I have always had a special relationship with root beer. On visits to my grandmother's house, we would discover her homemade version maturing on the porch. I remember those enormous glass jugs with tiny necks and the complex aroma that wafted out when the bottle was finally opened. Even today I can easily recall the flavors, the savory hints of the roots themselves mingled with a rich caramel to produce something tangy and bitter, yet still sweet. It was probably the most adult taste I had experienced until then. And then there was the delicate fizz undulating on surface of the tongue that commercial sodas fail to mimic. It was truly a magical experience that captured one of the most basic joys of youth: that of experiencing a truly memorable flavor. These sensory memories encased in a pleasant surprise stay with you always. I have been chasing that elusive flavor memory for years.
A couple of years ago when I was starting on my own homemade soda experiments, memories of my grandmother's root beer popped into my mind. But it's not like I ever really forgot. I must have tried every single small batch root beer that is available on the market, but none of them have captured that distinct flavor of my childhood. But as time passes, my idea of those vague, yet magical flavors becomes even less concrete. Could a modern commercial representation even come close to my memory tainted by time and nostalgia?
As this idea plagued me, I decided, after a reasonably successful batch of homemade ginger beer, that it couldn't be that hard to replicate--after all, my grandmother is still alive. So I pressed my mother for the recipe. Images of separate jars filled with various root "teas" filled my head. I began perusing local herb stores for different ingredients. But the results of my quest were underwhelming when my mother told me that my grandmother used the root beer extract from the grocery store. You would think that I would have been pleased considering how easy it would be to reproduce the flavors of my youth. But it's like finding out that your mother's recipe for your favorite dish comes from a packet, instead of some guarded family secret.
My obsession with small batch root beer did not diminish, however, though my interest in making it did. In fact, my need for old-fashioned soda flavors has only grown to include colas. The interesting idea that cola once included not only some form of lime juice, but also other herbs and spices that are mysteriously absent in modern recipes has fueled my interest in "ancient" forms. Brands like Fentimans have only further inspired this interest. And, it could be argued that my intense love for amari and bitters was honed during those visits to my grandparents' farm when we sipped from the big jugs of dark fizzy liquid.
Instead of a perfect soda recipe, I stumbled onto a cocktail, created by Don Lee formerly of PDT and Momofuku in New York City, that seems to capture my idea of an old-fashioned cola. In fact, it actually contains many of the ingredients that were in the original recipe for Coca-Cola that was created by Dr. John Pemberton in 1886. This cocktail was submitted for consideration in the Averna contest, Have a Look, in 2008 and took home top honors. After tasting it, you will understand why. For me personally, this drink satisfies my childhood memory as well as my adult tastes. But I haven't totally given up home: Look out root beer, one of these days I am going to figure you out.
La Cola Nostra (as created by Don Lee)
1 1/2 ounces rum
1 ounce Averna
3/4 ounce lime juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
1/4 ounce pimento dram
Shake ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass or flute. Top with champagne (1 1/2 ounces).
Notes on Ingredients: I used Bacardi 8 rum, homemade pimento dram, Mount Ste Michelle Champagne, and a 1:1 simple syrup.