If beverage trends show us anything, it’s that water alternatives are now more popular than ever. Spurred in part by consumer demand for healthier, lower-calorie drink options, new brands — both alcoholic and non-alcoholic — are continuing to pop up on grocery store shelves.
But what consumers read as “water” on the label can be one of a variety of types. Is it tonic, seltzer, sparkling, or club soda? And what’s the difference, really? Let’s take a dive into a little beverage history and explore what makes each of these alternative waters so unique.
You probably don’t drink tonic water too often unless it comes in a cocktail. Because of its distinctive flavor, this water alternative differs the most from regular water. It has a bitter flavor that derives from its signature ingredient, quinine.
What you might not know is that tonic water originally began as a medicinal drink. While the indigenous peoples of Peru had long been using the bark of the cinchona tree to treat a variety of fevers, the bark eventually caught the attention of British imperialists. By extracting the tree’s active ingredient, quinine powder, they were able to apply this medicine to preventing and treating malaria.
By the 1840s, the British at home and abroad were using 700 tons of cinchona bark annually for their protective doses of quinine; however, the substance was so bitter, it became custom to mix it with soda and sugar, creating the earliest version of tonic water.
Soon after, tonic water would be combined with spirits like rum and gin to mask the bitterness of the sky high-quinine doses in the drink. Today, we continue to use tonic water as a classic cocktail ingredient, but with significantly less quinine, plus the addition of ingredients like sodium benzoate and citric acid.
Modern tonic water is also combined with sweeteners, like sugar or high fructose corn syrup, but there are also low-calorie alternatives that use aspartame, saccharin, or agave nectar. Depending on the sweetener used, tonic water can contain as many calories as a can of soda.
If you’re watching your diet, try substituting the tonic in your favorite cocktail recipe with a little seltzer or club soda, some bitters, and a lemon or lime. It will help mimic the flavor of tonic water, but without all the added calories!
2. Club Soda
Like tonic water, club soda began as a health supplement. It was initially promoted for its ability to neutralize lactic acid in the blood and was originally trademarked by Cantrell & Cochrane of Dublin, Ireland, in 1877. The term “club” refers to the Kildare Street Club in Dublin who commissioned them to produce it.
Today, the company still owns the trademark, but the name has stuck to include all alternative waters of this type. As far as formulation goes, club soda is not too far off from seltzer. It’s essentially just water with added minerals and carbonation, but the main difference is that it also contains chemical compounds that add flavor.
Sodium bicarbonate, sodium chloride, and potassium sulfate are common ingredients that help enhance taste — essentially, they’re just baking soda and table salt! When combined with carbonation and water, the result is a crisp, fresh flavor with a bubbly mouthfeel.
Like tonic, club soda is more commonly used as a cocktail mixer today, but the drink’s neutrality is also great for pairing with fruit infusions or flavored syrups and juices.
It’s worth noting that while technically club soda and seltzer are pretty similar, club soda does contain sodium which isn’t great for you when consumed in large amounts. If you’re watching your salt intake, stick with seltzer.
3. Sparkling Water
Sparkling water is similar to both seltzer and club soda, but it is sourced differently. According to the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates all four of the alternative waters on this list, the main distinguisher of sparkling water is where it comes from.
Sparkling water typically derives from sources like springs or wells that provide natural carbonation and minerals for a uniquely refreshing taste. The amount of these trace minerals, usually calcium, magnesium, and sodium, can vary depending on the layers and type of rock the water has flowed through.
Technically, an authentic sparkling water doesn’t use additional, artificially created carbonation (if it did, it would be a seltzer); however, flavors can be added to further enhance the experience.
You might not know that seltzer started off as the brand name for a carbonated water from Niederselters, Germany, circa 1728. Later, when it was brought into the US by European immigrants, it became the generic term for a carbonated water, which was often marketed as an antacid. It took off following the discovery of new ways to artificially carbonate water and has remained a beverage staple ever since.
Today the popularity of non-alcoholic flavored seltzers and hard seltzers have brought this alternative water once again into the spotlight, making it one of the fastest growing beverage categories globally. What makes it so special to modern consumers? The answer seems to be its simplicity.
Seltzer is artificially carbonated water — that’s it. Seltzers often fit the bill of being both clean label and low- to no-calorie; so instead of picking up a soda or beer, consumers see seltzer as a healthier alternative. Seltzers boast the same bubbly mouthfeel, but without the guilt; and in fact, health experts say that drinking seltzer is just as healthy as drinking regular water.
Thanks to advancements in flavor technology, beverage developers can enhance the experience further. Want to make your seltzer seem sweet, but avoid introducing sugar? No problem. Just add flavors that offer a perceived sweetness, like watermelon, strawberry, or dragon fruit. The drink will remain clean label and healthy, but now it just tastes better!
Our Flavor Trends lineup for 2020 predicts that seltzers will continue to dominate — especially as consumers continue to prioritize their health and reach for drinks that offer sophisticated flavor combinations that go beyond just being sweet. We’re ready for this latest Summer of Seltzer!
As alternative waters continue to change what the world is drinking, you can too! If you’ve got an idea for a great drink, the beverage development experts at Flavorman can help you bring it to life. Just fill out€¯this web form€¯or give us a call at (502) 273-5214 to get started.