THERE ARE SEVERAL DOZEN unusual flavors of soda on rotation at RetroSoda, a kiosk that recently opened at Fashion Show Mall with the goal of introducing thirsty wanderers to the “infinite expanse of soda products” where “something special” waits for all. Staff at the kiosk — where each bottle is lit from below like objet d’art — handle the glass bottles like sommeliers, and are eager to have an in-depth conversation about all things carbonated.
Here are six reviews from that infinite expanse — sodas chosen at random, and drunk over the course of a long, sugary afternoon.
OOGAVE GRAPEFRUIT, $4
A clear soda sweetened with agave nectar, which is agave sap, heated till sweet. Perhaps because agave is traditionally used to make tequila, this soda gives off an herbal, alcoholic flavor, but only mildly. It’s slightly fizzy and very sugary; the grapefruit flavor starts sweet and then settles, coating the tongue with a faint bitterness you can’t shake. This soda would easily lend itself to alcoholic drinks. In particular, I imagine my great spinster aunt (may she rest in peace) could have poured some into her gin and tonics. Her drinks were sick strong, until you had one or two; then they started to go down easy. My aunt drank and clipped coupons in front of the TV, which she never shut off. Not for me, not for guests. The TV was on when the mortuary carted her away — a game show. Newspapers had been piling up in her driveway for two weeks before anybody noticed. Oogave Grapefruit is organic and only has 100 calories per bottle.
EMPIRE BOTTLING WORKS BANANA, $4
This soda looks like bile and tastes like banana candy. Specifically, like the bright yellow banana Runts candy that sells for a quarter out of a machine at my neighborhood supermarket. Plenty of people hate the banana Runt, but not me. I save them for last, which stains my hot hands yellow. This soda goes down quick and sugary then sticks back in your throat — banana breath. There was a Runts machine at the roller-skating rink in my hometown, too. The rink smelled of nachos and mold, like every skating rink on the planet. Twice during my elementary school career we took field trips to the skating rink, but I never skated. I have huge feet, and was embarrassed — shoe sizes were emblazoned on each skate. Mortifying. So, instead, I sat by the snack counter, ate stale popcorn and tried to act cool while privately dying inside. This soda is only mildly carbonated and well suited for kids.
COCK ‘N BULL GINGER BEER, $4
This is a cloudy drink, strong and peppery enough to open up your nasal passages and make you sneeze. Its sharp ginger flavor goes down slow, then coils in your stomach, spicy and hot. The drink recipe supposedly goes back to 1946, when people were tougher and enjoyed things like horehound candy and sassafras. This soda is delicious, like being punched in the throat with ginger. I have never been punched or punched anyone. Not a real, closed-fist punch, in any event. I imagine your first punch must be like your first kiss — a path you cannot unwalk. I knew a retired boxer who started a bar fight and then lost, badly. That killed him faster than the head injury, I think. This soda would lend itself nicely to a Moscow mule, if you’re one of those trendy cocktail-types.
MR. Q. CUMBER, $4
This cucumber-flavored soda smells exactly like salad, and tastes like almost nothing if you hold your nose and drink it. Smelling is really the key to all tasting, and this pint-sized green bottle proves the point. Still, the powerful cucumber scent is nice on a hot day, and would probably impress your foodie friends, who like wacky flavor combinations but are so over bacon, right? Bacon in chocolate, bacon in ice cream. Enough, already. Pigs, it turns out, are about as smart as dogs. The bacon craze was just an act of collective unconscious passive-aggression — porky hedonism in an anxious, hang-wringing world, where every conversation is a minefield. Mr. Q. Cumber is refined, not too sweet, and very fizzy. I’d drink a case of it before I ever get around to the cucumber wizening away in my fridge. My secretary gave it to me, fresh from her garden, where she grows nothing but cucumber and squash that I can never bring myself to eat.
NESBITT’S OF CALIFORNIA PEACH SODA, $4
This soda is Pepto-Bismol pink and smells like cheap peach perfume. It goes down like a melted otter pop, sweet and sickly. Nesbitt’s first started making soda in the 20s, but the company has since been bought and sold a few times, and is now being produced as a faux-retro curio, which means the flavor is less important than the novelty. The flavor recalls peach ring gummy candy, the kind that’s orange on one side and yellow on the other. I watched a kid choke on a gummy peach ring once. He brought a whole bag to school on a field trip, refused to share and then — wham! — the school bus went over a bump and the gummy got lodged in his throat. I remember him flailing around as the school bus was moving, a teacher barking at him to SIT DOWN before we realized he couldn’t breath. Someone whacked him hard in the back, once, right on his spine, and he coughed the thing up, half-chewed and slimy. Don’t bring candy if you can’t share.
Leninade — a portmanteau of lemonade and Lenin, complete with a hammer and sickle drawing on the bottle, under which reads: “A taste worth standing in line for.” But who stands in line for a nonalcoholic drink? Jerks, that’s who. The soda itself is a bright orange-red, smells faintly of Pine-Sol cleaner, and has a sweet but medicinal flavor. Oh, the bottle also has “DRINK COMRADE! DRINK! IT’S THIS OR THE GULAG!” stamped along the side, among other such jokes. Ha ha. Who doesn’t love a gulag joke? Or a goulash joke? Like the one about the Hungarian grandma who poisoned her six grandkids with tainted goulash because they didn’t love her enough? I forget the punch line to that one, but it’s good because it’s sad and dark. This soda is pretty good too, and would make a nice gift for someone who has everything, which is not a problem I have.