Carbonating Cocktails at Home Part 1: Your Equipment Options

Note: This is the first in a series of posts I’m doing on carbonating your own cocktails at home. There will probably be at least 4 or 5 parts, including some recipes at the end. My plan is to publish 1 a week until they’re done, so if you’re interested, please stay tuned.

I like my beverages bubbly. Let me just state that right off the bat. Things just taste better with a little fizz.

Over the years, I’ve gotten my fizz fix by a number of different methods. I’ve purchased good old seltzers and tonics at stores. I bought an ISI Whip and a SodaStream. And finally, I built my own home carbonation rig. I’ll walk you through the options. I’m going to focus mainly on use for carbonating cocktails here, but mention where things are useful for something else.

Store Bought Seltzer

seltzer

Buying seltzer seems cheap, but it adds up. I easily go through a liter a day of bubbly water. At my local store, the generic brand, which is just carbonated reverse osmosis tap water, sells for 75 cents a pop. Over the course of a year that’s almost $300!

The upside is it’s easy. I was going to the store anyway, so there’s no real extra effort.

The downside (other than cost) is that seltzer is pretty much the worst possible way to add bubbles to any cocktail. You can’t add seltzer without also watering your cocktail down. And it tends to foam out due to agitation when you pour it or attempt to stir it into the drink. (This is why beverages that use it typically pour it in at the end, leaving a top watery layer above the cocktail.) Also, store bought seltzer is only mildly-carbonated to begin with and like I said earlier, I like my bubbles.

SodaStream

sodastream

A SodaStream just makes seltzer and is a minor step up from buying it. Their CO2 tank, which they claim can make 60 liters (and I find makes much less in practice, but I’ll be generous and say it is 40 liters) costs $45 on Amazon. That’s the same as just buying seltzer, but you have to buy the SodaStream too. You can get the tanks swapped at a store for $15 which makes it probably on the order of $0.38 per liter of seltzer, which to me is enough to justify the initial purchase if all else where equal, but not an overwhelming savings. Even the cheap SodaStream model is $70, and the good ones are closer to $100. You’ll want a spare cylinder or two so you don’t go empty, and a spare tank or two, but even still you’d break even over store bought seltzer in about a year or two.

It also lets you get your water a little fizzier than store-bought seltzer. I have never tested mine to see exactly how much CO2 gets in there, but it’s noticeably fizzier. You have a little control over how much CO2 you add as well, but not much. There’s no precise way to regulate it, you just push the button more or less.

The major drawback to the SodaStream is that you cannot carbonate anything but water directly. Want to make soda? You just make seltzer and then mix the syrup with it. (There’s no reason you couldn’t just buy the syrup and some seltzer from the store and make the same exact thing.) If you put anything else in the SodaStream, it can foam up and ruin the device. I learned that the hard way.

So it has all the downsides to store bought seltzer, plus having to deal with CO2 tanks. It is a little cheaper in the long run, but I really cannot recommend it over other methods unless you’re drinking nothing but carbonated water.

Whipping Siphons

isi

Whipping siphons also work and for a brief minute were my solution because I already had a couple. You can get a 1 liter whipping siphon for about $90 if you look around online. (You want the bigger one because you pretty much need 2 CO2 cartridges regardless, so you might as well get double the fizzy beverage and cut your cost in half.) I’m a huge fan of the ISI Gourmet Whip, which is a little pricier, but if you’re already going to spend that much you might as well plunk down a little extra for the better model.

There are two main problems with siphons for carbonating. The biggest is the price of CO2 cartridges. Ordered from the net in bulk you can get them as low as about 35 cents a cartridge. But to get sufficiently bubbly water requires 2 of them, so you’re looking at about 70 cents a liter. Not enough savings to be worth buying over store bought, though the upside is you’ll get heavily carbonated water for that price. The pressure achieved in an ISI is enough to carbonate slices of fruit.

The other problem is that you don’t have a lot of control over the levels of carbonation, as you are stuck with whole cartridges of CO2. You can partially vent them, doing sort of a pseudo half-charge (thanks for the tip on that on ChefSteps) but this is very difficult to get any accuracy with.

As for the benefits, you can carbonate cocktails better with one than you can with seltzer water or a SodaStream. And they’re awesome for lots of other cocktail-related stuff like rapid infusions, foams, carbonating fruit, etc. (I’ll probably do a series on the bad-ass cocktail stuff you can do with them eventually because there is a lot. It shocks me that I don’t see five of them at every high-end cocktail joint.) They also will tolerate a much higher pressure than any other option, so if you like stuff kick-in-the-tongue fizzy, as I do, an ISI works wonders.

So I love my whipping siphon. But if you’re doing any serious carbonation work they (and things like the Perlini consumer system that use cartridges) are just too expensive and too inaccurate. However if you just want a siphon for other stuff and want to carbonate the occasional cocktail too then by all means grab one.

Home Carbonation Rig

carbonater

Had I known a year ago what I know now, I would have skipped straight to the last step. A home rig is both the cheapest and best method of getting carbonated drinks. It costs a little more than a SodaStream to get started, but the costs to operate are much, much less. Unlike a SodaStream, you can carbonate anything directly, rather than having to carbonate water and then mix it with a syrup. (The latter method leads to foam out, reducing carbonation, waters down cocktails, and makes a lot of drinks plain impossible.) And you can adjust your level of carbonation within a wide range, whereas a SodaStream and an ISI Whip make that difficult.

The CO2 cost of doing it yourself is far, far cheaper as well. A “60 L” SodaStream tank is 14.5 oz of CO2. At $15 per, that’s about $16.50 per pound. Getting it filled at your local homebrew or dry ice store costs about $1 per pound. Seriously, $1. It’s on the order of 2 cents a liter to carbonate. And you can get a 20 pound tank at a time, meaning it will make 900 liters instead of 40. You’ll drive to the store once every couple years instead of once a month.

Startup costs are a bit more than with SodaStream. I’ll get to the parts list in a later post, but the total price I paid was a little over $100. If you want to go high quality (which I recommend) you’re still looking at a sticker of less than $200. But from that point on your drinks are essentially free, so it will save you a ton over even the SodaStream over the years.

The home carbonation solution is also basically the same equipment homebrewers use to keg beer, with one very small addition. This means that if you decide to move into kegging your cocktails (or homebrew) you only need to buy the keg, which is about $60 used. You can also buy a counter-pressure filler for another $75 or so and start bottling your carbonated beverages if you want. So for less than $300, you can get a full bar-quality bottling operation going this way.

There are a few downsides to the home rig. One is that it’s rather unsightly. You wouldn’t leave it sitting on your counter. An ISI Whip is actually pretty, and some of the more expensive SodaStream’s aren’t bad. You can, however, tuck most of it in a cabinet and have only a hose protruding if you want. People have been very creative about hiding their home carbonaters, but just shoving it under a sink does the job.

Another is that it doesn’t get the ultra-high pressure an ISI Whip does. This doesn’t matter much in practice, as it goes well past what you’d realistically want to drink. You’ll generally top out around 45 PSI, and your home rig will go a bit past that, whereas an ISI can get to about 145 psi. You just can’t do rapid infusions in it like you can in an ISI.

The final downside, and the one I find most annoying, is that you need a steady supply of PET bottles. These are the bottles soda and seltzer come in at the store. The good news is a bottle lasts awhile, and I have a few that are for strictly water purposes that have been in continuous use for months. But if I carbonate a cocktail, I’ll only wash one out a few times before throwing it away.

(If any of you wonderful readers know where I can buy bulk unused 1 liter PET bottles, please let me know! Homebrew stores sell 500mL ones, but they’re pricier than just buying 1L of seltzer at the store and getting the bottle with it.)

Wrapping it All Up

Here’s a chart of the costs to get carbonated water with the four methods I discussed:

Setup Cost Per Liter Cost Cost 1 yr Cost 5 yr
Store Bought 0 0.75 273.75 1368.75
Siphon 80 0.7 335.5 1357.5
Soda Stream 80 0.38 218.7 773.5
Home Carbonater 150 0.02 1701 1901
  1. Assumes you have to buy 20 lbs of gas at a time.

Here’s a little chart describing the benefits/drawbacks of each solution as well.

ISI Whip SodaStream Home Carbonater
Volume Range .5-1L1 1L 0.25-2L2
Can carbonate liquids other than water? Yes No Yes
Can carbonate larger items, like pieces of fruit? Yes No No
Assembly required? None Minimal Minimal
Variable Carbonation Levels? Some3 Not really4 Fantastic5
Max PSI (approximate) 175 20 60
Other Uses? Lots (see articles on siphons.) None Beer Kegging
  1. Siphons have a static size. You could carbonate less than the full liter (or half liter if you get the smaller one) but you’ll get a slightly different result due to increased head space.
  2. Could be larger if you somehow found a PET bottle with the standard screw top that was over 2L.
  3. You can use different numbers of chargers, but don’t have very fine grained control.
  4. You can sort of press the button more or less, but this is very imprecise.
  5. Analog setting up to ~60 PSI allows for extremely precise control.

TLDR:

1. If you think you’re going to be doing a decent amount of carbonating, just go with the home rig. Get anything else and you’re going to end up getting the home rig sooner or later, I promise you. For carbonating liquids, especially cocktails, it’s cheaper in the long run and better than all of the other options.

2. Whipping siphons aren’t great buys for strictly carbonation purposes, but they do so much else that I highly recommend them. In fact there’s a good chance I’ll do many posts on siphons later. If you are only doing occasional carbonation work, then they’re all you need, and they’re still slightly cheaper than store bought seltzer.

3. SodaStreams just really aren’t better than the alternatives. They’re too limiting since they can carbonate only water, and they’re too expensive to operate. People only buy them because they don’t know better, but you, dear reader, do.

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