Like Sugar Through an Hourglass: Looking Back at 10 Sodas of the Past
Ah, sweet soda, the liquor of the child. A dedication to unadulterated, pure sugar, throwing nutrition to the wind. Perhaps one of the great culinary achievements of our age, one that, sent back in time, would be considered a genuine elixir of the gods. I have no doubt I could barter an ice-cold Coca-Cola with the pharaohs for at least one of the Great Pyramids. Even such an unassailable product, though, occasionally goes far enough to find at what point their wings are made of wax.
Let’s look back at 10 sodas that didn’t survive their day in the sun.
Probably the most immediate candidate of collective nostalgia is Surge. It was initially conceived by Coca-Cola as an attempt to steal away market share from Pepsi’s big green market monster, Mountain Dew. Mountain Dew still rides high today in a million variations, and has somehow, in a muted victory, become the official soda of gamers everywhere. Surge, meanwhile, is all but gone, unless you feel like forking out a premium for a probably-spoiled can of a soda that didn’t inspire confidence in its drinkability from day one. Not that people don’t miss it.
The tapioca-balled tea known as boba has started to gain a foothold in the U.S., but it’s still an unsure textural journey for a lot of drinkers. Personally, I’m not a fan, as I like tea just fine without it feeling like a child is firing a series of soft BBs into the roof of my mouth. So, years before, when a soda-maker attempted something similar in a fizzy soft drink filled with small edible balls, it was an even harder sell. The soda was called Orbitz, and looked more like an indication that you need to change your Brita filter than a fun twist on a beloved beverage.
Some people exhibit surprise that massive soda companies weren’t the ones to crack the energy drink market before Red Bull flew in on a reformulated Thai energy tonic recipe and took over the market. I’m sure no one hates this more than the companies in question, as they’d made many attempts at energy sodas over the years, none of which got lucky enough to take. Despite Josta debuting in 1995 with both the backing of cola giant PepsiCo and the magic ingredient of guarana that’s essential in any modern energy drink, it was simply ahead of its time. It didn’t even make enough of an impression to become a go-to nostalgia mention, at least until Marvel’s Loki stirred it loose for a lot of people.
The more you look into sodas past, the more obvious it becomes that the continued success of Mountain Dew is squarely stuck in Coca-Cola’s craw. Pepsi’s weird little green goblin continually haunts the dreams of Coke executives as the cold one that they can’t seem to crack (don’t even mention Mello Yello to me, we all know that’s a joke). Years after Surge failed, they decided to take another shot at the Green King, this time with a heavily caffeinated soda called Vault. Again, they were found wanting. A sorrow for me personally, as I will admit, I genuinely loved Vault, and it probably inspires the most yearning of any drink on this list.
If the Big Two couldn’t make the world ready for energy drinks, what hope did independent soda makers have? Despite the challenge ahead, C.J. Rapp forged ahead, seeing an opening in the market for a soda that could rival the red-eye potential of coffee. It didn’t see much need for subtlety in marketing, and it was a less health-conscious age, so they slapped a clear value prop on the can: “All the sugar and twice the caffeine.” For what was basically a small local soda maker, in an era where specialty wasn’t a selling point, Jolt actually achieved a remarkable level of success, but when you’re crowded between Pepsi and Coke, remarkable isn’t enough.
One particular market Jolt found a home with was the computer nerd, who took a quantitative approach to caffeine to keep them awake through long coding hours or gaming sessions. The undisputed King of the LAN Party, though, was a drink that maybe came the closest to settling into Red Bull territory: Bawls. It came in an iconic tall blue bottle, studded like a her-pleasure condom, and was so embedded in computer culture that website ThinkGeek sold it direct. It’s still occasionally spotted today, but to actually find it is a quest that would feel right at home in a JRPG.
Super Mario Soda
Given the recent massive success of the Super Mario movie, it’s almost surprising no one thought to dust off the recipe for the strange soda that was released alongside the first movie. Companies don’t often miss a chance to double-dip in nostalgia like that, even if today’s parents aren’t exactly as laissez-faire about handing strange drinks to their children. The soda line, including Mario Punch, Luigi Berry, Yoshi Apple and Princess Toadstool Cherry, has inspired a Change.org petition, but odds aren’t looking good for the manufacturer, Shasta, to make it reality.
Over the years, Pepsi and Coca-Cola seem determined not to learn one repeated lesson: Don’t mess with the classics. Soda spin-offs have found success here and there, but when it comes to their flagship products, any minuscule change is usually met with doubt and confusion. It’s a tantalizing catch-22 they’re faced with — they own two of the most recognizable beverages in the world, but any variation they try is immediately treated as almost an off-brand knockoff. So when Pepsi decided to put the tooth enamel of the world at risk with a bright blue Pepsi called, bluntly, Pepsi Blue, they should have predicted its trajectory. The most they ever achieved was getting their commercial backing track, Sev’s “Same Old Song,” onto the Rio MP3 player of a young me.
Coca-Cola and coffee might be two of the world’s most beloved beverages. When they share a can, though, somehow nobody wants part of either one. At least in the U.S. Coke Blak (stylized in an even more obnoxious, 1990s fashion that I don’t think keyboards can even do anymore) was Coke’s attempt to court the coffee market. It landed with the grace of a fat loogie on the American market, and was immediately on its last legs. Outside the U.S., the drink was fairly popular, which was maybe the impetus for Coke to recently try (and fail) to launch a Coke-coffee chimera again.
New Coke and Crystal Pepsi
I have to include them, because they’re basically fabled monarchs of soda missteps, and because somebody would yell at me if I didn’t. That said, I don’t find either of them particularly interesting. “Pepsi but it looks weird” and “Coke but it tastes weird” never should have made it past a thought embryo, and they’re more a testament to hubris than any actual soda-craft. Not like my beloved Vault.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.