On this episode of the “VinePair Podcast,” hosts Adam Teeter, Joanna Sciarrino, and Zach Geballe discuss the ongoing trend of hard soda releases from popular brands. Why are brands like Mountain Dew and PepsiCo — which could have released these products decades earlier — deciding that now is the right time for hard sodas? And who are the potential consumers of these products?
Your hosts discuss these topics and more, and for this Friday’s tasting, they try four flavors of the recently launched Hard Mountain Dew. Tune in to learn more.
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Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: And I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: In Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Guys, it’s Friday. We’re going to “Do the Dew” in a little bit.
J: We are going to “Do the Dew.”
Z: I have not done the Dew in a long time.
J: I don’t think I ever have.
A: You’ve never done the Dew? Well, you were not a 13-year-old boy. Were you ever into skateboarding?
Z: Where were you, Adam?
J: Was that the thing, that skateboarders drank Mountain Dew?
A: Yeah. I was semi into it.
J: I thought you were a thespian.
A: A little bit of that, too.
J: Not that you can’t be both.
A: Don’t put me in a box, Joanna.
J: I’m so sorry.
Z: I will proudly say I was not a skateboarder. I tried skateboarding exactly once; it ended exactly the way you would imagine. And that was it for me.
A: Yeah, I was a more ride-down-on-my-butt person. “Do the Dew,” man.
Z: This is a really good question. I want to ask you guys about this, because it’s fascinating to me. When we were teenagers and I think now, Mountain Dew really brands itself around extreme sports. Are those sports still extreme? Aren’t they their own mainstream thing now? Does anyone else find skateboarding scary anymore?
J: It’s kind of alt still.
A: Any of these sports where you could very easily break a limb become the point of extreme. If you’re catching mad air, bro, and then you can come back down and break something, that’s considered an extreme sport. Most moms and dads would not approve.
Z: Is football extreme?
A: I think in certain places, yes. In Portland. What’s interesting about Mountain Dew is, Red Bull has really taken that mantle from them as the soda that sponsors extreme stuff.
A: You don’t hear as much from Mountain Dew anymore. But that is part of our discussion today. At the end of the episode, dear listeners, we’re going to drink some Hard Mountain Dew. But before we do that, we’re going to have a conversation about all of these mainstream brands — non-alc brands — going alc. It’s really annoying to have this conversation right now because we’re hearing so much about outgoing non-alc. It’s really interesting to see so many non-alc brands going alc and looking for their placement among the alcohol world. What’s interesting about Mountain Dew, specifically, is it was created as a mixer for whiskey. That’s sort of its story, for bourbon specifically. It’s from the mountains of Kentucky, from Appalachia. That’s where Mountain Dew comes from initially, and it was supposed to be a mixer for whiskey. Now, you have other people who mix a lot of other stuff with it, but it is one of these very quintessential old-school mixers. And you’re seeing this happen across the board. Topo Chico now has an alcoholic version. Fresca has an alcoholic version. I’m curious, why do you guys think that’s happening?
J: Well, I think it’s happening because as we’ve seen, FMBs — flavored malt beverages — are very popular right now. I think this makes a ton of sense. And there’s the added benefit of known brands having an alcoholic line extension. If you’re a loyal Mountain Dew drinker, it’s likely you’ll try Hard Mountain Dew.
A: Right. But can I ask a question before Zach gives his answer? I hear all that. But don’t you all remember this time in alcohol where we were supposed to very clearly have things for underage consumers to drink, and things for overage consumers to drink? We weren’t supposed to muddy those waters. There was all this concern about, this shouldn’t look like it has alcohol in it, or we shouldn’t make something that a kid could consume as non-alcoholic. Now, I feel like all these brands are just completely blurring the lines. When did that happen? Because that seems to be a real pivot from the way that most of these companies all operated for the past multi-decades. Or am I wrong?
J: No, I think you’re right. There was a pivotal moment, maybe it was with Not Your Father’s Root Beer. That kind of thing. I also think hard seltzer is a big part of this. Those types of drinks really appeal to younger consumers. I also just think that it’s too big of an opportunity for these brands to forego.
A: You’re saying it’s about money, thanks Joanna.
J: Oh, sorry.
A: I mean, you’re not wrong. I’m sorry for capitalism.
Z: I am sorry for capitalism, but it’s not my fault. I think that Joanna is right. But you could even look back a little further. I think one of the big pivotal drinks in this whole evolution over time was Mike’s Hard Lemonade. That, in our lifetime and for teenagers onward.
J: And also Smirnoff Ice.
Z: Oh yeah. But Smirnoff came after, as far as I can recall. I think Mike’s Hard was the first thing that I remember seeing when I was a teenager. In that period of time, when we were teenagers, in whatever years those were, you had the real first line extensions of these big soda companies. Whether it was things like — oh God, why am I blanking on the name of it? There were various teas and juices. You had all these things, right? Basically, these companies were like, “We are the industry leader in flavor.” We understand flavored beverage better than anyone else, and we have the cutting-edge science and technology. We have the distribution, we have the marketing and branding, and we’re going to go in there. Obviously, it didn’t come from one of those big soda companies. But what Mike’s Hard realized is — this is going to make me sound so sketchy and I don’t really mean it this way — if you make a product that appeals to a 21-year-old, it’s probably going to appeal to a 20-year-old. It’s not that big of a difference. We legally consider those two people, one is a legal drinker and one is not. But we all went from 20 to 21 one day and didn’t become a totally different person on that day. And you can work backwards from there. What you’ve seen is that those kinds of beverages that were obviously very popular with young drinkers, and therefore younger people who are not quite of drinking age, were popular. They were successful and they hit that young demographic really, really hard. And it’s a demographic that’s, in a lot of ways, up for grabs when it comes to beverage alcohol. Because, even if people are drinking under age, they probably don’t have super-established brand loyalty. What you’re just seeing is, yeah, the value of that market has only grown. These companies, including some of the big behemoths like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, are recognizing that if they lose those drinkers to Truly and to White Claw, they’re never getting them back. They’re just not. That’s, I think, what this is all about. If someone says, “Hey, if on the day I turn 21 and can legally go buy alcohol, I’m trading in my Mountain Dew for my White Claw,” that’s sales that you just can’t get back. Frankly, that’s a big part of it.
A: It’s like soda is getting nervous.
A: Coca-Cola: Coke and Whiskey?
Z: Who suggested this was coming soon? I can’t remember, someone on the podcast said something about this one. I don’t know…
A: Dave, right? I wasn’t there, so I think it was Dave. It is so fascinating to me because of the amount of caution all these brands used to have, because it always has felt like a no-brainer. This is a completely harebrained theory, but hear me out here. I feel like we’ve always been a much more conservative country. There have already been hard soda brands, Whiskey Coke, etc. in Europe for decades. I remember going when I first went abroad, and I saw all of these RTD-esque products in the cooler next to beer that had Coke and Jack in them and things like that. I wonder if it’s the threat of losing market share. It is also the massive proliferation of marijuana products that seem to have no regulation whatsoever. All of this together, and all these brands are like, “We’re not going to be the only ones that sit here and not do this.” Why not at this point? Everyone else is doing this. I also think this definitely proves that the no-alc movement is pretty much nonexistent. Because if these brands are creating these products, they’re going for Gen Z. And that would be a complete rebuttal to the idea that Gen Z doesn’t drink, because who is going to make these products for a group of people that doesn’t drink? They clearly drink. They clearly are going to drink this, which is really, really interesting. Again, I think it needs to be reported more as opposed to sort of this belief we all have that, based on a few people on TikTok, there’s this massive low-alc movement booming. I just don’t think it is.
J: Every Gen Zer I know says that they drink.
A: And most of them say they drink a lot. We had hard lives, man. We missed out on a lot. This generation might drink more, actually.
Z: There’s something that’s really interesting about the idea that one of the thing that’s spurring this, whether it’s the willingness of these big not-alc brands to enter beverage alcohol, or whether it’s even some of the other products that we’ve seen launched that fit somewhere in between that and purely alcohol-based brands, is an openness to the idea that this is still an unknown. This is still an unsettled battleground in a way. It’s kind of what I was saying before about how these brands are concerned about losing potential long-term sales to other companies, as they always have been. To answer your question in a slightly different way about what’s spurring some of these big brands to come into this category, probably reasonably so, Coca-Cola and probably PepsiCo have to see a bunch of these other companies as their competitors now. They’re no longer squared off against one another, saying, “Well, as long as we outcompete Coke or outcompete Pepsi or we get the big sponsorships or whatever, we’re good.” It’s much more about having to fend off not just the other big soda behemoths and artisanal sodas, but also remain relevant against this whole raft of beverage alcohol. As we talked about in a variety of different ways in other categories, millennials and Gen Z are much less brand loyal or at least category loyal than any previous generation has been — seemingly. You just don’t know that you can count on a permanent spot as a big player if you don’t make what people seem to want. And right now, the market is saying — and has not been listened to for a long time — “We want appealing, flavorful, recognizable, easy-to-grab, straightforward beverage alcohol.” Along with everything else. I’m not saying that that’s the entirety of what the millennial/Gen Z consumer wants. Whether it’s through hard seltzer, other FMBs, RTD drinks or whatever, we are seeing so clearly that at this moment, this is what a large part of the consumer base wants. If you can’t deliver it to them, you’re behind. These companies are already behind the times. They’re just playing catch-up now.
J: To Adam’s earlier point, people are going to mix stuff or spirits with your products anyway, so why not just do it for them?
A: I wonder if you see this, Joanna, from your background as a food writer, as this trailing the food movement in that it seems like in drinks now everyone’s just looking for flavor. Really aggressive flavor, whether that’s the Doritos Locos Tacos and all the big spicy flavors we saw hit food. And all those weird collabs where you would have different brands people knew, like how Frito-Lay was making every different kind of taco with Taco Bell. Is this what that was five or six years ago?
J: I think to a certain extent, yes. It seems like there is a certain amount of one-upmanship with these drinks. But I also find it very interesting because I think of White Claw, and I think they’re not very flavorful. That’s really interesting because this seems opposite of that. White Claw: so successful, so popular. They’re not super flavorful. They’re low-calorie, that was their whole reason for being. But then you have stuff like Hard Mountain Dew, which I can only imagine will be very, very flavorful. I think it’s a really interesting change from that.
A: Well, I wonder if that is part of the reason that Truly and things like High Noon have been successful, because they are much more flavorful. Truly’s whole thing is about flavor and experimentation. These are actually made by Boston Beer, these Mountain Dews, in partnership with PepsiCo. They clearly went to someone who did flavor, and I think flavor seems to be trending across drinks — whether it’s really funky flavors in natural wine and people looking for like the nattiest of the natty, to flavored spirits. We just saw 21 Seeds get bought by Diageo, a flavored tequila. Then we also have big, bold bourbon flavors, where people are looking for higher-alcohol, barrel-proof, smack-you-in-the-face flavor. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that until now. I think that’s a really good point that White Claw actually doesn’t have much flavor. Yet, it’s always tied back to being the beginning of all of this. And maybe it’s just one cog in the story, but it’s not the reason. It’s just that it had viral success, and I think that everyone else wants to capture it.
Z: If it isn’t the most flavorful of the hard seltzers, it was pivotal in terms of showing that you could put out a tremendously successful product that was very simple, where the flavorings were simple in terms of very easy to understand them. I think we’ve talked about that as being crucial to some of hard seltzer’s appeal. We have a pretty good idea for watermelon or black cherry or whatever. It’s not asking a lot of you. Now, it’s interesting to see, and it’ll be interesting to taste these Hard Mountain Dews, where the flavor is a little more obscure. I don’t even know, and maybe one of you has a better idea of what the “traditional” flavor of Mountain Dew is supposed to be.
A: I remember it. I wanted to ask you both. It’s citrusy, sweet, I will know when we drink this if it tastes like Mountain Dew. Did you guys ever drink Surge?
J: I was just going to say, I only drank Surge back then.
A: I like Surge.
Z: I was a Jolt Cola guy, if I needed something horrifying.
A: I like Surge. When I was first driving and I’d have to drive at night, I’d be like, “I need to have a Surge.” What was I doing, just to drive at night? It’s hilarious. But I think I will know. I think we’ve talked about these enough. I think we should drink them.
Z: Where are we starting?
A: We should try the classic.
J: We have four in front of us.
A: Here’s the order we should go in. The classic first. I think the most successful after, initially, was Baja Blast.
Z: I think we should save that for last. Let’s save the Baja Blast for last.
A: We should go regular, then maybe Watermelon, Black Cherry, then Baja Blast.
Z: Sounds good to me.
A: OK, let’s try the original. I’m not going to lie, it smells like Mountain Dew. And it looks like it.
J: That is yellow.
A: This also reminds me of the Ecto Coolers. Do you remember those?
J: No, what’s that?
A: It definitely smells like Mountain Dew.
Z: Oh yeah.
A: It definitely smells like Mountain Dew. The thing about doing one of these, which must be so fun for the Boston Beer Company, is no one’s pretending these are natural flavors. No one gives a sh*t, right? These are supposed to be artificial. Woo! Let’s try it.
Z: Oh, interesting. The thing I didn’t realize, although it makes sense now that I think about it, is this does not have caffeine in it.
A: No, no. And you know what else is bad about this?
J: The zero sugar.
A: Yeah, it ruins it. You actually need sugar in this, because the zero sugar is causing that aspartame flavor on your palate, but not that coating sweet flavor that you want to keep drinking. This is actually very off-putting because of the zero sugar.
Z: Although I will say to its credit, I guess, you cannot taste the alcohol one bit.
A: Oh no.
J: It’s 5 percent alcohol.
A: This tastes like flat Mountain Dew. And that’s weird, because it’s carbonated. But do you know what I mean?
Z: But it’s not that carbonated. It’s not as aggressively carbonated as a soda
A: As a soda, which is also a problem. I really am missing that sugar.
J: It’s got the diet flavor.
A: It has the diet thing, and I’m not a diet cola guy, so.
Z: Part of it is, you’re trying to walk this very fine line with all these products. Because it’s 5 percent alcohol, you’re at 100 calories, I think, for a 12-ounce can. You’re kind of putting yourself in a bind. If it also had the amount of sugar that a normal Mountain Dew has, you’d be at least double that, if not more. It’s kind of unclear. The thing that I wanted to ask you guys now that we’ve had it, and we will obviously taste the rest, is there’s also something to this where it’s a little bit of an open question whether this is trying to serve too many masters.
A: If you’re drinking Hard Mountain Dew, I don’t think you give a f*ck about calorie count.
Z: They didn’t not do market research on this; obviously many people do.
A: Maybe diet soda sells a lot more than regular soda, and I’m just an idiot and not paying attention to this industry.
Z: There must be diet Mountain Dew. In fact, I know there is. So maybe that’s part of it, too, right? For some people, that’s a bigger thing.
J: I also think that if you’re competing with a White Claw and all of these other brands, you have to keep the calories in check. Because otherwise, why would people pick this over those?
A: Look how pink this is. You can smell this one from miles away. This smells like confectioners’ watermelon.
Z: It smells like watermelon gum.
A: Oh yeah, I love that smell.
J: Smackers watermelon lip balm.
A: When I was in middle school, I would go to summer camp. I wasn’t a sleepaway kid. It was day camp — let’s be clear — usually something weird like basketball camp. There was always a snack bar. This reminds me of when you would go to the snack bar. Your parents would give you $5 during the day to get one or two snacks. Kids would always get the Ring Pops; this smells like a watermelon Ring Pop.
J: It tastes like one, too.
A: Oh yeah. Honestly, this is better than the Mountain Dew because I think it’s so aggressively flavored with watermelon that I’m not missing that classic Mountain Dew flavor that I associate with sugar. This just tastes like watermelon soda.
J: Diet watermelon soda.
A: It’s like a melted watermelon popsicle that has some vodka in it, but no vodka.
J: But you can’t taste alcohol in these.
A: No. And again, this just goes back to my point of, I get why they’re all doing it, but for having been so nervous for long, if a kid drank this, they would not f*cking know that this has alcohol in it.
Z: Yeah. Well, that’s the tough part about walking this line, right? Any of these companies that puts out a hard soda, whether it’s Mountain Dew branded or otherwise, they’re not going to put the alcohol front and center, because it’s not what they do. That’s why they’re doing this under the auspices of Boston Beer Co. I don’t know whether they can’t legally or they just don’t have the capacity to produce all of this malt beverage. It’d be curious to see, at some point down the road, if this category continues to grow — the hard soda category in particular. And we’ll see full-sugar, 5-percent- alcohol, 250-calorie, 12-ounce cans. Maybe, I don’t know.
J: With Jack and Coke or Jack and Cola, they’re not using diet, right?
A: No, I think they’re actually using real Coke. They’re not worrying about the calorie counts. But they’re going for a different consumer who drinks a Jack and Coke or who drinks a Crown and Cola, and that’s what they want the flavor to feel like. They want a drink that’s spirit-forward with a little bit of the sweetness of the cola.
J: I think the people who are drinking these Hard Mountain Dews don’t want to taste the alcohol.
A: No, they don’t.
Z: I think that’s a safe bet. Black Cherry?
J: Smells like black cherry.
A: It smells like confectionery black cherry. Why did I just swirl that? What do you think?
J: I think it tastes like it smells, like black cherry soda.
A: It tastes like diet Boylan Black Cherry soda.
J: Yes, it does.
Z: Either I’m just getting desensitized or something, but of the three, this is the most appealing. This is actually less aggressively artificial tasting, even though it’s obviously very, very artificial.
A: I also think these are more classic soda flavors that you can find in other places, especially black cherry. Therefore, it’s a flavor we are used to and can reference. You might have had it at one point in time in the diet version. I’ve never had diet Mountain Dew. But someone who maybe likes a diet Mountain Dew will be like, “Oh, this tastes exactly the way that tastes.”
J: Well, these are all Mountain Dew flavors. Is that right?
A: Yes, they are.
J: Baja Blast?
A: That is a very popular Mountain Dew flavor.
J: I don’t have the reference point for Baja Blast.
A: Come on, man, you gotta blast some Baja. Goes well with some Baja fish tacos.
Z: Classic pairing right there.
A: Classic pairing, Baja Blast and Baja fish tacos and carne asada. Mountain Dew has always been a very SoCal brand to me. “You bro, let’s shred.”
J: I thought it would be bluer.
A: This is very blue, though. It looks like dirty pool water. Or like aquarium water. Little Nemo is going to get drunk swimming around in this. I don’t even know what this is supposed to smell like.
Z: Or tastes like, it’s kind of indistinct to me, but that’s actually not that offensive.
A: It’s like a blue raspberry.
Z: Oh yeah, I can see that.
A: Oh, that’s bad. I would say the two classic Mountain Dew flavors are the worst.
J: Oh yeah. I like the black cherry best.
A: Black Cherry and Watermelon, the best.
Z: I think I prefer this to Watermelon. Black Cherry is the only one that I could envision actually drinking more of, although I probably will not.
A: Here’s the problem, it’s that there’s no sugar and there’s 5 percent alcohol. But you taste these and they’re so sweet, I feel like I’m gonna have a diabetic attack.
J: But you won’t.
Z: You’ll just be worried that you will.
A: Oh man, that’s flavor science, y’all. This has been really interesting. I definitely see, though, that these are going to do very well in colleges.
J: Well, they’re sold out, right?
A: Yeah, they’re totally sold out.
J: Where they’re available, they’re sold out.
Z: Only in three states right now, to be fair.
A: I think they’re going to blow up. Oh man, the youth. What’s this going to do to our drinking culture, man?
Z: I don’t think anything that hasn’t already happened.
A: It actually probably isn’t going to change sh*t.
J: I think people are going to stop mixing Mountain Dew with vodka.
A: And they’re going to start buying this.
J: Which is maybe better?
A: Yeah, although now I kind of want to try a classic Dew and bourbon. I never had that.
J: We can make it happen, Adam.
Z: Well, weekend plans for you. You can tell us all about it on Monday.
A: I will. Well, you guys have a great weekend, and I’ll see you back on Monday.
J: See you then.
A: I won’t see you. You’ll be on vacation.
J: Oh, yeah, I’ll be out.
A: So we’ll see you next time, Joanna.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all of this possible, and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team, who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.