrium, there's just no reason for that gas to come out of the water. Right? So it's just stuck in there. So it's only when you change the pressure at the top and actually cause an imbalance. So you've got the water that supersaturated and then the atmosphere has nowhere near as much CO2 in it as that little head space in the bottle did before.
Dan Pashman: The atmosphere inside the bottle is full of CO2, it’s highly pressurized. The atmosphere outside the bottle isn’t. So when you open the bottle, the CO2 suddenly rushes towards the area that’s less pressurized.
Dan Souza: Nature loves to get back to equilibrium. So it will do just that. The gas will come out of solution, leave the bottle until it reaches a new equilibrium, which is flat.
Dan Pashman: But even when seltzer goes flat, it still has a flavor, right? If you leave a glass of it on the counter overnight and then take a sip the next day, you can still tell it’s seltzer, even without the bubbles. That’s because carbonation produces a chemical reaction in your mouth that creates carbonic acid, which has a sour taste, the taste of seltzer. But let’s face it, the part of the seltzer that has the biggest impact on the drinking experience is the bubbles themselves, the physical sensation in your mouth. Dan says our brain’s response to carbonation is actually a pain response. It’s like with spicy foods, a receptor in the brain registers irritation and pain, but it’s a sensation we’ve grown to love. And how do those bubbles affect the way a drink tastes?
Dan Souza: When those bubbles rise, they rise to the surface and some of them, you know, pop when they get up there. And that popping action, if you have plain seltzer water, it's not going to release a whole lot of aroma. But if you've got something with some flavoring in it or a soda or something like that, it kind of pops and releases that aroma into the air. So you're smelling that through your nose as you're going in for your sip. It smells really nice, and that's kind of enticing. The other way is when you actually take a sip and bubbles form all over your mouth, there's tons of surface in there where the bubbles form and then you swallow. It actually goes through this backchannel in your nose, which I know we've talked about before. That kind of retro nasal olfaction. So it's going into your nose from the other way and that actually allows you to taste it more.
Dan Pashman: Right, it's sort of the back of the throat pathway to your nose as opposed to going through your nostrils.
Dan Souza: Exactly. Yep. So it hits you in both ways. It hits you in the front when you're kind of going in for the sip and then when you get get the liquid in your mouth and it goes through the back. And so it actually helps you taste it more. So if you had a, you know, a white wine that was flat and you tasted that, and you had that exact same wine that was carbonated, you would you would taste a lot more of the carbonated one.
Dan Pashman: So what you're saying is that white wine spritzer is superior to regular white wine?
Dan Souza: Well, that's a that's, might be a tough position to take. But yeah, I could go for a spritzer right now. So I'll say that. But yeah. No, absolutely it is it's like a flavor amplifier to have carbonation in your drink.
Dan Pashman: My next question for Dan, why do some seltzers seem to have bigger bubbles, while others have smaller bubbles? What are they doing differently? Well, Dan actually says that’s mostly an illusion. The bubbles are really all about the same size. When a drink has more bubbles, we perceive it in our mouths as having bigger bubbles, but it’s really just that it’s more. Less carbonated drinks feel like smaller bubbles. That being said, there may be one way to get bigger bubbles.
Dan Souza: So there is one really interesting thing, and I've never tested this out, but so, you know, the bubbles form in the glass on what we call little nucleation sites. So they're a little microscopic gas bubbles already in there. Usually, they're on like little fibers from like the cloth you clean to clean the glass or a little crack in the glass. So it's a little tiny bubble and CO2 enters that. Fills it up and it, once it gets enough CO2 in that bubble that it's buoyant, it rises up through, through the glass. Right? And as it's rising up, it's picking up more CO2 along the way. So the bubble grows and grows and grows. So the bubble, if you look like, on like, macro photography when it first forms versus when it comes to the top, the bubble’s bigger. So I always wondered if you had a glass that was like a quarter of a mile tall.
Dan Pashman: This is why we have you on to answer this question, Dan, because you have already wondered the things that I just started wondering.
Dan Souza: I have. Like how big would the bubble get by the time you get to the top?
Dan Pashman: Wait, hold up. Follow up question. How much time have you spent on micro photography websites looking at pictures of bubbles?
Dan Souza: I've spent a little bit of time on there. Yeah, I definitely have. It's it's been a little, it's been quite a couple of years.
Dan Pashman: But you never forget your first experience is on a micro photography website looking at close up pictures of bubbles.
Dan Souza: It's so true.
Dan Pashman: Now just in case you’re not as hardcore as Dan, you haven’t been on those bubble websites, you don’t have a toddler sized tank of CO2, a home carbonator like a Soda Stream or Soda Sense is going to be your best bet. And Dan has got some tips for getting the best results from those machines.
Dan Souza: So you want your liquid to be as cold as possible. So your best bet for making seltzer in a soda stream is to make ice water. So stir together, you know, plenty of ice in your water. Get it down so it's nice and cold.
Dan Pashman: Dan? Dan, all right. Look, I appreciate that you're going to explain things. You don't need to give us the recipe for ice water.
Dan Souza: No, but you know what? I, actually, think it's important because ice water can mean really different things to different people.
Dan Pashman: Okay.
Dan Souza: So like two ice cubes in a quart of water, that's not necessarily going to get down to 32 degrees. Right? So you want a good amount of ice in there. Give it a couple stirs and then you're going to strain it off the ice.
Dan Pashman: Oh, geez. Wow.
Dan Souza: So strain that into...
Dan Pashman: This is some Cook's Illustrated level recipe for ice water.
Dan Souza: Yeah. So you basically water down to 32 degrees , strain it into your soda stream and carbonate and you will get a much bubblier product, than, you know, if it was at 40 degrees, 45, 60, you name it.
Dan Pashman: Dan, before we wrap up, I want to talk to you about the cocktail that I'm kind of getting into and want to get your tips. So I went through a phase, where I was drinking—I don't even know how or why I got into this. The mood just struck me, one day. But I've been drinking whiskey on the rocks with water. Like three parts water to one part whiskey.
Dan Souza: Okay, that's a fair amount of water. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: I’m sure it’s considered an abomination to anyone who appreciates good whiskey. But it's been working for me. I think you'd you'd want, you know, at least twice as much water as whiskey and maybe three times as much.
Dan Souza: I have a friend from Kentucky, her name is Merideth, and she introduced me to whiskey and water. Not quite in the same ratio that you're talking about. Maybe a little bit less water but I, also, think that's an amazing drink.
Dan Pashman: And now, I 'm on a selzer kick. And then I'm reading about the high ball. I know high ball's been around for a long time but I didn't realize I'm getting competing definitions from the internet, first of all. Some people say a high ball is any combination of any liquor and any soda.
Dan Souza: Ohh.
Dan Pashman: Served in a tall glass. Other people say, a high ball is whiskey with club soda or ginger ale or half and half, ginger ale/club soda. Other people say, it's just whiskey and club soda. So what is a high ball and I'm pretty sure this is my new favorite drink in the world. So how do I make a good one?
Dan Souza: My understanding was always, whiskey and club soda. And most often, and I don't know if this is because that's where it really took of but Japanese whiskey—so the single malt style that they do there, that's Santori—and they even have machines in some bars that make a very very nice high ball with just a perfect ratio of water to whiskey.
Dan Pashman: What is the perfect ratio?
Dan Souza: Well, see that's the thing. I don't know. It's not a drink that I make at home very much I don't really know why because I also love whiskey and I clearly love carbonated drinks. I would do it to taste. I, actually, think your ratio for that kind of drink with some bubbles might actually be really nice. Like I think you want the caramel kind of slightly sweet notes of the whiskey but it's not supposed to hit you over the head.
Dan Pashman: Right. I think that this is going to be my quarantine drink.
Dan Souza: Well, yeah. And now you’ve sent me on this, so I'm gonna do a ton of experimenting with this.
Dan Pashman: Oh, well, I want you to....
Dan Souza: [sighs] You really set me up here, Dan.
Dan Pashman: Well, I got a great recipe for ice water if you need it.
Dan Souza: Yeah, I might say give on that.
Dan Pashman: Well, Dan Souza, editor in chief of Cook's Illustrated, it's always fun to catch up. Continue your good work in the field of carbonation and other food science. Folks, of course, can check out your work in recipes and techniques and tips and articles at...
Dan Souza: CooksIllustrated.com.
Dan Pashman: There we go. Thanks, Dan.. Be well. Take care.
Dan Pashman: Thanks, Dan. Good to talk to you.
Dan Pashman: No, we’re not going to post Dan’s recipe for ice water on sporkful.com but in a couple of weeks we’ll have a companion episode to this one. We said that flavored seltzer is typically made with things labelled as natural flavors. So what are natural flavors, and how are they made? We’ll talk with one of the nation’s top flavor chemists to find out. That’s in a couple of weeks.
Dan Pashman: If you’re listening to this show in Stitcher, please take a minute and favorite our show. That helps us out and makes sure you don’t miss episodes. Go ahead you can favorite us in Stitcher right now while you’re listening. Thanks. And whatever app you’re using, make sure to check out last week’s show with writer Samantha Irby, it’s a great conversation. Quick programming note, we will not be releasing a show next week. We’re taking a couple of days off. We’ll be back in two weeks with our regularly scheduled programming.