Walk into any gas station or corner bodega in the 1990s and AriZona iced tea was impossible to miss: 24 fluid ounces of liquid gold, wrapped in loud, obnoxious colors for just 99 cents. With flavors like green tea with ginseng or Arnold Palmer or watermelon juice cocktail, AriZona had a wellness halo before we talked about things like “wellness.” Also, it was just freaking huge, a symbol (albeit an unintentional one) of Clinton-era abundance.
Like an affordable housing market and early retirement, AriZona iced tea could easily have become a relic, something we’d look back on — either fondly or with disgust — and wonder what the hell were we drinking? After all, an AriZona beverage has as much sugar as soda, and, as one test confirmed, no “detectable” amount of ginseng. But somehow the brand has escaped its seemingly inevitable fate of being fodder for talking heads on shows like I Love the ’90s and is, once again, everywhere, both at your grocery store and in your social media. If you Google Image search “arizona iced tea,” one of the first suggestions is “vaporwave,” a genre of internet age electronic music that fetishizes the ’80s and ’90s. On Instagram, you’ll find girls with moody stares and on-trend caterpillar brows clutching cans of AriZona green tea. Skateboard kids in AriZona T-shirts. There is enviable nail art and sneaker collabs and an upcoming song by Shinigxmi.X. Artists are using the cans’ iconic designs to collaborate with Supreme.
We may be at the point in our calendar where the ’90s are cycling through, again — or AriZona might be eternal. The neon designs that once made these cans look garish, all cherry blossoms and zigzags, have completed the journey from gaudy to ironic to beloved. AriZona is no trend: It is officially A Mood.
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When AriZona, which is actually headquartered in New York, was introduced to the beverage aisle in 1992, it was simply there to fill a hole in the market. The health warnings about soda had seeped into public consciousness, and an alternative soft drink, coupled with the “New Age” branding, was exactly what consumers wanted. The owners of AriZona, who had been beverage distributors since the 1970s, decided to make their own product to compete with well-known brands like Snapple.
According to Wesley and Spencer Vultaggio, sons of AriZona co-founder Don Vultaggio, the design of the cans was inspired by the Southwestern decor of their childhood home, which was decorated by their mother. “Our mom designed the first cans — we had this water cooler in our kitchen with this southwest zigzag motif in the pink, yellow, teal that would become the lemon tea can, which was the first entry into the market in 1992,” said Spencer, now the chief marketing officer. Don Vultaggio and co-founder John Ferolito thought it’d make for good branding, naming the product “AriZona” because it had a more mellifluous connotation (to a New Yorker at least) than anything on the East Coast. The iconic green tea label also came from the family home, a remix of a perfume bottle the Vultaggios’ mom had and one of Spencer’s coloring books.
“AriZona Iced Tea’s colorful Southwestern-type designs and unusual cans and bottles have played a big role in helping spur the brand to fourth place among iced teas in a mere two years,” reported the Vancouver Sun in 1994. Wesley and Spencer Vultaggio, now both in their 30s, remember their dad making merch in the nascent stages of the company. “We like to think of ourselves as fashionable guys, so we just made stuff that we would want to wear,” said Wesley. “And over the years we’ve been making stuff, and they sort of took on a life of their own.” Half of what pops up on Instagram is from AriZona’s official site, whether it’s T-shirts or bathing suits or fanny packs.
AriZona has happily accepted its revered place in the world of streetwear. Last year, the company opened a 99-cent store pop-up in Soho, selling clothes and skateboards, and even featuring tattoo artists giving away free AriZona-themed ink. “We figured a good way to celebrate was in the form of clothing and wearables and what a real consumer and a fan could take home and enjoy. It was powerful for them,” said Wesley. AriZona also sponsors its own skate team, of which Riley Hawk, son of Tony, is a member.
AriZona’s aesthetic longevity has translated into culinary influence. Sam Richardson, brewmaster at Other Half brewing, said he had no idea that a broader cultural embrace of AriZona Iced Tea was happening when he introduced a “99¢ Tea” IPA, which comes in a can adorned with a teal, pink and yellow “Southwestern” design, as part of a series named after iconic street foods of New York — confirming that the tallboy of iced tea has reached the iconic level of a dollar slice. “We did a beer called Chopped Cheese, one called Dollar Slice, one called Bagel and Schmear,” Richardson said. “It’s really just an homage to something that’s kind of a classic.”
This month, the Brooklyn outpost of Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese is serving a “Great Buy” menu, which includes dishes and drinks both inspired by and using AriZona’s products. The whole restaurant is decked out in AriZona decor created by the brand, including a neon “99¢ GREAT BUY” sign and custom glassware with the word “Mission” done up like the AriZona logo. The tea’s graphics fit right in with the vaporwave, so-’90s-the-bathrooms-are-playing-The-Matrix-soundtrack vibe of Bowien’s Bushwick location.
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In a lot of ways, the aesthetic of AriZona set the tone for the trends of the moment — desert colors, power clashing, and who-knows-whether-it’s-high-or-low-brow. If you were a baby of the ’90s, you’re now a young millennial/Gen Z-er with cash, or at least cache, to burn, and nostalgia for AriZona fits right in with tattoo chokers, comically tiny backpacks, and the Spice Girls. Then again, some things are timeless. The colors and patterns of AriZona regularly cycle through the fashion world, as we saw when Pippa Middleton wore a teal and cherry blossom outfit at the royal wedding, reminding the public of AriZona green tea. Spencer joked that it was “great product placement,” since it happened right as the company’s 25th anniversary was hitting. But jokes aside, people do respond to bold design. “The trend happened by itself even without the [merch], because our cans are so vibrant that they’re a statement piece when someone is walking around and holding them,” says Spencer. “It kind of represents their character.”
The character of the AriZona can is fun, unwieldy, and maybe a little problematic (the “Southwestern” designs are reminiscent of traditional Pueblo textiles). Wesley says AriZona will continue to lean into the lifestyle and fashion space, launching new projects as early as July. But the next time you see ’90s looks like this on the runway, or the perfect look to match a green tea can, just remember you can get streetwear’s hottest accessory at any corner store.