Carbonated water, it seems so humble and yet it is a staple of all summer drinking. It can make Whiskey Fizz, Singapore Sling, and turn Robert E Lee Cooler. It can even take that otherwise sour gentleman, Tom Collins, and make him positively bubbly.

And if you’re wondering who you should thank for this magical bubble water, it was an English clergyman, Joseph Priestly, who lived way back in the 18th century.

Everything I know about Priestly, by the way, I learned from James Burke’s Connections documentaries and according to Burke, he was an amateur chemist, an incompetent pastor and apparently quite a jerk — upon discovering his wife had no money, for instance, he set about sponging off his brother-in-law for the rest of his life.

As for the soda, when he wasn’t boring his parishioners half to death with his dull sermons, Priestly was skulking around a nearby brewery. He discovered that in the vats, above the beer, there was a strange gas that would put out matches and kill rats (that he was discovering all this by conducting tests with actual matches and actual rats in actual beer kegs no doubt led to his being driven off by the brewer).

That gas was, of course, carbon dioxide, and Priestly also discovered that if you swish water back and forth between two glasses while in the presence of this gas, the water became all bubbly.

It was quite the discovery. There had to be a market for such a novelty, wouldn’t you think?

Well, creepy, boring Priestly, as it turns out, was also not much of a business man and was unable to make much of his invention. So to console himself, we went off and discovered oxygen.

Then, twenty years later, a German watchmaker, JJ Schweppe, developed a process to mass produce soda water and kicked off a massive fad for fizzy water and made himself quite famous into the bargain.

At the time, Schweppe’s miraculous bubble water was believed to have great health benefits, being able to invigorate tired muscles and tighten saggy skin. Soon, alpine spas were spraying their clients with it, bathing them in it, and even making them drink it.

The rest, as they say, is history.

A few tips on the use of carbonated water in cocktails: Don’t use too much. When a drink recipe says, “Top with soda,” it’s anticipating you’ll be adding an ounce to two ounces. The goal is to make the cocktail effervesce. You’re not trying to dilute it to the point of being flavourless.

Also, unless you intend to host a rather large party and anticipate handing around many fizzy drinks, you’re best to shy away from the big two litre bottles of club soda. It will start to go flat long before you can use it all. Better to keep some cans in the fridge and use them as needed.

And as for what kind of fizzy water you should go for, personally I prefer to go with a carbonated mineral water instead of club soda because I find the carbonation is a little more subtle in the former. It’s not quite so in your face.

If you wish to learn more about the role carbonation had in history, Priestly’s invention pops up in three episodes of Burke’s various series. I’ll embed the start of each below the fold. Enjoy