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Sparkling water as a beverage of choice at social gatherings used to signal, not always correctly, that the consumer was a teetotaler, or pregnant. Either way, with the drink often came an unfortunate and erroneous identity: “no fun.”

But you’ll likely notice more people carting such alcohol-free drinks to porch parties, park hangs and more, as the number of folks abstaining partially or entirely from booze consumption rises. According to a recent study from Statista, Canadians’ consumption of alcoholic beverages decreased for the fourth straight year in 2020, dropping to 98.6 litre per capita, or an overall reduction of 8 per cent since 2010. And notably, the gesture of saying no to alcohol for whatever reason is getting an upmarket rebrand.

A growing inclination toward laying off the sauce­ – not to mention the desire of younger generations for drinks with “personality,” as is intimated in a recent report from the Insight Partners about the rise of sparkling water – indicates that the stage is set for new types of sparkling sips to make a splash. Niche in nature, elevated in packaging (and price), boasting unexpected flavour profiles and ingredients, these aren’t your same old softened serves.

“I never really saw the fuss around sparkling [water],” says creative and design director Jed Tallo. “I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why – maybe it feels a bit frivolous, like, it’s water, it’s just there to hydrate.” But Tallo admits his opinion began to change thanks to his husband, who is a “sparkling water fan. He always gets it wherever we go, [and] it started being around me more.”

Since dipping his toe into the expanse of sparkling waters, Tallo has primarily developed a taste for plain options and is drawn toward brands like Lark, which offers products that have a mild carbonation profile. “It became sort of like a treat,” Tallo says, adding that during the pandemic he, like many of us, saw his alcohol consumption increase. “I started to sub sparkling water in some days. It sort of came to my rescue.”

Lark, which launched in 2020 and possesses the kind of understated branding an aesthete like Tallo would gravitate toward, has been embraced by home consumers as well as the hospitality sector. Christina Veira, an instructor for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and co-owner of Toronto’s Bar Mordecai, says the cozy-chic boite started carrying Lark’s products as an alternative to the classic club soda and the Mexican sparkling water, Topo Chico.

“As we got more into indoor dining and dinner service, we added Lark in,” Veira says. “We wanted to have a sparkling water on offer that had a little bit of salinity and a good texture – nothing too cloying or high salt.”

A self-confessed sparkling water obsessive, Veira adds that this past Christmas, she asked for – and received – an Aarke water carbonator. The Swedish company’s ethos, according to its website, is to design “premium home essentials engineered to elevate everyday routines.” One can certainly see that ambition to offer a luxury take on a historically humble hydrator creeping into tony grocery stores, hip lifestyle shops and even breweries and dispensaries.

A number of cannabis-infused carbonated drinks have come to market since the legalization of consumables, and Tallo points out that his local brewery, Prince Edward County’s Matron Fine Beer, recently reintroduced its Eau Well zero-ABV bubbly beverage. There are also sparkling waters boasting adaptogens, which are natural substances including plants like ginseng and several varieties of mushrooms purported to have health benefits. For a taste of such products, look to Toronto’s Daydream Drinks. Brooklyn-based Kin Euphorics – a “wellness drink” company that counts model Bella Hadid as a co-founder and partner – also offers adaptogenic seltzers, but they can only currently be found stateside.

Today, the options for enhanced water and its offshoots can seem overwhelming and occasionally outlandish. Kin Euphorics, for example, asserts that its products’ “functional formulas and euphoric actives conjure cosmic energy” (try not to be too shocked when I tell you that you can purchase its products from Goop). But there are two emerging Canadian brands striving to keeping it simpler in the name of convivial consumption.

The organic maple tree water brand Sapsucker is one. “We’re proudly premium,” says Tim Lute, who previously to his role as CEO at Sapsucker spent years with Coca-Cola. “We really want to disrupt this space, and we feel that we have a differentiated offering.” Sapsucker’s slogan is “Refreshing by nature,” and Lute says that the novel note of sap, combined with classic citrus flavours such as lemon, lime and orange, led product development toward “dialing back the carbonation to bring the [flavour] profile forward. We call it the subtle bubble.”

For sisters Katie Fielding and Andrea Grand, co-founders of the new Toronto-based beverage brand Barbet, their “delicately bubbled sparkling water” had to be a drink that one would be happy to kick back and indulge in whenever and wherever.

Fielding, who has epilepsy, made the decision to cut out booze after experiencing an especially sever seizure in March, 2020. “I couldn’t find something to drink that filled a void of wanting to elevate a moment, that tasted delicious, and wasn’t something my 10-year-old cousin would drink,” she says.

The duo enlisted the help of sparkling water fans from their inner circle as well as mixologists to workshop and test ideas. Soon enough, Fielding and Grand landed on flavour combinations from grapefruit, ginger and juniper to blood orange, the citrus fruit calamansi and jalapeno pepper as enticements for abstainers of all kinds – plus anyone who wanted to use their concoctions as unexpected cocktail mixers. The beverages are colourful as are the whimsical multihued cans they come in.

Fittingly, Fielding and Grand hired noted fashion, art and music photographer Maya Fuhr to shoot their launch imagery, and the results – scenes evocative of playful party moments – hit the right notes in terms of towing the brand’s “A bubble out of the ordinary” tagline. “I think it really speaks to this philosophy that I’m noticing a lot in the sparkling water category right now,” says Grand of Barbet’s approach. “Which is [that] it’s not a compromise.”

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