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The rise of better-for-you sodas — and 7 of them to try

There are new and exciting soft drink options on the market that go beyond the usual sugar bombs.
Whether you’re looking for a refreshing soda that might give you a health boost or a soft drink that makes an excellent happy hour stand-in, here are some sips to try.
Whether you’re looking for a refreshing soda that might give you a health boost or a soft drink that makes an excellent happy hour stand-in, here are some sips to try.TODAY Illustration / Alta/Olipop/Mayawell

We’re not sure if you’ve noticed, but it’s hot outside — as in, heatwaves-sweeping-the country hot. While water is the best choice for staying hydrated, sometimes you want something fun to cool off with — like, say, soda — but might find that a sugary beverage can be cloying in the heat. Fortunately, there are new and exciting soft drink options on the market that go beyond the usual sugar bombs. These new sodas come in interesting flavors, are lower in sugar and either look to provide a wellness benefit or an alternative to alcoholic beverages.

Julia Momose, creative director and partner of Kumiko, a cocktail bar in Chicago, suspects that the rise in creative sodas is a spillover from the nonalcoholic drinks movement, as well as an increased focus on wellness. Momose has noticed more people seeking drinks without refined sugars at Kumiko, where a lemon seltzer with matcha layered on top has been a popular beverage lately.

“They just want natural sweeteners like honey or agave. I feel like that trend which has been blooming for a while is now becoming more so the norm, which people expect,” she told TODAY.

Hella Cocktail Co. was founded in 2011 but launched its carbonated drink, Bitters & Soda, about a year and a half ago. The company makes mixers and bitters and had long hoped to make a canned version of its favorite drink, a simple combination of bitters and soda, explained co-founder Eddie Simeon. The elixir has long been a favorite at bars, used to take a beat between drinks or as a nonalcoholic alternative.

When Simeon and his partners founded Hella Cocktail Co., though, the only place to get a craft cocktail was a speakeasy or high-end bar.

“So much has changed in the cocktail world and community since then that I feel like Bitters & Soda is experiencing the tailwinds of a lot of different factors, not just people's drinking habits of less or no alcohol but also the better-for-you movement,” said Simeon. “People finding lower-sugar alternatives and people looking for just a better, more interesting sparkling water to begin with.”

The bitters-and-soda subgenera has long been popular in places like Italy, where the bitter-sweet soft drink Chinotto reigns supreme, but has only recently made headway the U.S. Today, though, there are plenty of bitter soft drinks to choose from.

Why the sudden interest in bitter? "I think it's just an evolution of palate,” Kellie Thorn, an Atlanta-based bartender, told TODAY. While other cultures have long embraced bitter notes, Americans just weren’t there yet. “As people's interest in cocktails and different flavors progress and just people's palates change, they're just a little more open to these things now."

Whether you’re looking for a refreshing soda that might give you a health boost or a soft drink that makes an excellent happy hour stand-in, here are seven new-ish sips to try.

Casamara Club

Casamara Club's Alta soda.Alta

Casamara Club is the brainchild of Jason LaValla, a former lawyer who wanted to shake things up a bit. So he developed a line of “leisure sodas” inspired by Italian amari (an amaro is an herbaceous liqueur; amari is plural for amaro). There are four to choose from depending on what you’re eating and the vibe you’re going for. Onda, for instance, is the coastal spritz with notes of lemon and sage that pairs well with risotto. But really, they’re each good for a happy hour by the pool (or your living room), and the company now sells its Alta flavor (reminiscent of the Negroni) in a can for easy portability.

Ghia Le Spritz

Ghia's Le Spritz.Nacho Alegre / Ghia

Founder Melanie Masarin is French and Italian and was influenced by Mediterranean aperitivo (both a happy hour ritual and bitter-style of drink, like the Aperol spritz) when she dreamt up Ghia. The red-hued beverage is made with botanicals like gentian root, ginger and lemon balm extracts. About a month ago, Ghia launched a canned version of a spritz — Ghia, soda water, rosemary and yuzu twist — making it easy to throw them in your beach bag and enjoy them on the go.

Fever-Tree Sparkling Lime & Yuzu

Fever-Tree's Sparkling Lime & Yuzu Spritz.Fever Tree

Fever-Tree has been around since 2004, but only introduced its sparkling lime and yuzu flavor this spring. It’s a favorite of Momose, not just because it’s low in calories but also because the citrusy notes go well with spirits like gin and vodka, and the soda can easily be enjoyed on its own.

Olipop

Olipop's Cherry Vanilla Sparkling Tonic.Olipop

Olipop’s flavors sound classic (think Vintage Cola and Cherry Vanilla) but the sodas themselves are anything but. They’re actually health-minded beverages that are meant to be good for digestion. The drinks are low in sugar and are made with cassava root which gives each 12-ounce can 9 grams of fiber. Standouts in the lineup include the Strawberry Vanilla and Orange Cream (this one is only here here for a limited time, though).

Bitters & Soda

Hella Cocktail Co.'s Bitters & Soda.Hella Cocktail Co

There are a few varieties to choose from among the Bitters & Soda line by Hella. There’s Dry, which is completely unsweetened but fragrant, with notes of clove and bitterroot, and on the other end of the spectrum, there’s Grapefruit, which is also unsweetened but plenty fruity. Other flavors include Lemon & Lime, Turmeric and Spritz Aromatic. All of these can be enjoyed on their own or used as mixers.

Mayawell

Mayawell's Pear Lime prebiotic soda.Mayawell

What do you do after working in the mezcal industry? If you’re Vicente Reyes, you take what you know about agave and found Mayawell, a prebiotic soda that’s sweetened with agave nectar. The flavors are all fruit-based and will likely make you think tropical thoughts, with options like Pineapple Mango and Strawberry Ginger Hibiscus.

Culture Pop

Culture Pop's assortment of probiotic sodas.Culture Pop

While a couple of the sodas mentioned are prebiotic (i.e. packed with fiber that feeds good bacteria in the gut), Culture Pop is probiotic, which means it’s packed with beneficial bacteria. The brand launched a year ago with a focus on making sodas using fruit juices and spices. Within the vibrantly branded cans, you’ll find flavors like Watermelon, Lime & Rosemary; Wild Berries, Basil & Lime; and Ginger, Lemon & Turmeric.

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