vanilla

Virgil’s: Cream Soda

History: If you’ve ever taken a stroll through your local health food store or maybe Whole Foods, you’ve probably seen a bunch of sodas with names you’ve never heard of. Except one: Virgil’s. The company is owned by ginger beer giant Reeds, Inc. It’s about as close to an all-natural soda as you can buy. All Virgil’s sodas are made with real sugar, natural extracts, and herbs and spices. The brand spans from the eccentric Flying Cauldron Butterbeer to the revered Bavarian Nutmeg Root Beer. Founder and CEO Chris Reed says the company is “about fun and creating an endearing product to both the company and the customers.” Outside of ginger beer, root beer is king at Virgil’s, but they also feature all of the standard craft soda flavors, including the cream soda we’re reviewing here. The company goes as far as saying “We decided to make a cream soda that would rival the super premium quality of our root beer.” The cream soda has been around since 2004 and according to Reeds, Inc. Sales Operations and Marketing Manager Todd Engstrum, it was designed “to taste like a true craft soda.” The company’s website also says the soda’s recipe contains “the finest vanilla beans and unrefined cane sugar.” We know it took a year to fine tune the recipe and beyond that, Virgil’s is keeping the rest of the soda’s secrets tight-lipped. Good thing we aren’t. Let’s investigate.

Buy: Virgil’s StoreAmazon

Nose: Classic cream soda nose: deep vanilla and soft, creamy caramel. Reminiscent of an older cream soda like Shasta.

Taste: Vanilla, tangy, creamy, sugar. The first striking feature of Virgil’s Cream Soda is the sweetness. It’s upfront and bold. The cane sugar hits you first before the main flavors come in. This is a sugary-tasting soda. Once you get past that, you’ll taste big notes of vanilla extract. It’s a creamy, old fashioned vanilla taste that takes us millennials back to childhood. I think what stands out most about the flavor of this soda, more than the vanilla or the sugar, is the tanginess. I can’t quite place why it’s present. It’s a combination of tangy vanilla and sugar. When the two intersect, they seem to collide dramatically in a way you aren’t used to in cream soda. It leaves an odd taste in the mouth. This is rich, sugary, and tangy. And perhaps more than anything… puzzling.

Finish: Deep, sugary caramel notes that linger and then fade. This is the only part of the soda where the caramel from the nose reveals itself.

Rating: When your nostrils are blessed by the smells of Virgil’s Cream Soda, you’re certain that you’re in for a masterpiece, but the execution isn’t quite flawless. To be fair, this is a perfectly good cream soda. It has nice vanilla flavors and a sweet, cream caramel finish. But the development of this soda is hindered by a funky, sugary tang that’s hard to get past. This is already an excessively sweet cream soda, but when you combine the sugar levels with the strange vanilla tanginess, it raises a questionable eyebrow. Not like a Dwayne Johnson I’m-about-to-make-a-$240 million-sequel-eyebrow, but a hey-I-think-the-weird-neighbor-is-taking-a-bath-in-our-pool-again sort of eyebrow. The bottom line is that the flavor here is at first familiar, then jarring. Creamy vanilla shouldn’t be tangy. It should just be velvety smooth. Again, the vanilla flavor is great before the tang comes in, and the finish is very solid. I just wish those two elements were more present in the soda’s body. Look, there’s potential here and a lot of people are going to like this, especially young kids. It’s worth a try, I’m just not sure I’d put it in the upper echelon of cream sodas.

Capt’n Eli’s: Root Beer [collab with TermiNatetor Kitchen]

History: In the words of company president Ed Crockett, root beer has been “the bedrock” of Capt’n Eli’s since its creation. Hell, if it wasn’t for the Eli Forsley’s thievery of root beer in the 1920’s from his father’s basement, this company might not exist. The butterfly effect, right? P.S. Before we get any further into this review, we’re honored to be doing it in collaboration with Nathan Crawford of TermiNatetor Kitchen, who cooked up a mean pulled pork dish using Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer. Nathan’s food recipes will titillate the same taste buds you use for soda. Check out that meat treat here. Back to root beer now. Anyway, we’ll spare you the company’s long backstory (which you can find in our Capt’n Eli’s Orange Pop review), but basically Eli Forsley had a son, Fred, who loved the same root beer recipe his father did. Fred tweaked the formula and began selling it on draft in 1996 at Federal Jack’s in Kennebunk, Maine, which he founded four years earlier. This continued until 2002 when demand became so high that Fred decided to start bottling it. “The local folks raved about it,” Crockett tells us. In fact, here’s where Ed makes his debut. The root beer gained such a following in the northeast that Crockett was brought on by Fred Forsley to help turn Capt’n Eli’s into a full craft soda line. Today Capt’n Eli’s has nine different flavors, none more popular than the root beer. There’s even a comic book designed to help promote the brand: The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli. When you’ve got a publication in the same line of work that created Batman and Superman, that’s when you know you’re baller.

“We wouldn’t be where we are today without the root beer’s success,” Crockett says gleefully over the phone. He’s eager to speak about what he thinks makes the soda special. “They tried to make it unique and that’s why we go with 100% natural cane sugar, but also brown sugar.” The latter is an ingredient that makes sense when you think about root beers, but it’s surprisingly uncommon for the category. “Everything’s right there on the bottle,” he proudly exclaims before also noting the root beer’s prominent use of vanilla. Crockett also makes mention of the root beer’s accolades, specifically its two-time placement in the top three of the root beer category of the U.S. Open Beer Championships. Its most recent placing was 2013. But for all the hoopla surrounding the product, it’s still just a little company out of Portland, Maine making the stuff. “We still handcraft every product,” Crockett says. And that is what keeps craft soda fans coming back. Capt’n Eli’s knows it, too. “We certainly play off the nostalgia of soda.” And in 2016, it’s still a formula that continues to be the lifeblood of the craft soda movement.

Where to get: Capt’n Eli’s is sold nationally across the U.S., but it’s still most popular in the New England region. You can purchase it online directly from the company, as well as from Amazon. You can even find it for purchase in single bottles online from Straub’s Grocers. For large orders, especially if you’re a retailer hoping to sell soda in your store, contact Homer Soda Company.

Nose: Quite aromatic for a root beer. Big wafts of wintergreen and spices like anise and maybe nutmeg. Lots of vanilla as well. Lovely.

Taste: Wintergreen; cane sugar; creamy; vanilla; anise. There’s a great balance of sweet, savory, and creamy in Capt’n Eli’s Root Beer. The carbonation is flush on the tongue from the opening sip, paving the way for waves of wintergreen that provide a bite. Wintergreen and vanilla are the standout flavors. As you taste the mint, that vanilla comes through next in a very creamy fashion. You also get a little bit of spice. Definitely anise and maybe allspice or perhaps mild clove. The latter two have question marks by them, but there’s no doubt about the anise. It imparts a bit of a licorice taste, but not in an overwhelming fashion. This is sweet and creamy and full of vanilla, but with a wintergreen bite that pulls back on the sugar. Balanced. Flavorful. Excellent.

Finish: Creamy mint and vanilla swirl in your mouth and slowly fade in tandem as notes of anise seep through the cracks.

Rating: Capt’n Eli’s has no doubt created one of the best root beers on the open market. It caters to both root beer aficionados and novices. Purists will be thrilled with its old school emphasis on wintergreen and spices while more casual root beer drinkers will embrace its vanilla notes and sweet creaminess. The balance of give and take is near perfect. You get a mouthful of wintergreen that harkens back to vintage root beer recipes. There’s definitely a bite that comes with it. Yet there’s also a robust creaminess anchored by vanilla and cane sugar, a flavor combination more commonly seen in newer root beers. All of this is tied together by a handful of spices, most notably anise. It starts aggressive with mint and ends smoothy with vanilla and mild spices. It’s essentially the blueprint for how I wish all my Tinder dates went. This is highly drinkable, packed with flavor, and most importantly, enjoyable. Capt’n Eli’s has done a splendid job here. I could see how it might be just a pinch sweet for some, but I don’t mind a little sugar in my women or my root beers. Put this one on your short-list to try. It’s a root beer with a flavor stuck somewhere between the 1940’s and 2010’s, and based on our analysis, that might just be the sweet spot.

Five Stars

Just Craft Soda: Pear & Vanilla

History: “You do it to yourself you do/And that’s what really hurts is/You do it to yourself just you/You and no-one else.” These are lyrics from the Radiohead song, Just. I always think of this song when I think of Just Craft Soda, not only because of the name, but because the message connects itself to the reasoning behind the company. As craft soda’s little bottlers become more popular, people often ask us why. The answer is because they’re tired of the same mass-produced, over-sweetened, high fructose-saturated soda. Just Craft Soda founder John McEachern knows this, saying “There’s very little flavor variety in the market these days.” For bigger bottlers, “that’s what really hurts is/You do it to yourself.” It’s taken the big companies years to realize this, and despite the fact that they’re starting to make inroads into craft soda, they’re well behind the smaller companies. David got a major head start on Goliath. McEachern had first-hand insight into the market place, having previously worked for PepsiCo. and General Mills, and he wanted to produce a “flavor variety” adults would enjoy. He jokes that most soda these days feels like it’s “been designed for a 13 year-old boy.” McEachern launched Just Craft Soda in early 2015. The Toronto-based company’s soda always begins with a fruit that is then paired with a spice. That’s the general formula. Each bottle of Just Craft Soda contains 60% (!!!) juice, carbonated water, natural flavors, and cane sugar. That’s it. Authenticity is important to the company. McEachern told us he didn’t want the juice content to just be a marketing pitch, jokingly mocking other companies as he exclaimed, “look, 5% juice!” He also feels a more natural-tasting fruit soda will pair well with food or alcohol. This is a soda you drink while adulting. Drink it doing your taxes. Drink it with a steak. Don’t drink it as you giggle to yourself tickling your buddy. Or do. Just don’t tell anyone. The company produces five different flavors from the more common pairing of Apple & Ginger to the slightly more exotic Lemon & Lemongrass. But Pear & Vanilla is the one that seduces your ear the most when you verbalize it, so we had to indulge. We’re told the soda’s formula is “very simple” and that “there’s nothing in the recipe that your grandma wouldn’t understand.” The company describes the pear flavor as “sweet, almost buttery” and liken it to a cream soda. What’s not to like? But we’re always cautious here at Five Star. We’ve gone on way too many bad soda dates. A soda date is basically just when we drink soda by ourselves and then tell strangers about it on the Internet. Yeah, I’m single.

Where to get: Currently, Just Craft Soda is only available in Canada. To find the retail location nearest you, look here. Americans or other nearby neighbors who are desperate to try these sodas can contact the company directly by going here. Online sales are currently being looked into, so that’s also a possibility down the road.

Nose: Light notes of fresh-cut pair and maybe just a tinge of bubblegum. Sometimes vanilla does that.

Taste: Tart; pear; apple juice; lemon juice. This is more that than you’ll probably expect it to be, but the flavors definitely stand out in the profile. There’s a bite right up front that’s briefly pear and then rapidly transitions to lemon juice. Just’s Pear and Vanilla Soda is tart, but not acidic. Pear and lemon are the main flavors you’ll usurp from this. There’s also undertones of apple juice. It’s almost as if the pear and lemon juices are the waves crashing against your palate in an ocean of apple juice. The apple is there, but the other two flavors are bolder and splash against your taste buds much more often. The vanilla in this is very, very light. It doesn’t act as a flavor enhancer as much as it helps mitigate some of the bite from the juices. Without the vanilla this would be too acidic.

Finish: Lingering lemon and apple juice tartness that takes about 10 seconds to fade. You do get a mellow note of vanilla at the very end of the tartness.

Rating: Pear and vanilla is a flavor combination that sounds like an adventure most soda drinkers would be willing to take. It seems like they could be good together, but you also know there could be issues. This is basically how I approach every relationship now. In a related story, I’m still single. Just Craft Soda is a company that swings for the fences with their sodas, pairing interesting flavors together while using at least 60% juice in every bottle. You can certainly taste the juice in this one. Pear and lemon stand out most. The pear is upfront, but the lemon punch comes quick and is tart. As a whole, there’s more of a bite than you’d probably expect before reading this review. Apple flavors linger in the background, but pear and lemon do most of the work in the flavor profile. I enjoy the apple flavors that weave in and out of every sip, but I’d like to see the pear flavor last longer in place of the lemon. Pear is, after all, the name on the label and I think it needs to be more prominent. The tartness isn’t too much, but it won’t work for some people. It doesn’t sting, but it does surprise. The sweetness in this is less than most craft sodas, but for one with this much fresh juice, it’s understandable and plays its part well. This is a natural soda that should be appealing to most. Certainly worth a try for its unique pairing of juices that surprise and satisfy the taste buds. It also apparently makes a pretty tasty maple pear bread pudding.

Three Stars

Sipp: Ginger Blossom

History: “Um, hi. Is this coffee organic?” I hear variations of this phrase from girls rushing to yoga or guys trapped in itchy sweaters and tight jeans endless times a week as I write these reviews in coffee shops around town. Organic. Half the time we don’t even know what it means, but we need it. It’s not just coffee or food… it even extends to alcohol. That’s how this whole thing started. Sipp Eco Beverage CEO and founder, Beth Wilson-Parentice, was a mixologist with her own catering company for organic cocktails. They were good. Glasses full of blackberry juice, lemons, limes, tequila; who says no to that? People wanted these drinks. In fact, they wanted to know how to make them on their own, but upon hearing the methods involved they’d often tell Wilson-Parentice that they weren’t competent enough or didn’t have time. People are lazy. Case in point, I almost didn’t put pants on to write this. Wilson-Parentice decided she’d do the leg work for everyone by creating a nonalcoholic sparkling beverage customers could mix with their favorite spirits. She launched Sipp Eco Beverage in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania in 2009. Company communications manager Carly Mitchell explains that at the beginning of the “organic movement” in 2008 when the idea first came about, “eco” had kind of a hippie vibe to it. Wilson-Parentice wanted to turn that feeling into one of sophistication with a beverage that was versatile with layers of flavor. She wanted to create something that be enjoyed as both a mixer and on its own. “It’s really an anti-soda,” Mitchell notes because she says the beverages are not heavy or syrupy. However, she adds “at the same time, it sort of is a soda” because of its carbonation and use of natural extracts. Five Star Soda take: it’s soda. Shocking, I know. Upon launch, the company’s first flavor was the one we’re reviewing today, Ginger Blossom. “Everyone kind of enjoys the Ginger Blossom because it doesn’t have that harsh ginger taste,” Mitchell tells us. She goes on to explain that it’s a closer relative to ginger ale, but with smoother flavors. As you might’ve guessed, all ingredients in Sipp beverages are organic, but the big takeaway from our interview with Mitchell is the use of agave instead of pure cane sugar. Sipp believes agave gives their soft drinks a more crisp and unique sweetness than sugar. It’s also more expensive. “The biggest thing that we find is different is this very crisp taste,” Mitchell notes. She admits that so often “sparkling” beverages have no flavor and that Sipp wanted to be a company that broke the trend. Take me to flavor town, baby.

Where to get: Sipp Eco Beverages are sold nationwide at a variety of locations, including Albertson’s, Schnucks, Fresh Market, and copious natural or health food stores. Take a look at the company’s online locator near the bottom of their website to find the retailer nearest you. You can also purchase it online directly from SIPP here.

Nose: Mostly a lime-ier version of lemon-lime with a little bit of a floral ginger scent.

Taste: Lime; floral ginger; vanilla bean. A rare instance in soda where the smell translates almost exactly to the taste. You’ll taste lime first. It’s a familiar lime, like in lemon-lime soda… it’s just that there’s no lemon flavor. The lime isn’t sour, but has some tartness. The tartness slowly fades into the background, but stays throughout the rest of the drink. Next come the ginger and vanilla. These two flavors seem to be tied together. You’ll taste more ginger first, but it’s a subdued ginger flavor. Nothing like ginger in a ginger beer. No, this ginger flavor is slightly sweet and floral due to the vanilla. Definitely closer to ginger ale. The longer you take between sips, the more you’ll taste the vanilla notes. It’s nice and soft and adds just a touch of transformative flavor near the end of each drink. This tastes very light with mild sweetness, but has convincing flavors.

Finish: Vanilla bean. Slightly, slightly creamy. Also a little bit of lime. Vanilla-lime, actually. Refreshing and unique.

Rating: Sipp Ginger Blossom is definitely part of the new age of soda. It’s soda for those who are more health-conscious. It’s soda for those who still want flavor, but won’t put up with excessive calories. At only 21 grams of sugar and 100 calories a bottle, in the eyes of traditional soda drinkers, Sipp is like a cute hipster girl with fake glasses and a nose ring ordering kale at the local market – you’re not sure the two of you would work out, but you wanna try it. Ginger Blossom’s core flavors: ginger, vanilla, and lime certainly sound intriguing on paper. In my opinion, any combo of two of those flavors sound great. Combing all three sounds like a challenge. But to the company’s credit, the flavors don’t overpower each other or combine to form some sort of liquid experiment gone wrong. The lime is the boldest flavor you’ll taste, but the vanilla might just be the star of the drink – funny, for a soda called Ginger Blossom. The lime’s tartness meanders throughout each sip as the vanilla gives the ginger a soft, floral taste. I suggest waiting several seconds in between sips to get the vanilla’s full effect. To dumb it down, Sipp Ginger Blossom is like a more sophisticated version of lemon-lime soda fused with a floral ginger ale. The lime’s tartness is excellent and the vanilla pairs great with its companion flavors. I’d just like to taste the ginger more and see it emboldened in the flavor profile, especially for a drink that bears its name. Think ginger ale as a template going in instead of ginger beer and I think you’ll enjoy your stay with this beverage much more. Sipp Ginger Blossom is one of those sodas that just catches your eye based on its flavors. It’s an intriguing mixture of flavors. We can’t object to you indulging yourself in it.

Four Stars

 

Sprecher: Cream Soda

History: Sprecher sodas are known for their bold, deep flavors. Turns out you can thank Germany for this. I’ll explain in a minute. In talking to Randy Sprecher on the phone, I get the sense he’s a gentle, intelligent soul with an almost intimidating knowledge on the intricacies of beer and soda-making. Originally from California, he reminisces how he spent 18 months in Augsburg, Germany in the late 60’s. Deustchland is arguably the beer capital of the world, so naturally, Sprecher says he lost his taste for American beer there. This became a problem when he moved back to California because he couldn’t afford to import his favorite beers. Solution? He started making his own in 1971. Despite having a degree in oceanography, Sprecher wanted to pursue beer, and so he packed up his van and drove up to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where he began working for Pabst. He made about $40,000 before he said the company started deteriorating. Wanting to start his own business for the modest amount he made at Pabst, Sprecher began buying various pieces of brewery equipment via auction. Through his craftiness, he successfully started up Sprecher Brewery in Glendale, Wisconsin and began selling beer in 1985. Really puts bargain shopping into perspective. Hope my girlfriend is reading this. He’d also researched soda recipes to a great degree on the side, and thought, “What does it take to make a soda that is of much higher quality?” Three years later, he figured it out, creating and selling his own root beer and cream soda.

To a craft soda connoisseur, Sprecher soda might raise an eyebrow or two. What you’ll likely notice is that the brewery uses high fructose corn syrup in its soda as opposed to pure cane sugar. To many, cane sugar is to craft soda what great actors are to movies; you can make it without them, but it’s not the same. Sprecher believes his recipes shouldn’t cause drinkers any hesitation. Let me at least try to explain to you why. Be forewarned, Randy Sprecher is a scientist and I am not. Sprecher Brewery brews their sodas in gas-fired kettles. Everyone knows that water boils at 212 degrees. Well, Sprecher tells us that the skin of the kettles the brewery uses reach up to 1,100 degrees. This causes a chemical reaction in the high fructose corn syrup (which is also bonded to glucose) by splitting the sucrose and forming inverted sugar. As Sprecher explained this process to me, jumping from chemical reaction anecdotes to overviews of molecules, all I could think in my head was, “I know some of these words!” He adds, “Whether you’re talking about cane sugar or fructose, you’re talking about the exact same molecule,” and “I can show you letters from Harvard Medical School” that don’t support the idea that cane sugar is better than corn syrup. I understand this won’t satisfy some people, but just know that Sprecher sodas are also brewed in small batches using Wisconsin-sourced ingredients, including the crown jewel of the cream soda – clover honey from Indian Summer Honey Farms. “We use more honey than they can produce,” says Sprecher. He’s not joking. Indian Summer Honey’s beekeeper literally has to pack up his bees from Wisconsin in the winter and take them down to Florida just to fulfill the massive orders Sprecher Brewery places. When it comes to the cream soda, Sprecher adds that vanilla plays a critical role in addition to the honey, and that he believes the flavor is akin to a toasted marshmallow. “We just strive for big, pure flavor so it really comes at you,” he says. Then come at me, Sprecher. Come at me.

Where to get: Sprecher soda is distributed nation-wide, though it may be sporadic in some areas. If you live in Midwest America, you should be golden… just check one of your local grocery stores. You can also use the company’s online locator (ignore the fact it only lists 10 states. Just enter your zip code) to find the retailer nearest you. For the rest of us, there’s always the Internet. You can buy anywhere from a single bottle up to 36 of them directly from Sprecher’s online store. Amazon can also hook you up.

Nose: Rich, dark vanilla; honey; mild french vanilla ice cream.

Taste: Vanilla cream, brown sugar; semisweet honey; creaminess. This is such a deeply rich, vanilla cream soda. The vanilla comes through more than any flavor and it’s bold, yet not overly sweet like some vanilla cream sodas. The sugar keeps the flavor nice and crisp. Undertones of honey carry the soda throughout each sip and contrast nicely with the vanilla, keeping the sugar levels in check and providing a slightly bittersweet bite on some sips. This is very, very creamy with big honey-vanilla flavor. There are even some brown sugar and caramel notes that float about throughout each sip. On some sips, there’s even a sweet earthiness to it, kind of like a toasted marshmallow. Very satisfying on the palate. When paired with ice, the cream soda becomes even creamier.

Finish: Creamy vanilla caramel with a semisweet bite at the tail end of each sip. Fantastic.

Rating: Sprecher’s Cream Soda is a standard-bearer in its category. It’s incredibly flavorful without being overly complex. Creamy vanilla and bittersweet honey highlight this delectable liquid treat from Wisconsin. Notes of brown sugar and burned caramel dance about in the background of each sip. The vanilla is velvety in the mouth and is sweet with a subtle tartness. It definitely communicates the essence of real vanilla. If I had to use one word to describe this cream soda it would be this: scrumptious. If I had another, it would be rich. When you’re tasting the flavors in this bottle, you know you’re drinking a craft soda. Even the look is mesmerizing. Sprecher’s Cream Soda mirrors a cream ale sitting in a glass with its thick, foamy head that takes considerable time to subside. It’s a nice visual touch. The last time I had something that tasted this good and looked this sexy, I was in Mexico on my post-divorce celebration. The details are kind of hazy. You’ll feel hazy in all the right ways after this cream soda too. It’s heavenly. You’d never taste the corn syrup in it. We can’t even tell and we taste hundreds of sodas a year. I wouldn’t change anything about this. Cream soda is a flavor that evokes stars in the eyes of soda connoisseurs, yet often leaves them in tears because of diabetes-inducing sugar overload. There’s nothing to cry about here. Celebrate the magnificence of this creamy, rich mouth magic and order a four-pack. This is one that just needs to be experienced.

Five Stars

El Manantial: ToniCol

History: “I don’t know how to explain this, but it is unique,” says ToniCol Project Manager and third-generation family businessman Tobías Ricardo Lozano Solorza. That’s a direct quote from someone within the company. Even they can’t explain their soda. So we’re off to a fun start. To be fair, Solorza did try, saying “It is something between Coke, Dr. Pepper and IBC Cream soda.” We always like to start every review in a unique way, but what we’re saying here is that El Manatial’s ToniCol is different. That’s actually the company’s catch phrase, “es diferente.” But ToniCol’s history is a rich one, dating all the way back to 1887. On an unrelated note, here’s a video of the soft drink’s history that looks like it was edited in 1887. Let us educate you on some Mexican soft drink history, filled with rivalries, friendships, and our superhero, Ángel Solorza González, also known as Don Angel. The story begins in the town of El Rosario in Sinaloa, Mexico. There were two soft drink companies: La Eureka and La Azteca. La Eurkea was far superior, and according to Solorza, its boss wanted to create a “Vanilla-flavored soft drink, with a touch of other essences.” He called the soda “TonyCo,” after his own nickname, Tony. You see, bossman was a savvy entrepreneur, but he was also a little self-absorbed and cutthroat. Don Angel started working for La Eurkea in 1925 in a different city, but after learning his youngest brother would need a leg amputation, he needed to return to El Rosario. Despite the family emergency, La Eureka’s boss fired Don Angel. With one of the best businessmen in the Mexican soft drink industry now a free agent, guess who came calling? La Azteca.

After beginning work for La Azteca, Don Angel quickly began increasing the company’s value and quality. It didn’t take long for La Eureka to take notice. The bossman’s son, Joaquín Espinosa de los Monteros approached La Azteca and inquired about merging the two companies. Side note: why did everyone in Mexico used to have names longer than my wife’s credit card statement? Moving along. Long story short, the merger happened and La Azteca’s owner, Enrique Casteñeda, Monteros and Don Angel owned the new company three ways. In 1947, a fourth shareholder was added and the company’s name was changed to the current “El Manantial.” It was also the year Don Angel’s son and Solorza’s grandpa, Ángel Solorza, designed the current logo and branding for Tonicol. But remember, back then the name was TonyCo. It stayed that way until the 1960’s when the Mexican Ministry of Health banned the name because, according to Solorza, “it confused the consumers, making them believe that the drink had curative attributes.” It was also in the 60’s when Ángel purchased complete ownership of El Manantial. Today, Solorza’s mother and her siblings own the company. As for what goes into this vanilla soda, Solorza elected not to answer that question. So I guess we’ll have to unravel the mystery ourselves.

Where to get: According to Solorza, ToniCol is available to purchase for Mexico natives at major retailers like Wal-Mart, Seven Eleven, and Soriana. For Americans, your best bet is to order online through Alegro Foods.

Nose: Hard to place. A little bit of orange cream and, oddly enough, carrot cake.

Taste: Carrot cake; sweet orange; light creaminess; vanilla; strong sugar. Whoa, this is different and weird. I definitely taste carrot cake. So much so that we put it in the photos. But there’s also kind of an artificial vanilla-orange cream flavor as well. There’s a creaminess to the orange, but not necessarily a creamy mouth feel. The mouth feel is very much a traditional cola in the sense that there’s some bitter notes and a rush of carbonation that aids the bitterness. Very sugary, borderline syrupy. This is very sweet. Man, I can’t shake that carrot cake flavor. It’s just… that’s what it is. Strange.

Finish: Tart sugar with orange undertones. If there is such a thing as orange-flavored sugar (eh), that’s what the aftertaste is like. It’s a tart sweetness. Odd, just like everything else about this soda.

Rating: ToniCol is hugely popular down in Mexico. I didn’t know that once you crossed the border, the flavors could change so much. I wouldn’t call this a cola, despite what your brain tells you based off the name. It brands itself as “vanilla soda,” but I wouldn’t call it a cream soda either, even though there are some slightly creamy orange notes in this. It’s just very puzzling. Here’s what we can tell you definitely about ToniCol: it’s incredibly sweet; it tastes like carrot cake; and there are some syrupy vanilla-orange cream flavors going on in the background. First, the sweetness. It’s intense, so intense there’s a syrupy taste tinged with orange. It could really stand to lose some of the sugar rush or add quite a few bitter notes. Next, carrot cake. Never in my life did I expect to taste something this vivid and weird outside of a Rocketfizz brand soda. I don’t know if this flavor was intentional, but you can take my wife on a date if that’s not exactly what you taste too. She’s with another guy now, but the offer still stands. Last, the puzzling orange cream flavor. Don’t think traditional orange cream. Think syrupy orange mixed with vanilla frosting. Not necessarily flavors that make you rush to pull your wallet out. If you want to try something really off the beaten path, ToniCol is worth a shot. Look, I commend ToniCol for being different, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of different I’d mess around with beyond a one-night-stand.

Bedford’s: Creme Beer

History: Creme Beer. The name alone sends a chill of nostalgia and intrigue down your spine. That was part of the plan Ed Bedford had when he concocted his first vanilla cream soda to sell on the open  market. Bedford is a down-to-earth northwest native with a friendly, grizzled voice. He says over the phone, “I’m almost 70 years-old and soda was a big thing in our life.” He wanted it to stay that way for the current generation, but also wanted to make sure they were drinking old time classics made with higher quality ingredients than something you might get at a fast food joint. So after a long stint as general manager for a beer, wine and soft drink distributor, Bedford founded Bedford’s Sodas in 1984. Today the company sells five different flavors. Based out of Port Angeles, Washington, he says good soda had faded away in the Pacific Northwest. He sought to bring it back by first starting with cream soda, a flavor no company was really emphasizing in the mid-80’s. The idea actually came from Steve Sourapas, an owner of the Dr. Pepper Bottling Company in Seattle. Bedford explained that during prohibition, many bars and saloons referred to cream soda as creme beer so they didn’t totally lose the boozy influence. The name stuck with his father, who passed it on to Bedford who threw it on a label to give cream soda a unique name. Bedford worked hard to get the flavor exactly where he wanted it. “I wanted a true vanilla cream,” he said. He put together a tasting panel with over 100 years of experience in the beverage industry to help pick the right recipe. He’s been working with the same flavor chemist for the entirety of his craft soda-making career. Before we hung up the phone, he paused and added, “I think that my sodas are as genuine as I can possibly be to what I can remember as a child. Always serve them ice cold, never with ice.”

Where to get: Bedford’s Sodas are sold all over the place online, including Summit City Soda, Orca Beverages (who bottle Bedford’s soda), and Amazon. You can also find them in Rocketfizz retailers.

Nose: Dunkin’ Donuts Bavarian Kreme Custard Donut. Hey man, it smells like that. Also vanilla, but you knew that.

Taste: Sugar; vanilla; creaminess. This is definitely an intense vanilla cream soda. No bubblegum here. The vanilla is creamy and sweet. It smells like my favorite donut, but the vanilla, at times, tastes a little bit more like vanilla buttercream or custard. This is a sweet soda, but smooth and drinkable. It tastes like classic cream soda with the volume turned up. You can really tell this uses higher quality ingredients. Everything is a little bolder and better. Nicely done.

Finish: Vanilla custard with just the sliiiiiightest hint of caramel. An excellent finish that begs for more sips.

Rating: This is an excellent cream soda, but before I tell you why, let’s talk about the first thing you see: the bottle. There’s something about it that draws you in. Maybe it’s the regal, old royal feel of the Bedford’s crest in the middle. Maybe it’s the medieval lettering of the font. Or maybe it’s the fact that this is called creme beer and not cream soda. Bedford’s does an excellent job selling the customer before the liquid even enters the equation. The same could be said about the dude at Lowe’s who sold me my overpriced toilet. But this is soda you’ll never throw down the drain. It’s fairly simple, but cream soda is a simple drink. It’s smooth and creamy with rich vanilla and slight notes of caramel on the finish. The vanilla almost has a hint of custard flavor to it that separates it from other vanilla creams. It could probably hold off on a gram or two of sugar, but there’s no question this is must-try cream soda. It also works well with an oaky bourbon to balance out the sweetness. Buy this. Tell your friends you had a creme beer today. Say nothing else and walk away. You’re a soda jerk. And we like it.

Indian Wells Brewing: Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda

History: Welcome to the upper echelon of soda, ladies and gentlemen. It looks like a beer, pours like a cream ale, and smells like a confectionary kitchen. Indian Wells is certainly swinging for the fences with their Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda. As you might imagine, with a name this fancy, the brewers have gone to great lengths to ensure quality ingredients inside the bottle. Let’s start with the most interesting part: vanilla barrels. Indian Wells actually purchases chestnut barrels of vanilla bean extract from a tropical island and then adds their soda to the barrels and the one or two inches of leftover vanilla extract. This provides color. The soda isn’t actually its dark caramel hue before entering the barrel. And most importantly, it imparts the soda’s signature rich vanilla flavor profile. Next, the soda’s main ingredient: water. The company uses natural spring water from, well, Indian Wells Spring. Indian Wells is a California historical landmark and the water they use in their sodas and beer is filtered through millions of feet of granite. As with all their sodas, this one is sweetened with pure cane sugar. Finally, Indian Wells is also proud of what’s not in their line of Special Reserve sodas. No sodium benzoate or sorbate preservatives and no high fructose corn syrup. The brewery keeps these sodas shelf-stable by flash pasteurizing them. A couple fun facts: the intended flavor of this cream soda isn’t actually vanilla… it’s roasted campfire marshmallow. The last time I had a roasted marshmallow, I was on a camping date. She ran away in the middle of the night. Another? According Indian Wells Master Brewer, Rick Lovett, the brewery actually sells more soda than beer these days, thus prompting Lovett to test the market’s reaction to a super premium soft drink. It projects regality with its golden wax-coated bottle top staring at you like you need a password to open it. But spoiler alert, you don’t. And we did. Let’s see how it stacks up.

Where to get: Part of this soda’s appeal is its rarity. Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda is exclusively sold at Indian Wells Brewery and Rocketfizz retailers. It is not sold online.

Nose: Vanilla frosting; sugar; angel food cake. This smells like a trip to the bakery.

Taste: Marshmallow; sweet vanilla; sugar. This is a cream soda made with vanilla aged in chestnut barrels. As you might expect, its taste is different from the norm. There’s a deeply rich, sweet vanilla that enters the palate first. It’s very sweet, almost akin to vanilla buttercream frosting. But as the liquid sits in your mouth, the flavor slightly changes and there’s some woody notes that lift off the tongue. This is, of course, due to the chestnut barrels. It’s very interesting and something you’re unlikely to taste in any other cream soda. Then comes a very unique flavor to cream soda: marshmallow. This is by design. Indian Wells sought to recreate a campfire marshmallow taste and they’ve accomplished the task. Again, it’s a very sweet taste. It’s definitely a foamy cream soda with a thick head. The soda is anchored by a rich vanilla flavor that subtlety transforms into marshmallow with some slightly bitter notes from the chestnut barrels. Truly unique.

Finish: Slightly bitter vanilla; charred marshmallow. This is what I find to be the most interesting part of the soda. It’s not like the initial sip or the main flavor profile. As the vanilla and marshmallow flavors fade, you’re left with the chestnut barrel influence. It lingers slightly bitter on the back of the tongue and it turns that sweet, sugary marshmallow taste into more of a charred or roasted flavor. It’s like the marshmallow taste truly undergoes the campfire process with each sip. The longer you take in between drinks, the more prominent the effect. Exquisite.

Rating: This is the most unique cream soda I’ve ever had that I’ve actually enjoyed. Its wax-coated bottle and “Special Reserve” label put this into the top tier of premium sodas. Looking at it, you’d think it was craft beer. Its flavors are rich and change as you drink it, almost like a bourbon. Its frothy pour is distinctly cream soda, but its flavors of rich vanilla with notes of chestnut and campfire marshmallow set it apart. Indian Wells Brewing’s Special Reserve Vanilla Cream Soda is a spectacle of awe in an ever-changing craft soda world where originality is becoming a requirement to play the game. The sweetness can be intense at times, particularly on the first few sips. The taste buds acclimate over time as the chestnut notes become more prevalent, but this frosting-like sweetness might cut the bottle short early for some drinkers. For those who stick with it, your taste buds shall be rewarded with rich vanilla and roasted campfire marshmallow. Paired with a nice bourbon, this is one of the best things to ever happen to your mouth. I’d divorce my first wife several more times if I could have both of those items stocked around the clock. Go out of your way to try this. It’s a 22 oz. bottle, meaning you can do this once the sober way and the rest the fun way. It’s a touch pricey at $5 a bottle outside the brewery ($3 at Indian Wells), but Abe Lincoln doesn’t want to live in your pocket all day anyway. You’ll thank me later.