Although a number of bartenders have launched or collaborated on spirits, very few have put forth a utilitarian soda. Jim Meehan, best known as the founder of New York City speakeasy bar PDT, as well as a book author (“The PDT Cocktail Book,” “Meehan’s Bartender Manual”), is now collaborating on a pink grapefruit soda intended for mixing into cocktails. It’s aromatic and delicious enough to drink straight (hello, zero-proof proponents!), made with grapefruit juice and peel and delicate carbonation.
Originally, the concept was to make a mixer for the Five Island Flamingo cocktail, which Meehan created in 2010 to showcase Banks 5 Island white rum. (Meehan was a founder and co-creator of the rum brand, which was acquired by Bacardi in 2015.) A straightforward highball-style drink, the original specs, as outlined in “Meehan’s Bartender Manual,” called for Ting pink grapefruit soda, lime juice and rum.
He had settled on Ting, which had originated in Jamaica, in part as a callout to the Jamaican rum that’s part of the Banks rum blend and because it was easy to pick up in the markets near PDT, where Meehan still worked at the time. (He has since relocated to Portland, Ore.) “Being in the East Village, we have all these cool mixers that are available that relate to all the different ethnic communities there,” says Meehan.
However, as he traveled to promote the rum, “I found that Ting pink grapefruit soda is impossible to find anywhere there isn’t a contingency of Jamaicans,” says Meehan. “It has poor distribution.”
A couple of years later, traveling in Singapore to launch Banks, Meehan met Kevin Law-Smith, the founder of East Imperial, which makes a range of high-end tonics and sodas like ginger ale and ginger beer. Bonding over “distribution war stories,” Meehan mentioned the difficulty in obtaining Ting and asked if Law-Smith had ever considered creating a grapefruit soda. Two more years down the road, Law-Smith reached out to ask if Meehan was still interested.
Jim Meehan’s Paloma (left) and 5 Island Flamingo
“With the growing popularity and premiumization of rum and tequila—the primary call for grapefruit soda, thanks to the Paloma cocktail—we both realized there was an opportunity that made sense to pursue together,” says Law-Smith. A massive taste test followed.
“We tasted through every grapefruit soda he could find in the world,” says Meehan. “If you look at grapefruit sodas as a category, on one end, you have Fresca and Squirt, which are sort of like grapefruit-flavored 7Up, and then on the other, you have like Izze and some of the grown-up sodas that are like faintly carbonated grapefruit juice.” They sought to find a middle road that was made with juice but also had “the aromatics of proper soda.”
The product launched in spring 2019, starting in Hong Kong, and now is available in a handful of U.S. markets, too (California, Chicago, Florida and New York City), with more to come.
Looking back, one of the biggest challenges was getting the sugar levels correct, says Meehan. Compared to Ting, he finds the East Imperial product to be “significantly drier,” which he prefers.
He has even adapted his signature cocktail to match the flavor profile of the new soda. “I noticed that my original Paloma and Flamingo recipes required a half ounce to three-quarter ounce of lime juice to balance the sweetness of Ting or Fresca,” he says. “I make it without lime juice now; I just use a wedge as a garnish.”