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A glossary of carbonated waters, what to order, and when

Is sparkling water the same as a seltzer or club soda? What’s the difference? Can you exchange soda water for sparkling in a cocktail? We answer your questions.

What do seltzer, sparkling water, and club soda have in common? They’re all carbonated waters. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the same thing. In this taxonomy of carbonated waters, we break down to you the differences between several variations, and what they’re commonly used for. Perhaps you might find this handy the next time you visit a fancy restaurant and ask for a glass of sparkling water, but they only have seltzer. The difference isn’t large, but it will be handy for you to hold your own in a white tablecloth establishment.

Carbonated Water / Sparkling Water / Fizzy Water

sparkling water types
(Image credit: Unsplash/ Karim Ghantous)

First things first: what is carbonated water? These were originally mineral water infused with naturally-occurring carbon dioxide, usually a byproduct of volcanic activity in the area. However, in 1783, J.J. Schweppe of Schweppes developed the method to artificially carbonate water. While there are still brands out there that source for naturally carbonated water, most commercial ones are opting for artificially carbonated water.

TL;DR: Carbonated water is mineral water with naturally-occurring carbon dioxide.


Seltzer first started out as naturally carbonated mineral water from a place in Germany called Selters. Modern-day seltzer is water that has been artificially carbonated with no other flavouring added — not even salt. If you own one of those soda-making devices (such as Soda Express) and carbonate water without adding any flavours, you’re essentially making seltzer.

You can replace this with regular water if you want something fizzy without the added calories and flavour. It will still be bland, but the different mouthfeel makes certain people choose it over regular water. It can also be added into cocktails to replace club soda.

TL;DR: Seltzer is artificially carbonated mineral water with no flavouring.

Club Soda / Soda Water

(Image credit: Unsplash/ Nicole Wilcox)

Club soda is artificially carbonated water with salt. Depending on the manufacturer, different types of sodium is added into the mix, and at different percentages. Among the regular variants of sodium used includes table salt, sodium bicarbonate, or potassium bicarbonate. These are added to neutralise the acidity of carbonated water.

It can be drunk on its own or used as a mixer for cocktails. Some cocktails that have club soda in it are the Gin Rickey, a Vodka Lime and Soda, and more.

TL;DR: Club Soda is artificially carbonated mineral water with salt.

Tonic Water

Jamie He
(Image credit: East Imperial)

Tonic water is perhaps the most distinctly different out of all these. It was first produced in the 19th century as a remedy against malaria, thanks to the quinine in it. Even though there are more effective ways to prevent malaria in our modern times, tonic water today still has some quinine in it, although not as much as before. Alongside quinine are citric acid and other flavourings that make the tonic water, depending on its brand and the products they put out.

If you’re a regular cocktail drinker, you’ll be familiar with tonic water being used as a common mixer, including the iconic Gin & Tonic.

TL;DR: Tonic water is carbonated water with quinine and other sweetened flavourings.

PohNee Chin
Editor, Kuala Lumpur
Poh Nee is the editor and writes about travel and drinks. When she's not living out her holiday dreams via Google Earth and sipping on an Old Fashioned down at the local bars, you can find her snug at home bingeing on Netflix and mystery fiction.