The land of off-brand soda is vast and largely uncharted. The tastes these beverages hold exist only inside of their cans and can't be found anywhere else in the whole world. It’s like a Willy Wonka of weird water, and I found a golden ticket.
I don’t drink soda very often. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just that after age 12 I never felt like having more than a shot of it every now and then. Soft drinks are designed for children with tiny, discerning pallets, unimpressed with the flavors provided by actual food. That said, some of the tastes in these beverages exist only inside of their cans and cannot be found anywhere else in the whole world. It’s like a Willy Wonka land of weird water, and who would be such a fool as to not sometimes dunk their tongue in the chemical concoctions and see what’s good?
I decided to veer away from the recognizable labels and see what life is like on the wild side of the soda pop biz.
15 calories per 12 fl oz/12 g sugar
Kill Cliff calls itself a “Recovery Drink,” or, rather, “THE Recovery Drink,” being conceptually healthy in that it is “naturally sweetened” and only 15 calories a can. I found it over with the Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, like maybe it's strategically placed next to the high-end shit to make you think it's good, a can of cola all on its own. The text on the side of the can claims that the drink was “developed by a former US Navy Seal” to “improve endurance and speed recovery.” It’s unclear who the Seal was, and why he thought “Kill Cliff” would be a good name for a revitalization beverage. They also employ the tagline “Test Positive for Awesome,” which is maybe closer to an AIDS joke than should be on a can of soda.
The first sip reminds me of if Sweet Tarts were a liquid and strained through a pair of men’s briefs after a short doubles’ tennis match in a domed arena. It’s all puckery and buzzing around the edges, and when it hits the back of the throat it immediately provides the feeling of having recently barfed. This post-barf expression kind of kneads its way back and forth across the tongue and palate like electricity. I take a second sip to cover up the first, and the buzzing strain appears again, redoubled. I kind of already have a headache.
As I get deeper into the can, my brain becomes warm. It feels like my head is flooding with acid, and I can only tolerate the sensation by drinking so fast I can’t taste anything. When I stop my head is spinning, and I feel full of gasoline.
I might recommend Kill Cliff to remove paint or to dissolve the bars on a prison cell, but as far as liquid designed to go inside my body is concerned, no.
Marley’s Mellow Mood (Berry Flavor)
165 calories per 12 fl oz/29 g sugar
Sniffing the edge of the can’s mouth before I take a swig, I get the full bouquet of chemical fruit fun, suggesting what I’m about to drink is again going to come from the “Sick Fake Candy” food group. So I’m shocked when the liquid hits my lips and the first thing I think is actually, Hey, this IS smooth! Maybe it’s the dead rock icon on the can with the marijuana colors that brainwashed me into this feeling, though more likely it’s how, compared to Kill Cliff, this shit is like white sturgeon caviar. More watered-down Hawaiian Punch than actual soda, there is also a delicate flavor similar to the air in a bong shop lurking just behind the first curve of berry. The mixture is confusing, hairy, seemingly as unsure of itself as I am of it, but at least I don’t want to do an immediate spit-take.
In vast contrast to Kill Cliff’s on-can text, Marley’s Mellow Mood warns the drinker that it might make him fall asleep. The ingredients include extracts of chamomile, lemon balm, valerian root, hops, and passionflower, all of which together provide this soothing beverage its strange tone. Swishing it around in my mouth reminds me of swimming in a backyard pool that you know has piss in it but the sun is out and the water is warm, so fuck it.
I guess I’d drink this eventually if I were locked in a room with it and only it.
Dry Cucumber Soda
45 calories per 12 fl oz/11 g sugar
I like this can better than the others. Its marketing is sparse enough to let me breathe and hear my own thoughts. I’m actually not afraid to drink this.
I’m so used to fruit flavors in beverages that I’m a bit taken aback when the liquid tastes just like water, and then up from the water emerges the smell and taste of grass, fresh-cut grass rolling with bubbles that hiss around my teeth. The “cucumber” in this drink is shockingly close to actual cucumber, which is unpleasant. I like my soda and candy flavors to taste nothing at all like the fruits they represent. I don’t drink grape and orange soft drinks for their authentic grape and orange tastes, and I wouldn’t imagine people buy Dry Cucumber Soda because they want to drink a cucumber.
At least, unlike the others so far, I don’t feel like seconds are being shaved off my life every time I swallow a gulp of this.
Zevia (Dr. Zevia Flavor)
0 calories per 12 fl oz/4 g carbs
Zevia is a really weird name for something to drink, despite the fact that it’s derived from Stevia, the natural sweetener the beverage uses and something that sounds like pool chemicals to me. Also weird is that the flavor I picked out, among 15 total options, is not grape or lime or something recognizable but the flavor Dr. Zevia. If you are healthy enough to care about Zevia’s natural sweetener, or the fact that it’s vegan, kosher, and gluten-free, are you really buying fake corporate soda for a fun time?
It’s good that they let the consumer know the drink will have some similarity to Dr. Pepper, though, because that’s the only part making this soda remotely palatable. There are like 35 different flavors crammed in here at once: a splash of Dr. Pepper, sure, alongside what seems to be chalk, hairnets, disinfectant, children’s bathwater, a baseball glove, some raisins, Windex, Evian, pee. I’ve honestly never experienced so many bad tastes at the same time in the same space. If you drank this long enough, I think, you could grow into one of the X-Men, one whose power is to push feces out through his pores and scare away the enemy.
This beverage requires me, at this late stage in the experiment, to switch over to spitting the soda out into a bucket after tasting, like wine, though this is very far from wine, and even with it out of my mouth I’m thinking about 9/11 and that dead baby in the car in Georgia. Sometimes I’m just flabbergasted how products get through the creation stage and the taste-testing stage and the customer feedback stage and the marketing stage and the shipping stage and the sales stage without anybody ever being like, “Dude, the fuck is this?”
190 calories per can/51 g sugar
When I crack the can and get a sniff of the 7UP it smells like real-ass fake fruit is supposed to smell, activating chemical memories in me way back to Sprite Remix, which always makes me think of R. Kelly for some reason, and Crystal Clear Pepsi, the god of all drinks.
The 7UP has real sugar, a gift after all these other brands trying to sell me into believing I’m drinking something healthy when everyone knows “healthy” soft drinks are just placebo water against the fantasy drink you remember as a kid. I don’t feel like puking when I drink this, which is maybe bad, because you’re not supposed to not want to puke when you put acid and color dye and high-fructose corn syrup in your flesh.
I can’t believe this can is as big as it is, because it feels like one swig of this stuff provides a lifetime of it, echoing back through ghosts of my throat and pounding through my flesh walls. I have never not been drinking this one drink, it wants me to believe, and it has a team of scientists who are hellishly good at concocting the Jim Jones–style mixture to make me believe.
But already I can feel my teeth are changing. It’s like they’re all wearing little coats. After more than an hour sipping these drinks, my throat feels sore, and my brain is throbbing at the front and somewhere near the center it feels like I might have a tumor.
These liquids have taken over my whole day, in a way that only sweat and sleep can clear out. Drink any or all of the hundreds of kinds of bizarre soda options in any aisle and you’ll be a different person through and through, I’m sure. You might be bulletproof. You might have no marrow but candy-colored carbonation.
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An earlier version of this article referred to cucumbers as vegetables. As a commenter pointed out, cucumbers are fruits, not vegetables. We are humiliated and regret the error.