14 Delicious Regional Sodas You’ve Got To Try Before You Die
Mike Pace spent almost ten years on the road with his band Oxford Collapse. In that time, he became a regional soda junkie. Here are his favorites from all the places he's stopped across America.
Picture this: You’re on a road trip, far away from home. You keep passing signs for unfamiliar towns. Eventually you stop for gas, and while in the mom and pop convenience store you take a gander at the cold beverage selection. Sodas you’ve never heard of line the shelves, in flavors you didn’t even know existed! The quirky logos and color schemes bring out your inner child, so you grab as many cans and bottles as you can carry, eager to sample them all. Welcome to my world.
I’m a regional soda enthusiast; I like to try sodas that, due to provincial preference or business model, you can only get in certain corners of the country or world. A last-standing paeon to being territorial, these sodas represent a final shred of uniqueness in an increasingly universal, complacent world. Most of the Mom & Pop brands have folded, replaced by global corporations who bank on product familiarity. Seeing something different or unusual on the stores shelves is a rapidly disappearing novelty; soon enough we’ll all be drinking Coke Zero.
For posterity, I’ve compiled a list of some of the notable pops I’ve come across in my travels. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to highlight only the “local” guys; some bigger companies still all have regional brands, and they’re still totally exciting.
An old-school classic straight outta Lowell, Massachusetts, Moxie is a caramel-colored soda with a bitter, peppery taste that fans have been going nuts for since 1876. It’s a divisive drink, for sure - You either praise it as a taste of Valhalla, or deride it for having the aroma of cough syrup. (Though Moxie is not to be confused with sizzzurp, or 'Purple Drank.')
A caffeine-free citrus drink created in Arizona in the late ‘30s, Squirt is now owned by Dr. Pepper. The only time I enjoyed a cold can of this grapefruit-y concoction was on a family vacation in Wyoming, back in 1992. An excerpt from my diary mentions Squirt: "On the way back to the Tetons I had my first taste of Squirt (reminiscent of the Mr. Pibb that I had last year in San Francisco.)" Looking back, this seems like quite a mix-up on my part, as Squirt tastes similar to Mountain Dew and absolutely nothing like Mr. Pibb. Then again, I was a 13-year-old idiot at the time.
The “Big Daddy” of all red, creme flavored sodas, Big Red has strong ties to the South, which was the only place you could get it up until the late ‘70s. Now it’s apparently the sixth best-selling soda in the States. I’ve never seen it in the New York area, or if I have, I’ve conveniently denied its existence, for the purposes of this article.
Even if you haven’t been living in (or under a) Cave-in-Rock, Illinois (site of The Gathering of the Juggalos, yo!) you probably know that Faygo is the favored beverage of America’s favorite insane clown posse, the Insane Clown Posse. What you might not know is that the Detroit, Michigan-based soft drink is available in a plethora of flavors, ranging from Pineapple Watermelon to Jazzin’ Blues Berry to something called Frosh. I’ve only had their root beer, and though it was ranked by Bon Appetit magazine as “America’s Best Tasting Root Beer” in 2009, I remember it tasting like cheap crap.
Thums Up (note the lack of a “b”) is the Indian version of Coke; originally produced by an independent manufacturer and later, unsurprisingly bought out by the Coca-Cola Company. I’ve had this soda multiple times at my favorite Indian restaurant, Mumbai Express in Bellerose, Queens, which leads me to believe that you can find it in your better Indian groceries. Thums Up has a pretty cool logo, and comes in those old, recycled glass bottles that have been in use since the Carter Administration, and it tastes like a more sugary Coke Classic.
The go-to regional soda for beginners, Mexican Coke is notable for being served in husky 16oz. glass bottles that look like they’ve been reused since 1978, and for using cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, with gives the drink a sweeter taste than Coca-Cola Classic. Mexican Coke is available is most bodegas worth their weight in stray cats, and is always what I reach for, when available. It’s also considerably more expensive, usually $2.50 or $3 a bottle.
Sold in Kosher supermarkets year-round, but more widely available during Passover, Kosher Coca-Cola is distinguished only by it's yellow cap. A buddy of mine did a taste test between Kosher and “regular” Coca-Cola Classic, and was hard-pressed to find a discernible difference between the two. I’ve had it a few times (usually after someone bought it by mistake), and I wouldn't say it’s anything you need to convert to Judaism to really appreciate.
Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry/Root Beer
Speaking of Jewish speciality sodas, I could always count on a frosty can of Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda when I opted to chow down at Boomy’s Deli, the preeminent kosher eatery near where I grew up on Long Island. (If you visit, go for the chicken salad topped with hot pastrami.) One of New York City’s own, Dr. Brown’s has long been a staple of all types of Jews’ diets; from orthodox to self-hating. The classic, black cherry taste is as familiar as the pang of melancholy you feel the last week of summer before school starts. Much rarer is the awesome Dr. Brown’s Root Beer, with a fizzy, peppery bite. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as widely available as the more popular Black Cherry or Cel-Ray flavors.
Manhattan Special Sarsaparilla
Manhattan Special is a Brooklyn-based soda company whose claim to fame is their Espresso Coffee Soda, in production since 1895. I’ve never had it, since I drink neither coffee nor coffee-flavored soda, but I’m sure it’s delicious. For my money, the gem in their collection is their sarsaparilla; a nutty, vanilla beverage only available in a 23 oz. glass bottle that I’ve been able to find at the Key Food supermarket on McGuiness Boulevard in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Barq’s Red Creme Soda
I’ve only come across this flavor of Barq’s once, and I want to say it was in Virginia. Maybe it was Maryland? I don’t know, and you don’t care. I do recall it was available in the standard 20 oz. plastic bottle. As you might expect, it is bright red in color and is to creme soda what regular Barq’s is to root beer: caffeinated and with a bit more “bite.”
Pennsylvania Dutch Birch Beer
True to its name, “PDBB” (as no one calls it,) is an amber-tinted birch beer hailing from the Amish country in Pennsylvania, though it's available in certain markets throughout the northeast. I’m familiar with the bigger 2-litter bottle size, but you can also get cans of this fine elixir. As much as I’ve enjoyed a frosty mug of Pennsylvania Dutch, it feels a bit like ingesting liquid sugar; imagine brown liquid rock candy (or maybe don’t), and you'll get a pretty good idea of what PDBB tastes like.
Ramblin’ Root Beer
Ramblin’ was Coca-Cola’s version of root beer before the company acquired Barq’s in the mid 90’s. I first tasted it on yet another family vacation in either Arizona or New Mexico when I was a kid. I recall enjoying it immensely, and still rank it in my Top 10 Favorite Root Beers. Unfortunately, Ramblin’ went kaput sometime around 1995, so you’ll only be able to drink it in your daydreams. Let me tell you, though: It put Pepsi’s weak attempt at root beer, MUG, to shame.
One of the oldest ginger ales still on the market, Vernor’s is a Rust Belt favorite, mainly available in Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. I’ve had it on a few occasions while traipsing through Cleveland, and can attest to it's status as a classic among golden ginger ales. Apparently it's is also popular with retirees in Florida, who yearn for a more innocent time, when they operated steam presses by the Cuyahoga River and drank cases of the stuff.
As the name suggests, Dr. Wells is a Dr. Pepper-esque beverage based out of Indiana. Found in select local markets, the same company also produces a very good root beer called Dad’s. There are quite a few Dr. Pepper rip offs, all with amusing names like Dr. Radical, Dr. Wild, Dr. A+, Dr. Thunder, Dr. Zeppa, and of course, Mr. Pibb. They pretty much all taste the same, which is to say, like a bargain basement Dr. P. Drink these for the entertainment value.