Mabel Gray bartender Max Schikora has a sparkling water obsession
Mabel Gray lead bartender Max Schikora knows a thing or two about drinking water, but it’s no thanks to his coffee-infused upbringing.
“I grew up in a household where I don’t think my mom has had a glass of water since 1986,” quips Schikora, who took over the cups at the Hazel Park institution in 2021 after serving as understudy for his predecessor (and Detroit industry heavyweight), Paul Fradeneck.
Instead, having been raised on copious amounts of coffee, Schikora says it was working in the restaurant industry and his turn to sobriety nearly three years ago that made him the water fiend he is now.
“I try to drink at least a gallon of water a day, whether it’s still or sparkling,” he says, admitting that he’ll buy LaCroix flavors he doesn’t even like just for kicks.
But it was Topo Chico that changed everything. When reaching for a non-alcoholic shift drink at the end of a grueling dinner service, Schikora found himself more often than not with a cold glass bottle of the Mexican mineral water in hand.
“It wasn’t just about drinking alcohol,” Schikora explains. “Sometimes it was just the texture of something sparkling or carbonated (that I wanted). And that was when I was introduced to the wonder of Topo Chico, which I think is the industry standard for non-alcoholic beverages.”
Ironically, Schikora laments, Topo Chico has been in short supply since Coca Cola bought it in 2017, forcing him and other bubbleheads to explore the wide range of options in a suddenly booming beverage sector.
Here, in his own words, Schikora shares a few choice observations about his favorite sparkling water brands and elaborates on his love-hate relationship with LaCroix.
Topo Chico, the wonder of it is that it’s got a little bit of sodium in it. It’s not just like water. It hits a different part of your palate that makes it incredibly crushable.
And it has this incredible quality where it stays carbonated for like 48 hours. I used to leave one open on my nightstand and it’d still be bubbly three days later.
We also sell Topo Chico at the restaurant. Topo Chico is like the perfect sidecar for anything. You can get an Old Fashioned and a Topo Chico, a French 75 and a Topo, a glass of wine and a Topo…
It’s a no-frills carbonated beverage that everybody seems to know about.
LaCroix to me is underwhelming carbonated water with flavor, because it doesn’t really have flavor. But I always have four varieties of LaCroix in my fridge at all times, so there’s 120 LaCroix just as backup for when I run out of what I actually like.
The one you can get the most is the standard lime and it’s the easiest to drink. The other one that’s really cool is called Beach Plum, which tastes kind of like a Capri Sun.
The next one that I kind of found that I love is Liquid Death. It’s the one I don’t think enough people know about. Their big marketing campaign initially was like, “Get a free case if you sign your name in blood!” and they would send you a thing to prick your finger. And I was like, “I’m never drinking this Satanic cult water,” but then I tried it and loved it. I never signed my soul for it.
Their water is like Swiss alpine water with very large carbonation — really big, bursty bubbles. It comes only in 16-ounce cans. It’s one of those things where they are clearly going after people who are crushing tallboy beers.
They have like three additional flavored waters that just released not that long ago: Buried Alive, Mango Chainsaw, and Severed Lime. The mango and the berry taste kinda like candles. The Severed Lime one tastes like a Sprite. It’s got three grams of sugar in the whole can and they use agave. If I want something that’s more than a LaCroix but less than a Sprite, it’s right in the middle. Amazon now carries all of them, so I just subscribe and save and get two cases every month and they show up at my house. That’s probably my go-to right now.
San Pellegrino & Perrier
I would put San Pellegrino and Perrier in the same category. Pellegrino is the one I gravitate to. Perrier is good, too. And they have a ton of flavors if you want to get weird.
At the restaurant, we carry at least one version of something sparkling. It’s usually San Pellegrino in large bottle format. It’s the easiest for people who want to have sparkling water. Most people know what San Pellegrino is. It’s fancy without being fancy. You can dress it up or dress it down. You want to get cute and put it in a wine glass? Cool. You want it in a water glass? Cool. You want it on the rocks? Cool. Some people want us to cut up some fruit and put it in a wine glass and it makes them feel fancy.
We also go through an aggressive amount of Fever Tree soda water at Mabel. Fever Tree is English. They do a really pissed off spicy ginger beer. But they also make a club soda, which I use in all my beverages. The density of the bubbles, the texture of the sip — it works well with all my mocktails. It’s a good option for someone who doesn’t want a huge bottle of sparkling. It lends itself well to mixing with citrus and syrups and oils. People really enjoy that.
Lagunitas Hoppy Refresher
The other one I really like is a sparkling water but it’s made by Lagunitas, the beer company. It’s the Hoppy Refresher that they make. Sparkling water with hops in it. No alcohol. A slight drinking trigger for those who loved IPAs. You can drink one if you like the flavor of hops. I love having a couple of those in my fridge because it goes well with food. Go to Pi’s Thai and crush a vegetable gang gai with one of those hop waters… It’s perfect for what it is.
— As told to Mark Kurlyandchik