Taste Test: Orange Soda

[Photographs: Adam Lindsley]

Orange sodas have never aspired to absolute mimicry of their namesake fruit. For years they have seemed content to offer the merest semblance of imitation, aiming closer to the flavor of an orange lollipop than to anything remotely natural. Most of them are flavored with the delightful combination of sodium benzoate, sodium hexametaphosphate, and wood rosin. They're often heavy on the sugar, light on the orange.

But more and more bottlers and soda-brewers are experimenting with actual fruit juice and natural flavorings, and we wondered if these closer-to-the source ingredients would make a satisfying orange soda. So we gathered 12 brands of orange soda, tasted them blind, and chose our favorites. While several of them were quite similar in flavor, there were a few that managed to stand out from the pack.


Orange Sodas We Tried

Capt'n Eli's
Dr. Brown's
Manhattan Special
Route 66

Note that orange cream sodas were not included in the tasting, but fear not, we'll be sampling those in a couple weeks. This time we focused on the sodas that went for a straight-up orange experience.

Naturally, we couldn't taste every orange soda available in the United States, so if we didn't sample your favorite, tell us what we missed in the comments below!

Each orange 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 is soda, so there should be some sweetness, but it shouldn't bludgeon you over the head with sugar. Does the sweetness taste natural, leaving your mouth feeling crisp and clean, or does it feel like it's sticking to your gums and rotting your teeth to the nubs with syrup? Orange soda has a tendency to instigate puckering in the mouth, so we naturally gravitated toward the ones that didn't stimulate that response.
  • Overall orange flavor: Liking oranges or orange juice means little when judging orange soda, as they typically have about as much in common as Panda Express does with authentic Chinese food. Some of these sodas bravely shirked that stigma, but the best of the bunch struck the right balance between sweetness and the natural tartness of honest-to-goodness oranges.

Each soda was tasted and re-tasted in a blind sampling, after which we tallied up the votes to find our five favorites:

The Top Five

5. Nesbitt's
4. Capt'n Eli's
3. Fanta
2. Sunkist

And the Winner Is...Faygo

20110411-146855-faygo-orange-soda-label-small.jpgThis was a close race. So many of the sodas had such similar flavors, but Faygo managed to squeeze past the competition, simply because it was the most balanced soda we tried. Neither too sweet nor too dry, tasters praised it for its "cleanness" and "pleasant overall orange flavor." Some picked up traces of cream, even though this is not an explicitly orange cream soda. Pretty much everyone agreed that this was the most drinkable soda of the dozen. Given how well Faygo's fared in these tastings in the past, that was no surprise.

More surprising was how well the ubiquitous mass-market brands did. In our blind tasting, Sunkist very nearly knocked Faygo from the top spot, with Fanta close behind it, and Crush would have come in at position #6. We think this has to do with the fact that when you think of orange soda, you usually think of the soda fountain varieties you grew up on, not the newfangled all-natural offerings. That isn't to say that we disliked the ones using actual fruit juice (far from it), but the ones that triggered memories from youth, for better or worse, were the sodas that scored highest.

Why the Losers Lost

Generally, the orange sodas that scored lowest in the tasting weren't penalized for their artificiality (in sharp contrast to every other soda tasting we've done). What the tasters didn't care for were the sodas that tasted watered down. Some faulted certain sodas for giving off more of a lemon vibe than one of oranges. One unsatisfying soda in particular reminded us of tonic water, so much so that after the tasting, we added some gin to it, and found it a match made in heaven.

There are plenty of other orange sodas for sale in the U.S., so if you think we missed a real contender, let loose in the comments.