Collecting old cans and bottles of soda, preferably full, is one of the things about me that I try to hide from those closest. It's a shameful hobby, I admit, but it's not my fault God wired me in such a way that I cannot live without two sealed cans of Surge serving as bookends for six or seven really light books. Because sodas obviously grow rare when they're discontinued, they aren't exactly the cheapest thing to collect. So, let's try to squeeze an article out of them to justify the fact that I can't afford new soda because I bought too much ten-year-old soda.
Below are eleven of the most-dead soft drinks in my collection, each with its own story to tell, each way past its expiration date. Relive the glories of things you used to drink!
Crystal Pepsi: I think part of the reason why Crystal Pepsi was considered such a flop is because Pepsi built up its debut like the second coming of Christ. I mean, you buy a minute-long Superbowl commercial where Van Halen credits Crystal Pepsi as the root of a cultural evolution, and you damn well better be more than a can of Pepsi without any brown in it.
Still, it was one of those things that people had to try at least once. There was no excuse for avoiding a novelty factor that high. A childhood friend and I forced his little sister into doing a blind taste test, and we were shocked when she couldn't tell which glass was regular Pepsi and which was Crystal Pepsi. I don't think the phrase "BOOYAH" had even been coined yet, but there we were, screaming it at this poor little idiot girl who couldn't tell Pepsi from its bastard naked cousin named after the worst secondary character from Roseanne history.
Trying to market soda as something pure is a fool's game, but the truth is, Crystal Pepsi didn't taste that much different than the regular stuff. It was different, but not hideously different. People slammed the taste, but most of our gripes were on a psychological level. It looked like a citrus drink, or worse, really flat Pepsi. Proper, non-fruity soda is supposed to look like sewer water.
After sales went to shit, Pepsi tried to capitalize on our wrongful assumptions of Crystal Pepsi by transforming it into "Crystal By Pepsi," which was actually meant to taste like citrus soda. I'm a bit unclear as to what the thought process was for this strategy, because it was basically them saying, "Well, you assume our product tastes like some crap you don't like, so we're going to actually make it taste like that crap you don't like." Needless to say, Crystal By Pepsi lasted half as long as its already short-lived predecessor. (1993)
Coke II: Most of you know the basics of the Great New Coke Fiasco of '85, where Coca-Cola made friends with Father Suicide by recalculating its star beverage for no good reason at all. Losing some (not a lot, but some) of their market share to Pepsi, the Coke folks freaked out and tried to make Coca-Cola taste more like Pepsi.
For better or for worse, millions of people had spent years absorbing Coke and growing to consider its acid-like sting as an extension of their lives. Changing Coca-Cola sounded downright sacrilegious, but since people didn't want to look like retards who'd claim "blasphemy" over a cornerstone of Americana switching from sugar to corn syrup, we just got spiteful and said that New Coke tasted like shit. Really, it tasted like any other soda, but when you're pissy, you go for the throat.
The company only halfway caved at first, keeping New Coke but bringing back the original formula as "Coca-Cola Classic," a moniker that stuck for far longer than needed, because I remember drinking cans with Coca-Cola Classic logos on them wayyyy after New Coke had finally been annihilated.
Only, it wasn't annihilated forever. Stubbornly refusing to collect their losses and move on, Coca-Cola brought the beverage back as "Coke II" in 1990, where it survived on life support for over a decade in just a few cities across the country. One of those cities was Chicago, and even when I visited a friend there in 2001, Coke II was still on store shelves. I'm still kicking myself for not picking up a 12-pack and figuring out some way to wall-mount it over my television. Now it's been completely discontinued, and I hate that, because it's so cool when sodas get sequels. (1990)
Pepsi's Wild Bunch: I realize that it's still hard for many of you to grasp the concept of a "soda collectors' market," but I swear, it exists, and it's given me powerful knowledge about soft drinks most of the world never knew existed. Sharing this information is what makes me special.
In 1991, the folks at Pepsi had their big annual company picnic, and let's just say that the grass had never been so green. The next day, Pepsi put into motion a plot to introduce three new fruit-boosted brands in the hopes that Wild Cherry Pepsi's success could be, literally and figuratively, bottled.
This trio of would-be conquerors was collectively known as the "Pepsi Wild Bunch," and I CANG UNDERSTANG why it never made it past a few test markets. Maybe they just tried too hard -- aside from throwing a 6-pack here and a 12-pack there at a bargain price, Pepsi actually sold the new flavors in a boxed three-pack, meant to look like a shipping crate from the jungles of Sha'boochla. "Fresh from the tropics," they claimed.
When you got inside the box, the three bold new Pepsi flavors stood tall, almost daring you to drink them. The three soda entries below mark one of the Internet's only resources on these lost Pepsi flavors, a fact that makes me prouder than a new parent after his kid's first shit.
Strawberry Burst Pepsi: This is my favorite of the three Wild Bunch flavors, but since I never actually tasted them, I'm just going on pure hypothesis and cool can designs. I'd be curious to know just how much different Strawberry Burst was from Wild Cherry Pepsi. Probably just a bit sweeter. Since most stores aren't willing to dedicate a second aisle to soft drinks just because some tyrant at Pepsi wants to make 146,000 different kinds of it, it's likely that the Wild Bunch failed because the public and the stores they shopped in felt like they'd already hit their limit on the amount of Pepsi brands they could introduce to their lives.
While regular soda often goes fruity, the reason so many fruity takes on classic soft drinks go extinct is because...well, cherry was an anomaly. Cherry worked because diners made their own Cherry Coke and Cherry Pepsi concoctions during the soda boom of the 1950s, and there was a residual interest. Cherry worked in soda not because it was a fruit, but because it was one of the only fruits that could get away with swimming in our soda. (1991)
Raging Razzberry Pepsi: Raspberry soft drinks came into fashion in recent years, but the artificial raspberry flavoring of today is far different from the artificial raspberry flavoring of yesteryear. After all, 1991 was the peak of the infamous "blue raspberry" craze, where every company in the world charged with producing edibles fueled the madness with blue raspberry spins on classic products, turning everyone's tongues ridiculous colors in the process.
Blue raspberry, of course, tasted nothing like real raspberries. The flavor was better described as the "deeply sugariest sugary sugar," and since Raging Razzberry Pepsi arrived in '91, it stands to reason that it too considered raspberry not so much as a tart berry, but as a license to sugarfy soda like it'd never been sugarfied before. Spellcheck hated this paragraph to death. (1991)
Tropical Chill Pepsi: The final brother of the Wild Bunch and its most androgynous member, Tropical Chill Pepsi didn't want you to know what it was made of. The can features images of pineapples and of another fruit that could've been a grapefruit or an orange or even a cantaloupe. The written description on the can only told us that it was "Peps-Cola with tropical fruit."
Now, I've heard of everything from cherries to lemons being referred to as a "tropical fruit." In the world of artificial flavors, it's a pretty vague term. So, I imagine that the fun in drinking Tropical Chill Pepsi lied mostly in trying to discern the different fruits that composed it upon each sip. "Hmm, that one tasted like it had a little banana in it." "Uh oh...think I hit mango on that last swig." It was sort of like that dinner drug Wonka gave Violet, only without a climax worth telling your friends about later. (1991)
Tropical Chill sounds more offbeat than the other two Wild Bunchers, but it doesn't matter which was best and which was worst -- all three flavors came and went in unison, and the Wild Bunch never made it out of test markets. That's why the person standing next to you should make a foghorn sound effect whenever you mention them.
Surge: Surge remains wildly popular today. Few soda brands have fully fleshed-out fan sites, but I've come across online tributes to Surge featuring everything from love poems to a drawing of a ducks drinking Surge from a straw, with the caption, "Even Ducks Like It."
Surge was Coke's chosen opponent for Pepsi's Mountain Dew brand, and while its chief usage was by video gamers binge-playing for nights on end, the commercials insinuated that it was actually fuel for people who liked to rig bungee equipment off untested cliffs so they could live life to the extreme.
After some roof-raising successes beginning after the drink's debut in the late '90s, Coca-Cola ultimately discontinued Surge. But, since it was already a widespread and totally national release, Surge lovers had ample time to stock their garages with as many cases as they could find, and even today, it's not impossible to find 12-packs on eBay. Here's the kicker: People generally aren't bidding on 'em for "collectible" purposes. No, they want to drink it!
While I remember Surge mostly for a series of commercials on WCW Monday Nitro where Bill Goldberg held a can to the camera and threatened to kill my momma with it yarrrrrr, I was never into soft drinks from the Mountain Dew side of the pie graph. Upon tasting it yesterday for the first time, however flat it was, I can see where the fascination comes from. It's good, and it's really green. It's like drinking magic juice.
After Surge's demise, its fan were up in arms. This had happened before when beloved sodas got the ax, but Surge marked the first time that people had something called an Internet to let their voices be heard as one. Oh, the many online petitions that were signed. Oh, the many forum signatures edited to enlist the clueless to the Surge-saving cause. Pointless? Not really. At least according to those who protested, it's largely due to these virtual picketers that Coke released a drink called "Vault" a few years later. People claimed that Vault tasted much like Surge in a very intentional way, but I've tried both and I just don't see it. Maybe it's because the two beverages were entirely different colors. That seemed like a pretty big tip-off that we were grabbing at straws. (1997)
Pepsi Cool Cans: Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat, because the Pepsi itself was totally normal with nothing new about it. Only the cans were given an upgrade. I was in the 5th grade when Pepsi Cool Cans burst on the scene in 1990, advertised by a great commercial where some famous rapper whose name escapes me sung his little heart out in tribute to the redressed Pepsi cans. The promotion was boosted by some correlating contest where soda drinkers could win wads of cash, but that was all secondary to the real treat: Drinking Pepsi out of wacky new cans!
There were four Cool Cans available. Three of them featured bright and sunny imagery of people doing summery things, but the fourth one, shown above, was such a rapid departure from the packaging norm that there wasn't a soda drinker on the planet who didn't stand up and point to it as the greatest thing in history. As the four can designs came out one week after the next, or something like that, my friends and I waited with bated breath, or something like that, for the ultra swank neon can. I've long considered Coke as being a little edgier than Pepsi. Maybe it's the hipster polar bears, or because it's named after hard drugs. Still, in the summer of 1990, the neon black Cool Can pushed Pepsi miles ahead of Coca-Cola. We were drinking Vegas.
The neon Cool Can went on to even greater fame for allowing the thirsty to spell out the word "SEX" by stacking one can on top of another in a specific way. See how it was done over at Snopes. My biggest regret in life is that I didn't hear about this wonderful trick back then, as teaching people in the schoolyard how to spell "SEX" with soda cans surely would've made me captain of the kickball team. (1990)
Orbitz: Orbitz was made by Clearly Canadian, who if you'll recall were neck-and-neck with Mistic for jurisdiction over the realm of sodas that posed as fruit-flavored waters. Orbitz was much like regular Clearly Canadian fruit sodas, save for two important differences: It was a lot thicker, and it had tiny candy balls from Jupiter floating around inside it.
Yes, it's that drink -- the one with the balls. While Orbitz drinks would've seemed worlds apart from the competition sheerly on the merits of their oddball flavors (Pineapple Banana Cherry Coconut?), it was the dozens of gelatinous, colored balls floating around each bottle that made it famous. The balls were more or less flavorless, serving only to soak up whatever flavors their liquid homes bore. This was like the kiddy version of the holy flakes in a bottle of Goldschlager.
I remember buying them in the Woodbridge Mall over in Jersey, for no other reason than the fact that the Woodbridge Mall was the only place around that sold Orbitz. So, I'd buy it, and I'd wander around the mall sucking up piles of Fruit Roll-Up feces with a straw, and only now do I realize what an asshole I must've looked like. As the brand boasted screwy flavor varieties that were a real round of Russian Roulette to try, the public refused to push Orbitz past its status on the novelty echelon. It wasn't long before its makers realized that they couldn't survive on the sales of curious five-year-old girls alone.
The drinks weren't carbonated. This and other factors have made Orbitz almost safe to drink if you're still able to find them. Of course, it was hard for me to guzzle down sips of something "Pineapple Banana Cherry Coconut" flavored and not chalk up what I was tasting to an expiration date past, but on the other hand, it didn't kill me. I can't decide if the floating balls look more like pastina or tadpole larva or the end result of trying to grab a piece of Styrofoam out of its container with too much force. There was nothing like Orbitz previous to its debut, and there hasn't been anything like it since. (1996)
Pepsi Blue: Of all the soda failures to occur after the turn of the century, none have been more legendary than Pepsi Blue, the extremely misfired "Berry Cola Fusion" experiment that turned brother against brother and sent an entire nation into despair.
Had Pepsi opted to release the drink as its own brand and not as some kind of mutated, alien blue version of its primary offering, maybe it would've caught on. As someone who indeed gave Pepsi Blue a shot, I can confirm that when we first put our lips to the bottle, we had "okay, this stuff is going to taste somewhat like regular Pepsi" running through our heads. Of course, it didn't taste like Pepsi, nor was it meant to. Assaultingly fruity with a color to match, Pepsi Blue catered to everyone who rubbed genie lamps and wished that they could "drink candy."
I hated the stuff. You know how certain hard candies contain a liquid center, and how that liquid center is always excessively tangy and causes your face to contort into all kinds of sourpusses? Pepsi Blue was a whole bottle of that.
What really bothers me is that, in theory, blue soda sounds so can't-miss. I knew from the second I tasted it that I was not a fan, but man, I really wish I was. (2002)
Pepsi Fire & Pepsi Ice: Wow, this article sure is Pepsi-heavy. I knew I should've bought that can of OK Soda when I had the chance.
I'm actually not sure if Pepsi Fire and Pepsi Ice were ever available in the States. The bottles above came from another country, but everything is written in English and the bottle labels' legal lines aren't helping to clue me in. If they ever were in the States, they're gone now.
Pepsi Fire was subtitled "Cola on Fire," tasting like a car accident between a can of Pepsi and a bottle of ground cinnamon. Pepsi Ice, or "Ice Mint Cola," tasted just like mouthwash. Seriously. Neither were/are any good, but they certainly looked the part. Pepsi Fire was a rich red, while Pepsi Ice was even more blue than Pepsi Blue was, even though that sounds impossible as I type it.
Further research tells me that these brands were sold in places like Guam and Thailand, and that they were "limited editions." I think that's a bit of revisionist history. My bottle labels don't say anything about them being "limited." Pepsi just doesn't want to admit that they tanked. Shame on you, Pepsi. (2005)
In foreign nations, both Pepsi and Coke have tried out all kinds of brands that we were never privy to. There was Australia's mango and tamarind flavored Pepsi Samba, for example. This is one of the reasons that I'll spend more time in the supermarkets than seeing the sights should I ever visit another country. I can't wait to hit Japan's 7-11 for polybagged tea eggs and Rice Coke.
In the months to come, it's entirely likely that I'll have accumulated enough weird, old sodas to give this article a Part II. Whether I go through with that or not is up in the air, because having done it once, I know that it's actually really hard to write more than six words about old soda.