This post originally appeared in the July 27, 2020 edition of The Move, a place for Eater’s editors to reveal their recommendations and pro dining tips — sometimes thoughtful, sometimes weird, but always someone’s go-to move. Subscribe now.
I’m not much of a drinker, even before the quarantine: Wine doesn’t agree with me, and neither does beer. I do, however, love the layered flavors of a well-crafted cocktail and the sweetness of an aperitif, even if I rarely drink alcohol at home.
Call it peer pressure, call it FOMO, but when lockdown began, I bought myself a bottle of umeshu (plum sake) for my birthday. I enjoyed it greatly as an aperitif, but then I realized that I was already doing what everyone was doing when it came to coping with quarantine. I had been buying drinks and savoring them for years — they just weren’t alcoholic. My move: Making my way over to the soft drink aisle of a specialty grocery store or immigrant-owned bodega and randomly picking something out. It’s an adventure with very low stakes. It won’t cost you more than $5, you won’t get a hangover, and you get to have something to look forward to later (a rare experience these days).
As a Brit, Ribena and Rubicon were what I got drunk on as a kid. As I got older, I latched onto all things elderflower — both the cordial and the incredible juice available at Ikea. When I arrived in North America in my mid-20s, I found myself in the beverage aisles, embarking on the new choices I’d only seen on TV. When I lived in Toronto, friends there introduced me to Vitasoy, and my love for its “black sesame” flavor was born. Everything excited me — the packaging, the flavors, discovering something I’d consider an instant classic, and collating a “best-of” list. It certainly helped that I married someone who found joy in the same thing, so we enabled each other every time we went grocery shopping.
I talk about specialty soft drinks the same way a lot of enthusiasts talk about trying a bottle of alcohol. I judge the packaging, the flavor notes, the sweetness or tartness. At the store, I give myself one pick per visit, but if it’s been a rough week, I get three. When I’m back home, I bring out a glass with a few cubes of ice and fill it with my new drink. If it’s one of my favorites, I savor each sip — slowly, eyes closed, serotonin released. I recently found that a jasmine oolong milk tea is a little too floral, and that a peach juice I tried is far too sweet. Honey lemon tea, however, was delicious, especially because I love a little tartness, and I found out I prefer Suntory Bikkle yogurt drink to Calpis. My go-tos are assam milk tea, suanmeitang (sour plum juice), and Gokuri grapefruit juice. Turns out Suntory not only makes some good whiskey, but the best soft drinks known to man. Another favorite is the Bruce Cost jasmine green tea ginger ale, which can be found a little easier than the drinks mentioned above.
I’ve seen the recent surge in nonalcoholic cocktails and aperitifs. Do they excite me? Yes. Will I pay that much for them? Probably not! This doesn’t negate the quality of ingredients and level of work that go into nonalcoholic drinks; it’s just that I already have what they promise me, and I have it without the guise of health-consciousness or the promise of alcohol replication. It’s a special treat that I can look forward to after a long day of being a human being in this world that — if I’m lucky — comes in an adorable, round and stout bottle with colorful packaging.
P.S. Mixing 7-Up and milk, known in Pakistan’s Punjab province as doodh soda, is a particularly great way to quench summertime thirst.