Let's Get Fizzical: Scottish Craft Soft Drinks
We get a heads-up on the world of craft soft drinks from the minds behind Rapscallion Soda and Clever Kombucha
Summer means three things – standing ankle-deep in mud watching bands, idly dreaming of the beach as gale force winds blow your hat off, and cracking into some cold ones with the squad while trying not to get hit by flying frisbees and footballs. But while craft beer has become a staple of our collective can-cracking for a number of years, a new contender has entered the fray, with a host of craft soft drinks making waves in Scotland's bars and cafes.
Actually, we should say "re-entered the fray", as on craft soda's first pass through these parts a few years ago we were slightly sniffy about the concept; apologies to all concerned, we simply weren't ready. Yet according to Gregor Leckie of Rapscallion Soda, The Skinny are far from the only people to need convincing. "The first year was brutal," Leckie tells us by email. "People didn’t get it. I think there’s a lot of mistrust around soft drinks and what’s in them, and rightly so. That’s exactly why we do what we do. Breaking through that barrier was tough and we still have much much further to go."
Leckie's foray into boutique soft drinks began at the Laneways pop-up in Glasgow's Gordon Lane a few years back, with his drinks programme for the pop-up's bar focussing on fresh seasonal ingredients. While it all went well, the soft drinks would inevitably wind up the biggest hit of the lot, which sparked the notion of jumping into the bubbles full-time. The impetus for Kelsey Moore of Clever Kombucha, the Glasgow-based 'buch bottlers whose wares can be found in venues across Scotland, was slightly different – simply not being able to find the thing you want anywhere else.
"I am Canadian and kombucha is huge in Canada," Moore tells us. "You can find it everywhere and you are spoiled for choice. One summer after spending some time back on the west coast we were missing our daily kombucha. It was an effort to find any kombucha in Glasgow and the ones we did find paled in comparison to what we were used to drinking. The lack of kombucha available on the market sparked the desire for us." That gap in the market, paired with Moore's discovery of an untapped market in the form of a relatively large group of kombucha heads working away on their own stuff, has led to Clever proving a success from the off. "The reception that we have had from the beginning has been really positive. For kombucha to be a bit of the unknown, everyone seems to be really open to the idea of it."
Soft drinks seem to sit at the crossroads of a number of different areas of food – they can be both utilitarian and fancy, you can have them at any time of day (providing you can handle the attendant sugar rush), and their ingredients list tends not to rule too many people out of drinking them. Hand a bottle of gin to your tweenage sibling or cousin and their parent will probably try to take you down; do the same with a can of juice and you'll probably get away with it. Of course, that's not to say these drinks are easy to make, especially when they rely on a big bacterial blob monster for their lifeforce. As Moore says: "There always seems to be some sort of a challenge. Just because we are producing kombucha on a large scale doesn’t mean that we don’t run into bumps along the way. There are a lot of factors you need to take into consideration when scaling up production and it is never easy. Balance and patience should also not be underestimated."
Even when not dealing with unconventional ingredients, the fizzy game can be a difficult one to get into, which is where the likes of the Start-Up Drinks Lab come in. The Lab's founders Hannah Fisher and Craig Strachan both operate their own soft drink businesses and found that the existing infrastructure for making this kind of stuff either relied on huge volume or on massively centralised production – in short, the two things that craft is supposed to be rebelling against. The Lab aims to make it easier for small producers to work to industry standards and produce great drinks without the need for huge corporate scale. As Fisher says: "More and more people are seeking out interesting drinks brands which display provenance, craftsmanship and experimental flavours. As a result, people don't just want a Diet Coke anymore, instead, they are much more interested in unique and thoughtful brands."
That change in people's habits has proven important for Rapscallion; reaction has proven positive once getting past the aforementioned suspicion, but Leckie tells us that, as in soft drink adverts, sometimes a mere sip was enough to get people on board. "Once we actually got punters and proprietors to taste our soda their mindset changed," he says. "I still fucking love seeing people's faces when they can smell, taste and pick out all the ingredients in our juice. Now we have our product in cans, the feedback has been overwhelming. The first 18 months was all just swinging and missing!"
And that's one of the great things about non-alcoholic drinks from our layman's don't-have-to-actually-make-it perspective – the freedom for producers to experiment. While spirits are steeped in recipe, tradition and entirely justifiable red tape, and the beer lot are concerned with correctly categorising everything, these kinds of drinks are free to just taste nice. Clever's range of drinks includes kombucha blends with watermelon & mint and peach & lavender, and Leckie's goal with Rapscallion is to push beyond the usual options you might find on a supermarket shelf. The current options including a rhubarb, grapefruit and Szechuan pepper drink appropriately titled 'Mr. Pink', and a cranachan-inspired blend of star anise, raspberry and toasted oats.
"We don’t have a rule book and we want to break up the boring selection in fridges," says Leckie. "It seems daft to me that everyone drinks tonic water, but the last time I checked the UK doesn’t have a malaria epidemic. It also pisses me off that lemonade has barely even seen a lemon in its life.
"Every ingredient in our juice must be there for a reason. If we hit on bitter, sweet, sour and spice then we know carbonation will supercharge the flavour and provide balance. We don’t throw in ingredients willy-nilly, but often start with a base fruit and ask: when is it in season, does it smell, good, taste good and look good, then what would it pair with? It’s then my job to extract the best flavour I can."
Clever and Rapscallion sit at different ends of the alcohol-free craft drinks chart, but they're reflective of Scotland's continued embrace of all things small-batch and well-made (they're also clear admirers of each other's work, with both Moore and Leckie flagging up the other in our conversations). Clever is stocked in 60 locations across Scotland, while Rapscallion's brand new canned range will be popping up in locations far and wide alongside their on-tap presence in Saint Luke's and The Rum Shack and regular spot at the Platform street food market at the Arches on Argyle Street.
As Fisher from the Start Up Drinks Lab puts it: Fisher says: "The moves in the soft drinks market are mimicking those in beer and spirits ten years ago... small batch is the way ahead for soft drink brands. Furthermore, with the boom in craft spirits in particular, people don't want to spend all of that money on a premium spirit and then mix it with a generic soda or mixer."
For Leckie, the success of craft drinks of all stripes "proves that people care more about what they put in their body, where it comes from, who made it, and why they do it." It worked with beer, spirits and coffee, so get ready for a summer of afternoons slurping on delicious booze-free craft goodness. If nothing else, your frisbee-dodging abilities should see a swift uptick.