I’ve always found joy in the little things in life — the smell of a new book, blank stationery, and a small soft drink carton waiting for me in the fridge. I never outgrew these joys, and I invested in my soft drink passion especially. I know, I know, there is a common trope about millennials who infantilize themselves because society won’t let them buy houses and save money, and I agree! But the quest for gourmet soda is particularly exciting. The reward? A salve at the end of the day.
As my journey in life takes me to more and more international grocery stores, I’ve ventured farther into the beverage aisles, and when the cool air of the fridge hits my face, I edge closer to the fluorescent light and reach toward the cold carton, bottle, or can of a new or familiar joy. Sure, you can always get something alcoholic, but for those of us who don’t want to exacerbate our GERD (hello, 30s), are addicted to sugar, or don’t want to spend more than $5, there is the wonderful world of speciality soft drinks. First, some general tips:
1) Find an international grocery store or immigrant-owned bodega
Chances are you won’t find specialty sodas and juices at Target or Walmart unless they’re manufactured by an American brand. Look up Japanese, Korean, South Asian, Middle Eastern, Mexican, and Chinese grocery stores (or any other kind!) in your area. While you’re there, pick up some pantry staples and make sure you’re respectful of the other shoppers. If you live by an immigrant-owned bodega, take a closer look at their shelves.
2) Don’t be a coward
Just because you can’t read the language on the packaging of a drink, and just because you’ve never had it before, doesn’t mean it’s a mystery of the vast unknown. Be brave! You could end up discovering your holy grail drink! And if you hate it, that’s also okay. It’s not going to cost you much to find out. If you’re really curious, though, there’s sometimes an import sticker that states what it is in English.
3) Look for the beverages in the fridge and on the shelves
There are instances when those working the stores haven’t had the time to fill up the fridge. Be mindful of stacked cartons or bottles around the store, where potential new favorites could be hiding out. Other kinds of drinks will be placed not in the fridges but on dry shelves in the interior of the store.
4) Once you find a favorite, take a picture of the packaging
Be sure to take a picture of something you really liked for future visits and file it into a folder on your phone — it’ll help you repurchase your favorites and also prevent any mix-ups between similarly shaped or designed bottles.
The ones to know:
Here are very few of my personal favorites, split into the categories of “fruity” and “milky.” Fruity drinks are evergreen, but especially appropriate for the times when you want the feeling of summer. Milky drinks are a little more substantial, better suited for the days when you’re craving something closer to a dessert.
My holy grail of fruity drinks. I have only had the luck of having this once in my life, and I have been searching for it ever since. Achieving the perfect balance of sweet and sour, it feels familiar (because it’s honey and lemon) but also completely new because it doesn’t remind you of that familiar cold/flu combo. Like all excellent soft drinks, it has a sophistication from the first to the last sip.
Winter melon (aka white gourd) is popular in Taiwan and has got to be the best double agent of all time. In its raw form, it tastes pretty neutral, which makes it well-suited as a savory vegetable dish. Once you add sugar to its juices, though, it transforms, giving off burnt caramel notes that makes it the most dessert-like fruit drink maybe ever. It’s in my top five of all time. I have consumed plenty of Taisun cans, and I hereby encourage everyone to try my regular boba order (winter melon tea with salty foam) if it’s your first time.
Again with another heavyweight, Suntory offers us Gokuri. As well as having the sexiest packaging (aluminum tinned bottles, generous girth, amazing colors and design), it also is the best citrus soda. Its grapefruit and cassis an orange flavors are clear winners, and the peach flavor is also good (though I usually prefer a non-carbonated peach).
Sing it with me now: lychee, mango, guava, passionfruit. If my childhood were a table, these four would be its legs. Though these drinks are common in the U.K., they’re a little harder to come by in NYC, where I’m located now. Somewhere in between juice and lassi, Rubicon’s drinks are sweet, thick in consistency, and truly a delight to all those who have an affinity for — yes — lychee, mango, guava, and passionfruit. Get them anywhere you can, most likely at a South Asian grocery store, and for the love of god, don’t buy the sparkling versions.
The blood orange flavor of these foil-wrapped cans gets a lot of airtime with soft drink enthusiasts, but o-ho! Let me tell you about the rare and best flavor of San Pellegrino. Prickly pear, also known as nopal, is a cactus that can be used in savory cooking but also eaten as a fruit. This flavor sets itself apart from other San Pellegrino varieties in that it doesn’t taste as artificial, which is hard to achieve with carbonated sodas.
I never really understood the love for ginger ale until I tried Bruce Cost’s. With other ginger ales, the ginger is too strong, or the sugar too sweet to counteract the ginger, but the beauty of Bruce Cost’s ginger ale is that it’s infused with flavors that you wouldn’t think would work — and yet they do. Jasmine green tea is amazing all by itself, but with the ginger ale flavor, it’s a perfect union.
Elderflower is popular around northwestern and central Europe, and has a distinctly elegant taste that is a heavy-hitter by itself and with cocktails. If your store has a specialty shelf dedicated to the friends across the pond, you may have some luck in finding Belvoir, an elderflower cordial popular with us Brits. If not, perhaps you can scoop a carton or bottle of “Dryk Flader” next time you’re at Ikea trying to satisfy your meatball craving.
Suanmeitang (Chinese sour plum juice)
If, like me, your only experience of plum juice is to fix some… uh… bowel issues, then I understand the hesitation with trying suanmeitang. But this is an all-around winner: a sweet, sour, and very slightly salty plum juice, in an adorable bottle, that, yes, helps with digestion — because bowel movement is important! Grow up! You can likely find suanmeitang at most Chinese grocery stores.
If you’ve ever been to HMart or an East Asian supermarket, you might have seen these cartons in a variety of colors to denote different flavors. But nothing reigns more supreme than the black sesame flavor: A milky backdrop complements the nuttiness of the black sesame and makes for a great drinkable dessert.
Milk tea is tea leaves steeped in milk in various combinations. You have oolong, darjeeling, and other forms (which I encourage you to try if you haven’t), but hojicha is my personal favorite. Hojicha is the more elegant sister of matcha: Whereas matcha leans more fresh and grassy, hojicha is the roasted version, and provides a deeper and earthier flavor. I recommend finding hojicha leaves and having them for hot tea (or finding sachets for a hojicha instant latte), but if you want a soothing cold version, hojicha milk tea in the carton is unbeatable. Marusan’s uses soy milk, which helps with any lactose intolerance.
A legend, an icon. Nothing can replace the tangy sweetness of this watery liquid. She mainstreamed and we still love her. Does she actually help with good gut bacteria? Do we care either way?
Assam tea is produced in Assam, India, and it’s a pretty singular black tea flavor. It tastes a little bit like fragrant burnt sugar or earthy caramel. Adding milk nestles that flavor into your palate and imparts an astounding flavor somewhere between creamy and fruity, floral and nutty. It has crisp notes, much like oolong, but the taste itself is rounded out. I prefer T.Grand’s version, partly because of its “My Way My Life My Milk Tea” caption on the cartons (damn straight!), but UCC has Assam milk tea too.
For those who need a little more of Yakult, and the tiny bottles simply don’t hit, we have Bikkle’s yogurt drink. Much like Calpis, it’s a yogurt drink that tastes less like lactose and more like a kind of sugar that does something to the pleasure center of the brain. It has a better taste and consistency than Calpis, and does not give me a tummy ache, so it’s a win all-around.