The room is sterile and splashed with bright, primary colors. I'm sitting alone in one of the eleven Swig locations found across Utah, the state's primary dirty soda franchise. Swig is one of several businesses founded on the concept of spiking regular soda with flavored Torani shots, and calling it "dirty." The shop is empty, but the six girls behind the counter are churning out dirty soda after dirty soda like a Ford factory line for the row of cars currently stalled in their drive-thru.
My order's finally up and I try not to cringe as I take my first sip of the foamy, blazing Barbie-pink elixir in front of me. I start off with The Missionary, the namesake of Salt Lake City's Mormon missionaries. It's my first encounter with Utah's notorious beverage of choice. Forty-four ounces of Sprite, coconut creamer, and a healthy dose of watermelon-strawberry-coconut Torani syrup. It's absolutely as saccharine as it sounds. I attempt to discern individual flavors in the beverage, but I can only picture cotton candy that's been liquified, carbonated, and splashed with coconut concentrate.
The dividing line between your average soda and a dirty soda is pretty simple: According to Swig manager Rachel Read, you just "add coconut flavoring."
OK, so it sounds basic enough, but the variations on these spiked drinks have sparked a wildfire of dirty soda establishments across the state. Each with an overtly peppy, chromatic environment filled with an army of young, ponytailed women rapidly mixing and pouring the syrupy concoctions for the endless parade of drive-thru customers.
In a place where nearly all addictive substances are prohibited by the religious Mormon majority, it's safe to say that sugar reigns here. Dirty sodas have garnered a cult of followers, most of whom are fiercely loyal to one soda shop over another—Swig and Sodalicious are primary competitors, and the passion in their rivalry is comparable to small town football games.
Most customers I talk to say that they come in once or even twice a day to get their fix. Read acknowledges that there seemed to be an addictive element to it, which for many customers, "will just make or break their day."
Besides the obvious sugar rush that dirty soda provides, these shops seem to have assumed the dual role of the morning Starbucks fix and the happy hour gathering spot for a population denied both of these indulgences.
As I politely sip on my Missionary, I ask her how many calories are in this thing. She shakes her head. "I don't even want to know."
I speak with Mike Yates, who makes a trip almost every day to pick up his mother's off-the-menu order: Diet Sprite, raspberry puree, four freshly squeezed lemons, and four limes. Without the coconut, it's not technically a dirty soda, but it definitely gets the job done.
Inspired, I next opt for The Candy Girl—Mountain Dew, four pumps of coconut syrup, strawberries, and a handful of limes. It might just be my unrefined soda palate, or my general intolerance for fructose altogether, but after each dirty soda I try, it all muddles into that bottomless soda fountain concoction flavoring I'd make at fast food stops as a kid. Despite the diversity of recipes for each, I feel like I just dumped ten packets of Sweet'N Low into a Sprite.
Despite my dispassionate feelings toward these tainted liquids, I must admit it's an ingenious product and business model for Utah locals, where 60 percent of the population is Mormon.
When Brigham Young and the other Mormon pioneers settled the state in 1847, they brought their strict teetotalling, anti-"hot drink," tobacco-less dietary code known as "The Word of Wisdom" with them. For over a century, there raged some serious debates over the meaning of "hot drinks," with many interpreting it as a restriction on all caffeinated beverages.
In 2012, however, the Church of Latter-day Saints clarified in an explicit statement that church doctrine did not prohibit caffeine, but only drinks that were actually hot. Coke products were officially welcomed into LDS. It might just be coincidence, but since dirty soda first appeared on Utah's scene five years ago, the franchises have exploded. Dirty sodas have become more than a novel beverage; they have enmeshed themselves into the culture of Utah. Dirty soda shops are where you take the kids after soccer practice, where you go on a first date, where you stop in the morning, and where you go after work to treat yourself after your long day.
Science says when we consume sugar, our brains release a massive amount of dopamine, and the effects are highly addictive. So as I might not be the biggest proponent of these sugar-injected soda drinks, I can absolutely get behind the need to fulfill a daily vice.