We here at Serious Eats definitely like soda, but John Nese really likes the stuff. So much so, he converted an entire grocery store in L.A.'s Highland Park neighborhood into a shrine of soda, Galco's Soda Pop Stop. There are still aisles to push your cart down, but the shelves are floor-to-ceiling soda bottles.
To celebrate the bubbly diversity on their shelves, Galco's began hosting annual soda tasting events in their parking lot. The Galco's events feature small pours of an array of different soda styles. On some occasions, the soda-makers themselves have stepped out of the shadows to help pour the shot-glass sized gulps.
The annual Summer Soda Tasting gives you the chance to expand your soda palate. Here are a few of the best sodas we tried at this year's event.
Vanilla Butterscotch Root Beer from O-So
Old timers may remember O-So Soda, with their cutesy labels and classic lettering. The O-So Beverage Company originally brewed out of Peoria, Illinois, but fell to the wayside after years of slowing sales. Now, the brand—complete with puffy logo and old-school flavors—is back on the market, so all those eBay sellers trying to make $13 off of an empty glass bottle are screwed. By way of a welcoming party, John Nese invited O-So to pour at the tasting event, and the team served up samples of their classic grape and a tinkered version of a regular root beer.
O-So's vanilla butterscotch bottles were the best sips of the day by far, with a flood of creamy butterscotch flavors at the top, followed by a soothing vanilla finish to go along with the dark root beer bottom. This is a fully realized soda, perfectly combining like elements into something so much tastier than its classic iteration. For anyone thinking it might be fun to drop a few shaves of pure butterscotch candy into an already hearty root beer, don't bother; O-So is already doing a better version than you will ever come up with.
Sparkling Pink Grapefruit from Bundaberg
This Australian outfit is already well known for their pull-top ginger beers. You know, the squat brown bottles with the yellow labels? Well, it turns out Bundaberg brews a whole array of colas, root beers, sarsaparillas, cream sodas, and so-called Sparkling Selections. Infused with fresh fruits like peach, guava and blood orange, each bottle provided a punch of sharp carbonation, backed with a wave of sweet juicy flavors.
The winner of the Bundaberg bunch was the Pink Grapefruit, with a lighter body that didn't coat your mouth with overwhelming sugars. The neon pink soda also did away with most of the tartness you'll find in a freshly cut grapefruit, leaving only the balanced, smooth acid to play against the carbonation.
Almond Cream Soda from Red Ribbon Soda Works
As a century-old imprint of the small Pennsylvania-based Natrona Bottling Company, Red Ribbon Soda Works is perhaps best known for their grape flavored Pennsylvania Punch. But it's their nearly clear Almond Cream Soda that emerged from the Galco's shelves to nearly steal the show. The lightly carbonated cream soda uses only 100% cane sugar. Like any decent cream soda, your tastebuds will swirl with sugar and toasted vanilla. But with Red Ribbon's almond cream version, there is an unmistakable nuttiness to the finish. It's subtle, but helps to round out the sweeter edges of each sip, adding depth to the drink as a whole. Think of a lighter version of a root beer float, with a few tree nuts sprinkled on top.
Lavender Sweet Blossom from Global Beverage Enterprises
Brewing specialty sodas under the ominous moniker Global Beverage Enterprises, the Florida-based company behind the pale Sweet Blossom line is actually in the business of reengineering some of the sodas that have disappeared over the years. The team works closely with Galco's owner John Nese, who distributes some of their bottles both online and through his store. Each of the Sweet Blossom flower sodas are brewed using real flower petals that have been crushed and filtered and distilled, giving the sodas a distinct earthiness.
That earthiness is the primary flavor you'll find with the Lavender Sweet Blossom soda. Far from tasting like a pile of dirt, the slightly funky earth you'll catch a taste of in each purple pour is more like a garden. It's as floral as you might expect, but the result is smooth drinking that will give your tongue a little taste of summer, any time of year.
Plantation Style Mint Julep
Brewed under the same Natrona Bottling Company as the Red Ribbon line, Plantation Style Mint Julep soda is a style unto itself. Far from being a 'stunt soda' that weakly tries to impersonate the alcoholic drink, this mint julep soda works remarkably well on its own. With a regular ginger ale base that pops and bursts with bright flavors, the soda is already off to a fine start. Add to that the freshness of muddled mint, and you've got a crisp soda that feels as natural to your summer plans as any boozy drink ever could.
That's right, Galco's officially unveiled their personal soda-making station for the summer tasting event. With dozens of possible syrup flavorings to choose from, all you had to do was pump in nine squirts of anything you please and then head down the line to the carbonation station. There, you could choose from a band of carbonation levels, from lightly bubbly to practically foamy.
Our DIY soda was white chocolate and cherry, with two splashes of chocolate for every dose of cherry. The hope was to create a creamy, sweet soda with a touch of cherry snap, and that's exactly what happened. While we're a bit biased, the resulting bottle of soda wasn't half bad.
That is, until you look down the aisles and aisles of soda bottles at Galco's, and realize the competition you're up against.