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Originally published Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:20 AM

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Premium cocktail mixers stirring interest

Spirits have gone premium. Bartenders have turned artisan. Even ice has become a little cooler.

For The Associated Press

BERKELEY, Calif. —

Spirits have gone premium. Bartenders have turned artisan. Even ice has become a little cooler.

So, it only makes sense that mixers are getting a makeover with upscale versions promising to bring chic cocktails to a fridge near you.

"Consumers just seem to get it immediately," says Jordan Silbert, founder of Q Tonic, an all-natural product introduced a few years ago. "Why would I mix my Grey Goose with a soda. It just doesn't make sense."

Silbert got the idea to make a better mixer after drinking gin and tonics at his Brooklyn home and realizing the premium gin in his glass had no business mingling with a mass-market product containing high fructose corn syrup.

A similar epiphany struck Dushan Zaric and Jason Kosmas, mixologists at New York's Employees Only bar who have just released two nonalcoholic mixers - a grenadine and a lime cordial - under the name EO Brands.

"We were not so happy with what was commercially available out there," says Zaric.

They researched and began making their own blend for the restaurants, eventually deciding to bottle and sell it.

Commercially available grenadine is mostly artificial, red dye and sweeteners, Zaric says. EO grenadine is reduced 100 percent pomegranate juice sweetened with cane sugar and accented with spices. The lime cordial is reduced lime juice (also 100 percent) with agave nectar and kaffir lime leaves for flavor and spice.

"We really went to great lengths to make sure that this is as natural and as delicious as it can be," he says.

Some purists say nothing compares to mixing your cocktails from scratch, but says Zaric, "Ours is as close as you can get."

EO Brands mixers are being marketed to bars, online in New York City through FreshDirect, and are expected to be available in major markets soon at an upscale grocer, Zaric says.

Authenticity drove Silbert as well.

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He figured out the components of tonic - quinine (a bitter that in its natural form comes from the bark of the cinchona tree), sweetener and carbonated water. Next step: order a bag of bark over the Internet and get to work.

He used agave nectar as a sweetener. But trying to create crisp, tight bubbles at home "drove me crazy," so he found a plant in Massachusetts where he had a couple hundred cases made. Bartenders started buying and he borrowed his father's station wagon to make deliveries. "My dad actually sat in the car while I unloaded this stuff."

Then he got discovered by Plymouth Gin, caught the attention of the New York Times and now sells Q Tonic to almost 3,000 places around the country, including Whole Foods Markets.

A pioneer in the premium cocktail mix was Stirrings, established in Nantucket in 1997. The company has since been bought by Diageo North America, a subsidiary of Diageo, a leading spirits, wine and beer company.

Stirrings sells several mixers as well as cocktail rimmers, bar sodas and a new line of liqueurs including ginger, espresso and apple, says Jody Samuels Ike, a senior brand manager. The company uses real fruit juice, all natural ingredients and pure cane sugar, never high fructose corn syrup.

Victoria D'Amato-Moran, a San Francisco bartender, has been making her own simple syrups and other mixers for years, even growing her own herbs. She likes the trend of going back to natural and organic ingredients in bottled mixers. "If you're giving me a selection of 20 different tonics and ales and I can go to someone that has harvested their own grains and herbs, I'm going to go for that."

She was recently in New York and stopped in at Employees Only, where she got the chance to try their wares first hand.

"I respect what they're doing. They're really passionate," she says.

The way she sees it, upping the quality of your mixer is a no-brainer.

After all, "Why sacrifice a great gin and tonic?"

---

Online:

http://www.employeesonlybrands.com/

http://www.stirrings.com

http://qtonic.com

D'Amato's site: http://www.centannicocktails.net

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