Taste Test: Cherry Soda

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]

Let's face facts: Cherry soda is just not as immediately loveable as other carbonated beverages. (We're not talking cherry cola here—that's another beast altogether.) Other sodas like root beers, birch beers, and ginger beers often weave a multilayered flavor experience for your palate, but cherry sodas rarely strive for more than a liquid recreation of the dime store cherry candy we grew up eating.

It's surprising, then, that so many varieties are available on the boutique soda market. While it's true that some brands do use actual cherry juice to help flavor their sodas, most are infused with so much sugar that any natural extracts from the fruit become lost in toothache-inducing syrup. They're more retro-soda-fountain than upscale fruit drink; whether you're into that is up to you.

For this taste test we found 12 different brands of cherry soda and bravely sampled each and every one of them.

Check out the winners in the slideshow »


Cherry Sodas We Tried

AJ Stephans
Dr. Brown's
Henry Weinhard's
Manhattan Special
Red Ribbon
Route 66
Thomas Kemper

Did we miss one of your favorites? Give us an earful in the comments below!

Each cherry soda was sampled in a blind taste test and judged on the following criteria:

The Criteria

  • Carbonation: No one likes flat soda, but too much fizz can sting 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: This was a tough one, because nearly every cherry soda we tasted suffered from severe over-sweetening. It then became a matter of not whether the soda was sweet or not, but how overpoweringly sweet it came across.
  • Overall cherry soda flavor: How much does the soda evoke its actual name? Did the soda lean more toward fresh picked cherries or throat lozenges? The best cherry sodas shouldn't make you feel like you just drank a gallon of Kool-Aid.

After a rigorous round of tasting and re-tasting, we settled on our five favorites:

The Top Five

5. Thomas Kemper
4. Stewart's
3. Hotlips
2. Americana

And the Winner Is...AJ Stephans

From: Fall River, Massachusetts

20110314-142298-aj-stephens-cherry-soda-label.jpgAJ Stephans has placed high in every soda tasting we've held so far (it even took the #1 spot in the Birch Beer taste test), so we weren't that surprised when the identity of our favorite soda was revealed.

What the testing group liked best about it were its delightful effervescence, notes of cola, and subtle black cherry flavor. The group did concede that there are definite aspects of candy in the body of the beverage, but felt it didn't overwhelm the more positive attributes.

It should be noted that while the AJ Stephans cherry soda got the most votes, it was by no means a runaway victory. The favorites were scattered pretty evenly across the board, with only two of the sodas getting a total pan by the testing group. This is a pretty strong indicator of just how similar these twelve sodas are, so if you can't find one near you, another one off the list probably isn't going to be all that different.

Our advice? Buy some vanilla ice cream and make a cherry vanilla float instead of drinking this stuff straight.


Why the Losers Lost

By and large, the cherry sodas that weren't picked for the Top Five just reminded us too strongly of cherry candy.

Some tried to shake things up by offering a "cherry cream" version of the classic cherry soda, but we found it was often to the soda's detriment. Here are a smattering of the notes on the sodas we liked least: "Earthy, almost dirty flavors...syrupy...a bit medicinal...artificial-tasting cherry flavor...makes my teeth sticky!"

Have you tried these cherry sodas? Which was your favorite?