It's baaack! Last year, the world done gone went crazy for Jones Soda's first annual Holiday Pack, a boxed set of five sense-assaulting flavors, turning everything from "Turkey & Gravy" to "Green Bean Casserole" into a carbonated soft drink. While the offerings were made mostly in jest, the Holiday Packs became an absolute phenomenon, selling out almost immediately after hitting the shelves, or in this case, the electronic storefront on Jones Soda's website. Speaking from experience, the flavors were absolutely wretched, but it was the kind of wretched that few could resist experiencing once. Through media coverage, word of mouth and the fact that the Holiday Packs were bloggers' chosen flavor of the month, the nicely boxed sets were fetching up to and over a hundred bucks a pop on eBay. With that kind of success, could anyone expect Jones Soda to let the coals fizzle out on their turkey & gravy train? No way. As expected, there's a new Holiday Pack for 2005...

Actually, there's two. It's a brilliant scheme. What you're seeing above is what you'll be seeing the most of this year -- the 2005 National Jones Soda Holiday Pack, sold at Target, which retains two of the flavors from last year's set while introducing three new ones. There's also a much harder to find Regional Holiday Pack, sold only at specialty retailers in select cities. That one's going to be the "chaser" for the season, but for everyone else, the set shown above is out now in strong numbers at Target stores nationwide, going for a perfectly acceptable eleven bucks.

The flavors for this year: "Turkey & Gravy," "Cranberry Sauce," "Pumpkin Pie," "Brussels Sprout" and "Wild Herb Stuffing." It's a complete holiday meal, however liquefied, and all of the sodas are...calorie free? Diet turkey soda? It's here that we're reminded that the sodas are only meant to mimic the flavors of the meals they're based on -- it's not like they're juicing turkey meat. The flavors are collectively a subjective success, meaning that they in some way really do taste like the meals they're named for. I call this a "subjective" success because...well, soda patterned after herb stuffing isn't something I can objectively champion. Plus, I'm still pissed over one of the labels confirming that I've made the lifelong faux pas of calling Brussels sprout "Brussel sprouts." They don't give mini Carvel cakes to idiots.

The ambiance of the Holiday Pack does much to make the flavors seem less like something that could potentially kill someone. Stuffed neatly in an oversized box, the package features all sorts of nostalgic holiday graphics, arriving with a serving spoon, a moistened towelette that smells so much like Froot Loops, and unbelievably enough, a wine list providing excellent suggestions on which of your gross sodas work best with medium-bodied wines and which work best with full-bodied wines. By the time all of that soaks in, you almost forget that you're about to drink something capable of setting off fire alarms if attempted to bring past airport security check-gates. And that doesn't even make sense, so you can imagine what kind of little demon drinks we're dealing with here. I think I'm going to need help on this one.

At the office after work hours last Friday, the five brave souls seen above agreed to sacrifice their time and stomachs for the good of mankind, or maybe because I offered money, or maybe because they know I carry a gun. For their protection, we'll use pseudonyms. From left to right, we have Viv (the only surviving taste-tester from last year's review), Marty, Granger, Wilma and Betty. Here, they're smiling. They hadn't tasted anything yet.

Last year's taste-test was a premeditated effort. The volunteers had several hours to let the idea of turkey soda sink in, and gross as it may have been, they were prepared for it. Aside from Viv, everyone else was pretty much grabbed five minutes before the experiment began. They had no idea what they were in for, and my explanation offered little help: "Hi come here drink this turkey juice be on my website smile for camera thanks now drink the stuffing juice." Verbatim, this is what they had to go on.

Through what I'm hoping were great lengths and not just the messy addition of various Easter egg dyes, the flavors look as they should. "Turkey & Gravy" is brown, "Wild Herb Stuffing" is yellowish, so on and so forth. Of the five flavors, "Cranberry Sauce" and "Pumpkin Pie" didn't seem too scary. For Viv and I, even "Turkey & Gravy" was at least familiar. In terms of fear, our eyes were focused squarely on the villainous tag team of "Wild Herb Stuffing" and "Brussels Sprout." Briefly, the team discussed strategies on how to "fake drink" it. Sensing a flop out the gate, a compromise was struck, being that they had to really drink it, but they only had to drink a little bit of it. I say this because some of the pictures might give the impression that this was all staged. It wasn't. They really drank it, their reactions are legit, and truth be told, I'm pretty sure none of them want to be my friend anymore.

Turkey & Gravy: The team was allowed to choose their first offense, and perhaps wanting to get the worst over with, they opted for "Turkey & Gravy." Arriving in a brown that's a bit more akin to gravy than turkey skin, the stuff smells like a vat of really good caramel topped with really bad cheese. As with most of Jones Soda's more peculiar flavors, it becomes an issue of needing to sniff and taste the wares twice to really understand it. What I mean is, when you first smell "Turkey & Gravy," it's all about the gag reflex. You're disgusted. You're never going to look at turkey the same way again. On subsequent sniffs, the shock wears thin and you realize that it's actually a lot closer to bad candy than turkey meat -- and people would likely take bad candy soda over good turkey soda without exception.

The taste-testers would only agree to an inch-filled plastic cup's worth, but I'm sitting here with a freshly opened case. I really want to give each of the flavors a fair shake, so I'm going to sip 'em all a few times before typing whatever insulting adjectives my fingers decide to type. Having done that, I can safely say that "Turkey & Gravy" does not improve. You drink it once, it's awful. You drink it a dozen times, it's still just as awful. Picture a really light gravy with a bunch of dissolved Chocolate Riesens mixed in, and if you can somehow envision this, add all of that to the strange taste one experiences when placing their tongue on the action end of a 9-volt battery. The aftertaste is the most critically panned aspect; it's like I went to the candy museum, spotted the first ever produced Mary Jane candy, waited for the security guard to tie his shoes and ate it. You'd have something worth bragging about if you drank turkey soda, sure, but you're really not looking to rinse and repeat.

Cranberry Sauce: Just like last year, "Cranberry Sauce" is the least scary of the Jones Soda Holiday Pack. It's much better chilled, but even at room temperature, it didn't cause any of the taste-testers to make really weird pucker faces that would've caused them to photography uglily. The soda's odor is actually more faithful to real cranberries than anything Ocean Spray produces, while the flavor itself is sadly less tart and more dumbed down -- but not exactly "bad." If it was possible to make diet cranberries, this is essentially what they'd taste like. Then again, cranberry sauce is more sweet than sour, so I guess this one's fairly close to the mark. The real downside of "Cranberry Sauce" soda is that it doesn't give anyone a story to tell. If you drink turkey, you're going to spend the next few hours telling everyone you drank turkey, with the recipients of this dubious messaging making all sorts of impressed faces. The same can't be said for "Cranberry Sauce." It's just sorta...there.

With two flavors in the can, including one that wasn't anywhere near as bad as its title suggested, the taste-testers grew overconfident. The experiment had gone from brazen to tedious in their gravely mistaken eyes. Why were they wasting their time on what were obviously just some cleverly named but otherwise "normal" bad soda flavors? Was this really a reason to leave work late on a Friday? Their concerns were put to rest after drinking the next flavor, and by that I mean, the next flavor almost killed them.

Wild Herb Stuffing: A rarity even for the mad scientists at Jones Soda, "Wild Herb Stuffing" actually tastes worse than it smells -- it's usually the other way around. If you didn't read the label and just held your nose above the bottle, you'd assume it to be some kind of fucked up butterscotch flavor. Not something you'd grab at the deli, but not something that called for the need to reconfirm your life insurance policy before drinking it.

So, after passing around the bottle for what came to be known as the "prep smell," the team felt they were ready. "Oh, this one's going to be no prob," commented one taste-tester. To be honest, I was beginning to feel foolish. I'd sold the Jones Soda Holiday Pack flavors as liquid imps sent by Satan to ruin the holiday season, and the testers were downing their poisons without any veritable signs of damnation. As I poured the "Wild Herb Stuffing" soda, its lemonade color and rather nice scent did nothing but aid my doubts. Turns out, it was all a ruse. A clever disguise. "Herb Stuffing Soda" isn't merely unpleasant -- it's the kind of thing you'd soak a rag with before cleaning rusty jewelry. It is so unbelievably bad.

The team was repulsed, and justifiably so. There's no proper way to describe the flavor. It's nothing like stuffing. If I had to guess the ingredients, I'd say milk, aspirin and lemon zest. Once again, there are no improvements in taste made on subsequent sips -- it just gets worse and worse and worse until you finally snap, throw the bottle at some old lady, smash her head, stand trial and become the first person in the history of our fine judicial system to deflect the blame for a murder on a soda company that got cheeky. Complicating matters is the fact that there's nothing to really draw a comparison with. It tastes nothing like stuffing, and the "wild herb" prefix is too vague to consider a "base" flavor. In essence, you're free to call this one whatever you want, and while saying something disgusting is "vomit flavored" has become almost passÚ, that's really what it tastes like. I eat vomit all the time. This is totally it.

Brussels Sprout: Now that the team had experienced the true evil power Jones Soda wields, they had their game faces on. I'd planned on offering them the "Pumpkin Pie" flavor next, serving as a buffer between the Twin Powers of Liquid Gross, but they themselves opted to save a less offensive flavor for last. I admired their bravado, but knowing that Jones' vegetable sodas were typically the worst of the lot, I turned and cackled. My pals were in for some serious trouble. The kind no frantic payphone call to Alec Newbary could diminish.

"Brussels Sprout" replaces last year's "Green Bean Casserole," and through the kind of dark magic powers usually reserved for upright-walking bat monkeys, it tastes even worse. The green hue is very much like what you'd expect from a soda based on Brussels sprout, being much more "earthy" than any of the less murderous lime-flavored concoctions souring up the big book of beverages. On all fronts, this is the definitive sickening soda of the 2005 Holiday Pack. It smells just as disgusting as it tastes and it tastes just as disgusting as it looks. The scent is the most overpowering of the entire collection, like a filthy dog drowned in grape juice, dead and left to rot. With Jones Soda, sometimes the smells are misleading. With "Brussels Sprout," not at all. Nothing could smell this bad and be anything but this bad. The flavor literally made me choke, and this is coming from someone who eats chicken bones. The testers were so appalled already, I didn't have the heart to tell them the whole truth. This isn't just "Brussels Sprout" soda. That's the name of the label, but it's only to save space. According to the documents inside the box, it's actually "Brussels Sprout & Prosciutto." My God.

Pumpkin Pie: The team wasn't very fond of "Pumpkin Pie," though now that I've had the chance to revisit it with a clearer head, it's really not so bad. I think they were just pissed that they'd saved the "best" flavor for last and still had to soap their mouths clean after it. In reality, "Pumpkin Pie" is sort of like an orange root beer. The aftertaste is a bit too strong for my liking, but the fact that I can get pumpkin-flavored anything down my throat is a good sign that it isn't too disgusting or in any way life-threatening. What's really amazing about these Jones Soda flavors are the colors -- I don't even know what to call this one; it's not yellow and it's not orange, but it's definitely pumpkin pie.

Our helpful taste-testers quickly scurried off to fulfill their vows to sin on the weekends, and I thank them for their help. They hate me now, but I thank them. The 2005 Jones Soda Holiday Pack surely won't create the same amount of Yuletide havoc as last year's, but I'm elated to add yet another entry to what's become a very long list of Christmastime traditions. Who cares if it's disgusting? These Holiday Packs have become just as important as leaving cookies out for Santa. Next year, I'm going to sing a verse from "Little Drummer Boy" between each sip. As mentioned, each set comes with a spoon and a moist towelette, plus a suggested wine list. Jones Soda enthusiasts are really big on the various photo sticker labels, and you'll be happy to learn that the labels vary from pack to pack. The "Pumpkin Pie" sticker seen in this article features a cat, while the sticker on my alternate pack shows an iguana wearing a tiny Santa cap -- hell yes.

Course, we've only seen the National Holiday Pack so far -- the rarer Regional Holiday Pack contains such flavors as "Smoked Salmon PÔtÚ" and "Corn on the Cob," and if knowing that isn't enough to put you on the hunt, you're an unspirited lump. You probably liked that scene in Gremlins where Mrs. Deagle mused that the destitute mother probably knew what to ask Santa for.

-- Matt (11/06/05)