Serious Eats: Drinks
Taste Test: Cream Soda
Cream soda can be polarizing. Some people liken it to liquefied candy—which isn't far off considering that it was often served at soda fountains with a scoop of ice cream. These days it's reaching a wider consumer base than ever, thanks in large part to the surge of boutique bottlers popping up across the country.
True aficionados know there's more to cream soda than just how much sugar's been crammed into the bottle. While early recipes included such ingredients as egg whites, sodium bicarbonate, and lemon oil, most cream soda made today is comprised only of carbonated water, sugar (typically cane or high-fructose corn syrup), citric acid, artificial flavors, and artificial coloring. Notes of vanilla and cream should be present in balanced proportions, even if neither is actually used in the recipe.
While it would impractical to taste every cream soda available in America, we tasted 17 different nationally and regionally available brands to find out whose cream reigns supreme.
Cream Sodas We Tried
Each cream soda was sampled in a blind taste test and judged on the following criteria:
- Carbonation: No one likes flat soda, but too much fizz can numb the mouth and mask flavors. In addition to the levels of initial carbonation, we also looked at how quickly these sodas lost their bubbly effervescence once emancipated from their respective bottles.
- Sweetness: Cream soda can evoke anything from vanilla ice cream to melted candy, but ideally it's not as rich as the former or as cloying as the latter. It's going to be on the sweet side, no way around it, but where is the sweetness coming from? Does it taste crisp and clean in your mouth, or syrupy? The sugary aspects of cream soda are going to be front and center, but they shouldn't be overpowering.
- Overall cream soda flavor: How much does the soda evoke its actual name? Are creamy notes detectable, muted, or completely absent? If the word "vanilla" is used in the name, does it taste more of vanilla bean or of chemicals? The best cream sodas should have a sweetness that doesn't overwhelm the source of its flavor, and vice versa.
Why the Losers Lost
Some of the cream sodas that didn't make the top five fell just short of the highest rated ones, while others were actually pretty gross. Soda that tasted more of candy than vanilla or cream was the primary reason for lower overall scores. One soda reminded us of candied bananas and fruit snacks, while another tasted so similar to pink cotton candy that we were sure we'd contract a cavity or three by drinking more than a few sips of it. Others seemed watered down and light on flavor. One boasted the purest vanilla bean flavor of all the sodas but had a faint quinine-like bitterness. Many were just too syrupy.
After a rigorous round of tasting and re-tasting, we settled on our five favorites:
The Top Five
5. A Tie! IBC & Sprecher
3. Henry Weinhard's
And the Winner Is...Sioux City
The Sioux City brand is owned by White Rock Beverages, which was founded in 1871 by a pharmacist named H.M. Colver when he purchased the White Rock natural spring in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Water there was filtered through 1,400 feet of white magnesium rocks, which is why the local Potawatomi tribe believed the spring held strong medicinal powers. The company has since moved to Whitestone, New York, where it also bottles the White Rock and Olde Brooklyn soda brands.
We had a lot of soda to get through for this tasting, but we kept coming back to this one again and again. It had the strongest vanilla scent and flavor of all the sodas and a prominent creaminess, reminiscent of vanilla ice cream. Our tasters also picked up hints of caramel and molasses in this lovely pale gold soda. Another plus: it held its carbonation for hours after its bottle was first opened. A serious cream soda for serious cream soda drinkers.
What Did We Do With All the Leftover Soda?
Made one hell of a cream soda suicide, that's what!