Last year, Pepsi went out on a limb with a line of soda called 1893 that appeared to be specifically designed to be mixed with alcohol. The advertisement introducing the soda featured a sommelier of sorts as he talked about 1893 as if he were talking about fine wine. It was a parody and meant to be humorous, but Pepsi was throwing an idea out there and hoping you caught on: Soda highballs are ready to be put on craft cocktail menus at respectable cocktail bars.
One year later, the company is doubling down with two new flavors: Citrus and Black Currant. Like the original Cola and Ginger flavors, they are made with kola nut extract, “real sugar,” sparkling water, and fair trade natural ingredients. In other words, they are designed for bartenders who only use house-made mixers.
Craft soda, it appears, is primed to take a more permanent spot in craft cocktail culture. All soda has to do is tap into the same movement that craft cocktail and craft beer culture tapped into. The only question that remains is, do people care enough about natural and fair trade ingredients to think soda is worth mixing into craft cocktails?
“I feel like, ideally, when bartenders are crafting a menu, they care about the supply chain and carbon footprint as much as the quality,” Pamela Wiznitzer, a bartender at New York City’s Seamstress, tells VinePair. Wiznitzer has an 1893 cocktail on her menu and is part of the 1893 Top Shelf Program.
Bartenders caught on to the natural ingredient trend early. With soda purchases on the decline, manufacturers have to come up with a way to win consumers back.
“We know trends are changing and more consumers are asking for real sugar,” Rachel Seeger, the director of marketing for Pepsi, tells VinePair in a statement. “We see 1893 as the next generation of cola, with bold, unique flavors and premium ingredients. The recipe for 1893 was inspired by the original recipes created in 1893 by Pepsi founder Caleb Bradham, bringing together premium ingredients and more than 100 years of cola-making expertise to present a great-tasting fusion of the past and present.”
Seeger added that 1893 wasn’t specifically created to be a cocktail modifier. But it was inspired by cocktails, to some degree. Chad Stubbs, the vice president of marketing for Pepsi, told AdAge last year that Pepsi was “inspired by the mixology craze,” though he also said they “absolutely see this as a perfect standalone beverage or a perfect complement to cocktails.”
The launch of 1893 coincided with the launch of Kola House, a restaurant bar in New York’s Meatpacking District. The press release for the Citrus and Black Currant flavors harps on “how today’s mixologists are incorporating past and present flavors surrounding the kola nut into clever, refined modern cocktails.”
Just because the company is ready to bring craft sodas to cocktails doesn’t mean the public is ready to drink them. Yelp reviews for the Kola House — where the 1893 cocktails are naturally on strong display — describe the experience as “more clubby than your typical restaurant,” and other people were confused over whether it was owned by Coca-Cola. Then there was the review that said “Pepsi has no business opening a restaurant.”
Wiznitzer admits that there’s still some hesitation by bartenders as well. Soda is commonly viewed as a simple mixer for people at home rather than something you would pay premium cocktail prices for. Natural and fair trade ingredients alone won’t necessarily change people’s preconceptions about soda. The taste has to be there, too.
The Black Currant flavor tastes more like an average cola than a premium product. The Citrus has a strong grapefruit smell and a subtle, well-blended orange citrus flavor with a slight grapefruit bitterness. Both would be good in highballs with whiskey, rum, or fernet.
“There are some bartenders with a preconceived notion that sodas on their menu is terrible, or everything has to be house-made,” Wiznitzer says. But, she added, she “wishes people would keep their mind open and give a chance to learn what some companies are doing, because it might be exciting.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include Wiznitzer’s relation to Pepsi. Quotes by Chad Stubbs and Pamela Wiznitzer have been clarified for context.