We Try Johnson City Gold, Mountain Dew's New Malt Soda


[Photograph: Jed Portman]

Back in September, we wrote about Dr. Enuf, the vitamin-rich soda that came of age alongside Mountain Dew in 1950s East Tennessee. While Dr. Enuf is still made and bottled exclusively in Johnson City, Tennessee, Mountain Dew has long since moved on to PepsiCo and the bright lights of convenience stores the world over. Mountain Dew's newest soda, though, pays tribute to its Appalachian roots with its name: Johnson City Gold.

To what else does Johnson City Gold pay tribute? To cheap beer, first of all. JCG is a malt soda, but not as hearty as, say, Malta Goya. It smells like Keystone and drinks, up front, like watery PBR. It also tastes a lot like Mountain Dew. As I worked through a glass of it, that over-the-top lemon-lime sweetness tweaked my taste buds until the malt flavor that was so prominent on the first sip faded.

What sounds like a frat-house nightmare combination of flavors is not, actually, so bad. I passed a bottle of JCG around the office last week to unanimously positive reviews. None of us expected to like it, but all of us could acknowledge that it was, at least, better than we'd imagined it would be. And it's not quite as revolutionary as we'd imagined it would be, either. No other mainstream American soda has anything like the beery flavor that opens a glass of JCG, but, in the end, the soda still tastes enough like Mountain Dew that I suppose you could splash a little watery beer into a glass of Mountain Dew and create a reasonable facsimile.

A PepsiCo spokeswoman told Reuters earlier this year that Johnson City Gold is the company's attempt to cash in simultaneously on the artisan-era popularity of craft sodas in the United States and the popularity of malt sodas in other countries. JCG makes sense as a transitional beverage for a cautious corporation that wants to stay two-thirds of the way in known territory while extending feelers into the fringes of the soda world.

Right now, Johnson City Gold is available only in some parts of the country. I found mine at a 7-Eleven in Charlotte, North Carolina. It's also in 7-Eleven stores in Denver, Colorado, Kroger grocery stores in parts of the Midwest, and a couple of grocery stores in Johnson City.

By the time it gets to the rest of you, there's a good chance that it will have a new name and a new label. Johnson City Gold, says PepsiCo, is only the "first batch" of the soda. A competition underway on yourmaltdew.com will decide six different names and label designs—each corresponding to a different part of the United States—for the "second batch," which will be released in 2013.

The corporate money and expertise behind Johnson City Gold—or whatever it'll be called next year—make it a soda to watch. It could fizzle out and die on arrival, or it could be a game-changer. It could be what your kids and grandkids will be drinking decades from now, or it could open the door to another malt soda that will be.

Have any of you guys tried it? What did you think?

About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.