Is there any drink more American than soda?
These days, in the age of Big Gulp ubiquity, sugary drinks have gotten a bad rap, lumped together with cigarettes and Whoppers and all the other stuff that’s supposed to be killing us. But soda has a much more quaint and parochial history in this country than its current image would suggest.
Many old-school sodas, like Moxie, were oriented toward health and sold at pharmacies as nerve tonics and herbal remedies. In the earlier half of the 20th century, soda fountains at ice-cream parlors, department stores, and elsewhere were a social institution, providing a place for communities to gather and exchange ideas. And during Prohibition, scores of breweries stayed afloat by turning their attention to soft drinks, spawning a golden age of great American sodas.
These days, old brands that have survived—or been resurrected by nostalgic entrepreneurs—are irresistible examples of Americana, rife with goofy branding and small-town charm. Even the names people use for fizzy drinks—soda, pop, tonic—speak to their regionalism. Meanwhile, new-school sodamakers are pushing the tradition forward, tweaking recipes and seeking to provide an alternative to the homogeneity of the standard vending-machine lineup.
Long story short, we love soda and think it deserves to be celebrated. Over the past few months, our tasting panel has sampled well over 150 sodas from all across the country (and one that snuck in from Canada, cheeky bastard). Some were truly excellent—crisp and clean, with just the right kiss of pure cane-sugar sweetness. Others were unspeakably awful, tasting of everything from Robitussin to burnt hair and bacon. But what emerged over the course of the panel was one undeniable fact: Drinking soda is as fun as hell.
Here, we present the 50 regional sodas that we think every American ought to try before kicking the bucket, as well as our tasting notes on each. Let the sugar high commence.
The Tasting Panel
Chris Schonberger, First We Feast editor-in-chief (@cschonberger). Enjoys root beer floats with regularity.
Nick Schonberger, First We Feast founding editor (@nschon). Sober man who appreciates a bar with a fresh soda fountain.
Ross Scarano, Complex City Guide editor (@RossScarano). First tried Mountain Dew at 19.
Hannah Norwick, First We Feast writer (@HannahNorwick). Drinks Coke for breakfast.