Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Friends recently brought me a real treat from their trip to Pittsburgh - a bottle of Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. Jamaica's Finest is produced by the Natrona Bottling Company in Natrona PA.
Natrona Bottling has been around since 1904 and Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is one of their legacy brands along with Red Ribbon root beer, cherry and grape sodas. They also bottle Bauser Champayno, a non-alcoholic champagne-like beverage and Pennsylvania Punch, a non-carbonated grape-flavored soft-drink that was first formulated during the Roaring 20's.
Small, family-run bottlers like Natrona have been steam-rollered as the major bottlers have gobbled up their customer base. The last micro-crafted soda bottler in Chicago, that I can remember, was located on Sheffield Avenue just north of Fullerton. I got to visit it once before it fell victim to gentrification in 1990s.
So it's great to see a small scale bottler like Natrona still alive and kicking. You can watch Natrona's famous Red Ribbon Soda being bottled in this clip from WQED.
Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is made from a 70-year old, tried and true recipe: carbonated water, ginger and other natural essential oils, citric acid and pure cane sugar. No long unpronounceable names, no mystery ingredients. The folks at Natrona are proud to say they use pure cane sugar, rather than much cheaper high fructose corn syrups like other soda manufacturers.
Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer has a crisp, gingery bite that lingers on the tongue. It awakens the taste buds and the cane sugar gives it a very satisfying, clean finish. The label says Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer is a "Spicy Soft Drink and Mixer." I became very interested in the "mixer" application of the product.
At the 2006 James Beard Awards, we were treated to a cocktail made with ginger beer and rum that I'd always wanted to reproduce.
Here's my experiment:
Fill a tall glass with ice. Pour in 1/2 once of "overproof" rum. Overproof means the rum has a alcohol content of more than 40%. A whole jigger of that potent rum would overpower the ginger flavor. Pour in the Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer. Thread two soft crystallized ginger coins onto a straw and give it a stir.
The original recipe included cayenne pepper but the Jamaica's Finest was spicy enough and didn't need the added kick.
I can't wait to try Natrona's Plantation Style Mint Julep with a shot of bourbon.
You can support Natrona's artisan soda makers by asking for Jamaica's Finest Ginger Beer at your local liquor store or specialty grocery. Or call the folks at Natrona at 724-224-9224. They will ship you a 12 pack.