Sensational Sippers: Chefs turn to farm-fresh flavors to make house-made sodas pop

MAKE IT: Want to whip up a batch of fresh soda at home? Click here for everything you need to infuse your favorite flavors into a simple, bubbly sipper.

We’ve all been there: It’s the middle of the afternoon, and you’re craving something a bit stronger than water to get you through your lunch meeting. But you can’t let the day give over to the alchemizing ways of a good glass of vino just yet. A soda sounds sensational, but the options – chock-full of corn syrup and other tongue-tying ingredients – leave you uninspired and overcome with guilt for abandoning your clean-eating ways. Thankfully, local restaurants are offering soda options you can feel good about ordering.

As local ingredients are landing on plates and being muddled inside cocktails faster than they can be plucked from the garden’s soil, several chefs around town are applying the same seasonally inspired creativity to the teetotaler’s side of the drink menu. Tossing out the high-fructose corn syrup for seasonal herbs, farm-fresh fruit and old-school spices, chefs are trading in their favorite brand-name pop for house-made versions that are healthier, fresher and a whole lot tastier than anything we’ve had from a can – ever.

With more kitchens transforming the soda fountain indulgences of our childhood into palate-pleasing accompaniments perfect for any locally inspired meal, this is a trend we’re expecting to sip – we mean see – more of soon. For now, here are a few places around town where you can taste the flavors of the season through the carbonated creations in the glass, not the can.

At Bixby’s, the upscale café nestled in the back of the Missouri History Museum, executive chef Todd Lough is letting the simplicity of his ingredients shine in sodas inspired by freshly picked aromatics. Basil takes center stage in The Josephine, a clean sipper made from a simple syrup infused with the herb and topped with a hefty serving of club soda. Thinner and less syrupy than its brand name lemon-lime peers, The Josephine delivers a delicate note of fresh flavor but doesn’t overpower, allowing for a nice, crisp finish. The menu also features a version made with rosemary syrup. Bright, sunny and refreshingly simple, they’re the perfect companion to a window seat overlooking the park’s beautiful vistas.

Raised in the heart of Louisiana, Monarch chef Josh Galliano sought to reproduce the root beer of the old South. Unsurprisingly, he far surpassed it. For the version he batches up at the Maplewood eatery, Galliano steeps sarsaparilla and licorice roots, ginger, star anise, cinnamon and vanilla in water, creating layered flavor that surprises with every sip. Sensationally complex, the intense spiciness is balanced with subtle sweetness thanks to fresh orange zest, cane syrup and turbinado sugar. Bartender Nate Selsor is even taking the house-made concoction behind the bar in The Old Castilian, a cocktail he likened to a rum-orange-vanilla sour. Selsor turns to the root beer to add some spice to the Dreamsicle-esque flavor combination of DonQ Gran Añejo rum, vanilla-flavored Licor 43, sweet orange curaçao, a dash of Angostura bitters and a touch of fresh lemon juice.

When Annie Gunn’s executive chef Lou Rook III began experimenting with seasonal sodas last year, he let Mother Nature take the reins. Everything from blueberries to sour cherries and even strawberries adorn the sweet sippers, the last of which is a beautiful tribute to one of the season’s most fawned-over fruits. For this fruit-forward refresher, Rook strains out the juice from the macerated berries he uses for his strawberry shortcake, which have been tossed with powdered sugar, coarse sea salt and a touch of freshly cracked black pepper. The juice is then mixed with soda water for a fresh flavor that we’d choose over a decadent dessert any day. Look for seasonal varieties all summer long.

In the weeks when seasonal fruit isn’t quite at its prime, Rook turns to pineapple for a soda that tricks the taste buds. For his take on the rum-rearing Orange Whip, Annie Gunn’s chef whips air into the puréed pineapple until a thick, foamy head forms. Fresh and frothy, this creamless creation is thick enough to convince you that you’re swooning over the sinful original but light enough to create a crisp, clean finish. While Rook’s sodas have appeared as intermezzos at Annie Gunn’s private dinners, look for them to appear this summer on the beverage menu.