In supermarkets and convenience stores crammed with heavy, artificially flavored sodas like Coke, Pepsi, Cherry Vanilla Dr Pepper and whatever Mountain Dew Solar Flare is, it should come as no surprise that consumers — especially millennials — have started to push for lighter, more creative, more "craft" alternatives. This is where celery soda comes in.
As a result of the recent consumer backlash against big soda, the artisanal sodas of upstart companies like Jones, Reed's and Bai have surged in popularity and led to a rediscovery by the public at large of one very old soda: the bittersweet, celery-flavored Cel-Ray. A tonic-like soda made from celery seed extract, Cel-Ray can be very polarizing as soft drinks go. Love it or hate it, it certainly seems that the crisp, cucumbery, citrusy soda — vaguely reminiscent of ginger ale — is definitely an acquired taste.
First introduced as Dr. Brown’s Celery Tonic in 1868 in Brooklyn, New York, Cel-Ray was a part of an early American superfood trend that celebrated the medicinal benefits of celery, especially to calm stomach issues and alleviate anxiety. And unlike most tonics and tinctures of the time, it may have even actually worked. Celery is packed with antioxidant nutrients and has some unique anti-inflammatory properties that are known to aid in digestion and help ease anxiety. In fact, celery has long been prized for those very qualities — almost as long as there has been recorded history. Well, those, and its reputed aphrodisiac qualities.
But turn-of-the-century Brooklyn was swimming in medicinal tonics (even celery-based ones), so when bottling methods became more advanced, Dr. Brown’s leaped at the chance to carbonate the home brew to distinguish itself from the competition. Not too much later, the FDA decided that the carbonated beverage could no longer legally be sold as a “tonic,” so it was officially renamed Cel-Ray.
By the time the trend had faded and most of the other tonics had disappeared, Cel-Ray was well entrenched behind the counters of Jewish delis everywhere — the perfectly crisp complement to fatty deli meats like pastrami — earning the nickname “the Jewish Champagne.” While not exclusively sold at Jewish delis anymore, Cel-Ray can still be exceptionally hard to find if you live outside New York City, Philadelphia or parts of Florida. A bit of Amazon magic can make a six-pack of Cel-Ray magically appear at your door, but when the recipe can be as simple as sugar, water and celery (or just celery seed), it's not surprising so many people opt to make their celery soda or syrup at home, which coincides beautifully with a renewed interest in botanicals in cocktails.
As a celery-based bitters that has gone back into commercial production for the first time since Prohibition, celery soda is increasingly being used as a vegetal, somewhat grassy, slightly spicy substitute for tonic, soda water, lemon-lime soda and ginger ale in alcoholic drinks.
Add celery soda to a nice, dry sherry with lemon, orange and honey for a refreshing Cel-Ray and sherry. Or pair it with gin for a Cel-Ray fizz, gin Cel-Ray, GZ Cup or a reimagination of the Collins, gimlet or Pimm’s Cup. Celery pairs so well with gin, in fact, it has been made into a gin in the form of Rutte Celery Dry Gin.
If gin’s not your thing, you can relax with a Johnny Utah on the beach (tequila, lime and celery syrup), or you can dive into the more obscure, earthy liquors like aquavit or genever, the Dutch ancestor of gin that makes one delicious Kalamazoo julep.
Whether celery soda or a celery cocktail, you have to admit it's a pretty sweet way to eat your vegetables.
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