Dan Oskey has been behind the bar of St. Paul's The Strip Club Meat & Fish since it opened almost five years ago. In 2009, he became a partner in Joia Soda (pronounced Joy-uh, for those of you who've been wondering), a locally-owned soda company with flavors like lime, hibiscus, and clove (yes, that's all one flavor) and grapefruit, chamomile, and cardamom. Joia is on many menus in the Cities in its nonalcoholic form, but you can also find it as an ingredient on some cocktail menus. (At the Lowry, for example, the grapefruit flavor appears in a drink called the "Snarf" with Plymouth gin, simple syrup, lime juice, and Shocktop Belgian white ale.)
So, as our first-ever Cocktail Week comes to a close, let's ease our way out with some talk of (mostly) nonalcoholic libations. In the following interview, Oskey talks about crafting nonalcoholic cocktails, putting together flavors for Joia, and his favorite ways to turn Joia alcoholic.
How did you get involved in Joia?
A friend of mine knew Bob, my partner, and Steven, one of the other partners in the company. And he said that Bob had this idea for putting together non-alcoholic sodas, but more along the lines of nonalcoholic cocktails that we make at the Strip Club. You know, people come in, somebody's not drinking, but they want a cocktail that doesn't have booze in it, if that makes sense. So, he was like, you guys do interesting stuff. Do you think we could take your ideas and my ideas and put them into a bottle? So basically, four of us got together, and I started mixing up some recipes, and we started tasting them, and tweaking them along the way. After a while, we were like, wow, we've really got something here, and at that point, we decided to pull the trigger on it.
How did you first get interested in making these nonalcoholic cocktails at the Strip Club?
People would come into the restaurant, and they would say that they wanted something nonalcoholic that's still interesting. We brew a ginger beer there which is nonalcoholic, lots of syrups, and just lots of different flavors. So it wasn't like doing a cranberry juice and soda, it was more like doing a lime, ginger, and orange blossom water, something like that, and people loved them. And we've always done that at the Strip Club.
Any bartenders that really care, they're going to put a little love into it. I know that Bob, my partner at Joia, went to Bradstreet Crafthouse before we started and that's kind of where the idea came from. They made him a nonalcoholic drink and he was like, wow, this is great, why isn't anybody doing this on the market? So I think that really where it came from was bartending trying to give people a nonalcoholic option that was just as interesting as beer, wine, or a cocktail, where you're getting an aromatic experience and a palate experience, and it's not just cranberry with soda or Coke with grenadine.
How does your process change when you know you're going to be putting the drinks into production – into bottles and the store – versus you doing it behind the bar?
Well, we have to get a food scientist involved to mass-produce them. Because the syrups I make, I couldn't possibly make it all in my kitchen, by any means, so it has to be done in a larger setting. Basically, the idea is to get the flavor as close to what I'm doing in the kitchen on a micro-level and getting it to a macro-level. A lot of times, when I make the sodas in the kitchen, the calories will be much higher than they are in the bottle. So that's another advantage, actually, to bottling it; the calories aren't 200 calories, they're anywhere between 60 and 120 calories once we get them in the bottle.
How do you decide which flavors are going to be bottled out of all your ideas?
Our test group is essentially the four founders. We sit down and we say, we want to create a ginger-based soda, for example, and I'll throw together some different ideas for fruits and spices and different combinations of those. We'll taste them, critique them, and then take them back to the drawing board and bring certain flavors up and down. Like right now, we have our ginger, apricot, and allspice, so someone might say bring the apricot up a little bit, take the allspice down a little bit, and then I can go back to the kitchen and do that. It's somewhat trial-and-error, but it's a very calculated trial-and-error. And I've got three other opinions that are, of course, guiding me along the way.
For the last two flavors, we ended up putting the tastings out on Twitter and Facebook, and a bunch of local people who are either into Joia or into the cocktail scene came to a couple different tastings, and then they decided which flavors we were going to go with out of a few different options. So we let majority rule.
Do you have any seasonal flavors?
Right now, they're all permanent. We've played around with a holiday one. We haven't put that one out yet, into production, but we've got a cool holiday one up our sleeve, maybe for next year.
So, what's your favorite way to serve Joia in an alcoholic drink?
In the summertime, I love the lime and hibiscus one with gin, and I'll do any number of things with that one. I might add muddled blueberries and mint to it. The wintertime, I'd probably go more like pineapple-coconut and do dark rum drinks. I know it sounds more like a summer drink, but I think of the molasses, and for me it's more of a winter drink. The grapefruit and tequila is fun. And, of course, the ginger and whiskey works great for the winter again.