By now you've certainly seen a Coca-Cola "Freestyle" soda fountain.
It's a pretty remarkable thing. Instead of levers for different sodas, you've got a touchscreen, slick as an iPad. It presents you with 20-odd options: Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Fanta, Powerade... glancing over the logos, it's a pretty impressive list.
But there's more. Push one of those buttons: you want Coke? Well, you can have Coke. But would you rather have Vanilla Coke? Coke with Lime? Or kinds that don't even exist in bottles, like Coke Raspberry or Orange Coke?
It gets pretty dizzying. The first time we saw one at a Connecticut rest stop Wendy's, we went crazy with all the different options and combinations. (It set our car trip back a good hour.) And now that a machine's appeared at a new Five Guys in our Brooklyn neighborhood, we can't get enough. Is Orange Fanta better than Sprite Orange? What about Diet Coke Lime vs. Coke Zero Lime... vs. Caffeine-Free Diet Coke Lime?
If you're a Serious Eats reader, you probably know what's coming next.
We had to try them all.
"All" is a lot. More than a hundred. But there were two of us, and given that John only drinks regular soda and Carey tends to go for diet, the division of labor was pretty clear. Only 65 or so each, right? Heh.
So What Flavors Did We Try?
Coca-Cola® Vanilla Coke Coke with Lime Raspberry Coke Cherry Coke Orange Coke Cherry Vanilla Coke Diet Coke® Diet Vanilla Coke Diet Coke with Lime Raspberry Diet Coke Diet Cherry Coke Orange Diet Coke Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke Coca-Cola ZeroTM Cherry Coke Zero Vanilla Coke Zero Cherry Vanilla Coke Zero Coke Zero with Orange Coke Zero with Lime Coke Zero with Raspberry Coke Zero with Lemon Caffeine-Free Diet Coke® Caffeine-Free Diet Vanilla Coke Caffeine-Free Diet Coke with Lime Caffeine-Free Diet Coke with Orange Caffeine-Free Diet Raspberry Coke Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry Coke Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke Sprite® Sprite with Cherry Sprite with Strawberry Sprite with Grape Sprite with Peach Sprite with Raspberry Sprite with Orange Sprite with Vanilla Sprite ZeroTM Sprite Zero with Cherry Sprite Zero with Strawberry Sprite Zero with Raspberry Sprite Zero with Grape Sprite Zero with Peach Sprite Zero with Orange Sprite Zero with Vanilla Fanta® Orange Fanta Fruit Punch Fanta Lime Fanta Grape Fanta Strawberry Fanta Peach Fanta Raspberry Fanta Cherry Fanta ZeroTM Orange Fanta Zero Peach Fanta Zero Lime Fanta Zero Grape Fanta Zero Strawberry Fanta Zero Fruit Punch Fanta Zero Raspberry Fanta Zero Cherry Minute Maid® Lemonade Minute Maid Cherry Lemonade Minute Maid Orange Lemonade Minute Maid Raspberry Lemonade Minute Maid Strawberry Lemonade Minute Maid Fruit Punch Lemonade Minute Maid® Light Lemonade Minute Maid Light Cherry Lemonade Minute Maid Light Orange Lemonade Minute Maid Light Raspberry Lemonade Minute Maid Light Strawberry Lemonade Minute Maid Light Fruit Punch Lemonade Dasani with Lime Dasani with Peach Dasani with Grape Dasani with Orange Dasani with Strawberry Dasani with Raspberry Dasani with Cherry Dasani with Lemon Dasani Sensations - Lime Dasani Sensations - Peach Dasani Sensations - Grape Dasani Sensations - Strawberry Dasani Sensations - Orange Dasani Sensations - Raspberry Dasani Sensations - Cherry Dasani Sensations - Lemon Powerade ION4 Fruit Punch Powerade ION4 Raspberry Powerade ION4 Cherry Powerade ION4 Lemon Powerade ION4 Orange Powerade ION4 Lime Powerade ION4 Grape Powerade ION4 Strawberry Powerade Zero Fruit Punch Powerade Zero Raspberry Powerade Zero Cherry Powerade Zero Lemon Powerade Zero Orange Powerade Zero Lime Powerade Zero Grape Powerade Zero Strawberry Hi-C® Hi-C Cherry Hi-C Orange Hi-C Raspberry Hi-C Strawberry Hi-C Fruit Punch Hi-C Grape Hi-C Raspberry Lime Hi-C Orange Vanilla VaultTM Vault Red Blitz Orange Vault Grape Vault Peach Vault Pibb Xtra® Pibb ZeroTM Barq's® Barq's Vanilla Diet Barq's® Diet Barq's® Diet Barq's Vanilla Seagram's® Lemon Lime Seltzer
Our Plan of Attack: How to Taste Over 100 Flavors
The bright, spacious, friendly Five Guys was the perfect staging ground. (Bonus points for proximity to the apartment; soda-full bellies don't like to travel far.) There's always a crowd waiting by the soda machines, since the burger orders are handed over the counter right there, so you don't look too conspicuous as you linger. There are free peanuts to cleanse the palate. And the burgers are pretty solid, too.
Five Guys advertises "Free Refills!", so in the interest of budget, we could've tested the whole lineup in one visit: two cups and $4.58. But in the interest of fair play and our own beleaguered stomachs, we spaced it out over quite a few.
The ground rules? We had to do every member of a vertical (e.g. Coke Zero Cherry, Coke Zero Lemon...) in one go. We had to taste similar sodas in different verticals against each other (Fanta Grape vs. Sprite Grape; Diet Coke Orange vs. Caffeine-Free Diet Coke Orange) against each other. And we had to try everything, as repulsive—I'm looking at you, Sprite Zero with Vanilla—as it might sound.
Ready? Here goes.
John: Coke was an easy enough place to start; nothing like the good, old fountain soda. Even out of the futuristic machine, it's still the same, classic taste.
Cherry Coke: Just like the old Cherry Coke, though when tasted among the others, it seems pretty sweet.
Coke Orange: This one felt forced, as if it didn't belong together. Mine tasted like orange pop, but brown—halfway between the original and a straight orange soda, in a strange netherworld.
Coke Vanilla: The vanilla tasted a little too flavored. It pushes too hard, and tasted stronger than the Vanilla Coke bottled version.
Coke Lime: Ugh, gross. Oddly bitter.
Coke Raspberry: I expected this to be downright awful, and it wasn't. It almost tasted better than Cherry coke. The raspberry flavor works with coke, surprisingly.
Coke Cherry Vanilla: Better than I expected, given how awfully sweet the straight vanilla was. The vanilla was mitigated by the cherry for a palatable combination.
Coke Lemon: I'm going to say, a lot better than I expected, after tasting the lime. Tart, good amount of acidity, and it just... worked. Maybe that's why the French serve lemon with Coke.
This round's winner: Definitely the Raspberry Coke, because it was so surprising.
Carey: Of the three diet colas here (Coke Zero, diet Coke, Caffeine-Free diet Coke) Coke Zero is by far my favorite. And it also has the most robust flavor. So let's start there.
Coke Zero: True to what's in the bottle (and believe me, I drink a lot of this from the bottle).
Coke Zero Cherry: Starting off familiar. Again, true to what's in the bottle or the can, the Coke Zero's robust cola flavor blending well with the cherry flavor, masking the syrup's sweetness.
Coke Zero Orange: I don't understand this. Just don't. It tastes like the "suicide sodas" I'd make from the soda machines of yore, mixing all of the flavors and hating the result. There's a strange bitter taste to this one... almost pithy. (As if orange pith ever came within a hundred yards of this soda.)
Coke Zero Vanilla: Always hated this one (but i don't like cream soda either, and it tastes like a cross between cola and that). I have a pretty high tolerance for fake sweetener but I find fake-sweetened vanilla pretty repulsive, whether in sugar-free Starbucks lattes or in my soda. It's got a slippery sweetness that makes my skin crawl.
Coke Zero Lime: Like the orange, again with the weird bitterness.
Coke Zero Raspberry: This works, like the cherry, and really they're quite similar flavors. (In artificial flavor-land. Not, you know, with regards to fruit.)
Coke Zero Cherry Vanilla: Just happy that something helps mask the creepy vanilla.
Coke Zero Lemon: See, this works. This actually works quite well. I used to drink my fair share of Diet Coke Lemon before they discontinued it at my college WaWa, and for a time it was my favorite of the Coke family. Maybe because lemon's naturally so tart it can use sweetening up. Maybe because artificial lemon, in lemon drops and such, actually tends to taste pretty good. But for whatever reason, I think this works infinitely better than lime.
This round's winner: Coke Zero Lemon. No contest.
Carey: I'm a Coke Zero loyalist, but I understand the appeal of Diet Coke: its crisp acidity, its almost metallic sharpness. Less rounded and in a way less cola-like, it works well with different flavors. The cherry is fine, but the cherry flavors comes through a little too strongly, rather than the more balanced Cherry Coke Zero. Ditto raspberry, still one of the better options, if a little more raspberry-skewed.
Orange and lime both work better, clashing less with the soda base. But vanilla and cherry vanilla: repulsive. Nowhere for the vanilla to hide.
This round's winners: Cherry and raspberry, though "most improved" nod to orange and lime.
(Note for anyone inspired to repeat this experiment: Know what happens when you try the above 16 sodas in a sitting? At, say, 9pm? Nothing involving sleep for seven hours or so.)
Caffeine-Free Diet Coke
Carey: After a Diet Coke-induced sleepless night, I certainly understand the need for Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. But does anyone like it? Really? It's always tasted to me like the real stuff's scrawny, weaker little cousin.
Here, flavor-wise, it was a sliding scale between Coke Zero, Diet Coke, and Caffeine-Free; while Coke Zero hid and balanced flavors best, Caffeine-Free hardly did at all. So the orange and lime weren't bad at all, tasting more of those flavors than anything. But the cherry and raspberry were overpowering, syrupy and just too strong. Vanilla and cherry vanilla? I wish I could erase the memories.
This round's winner: None. With a reluctant "not that bad" victory to Orange.
Fanta Orange: Very blah, lacking flavor.
Fanta Cherry: Like drinking maraschino cherry juice.
Fanta Strawberry: Okay, I'm now convinced that Strawberry just doesn't work as a sweet soda flavor. Do not get this.
Fanta Raspberry: Like a better Fanta Cherry. I'm stunned that the syrup makes this much of difference.
Fanta Grape: Way too "blue" tasting; it tasted like a melted Red, White, and Blue popsicle. It was not nearly purple/grape enough.
Fanta Lime: This is the least offensive of the bunch, and actually much mellower than a Mountain Dew. Good and tart.
Fanta Fruit Punch: Carbonated Hawaiian Punch.
Fanta Peach: This one smelled like a Jolly Rancher, but tasted like the plastic they're wrapped in.
Score one for: Fanta Raspberry. I'm starting to think Raspberry is the way to go in this machine. Props to Lime for tasting better than Moundatin Dew.
Carey: Spain was where I had my first Fanta, and Fanta Free Limón was pretty much my dream soda. Crisp, tart, just sweet enough, the lemon flavor powerful and pungent. But I've never seen the lemon flavor in the States. Why?!
Even in the Freestyle machine, where you can get peach and raspberry and fruit punch Fanta, there's no lemon. It kills me.
(Shit like this is what Wikipedia was invented for.)
In the Freestyle, all these flavors seemed muted and weak, particularly when compared to the Sprite Zero. Sprite's got a tart bite that the strangely flat Fanta can't compare with. Orange Fanta I've always found disappointing, all syrup-y sweet and hardly tart; cherry tastes like a weak shirley temple, but not too terrible, just not as good as Sprite Cherry. Raspberry is the one artificial flavor that's reliably not too sweet, and here it's just fine; fruit punch is like Hi-C, with no real "fruit" flavor but drinkable enough. Either's delicious after strawberry—I couldn't even smell it without cringing, and the Bubbalicious-like, Jello-fake flavor was hard to deal with. Peach is similarly horrid, like drinking liquid lip gloss. Yet grape has to be the worst: the fakest, the aspartamiest.
I'm not usually a lime soda fan, but this one was surprisingly tasty; it reminded me of decent margarita mix, with some bitterness and acidity.
This round's winner: Er... none, really. But we liked the flavor of the raspberry, and the tartness of the lime—so what about a blend? Winner.
John: Sprite itself is crisp, acidic, and refreshing, but not all the flavors fare as well.
Sprite Cherry: Kind of meh. I think I like Code Red Mountain Dew better. It wasn't as absurdly sweet as some cherry drinks in the Freestyle, though.
Sprite Orange: GREAT orange pop. This is exactly what orange pop is supposed to be. Slight tart, good sweetness, solid acidity. (I don't care what side of the soda / pop debate you fall on; when it comes to orange, it's pop).
Sprite Vanilla: The nose is potently vanilla. It has body. It tastes like medicine.
Sprite Strawberry: This is awesome, if you like nasty bubblegum soda.
Sprite Raspberry: Like a better Sprite Cherry.
Sprite Grape: This was where I noted the difference between Fanta and Sprite; Sprite is more refreshing, with better acidity. Actually, I preferred Sprite Grape to Fanta Grape, and Sprite to Fanta overall.
Sprite Peach: This smelled like a Jolly Rancher, but it was better than Fanta Peach. Something about Sprite manages the flavors better.
By This Point...
If the restaurant's crowded, no one's going to pay that much attention to whoever's at the soda machine. But at every visit we made, there'd be a lull when someone would notice that each of us had been to the soda machine a dozen times.
Two French guys were the least shy about staring, watching us, their mouths hanging open, as we walked back up for soda again and again. You just knew they were going to tell their friends about it later.
Carey: I'm with John: Sprite fares a lot better than Fanta. It's bubblier, not as single-note sweet, and takes the flavors better. Orange and Lime both benefitted from the lemon-lime kick, and cherry and raspberry I liked, too, their sweetness not as powerful. But peach and strawberry were still too sweet to drink (or even smell), grape didn't mesh too well with the citrus, and vanilla... I'm sorry, what focus group approved this?
John: By this point I felt my diabetes risk climbing rapidly. Soda's a lot more fun when you're not trying them 20 at a time.
The Lemon I found both sweet and tart. Definitely my favorite, and Strawberry wasn't bad either, though the sugar levels were definitely up there. Add Everclear and it'd be a perfect sorority punch. Cherry and Orange tasted way too sweet, and the Fruit Punch reminded me of elementary school juice boxes.
Minute Maid Light
Carey: A genre I can deal with. Minute Maid Light isn't anything you'd mistake for "real" lemonade, but it's an awful lot lemonadier than, say, Crystal Light. The regular version is tart and lemony enough to be drinkable on its own, and I quite liked it paired with cherry or raspberry. Strawberry was as always toothachingly sweet, but orange did better here than elsewhere, thanks to the lemonade giving it a citrusy kick others lacked. And while I don't quite understand the reason behind "Fruit Punch Lemonade," I had no problem with it, either.
Dasani and Dasani Sensations
Carey: Yes, Freestyle not only has flavored waters—it has eight of them. And then eight identical versions with bubbles. So let's not pretend they're each deserving of discussion. The theme in this round: the sparkling "Sensations" were palatable; the flat ones weren't. I've had flavored Dasani before and there's something about its feeling in your mouth (unless it's ice cold) that creeps me out: it's thick and oily and just strange. But the Sensations? Those I'd drink again.
Essentially, it's either flat or carbonated water plus the now-familiar syrups, and the sparkle does an awful lot. Orange actually fared better than Sprite or Fanta orange, the sweetness cut by the bubbles and not amplified by anything else; cherry was a little weak to my taste, but then again, I like the cherry syrup flavor. Strawberry and peach still taste like something made by Bath and Body Works, but they're more palatable here than elsewhere. And the grape and lime. I liked quite a lot; both of them benefitted from being solo, diluted and sparkled up, rather than smashed together with other sweet substances.
The flat Dasanis, across the board, tasted like watered-down versions of oversweet syrups, which is precisely what they are. Avoid.
Disclosure: This round of tasting was conducted after immediately after I covered a trade liquor and spirits show... so interpret them as you will. That said, I have to say that sampling 16 flavored waters and crushing a Five Guys burger was a pretty good idea at that moment. Even if my notes were a little hard to read the next day.
John: The Regular is something like a watery, carbonated Red Bull—not a promising start.
Red Blitz: This tastes like strawberry, and has that nasty bubblegum aroma and flavor of other sodas with strawberry syrup.
Orange: Okay, this one is good. It tastes like a carbonated, caffeinated Powerade.
Grape: Grey and bland.
Peach: Not as bad as the other peach flavors, but not as good as orange.
Score one for: Orange. But Red Bull is still better.
Lemon: This was just odd. I think the acid of the Lemon doesn't mix well with too much salt.
Grape: Tolerable, actually. Kinda like the purple Gatorade.
Raspberry: Surprisingly, this was the one beverage where I found the raspberry flavor to be one of the worst. Powerade, I think, is more about sweet/electrolyte balance than flavor, and the raspberry pushes too hard.
Cherry: A little too sweet.
Fruit Punch: and Orange, both classic flavors, were right on. Surprisingly, so was Lime. All three tasted balanced between sugar and salt, with mild flavor.
Carey: From this round I learned that... I don't much like Powerade Zero. It's got the strange salty tasty of sports drinks that some flavors mask effectively, but some less so. Fruit Punch, Cherry, Raspberry, and Lemon all came off reasonably well, but Orange and Lime were weak and Grape and Strawberry undrinkable.
And More... (Barq's, Mr. Pibb, Seagram's, etc.)
John: There are a few others on the machine that fall under no particular category. Mr. Pibb is a poor-man's Dr. Pepper. It's just not as sharp as the good old Doctor. Barq's is solid root beer, and I approve. Its cousin, Vanilla Barq's made me smile. It's a great blend of cream soda and root beer. Finally, there was a Seagram's lemon-lime seltzer. Down right awful. I don't know if the machine was broken, or if my taste buds were fried by the sugar, but it tasted awful.
Carey: Mr. Pibb Zero comes in no flavors, which is fine with me as I'm not really a fan; it's always seemed to me like a poor man's Diet Dr. Pepper, a little too sweet and flabby. (Wait--I'm reading the above, and John already wrote that. Yes! We are of one mind.) Not being a huge root beer fan, I won't comment on Diet Barq's except to say that Ed Levine calls it the world's finest diet root beer; the vanilla Diet Barq's tastes like that with a little cream soda stirred in.
John: My top three were Raspberry Coke (who knew?), Orange Sprite (tart and refreshing, which most orange pops aren't), and Lime Powerade. The overall flavor-winner? Raspberry. Amazing how raspberry can taste so great and strawberry can be so vile.
Carey: I came away filling my cup with two things: 1. Coke Zero Lemon, and Minute Maid Light mixed with raspberry Minute Maid Light, plus a little Sprite Zero. My rationale: a little raspberry flavor (my favorite) with a lot of lemony tartness and a few bubbles.
Have you tried the Freestyle machine? And what have you found worth drinking?
Editor's note: Welcome to "Soda," tag-teamed by New York editor Carey Jones and fast-food columnist John M. Edwards, diet and regular soda loyalists, respectively.
This feature was originally published as part of the column "Soda," by New York editor Carey Jones and fast-food columnist John M. Edwards, diet and regular soda loyalists, respectively.