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Soda Selector: May 2021

Hello, my fellow soda sippers, and welcome to the May 2021 edition of Soda Selector. Since my brain is wired in a way that favors Structure and Rules and things of that sort, my idea for this column was to write about three new-to-me sodas each month. This month, however, I accidentally tried more than three new sodas and felt compelled to discuss all of them with you.

I’ll start off with the three beverages I purchased with the intent of reviewing in this column, all of which came from KC Soda Co. in the City Market. I will begin with the drink that came from a company I was previously unaware of called Ben Shaws. I picked up the cream soda from this brand -- apparently founded in 1871 -- based solely on the packaging. It was a 12 oz. can with a baby blue pinstripe background, a clean, scripty logo, and an old-timey photo of a bunch of guys standing next to horses. Pretty sweet. Those who listened to the Sippin’ On Some Soda podcast I co-hosted know my penchant for cream soda and my wish that it was as commonplace in restaurants here as it is on the East Coast. And let me tell you, if Ben Shaws’ cream soda was widely available, I’d be pounding it on a regular basis. The first thing you notice upon drinking it is the overwhelming vanilla flavor. I remember taking cooking classes in high school and seeing my share of baking projects ruined by a juvenile overuse of vanilla extract. While that feels like it’s close to being the case here, the drink is also quite sweet and somehow manages to counter this strong vanilla flavor in a very pleasant way. Cream soda heads, do not skip this one!

The next of my soda shop grabs was Sprecher Diamond’s Asian pear. My love of the Sprecher brand is also well documented, but I have to say that this was my first disappointing experience with the Milwaukee company’s offerings. I was excited to try my first pear soda (shoutout to all the pear) as I was a big fan of pears as a child (side note: is there a stigma against eating pears as an adult? They seem hard to find? I don’t know, man), but this one was pretty one-note. Despite it being a fairly authentic pear flavor, there wasn’t much fizz to it and it felt like it was just shy of being a bottle of watery pear juice. Speaking of the bottle, the label is pretty strange for the Sprecher Diamond sodas as well; just kind of a bad Photoshop illustration of a diamond and a bunch of colorful swirls around it with a black background. Maybe they were going for kind of a premium brand thing? Someone on a soda subreddit mentioned that this line has been discontinued and it seems apparent why. There are, however, lychee, lemongrass, and blackberry varieties out there, so who knows, maybe those are better.

Last among my soda store pickups was the Northern Soda Company’s blue raspberry. The Minnesota soda maker was a favorite on the podcast, earning our praise for its Vulcanus Rex (cinnamon cream), caramel cream, and maple root beer varieties (despite the latter two tasting nearly identical). Like with the Sprecher drink above, this was also my first letdown from the Northern brand. While this blue raspberry soda was not offensive by any means, I’m confident that if I was given it in a blind taste test, I would guess that it came from a Pepsi- or Coke-owned brand due to its relatively uninteresting flavor profile. Just kind of a blue raspberry sugar water. Maybe fruit flavors aren’t Northern’s strong suit, but I’m sure I’ll continue working my way through their lengthy lineup of libations regardless.

Now on to my off-the-cuff selections. A disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, but I am somewhat certain that my drinking a Coca-Cola With Coffee (caramel flavor) minutes after receiving my second vaccine dose provided me with a few extra hours of productivity before I was turned into a bedridden, Moderna brand zombie for the next two days. I’m also open to the idea that imbibing these two concoctions on the same day may have given me some Peter Parker-style superpowers that I am as of yet unsure how to activate. I’ll keep you updated on that.

As you know, I’m not much of a coffee guy, but I enjoy a sugary frappe drink from time to time, so that plus the idea of absolutely bouncing off the walls after drinking something like this was enough to make me try it. I’ll be honest to you: putting this up to my lips for the first time was a frightening experience and I did so at a sloth’s pace. Upon finally drinking it, it tasted about how I guessed (and hoped) it would -- like someone had dumped a can of Coke in your frappe. Despite the jarringly acidic flavor you encounter at first, it was surprisingly potable and felt kind of like a life hack and made me wonder how this combination hadn’t been manufactured sooner. It somehow manages to retain the zing of both coffee and cola. As fun as this little experiment was, I will likely not be drinking this on a regular basis, because becoming addicted to something like Coca-Cola With Coffee seems particularly psychotic.

A fun part of writing and podcasting about soda is that now a handful of people I know will randomly message me about new sodas they come across. The most recent of these messages came from my friend Ian Kopp of the band Dope Piece. He asked if I had tried Sunkist’s blueberry lemonade and I had not. Not long after this, I came across it at a convenience store and figured I’d give it a try. Sadly, muclike the Sunkist strawberry lemonade we tried on an early episode of the podcast, its blueberry counterpart was similarly lackluster, though I concede that it’s probably drinkable enough if you’ve been outside for a while on a hot summer’s day.

Lastly, Mountain Dew Rise. How is it different from Mountain Dew Kickstart? Why does Mountain Dew need two sodas marketed for morning consumption? Why are any sodas being marketed for morning consumption? (I think all of this is very funny.) I’ve been known to grab a Kickstart orange or black cherry tallboy from the corner store when I’m getting bored of other bevs and need some caffeine; Kickstart tastes pretty good, contains a small percentage of real juice, caffeine, and B and C vitamins. Cool!

But in the last few weeks, this new line of Mountain Dew drinks has popped up. Rise features a different lineup of flavors than Kickstart, claims of immune support (zinc), a “mental boost” (citicoline and caffeine), real juice (5%), and no added sugar. The label features a weird, geometric illustration of a lion and the website features an ad with LeBron James in it. I ended up trying the Pomegranate Blue Burst and Orange Breeze flavors (on separate occasions). The lack of sugar was somewhat evident and I was not magically more focused or energized than any other caffeinated soda would leave me. I am now calling on Mountain Dew to quit their morning soda shenanigans and I hope you’ll join me.


[This article first appeared in Issue 2 of Shuttlecock's free monthly print edition. Click here to order a copy online, or pick one up for free at locations around KC/Lawrence/JoCo.]    

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