The Serious Eats office houses a few Trader Joe's detractors, but we're not ashamed to admit that we're huge TJ's fans. John loves the Thai and Indian heat-and-eat dishes for too-lazy-to-cook nights; Carey routinely buys them out of Greek yogurt and tuna "Penang" curry (yes, really). Its quirky charm may be all marketing, but it's pretty irresistible.
And as with many of their products, the design of these "Vintage" sodas—Cola, Root Beer, and Orange Cream—is attractive. Classic flavors, throwback looks, cane sugar to sweeten? It all sounded promising... but then we tasted them.
Their Vintage Cola, which they brand as having pure cane sugar, had almost no taste. Yes, it fizzed. Yes, it was sweet. Yes, it poured a rich dark brown. But it had no distinct flavor whatsoever, beyond a slight hint of caramel; we'd rather drink Coke or Pepsi, sweetened with sugar or with corn syrup, any day. The Trader Joe's version reminds you of an attractive human being with zero personality. It does all the right things, it sounds good on paper, and the packaging's nice—but get to know it and there's nothing there.
The root beer wasn't any better—sweet and fizzy, with no real herbal or spicy backup. It reminded us of root beer–flavored candy. Actually, if you like the idea of taking those Bottle Cap candies and turning them into sodas, you'll like the Orange Cream, too. If that's what they were going for, they hit it dead on. But the sweetness is overwhelming, with zero acidity to balance it out. If you're using cane sugar in your sodas, fine, but they shouldn't taste like sugar and just about nothing else.
Sorry, Trader Joe's, but these sodas had no character. It reminds us that, whatever the hype of Mexican Coke and "throwback" sodas these days, just having cane sugar isn't enough to make a great beverage. If you stop there, it's just colored sugar water.
About the authors: Carey Jones is the senior managing editor of Serious Eats. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones). John M. Edwards writes about soda, occasionally fast food, and eats 85% of the food Carey orders. Follow him on Twitter (@johnmedwards).