This past summer, Prince William made a historic visit to Israel. The programming included many highlights, but none as social media-forward as a Tel Avivian encounter with the 2018 Eurovision winner, Netta Barzilai. The two met at a kiosk on the corners of Herzl and Rothschild streets, where, according to historic data, Israel’s very first kiosk was established in 1911, and were documented drinking colorful mason jars of gazoz, described on the Kensington Palace official Instagram account as “a fizzy soft drink.”
The royal family’s PR machine unexpectedly struck gold: Gazoz, much more than a soft drink, has never been hotter. In fact, the Duke of Cambridge might have run into it back in London where, at the relatively new restaurant Bala Baya, Israeli chef Eran Tibi dedicated a whole section of his menu to the drink, with four fruity versions. Announced by Bon Appetit magazine as one of the key restaurant trends of 2018, gazoz has been making appearances on menus of emerging restaurants and blooming on urban street corners, giving New Yorkers and Tel Avivians alike a sip of nostalgia.
As many Israeli grandmas would gladly tell you, gazoz was a fixture of young Israel. Inspired, according to some sources, by a Turkish soda drink and much humbler than its modern gourmet reincarnation—these days a mix of sparkly water, natural fruit syrup, fruits, and herbs—it was originally served at street kiosks from large vessels, usually offering the customer two flavors: lemon or raspberry. In the late 1970s, as its popularity declined, a rock ’n’ roll band by the name of Gazoz emerged, its name a tribute to the good old days. A 2012 cookbook by Nathan Donovitz, surveying a hundred years of food in Tel Aviv, honored it in its title: From Gazoz to Chef Restaurants, the drink signifying the city’s culinary genesis. With rising interest in herbal infusions and tonics, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to rediscover it.
If the Israeli gazoz revival could be attributed to a single person, that would be Binyanim (Benny) Briga, the owner of Cafe Levinski 41, a hole-in-the-wall establishment in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. Five years ago, Briga, previously a restaurant owner, settled in the tiny location and started offering customers abundant, photogenic gazoz, using entirely house-made ingredients. After taking an order, the cafe’s staff will fill a plastic cup with sparkling water, add natural fruit syrup, and top off the cup with herbal sprigs, fruits, and occasionally vegetables. No two servings are exactly alike. The business, according to Briga, came to be unintentionally. “My original plan was to make coffee,” he told me. “At the time, there was an old gazoz kiosk in the neighborhood, with industrial colorful syrups. Slowly, the demand for this type of product declined, and they closed—but the thirst for gazoz stayed, since there are a lot of culinary tours here, with an emphasis on Tel Aviv’s history.”
One day, a guide from Delicious Israel came to Briga’s kiosk and requested gazoz for a special tour. Later he found out the guest of honor was Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who came to Israel to celebrate his son’s bar mitzvah. Briga made the drinks, embellishing them with herbs and applying his experience with fermentation and kombucha-making, and a vision was born. “Today I have over 200 fermented infusions and starters, from long pepper to vanilla, some months old and some years old,” he said. “Plus seasonal fruits, herbs, and spices.”
These days, gazoz has traveled far beyond Tel Aviv. At Israeli chef Einat Admony’s Bar Bolonat in New York’s Greenwich Village, you’ll find it on the menu under “mocktails,” flavored with rosemary and raspberry, or pineapple and lime. At Golda, a small all-day cafe that opened in Brooklyn last year, gazoz wears of-the-moment flavors like peach lemon and thyme. Owner Danny Nusbaum was partially inspired by Briga’s work: “I grew up in an Israeli household and one of the drinks we grew up with is gazoz,” he said. “There’s a guy in Tel Aviv who is doing really cool versions of them, so growing up with the drink and seeing his gazoz inspired me to do it.” According to Nusbaum, gazoz is much healthier than regular sodas, and although he can’t say why it’s trending exactly, “it’s a delicious and definitely cool-looking drink.”
The drink has made it as far as Hawaii, where Israeli Danielle Shemesh operates an Oahu-based catering company aptly named Drink Gazoz. A number of years ago, after serving in the IDF and backpacking a couple years in Central America, Shemesh moved to Hawaii, eventually studying anthropology at the University of Hawaii. Struggling to find herself after school, she returned to Israel and stumbled upon Briga’s whimsical kiosk. Shemesh started working at the business, and when she found a scholarship to get her to Hawaii again, the decision to serve gazoz while using Hawaii’s rich produce was made. “I call it ‘farm-to-cup,’” she said. “Prior to every market and event, I go and harvest fresh herbs and seasonal fruits from different organic farms around the island, and add them to the sparkling drinks.” Shemesh, too, thinks gazoz is better for you than sodas: “It is made with fresh organic fruits and herbs and not preservatives, made for order and not bottled.” With Drink Gazoz, Shemesh takes her drinks to farmers markets, catering events, baby showers, and weddings, anywhere a nonalcoholic drink can feel at home. The customers may not be aware of the drink’s Israeli history, but, according to Shemesh, it doesn’t diminish their enjoyment.
Back in Israel, Briga is working on a book with Artisan Books, after being approached by the publisher at Cafe Levinski 41. “The timing is right. What was old in 1960, is now nostalgic,” he said. “Enough time has passed so people miss it again, wanting to know what was before them and preserve it.” In addition to evoking childhood memories in Israelis, the comeback of the gazoz, according to Briga, is connected to timely culinary happenings. “It does have to do with interest in the artisanal, organic, healthy, fermented, all of these words,” he said. It doesn’t hurt that the modernized version of gazoz, dreamed up by Briga and developed by those who got inspired by him, takes well to social media documentation. Just ask the prince.
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.