Sunday, September 20, 2009

The flavour of the weak

It’s time for yet another fizzy dip.

Spar, the convenience store chain that have apparently been the official sponsor of ‘European athletics’ since 1996, have their own branded cola range. It seems that their marketing people decided that the nationality of the cola is what entices the consumer, hence their decision to go with “american diet cola” – “real american style, real american taste.”
It’s confusing enough that the label seems to call it american cola diet, but the instance of lower case for american is nearly as confusing as the idea that a cola is able to taste American. They even have a little logo on the bottle with a smidge of what looks like a New York skyline, proclaiming “Authentic American Taste” (this part is all capitals but I’m not going to replicate that here unless absolutely necessary).
They might have a point if the recipe wasn’t all chemicals, but the ingredients are the same as most colas. It does say in the blurb that it’s produced in the UK form cola flavourings imported from the USA. Because we don’t have taste labs in the UK, obviously.
Anyway, their heart’s obviously in roughly the right place as they care enough to include the adult GDAs for calories and salt and such, despite the fact that the levels in the drink are all ‘trace’.

On pouring the drink is fizzy, building a good head that lasts a fair few seconds, and leaving a good numbers of bubbles around the perimeter of the glass for a few minutes after the pour. The smell isn’t strong, giving a faint hint of cola bottle sweets. The taste is also faint, barely registering to the point that you could be forgiven for thinking it was slightly flavoured carbonated water; holding a mouthful before swallowing in an attempt to maximise the flavour makes little difference, if I didn’t already know I was drinking a cola I think it’s possible that I wouldn’t be able to identify what it was, besides it being sweet and not fruity.
In the grand scheme of things it’s hard to decide which is more important – for the cola to have a strong flavour or for that flavour not to be foul, but ultimately if you’re so very close to drinking water the only difference here is the added caffeine. Stereotypically the USA isn’t renowned for it’s subtlety, so attempting to sell this on the back of its american-ness isn’t going to do it any favours.

Spar do a vanilla flavoured version of their cola, though unfortunately only in the sugared variety.
Like the diet, this cola has only a faint whiff once you open the bottle, the vanilla is definitely present but there’s a lot less fizz on the initial pour.
First impressions? These are not the droids you are looking for. Taking a good nosefull at the edge of the glass brings in the kind of vanilla smell that you get with a vanilla coke with vodka, except that the mix has been poured in favour of the vodka leaving the acrid, poison smell of the alcohol tainting the bouquet. Hardly a good start. The first gulp fares no better; the vanilla taste is there, but in an oppressive way, coating the roof of your mouth. It is the vanilla of ice cream, but not some rich Devonshire vanilla ice cream, no, instead it has the taste of the cheapest most synthetic vanilla ice cream you could imagine – the panda cola of vanilla ice cream.

After the first couple of gulps the smell doesn’t lessen; that bitter warning remains suffused within it – “stay away, stay away”. And the taste continues to coat the roof of the mouth, barely lighting upon the tongue as if it works along the lines of a strange, reversed gravity.
It seems more and more likely that this cola was brewed using some dark magic.
Safe to say I’ve not found my diet vanilla Coke substitute in this offering.

As cola variations dwindle I have to diversify. To this end, bring on Idris drink company’s Fiery ginger beer. “Try me if you dare!!” The double exclamation marks clearly point to a beverage even more extreme than Pepsi MAX. Imagine!
Who Idris are I don’t know as it clearly states on the back that Britvic makes the drink. It uses ginger root extract, but is it fierier than other ginger beers? Not being a ginger beer connoisseur I have no idea, but I can at least see if it’s fiery.
So, fizzy on pouring but no head, the odour isn’t immediately noticeable on cracking the can, and the colouring is that of cloudy lemonade. A whiff from the glass brings a hint of ginger, but also a lot of lemon as you may expect what with citric acid being a main ingredient. And what does it taste like? Sweet lemon with a very slight ginger kick that mainly takes effect at the back of throat, lingering long after the swallow and threatening to build like hot spices, but never doing so, in a similar manner to the many moments of tension building in the film The Orphanage that see no release. Is it right to use Spanish cinema references in soft drink articles?
If you buy Fiery ginger beer in an attempt to cement your Extreme reputation then you’re likely to be disappointed, I wouldn’t say that I’m particularly resistant to spice and I find this particularly weak.

So, what’s Cherry Diet Coke like? One of Coke’s more enduring flavour experiments, Cherry Coke has been around since 1982, according to Wiki, with the diet variant around since 1986. Cherry happily seems the perfect fruity fit for Coke as it’s sweet enough not to be drowned out and yet retains its particular flavour in the mix.
Pouring acts like Coke, unsurprisingly, producing a fair amount of fizz and an average head before settling down. The smell hits straight away, though, even though the can was cracked a foot away – that unmistakeable, artificial ‘Cherry Drop” twang.
At the lip of the glass the smell is there, and for a fan of cherry-flavoured boiled sweets it’s tantalising. Nothing is given away in the ingredients to hint at where the origin of this nasal sensation is born, but the catch-all term “flavourings” no doubt masks the very same parentage as that of Basset’s Cherry Drops (Wiki search, no I don’t mean “Baroness Cherry Drums”).

And the taste? More fruity than Cokey, though the punch of the cherry is disappointingly subdued compared to the smell that this brown ooze gives off. There’s also a bit of that coating feeling that you rarely get with diet fizzy pop, particularly clinging to the tongue like a second skin. Definitely more viscous than standard Diet Coke, which dribbles down a lot more closely to standard tap water, it’s probably that mysterious chemical that does it.
Not unpleasant then, and a welcome alternative to your common or garden Diet Coke, but definitely not a vanilla beater.
Still, even if Coca Cola are unlikely to win any ethical awards any time soon they can at least bask in the pride of producing one of the most belch-worthy beverages on the shelves. Most gaseous.

Not being a man’s man, I hate ale and beer and this dislike extends to anything sharing the moniker, meaning I tar ginger beer and root beer with the same brush. Whereas the Fiery ginger beer tempted me with a promise of a challenge, root beer I have been recently informed, usually contains some amount of vanilla and so is now naturally tempting.
The Bundaberg Australian Root Beer bottle has an old school beer theme to it, the style of labelling, font, brown glass and the way the kangaroo image is used with the lightburst behind it all conjure a certain association, perhaps making this the tipple for kids to drink so that they feel like grown ups? The liquid isn’t very bubbly and the odour isn’t strong enough to carry; the colouring is very similar to cola and ultimately belongs to the same family of beverages that at one time would have been branded as tonics rather than alternatives to water. Even at the rim of the glass the odour is weak, and reminds me of the mouthwash that they use at the dentists to give you a rinse. It tastes like that to, and is a little thick, definitely leaving a bit of a sweet coating on the back of the tongue as if the sugar decided to hang back after the liquid had made its way to your epiglottis. Definitely not a taste I could get used to as the medicinal quality is never outdone by the sugar, no matter how natural the ingredients or the brewing process are supposed to be. I can detect the liquorice and the vanilla bean to some extent, but not the ginger and I’ve no idea what sarsaparilla or molasses are meant to taste like. Not something to revisit.

My tastes have certainly come a long way in the last decade or so, on from the time when I would refuse vegetables or foods with sauces (which are legion), but this small and unadventurous taste exploration into the world of the pre-prepared Western soft drink proves that I am still quite limited.


  1. SWEET! But I might suggest, you need ice for an authentic american Cola diet taste.

  2. But I don't believe that there is an authentic american cola taste, diet or otherwise, and adding ice is just going to add the taste of your local water supply.

    Ice definitely helps create the right conditions for cola drinking though - it's best ice cold.