Decades ago, when most soda manufacturers made the switch to high fructose corn syrup, which was more affordable than cane sugar, Dublin Bottling Works—a small plant in central Texas that has been producing carbonated drinks for over 120 years—was a rare holdout. Long before the possible health hazards of HFCS became a hot topic, they vowed that the Dublin Bottling Works would stick with Texas-made Imperial sugar in the Dr Pepper they produced, simply because they liked the taste better. For many years, sugar-sweetened "Dublin Dr Pepper"—made with sugar—was a local legend and a sought-after collector's item among soda fans.
Unfortunately, in 2012, the culmination of years of lawsuits and demands by Dr Pepper's corporate arm led to the revocation of Dublin Bottling Works' license to the beverage. (Carey Jones covers the shutdown here.) With many other companies, the story would have ended then and there, but DBW had been through tough times before, and they weren't about to lay down and die. They could no longer make Dr Pepper, but they rolled out a dozen-strong line of new vintage-themed soda flavors—all sweetened with cane sugar.
I recently picked up 8 flavors of Dublin Bottling Works sodas to give them a try: Vintage Cola, XXX Root Beer, Vanilla Cream Soda, Retro Crème Soda, Orange Cream, Retro Grape, Cherry Limeade, and Tart 'n' Sweet Lemonade. (My local shop didn't stock Black Cherry, Lemon/Lime, Squeeze Orange, or Blueberry. Whether due to a legal injunction, or just bad memories, the company does not make a Dr Pepper clone.)
There's nothing fancy in the ingredients of Dublin Bottling Work's products; it's a deliberate throwback to to pre-HFCS days in more ways than one. From the packaging to the titles to the stuff inside the bottles, everything is meant to evoke a time before the number-crunchers dictated what went into a soda pop. The price point is tragically modern, but everything else evokes the golden age of '50s soda shoppes; this leaves little to contemplate but the flavor itself, which is just the way the company wants it.
Vintage Cola is the baseline here, and aside from evoking, as do far too many unaffiliated cola brands, the loose sweetness of Pepsi instead of the rich spiciness of Coke, it's a very fine sugar soda. Just enough kick from the carbonation, not too syrupy, and with a strong, memorable cola flavor—it's not flawless, but it's very pleasing and smooth. XXX Root Beer, on the other hand, is a bit of a disappointment; its flavor is all chemical, with almost no real herbal or spice notes, and lacking in a distinct head or finish.
Maybe they just used up all their vanilla in making the Vanilla Cream Soda, and if so, that's fine with me. This is a top-notch cream soda, with a strong, deep vanilla taste, a super-crisp finish, and a solid all-around sweetness. This one is about as good a cream soda as I've ever had. Retro Crème Soda, meant to evoke the perennially popular Texas favorite Big Red, actually gives its inspiration a run for its money; the sugar gives it an immediate boost, but like the vanilla cream, this soda refreshingly clean and free of the overly false bubble-gum sweetness that often comes through with Big Red.
The next two taste tests surprised me in different ways: while I'm usually not a fan of orange sodas, I like orange cream just fine, and Dublin Bottling Works' Orange Cream soda was a treat. It's the most obvious dessert drink of the line, and while it is extremely sweet, it's just short of overpowering and would be terrific in a float. Likewise, grape sodas are generallly not my favorites; of all the standard soda flavors, grape almost always seems the most cloying and artificial. Dublin's Retro Grape, though, really caught me off guard: the 'grape' flavor was still as phony as a Nigerian prince's e-mail, but it was a tasty, appealing fake, not an obnoxious, distracting fake, with a cool taste that was fulfilling but unobtrusive. If they all tasted like this, I might just become a grape soda booster.
Cherry Limeade is another Texas favorite, being the tipple of choice when stopping at one's small-town Sonic. The Dublin version was solid without being spectacular: the cherry flavor was a bit too sweet, but didn't flush out the whole mix, leaving some room for the tartness of the lime. Tart 'n' Sweet Lemonade delivered what it promises in the name, but I still wasn't overly impressed, since I'm of the belief that there's no such thing as a bottled lemonade superior to what you can make at home in ten minutes. Still, there was certainly nothing wrong with the Dublin lemonade; it had a pleasing if uncomplicated flavor and if you need lemonade in a bottle, this will suit you just fine.
We're tough critics, but all told, the Dublin Bottling Works sodas were a rousing success; even the worst of them were merely serviceable, and the best were very good indeed. If you can find them, these sodas are definitely worth tracking down.
Do you miss Dublin Dr Pepper? Would you give other products by its makers a whirl?