Who we are
Who we are
Founder & Club President
Director of Operations
Mike Van Hall
Casamara Club started with a wild idea and a few recipes from Jason LaValla, the Founder & Club President. (That's me, on the left.)
Erica Johnson is Director of Operations, in charge of sourcing and production. She's also working on a few new recipes of her own.
Mike Van Hall doesn't think of himself as the Creative Director, but he designed the labels and still plays a big part shaping how we talk about what we do, so that's what I call him.
How it started
I started making leisure sodas because I wanted something more fun, complex, and thoughtful to drink when I'm not drinking.
For a long time, I was in the habit of grabbing a regular flavored seltzer from the fridge at work before taking a break. Then one day, instead of the usual, I grabbed some bitters and dashed them into plain sparkling water instead.
I spent a moment or two longer lingering on the flavor of the drink itself, instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media. A small improvement in the quality of the drink had a big impact on how I felt for the rest of the day, because I was happy to simply sit and pay attention to what I was drinking and enjoy without distraction, the same way I would with a thoughtfully made beer, wine, or cocktail. So, I kept going.
Making my afternoon drink became a practice, as I looked to the culinary and mixology worlds for guiding principles. I made my own botanical extracts and blended my own bitters, and found flavor inspiration from a longstanding, personal obsession with Italian amaro – complex, botanical liqueurs. A squeeze of lemon added brightness. Less than a teaspoon of cane sugar or honey gave depth to botanical notes. A pinch of salt heightened and fused the range of flavors and taste sensations.
From amaro to leisure soda
While our sparkling amaro soft drinks are always non-alcoholic, we take flavor inspiration from the world of Italian amaro (rhymes with “tomorrow”), a class of botanical, bittersweet liqueurs infused with peels, roots, herbs, and spices. While the bitterness of amaro can be an acquired taste for some, it’s also the reason amaro is more than just a social drink.
For thousands of years, cultures across the world have used botanical infusions like amaro for social, religious, and medicinal purposes. In the 1800s, pharmacists in the US made non-alcoholic versions of these drinks, selling them as fountain soda to ease digestion, and adding sugar gradually over the years until we ended up with the syrupy, carbonated soft drinks we know today as pop, coke, or soda.
Our sparkling amaro soft drinks strike a balance between the restorative, botanical bitterness of Italian amaro, with the near-imperceptible sweetness of traditional fountain soda. The result is a soft drink that’s versatile enough to complement any leisure activity, whether social or solitary.
We call it leisure soda.
Look at the ingredients list for nearly any flavored seltzer or soft drink out there, and you’ll come across “natural flavors” or “natural essences.” In the year I spent trying to turn my home recipes into something we could sell, everyone in the industry told me that I was wasting time and money using botanical extracts instead of natural flavors or essences, because nobody knows the difference. To be honest, I didn’t either.
What I learned is that although something like “natural grapefruit essence” has to have some actual grapefruit in it, the “essence” can contain a whole lot of other components used to make that ingredient cheaper, easier to reproduce, and market-tested for broader appeal. Even worse, the folks manufacturing those flavors won’t tell anyone what those ingredients really are. (I know because I’ve asked dozens of them.)
Just as important, however, is how they taste. At best, natural flavors and essences are industrious, low-cost recreations of real botanicals that appeal to a wider audience than the botanical itself. However, what’s lost is a kind of complexity and liveliness that would be recognizable to anyone who’s tasted store-brand parmesan cheese next to authentic Parmigiano Reggiano.
That’s why we won’t touch natural essences or flavors, and that’s why we only use real botanical extracts.
Here are just a few of our favorites…
Chinotto is an Italian citrus fruit that looks like an orange, but has a distinctly bitter flavor profile that’s lightly floral and intensely grapefruity. We get ours from Calabria, but you’ll find them in the north too, providing the signature flavor of everything from Campari to sweet Italian chinotto sodas like San Pellegrino or (my favorite) Lurisia.
Peppermint leaf doesn’t just impart a soothing, minty flavor. It’s also used worldwide in teas and extracts to relieve tension, ease digestion, and improve sleep.
The difference between our cinnamon extract and nearly every other “cinnamon flavor” I’ve tried is impossible to overstate. Without added sweetness or efforts to broaden its appeal, our cinnamon lends a pleasant spice note atop a distinctly woody backdrop that reminds us that cinnamon isn’t a powder, it’s a tree.
Rhubarb root is found in everything from Italian after-dinner drinks to Chinese medicine, but we love it because of the balance between intense, savory bitterness and tart, snappy acidity.
They told us it would never work – that sage doesn’t belong in soda. And who knows, maybe they were right! Onda is the only one of our soft drinks that contains sage, and it’s certainly our wildest, most polarizing flavor. But the longer we do this, the more we find others like us who appreciate that earthy, forest floor vibe just as much as we do.
A little goes a long way with anise. These little seeds are the main ingredient in popular digestifs from all over the world, including Sambuca in Italy, Absinthe in France, Ouzo in Greece, and Arak across the Middle East. We like them for the bright, candied note they can lend to our citrus blends.