I Paid: $4.99 for four 11.15-ounce bottles (prices may vary by region)
Slowly but steadily, soda has been dragging itself out of the lowbrow pit in which it has long wallowed, climbing agonizingly toward something like gastronomic respectability. Old-fashioned "real sugar" sodas have come back (complete with nostalgic packaging), restaurants have been doing their own in-house soda infusions, and small companies have begun putting together business plans that revolve around people with taste choosing to pay—and pay well!—for the privilege of drinking something long regarded as the province of small children and large Southerners.
Enter Cascal Fermented Natural Soda. Spurning flavors such as orange, grape, or World of Warcraft Game Fuel, Cascal instead comes in five sophisticated-sounding varieties. I located and tried two: Light Red (With Notes of Black Currant and Mirabelle Flower) and Crisp White (With Notes of Pear, Apricot and Magnolia).
A confession: I'm a professional food writer, and I can't tell you what the mirabelle flower is or how it tastes, or what magnolia tastes like other than, maybe, treelike. (A quick Google search suggests that a mirabelle is a specific sort of plum found in the French region of Lorraine, and that in parts of Japan "the leaves of Magnolia obovata are used for wrapping food and as cooking dishes." Thanks, The Internet!)
So: Red. White. Fermented. Inscrutable adjectives. All in all, this sounds like wine! And, indeed, there's something winelike about the Crisp White variety. In flavor it's eerily like a sleek, fruity wine (a Pinot Gris, perhaps?), with strong apricot and pear notes, not particularly sweet, a bit tart, and refreshing. Light Red, however, is a little too light on its feet to resemble most red wines (the lack of aggressive tannin plays a role, too)—it tastes like a nice, dry, fermented cherry juice plus sparkling water.
As an alternative to wine, Cascal does quite a nice job, offering both depth of flavor and refreshment without syrupy sweetness (or alcohol). It might be wise to tone down the adjectives a bit, but then again, why should something this amiably tasty have to hide behind modesty?