It was the day before Thanksgiving in 2004, and my aunt and I were at a grocery store in Baltimore, completing the last supply run before our big day of cooking, baking, and eating. For as long as I remember, my aunt has always made sure to have glass bottles of Coca-Cola in the fridge for me as a special sugary treat during Thanksgiving. That year was no exception, but when we got to the soda aisle, something else caught our eyes: a two-liter bottle of Pepsi Holiday Spice. We were not Pepsi people. But something about the vintage label, the promise of a spiced-up cola, and the all-caps “limited edition” emblazoned across the top pulled us in. Suckers for anything seasonal — to this day, my aunt will buy any and all pumpkin-spice novelty snacks that pop up at the start of fall — we decided to try it.
Unlike a lot of flavored colas, Pepsi Holiday Spice didn’t taste as cloyingly artificial. The mystery “blend of holiday spices” it touted on the label made for a warming, herbal drink. It had a dark red color and smelled a bit like potpourri. We were hooked. We decided to make Pepsi Holiday Spice a new Thanksgiving tradition. But the elusive drink did not show up on shelves again the next holiday season. Or the next. Pepsi Holiday Spice got another short-lived run in 2006, when it was released in the weeks leading up to Christmas before disappearing again. A decade later, and Pepsi Holiday Spice still hasn’t returned.
When I recently asked some of my friends in Brooklyn if they remember Pepsi Holiday Spice, they thought I was making it up. But search “Pepsi Holiday Spice,” and you’ll find others who, like me and my aunt, long for the flavor’s return. There’s a petition from 2006, and someone else drafted another petition as recently as 2014, though neither gained much traction. Others are just trying to get their hands on the real deal. A Facebook page dedicated to the beverage tracks when bottles pop up on eBay. In December 2015, an unopened two-liter went for $49.99.
Pepsi Holiday Spice’s true closest equivalent is julmust, a non-alcoholic spiced malt beverage that’s popular in Sweden around Christmas. Julmust’s strong and herbal notes doesn’t really cater to the American palate, so Pepsi’s version throws more sweetness into the mix, creating a julmust-like soda that might be more appealing to Pepsi drinkers than the bitter and intense Swedish beverage. My aunt and I are both part Norwegian, which is perhaps why we’re part of the small but zealous group of PHS lovers. Scandinavian flavors, especially at Christmastime, are familiar to us.
Pepsi Holiday Spice devotees appear to be few, but they are passionate enough to draft petitions, buy old bottles, and seek out their own recipes. When trying to recreate Pepsi Holiday Spice myself, I searched for any possible clues online. According to PepsiCo’s August 2004 product announcement, Holiday Spice is a Pepsi-Cola with a spicy finish of ginger and cinnamon. The actual label’s ingredients list provides zero insight: “Natural flavors” doesn’t give you much to work with. Most (self-proclaimed) Pepsi Holiday Spice experts agree that cinnamon is involved, but there’s more to it than that. Before the finishing taste of cinnamon, there’s seemingly more going on: cloves, ginger, a slight pine taste.
In the comments of an Instructables forum post about DIY Pepsi Holiday Spice, one user insists that two bags of Teekanne GlühFix mulled wine spices dropped into a two-liter of Pepsi will do the trick. I tried it. It tasted like Swedish Glogg mixed with Pepsi. It wasn’t good. Fernet and Coke — though significantly more delicious, not to mention alcoholic — reminds me enough of the taste of Pepsi Holiday Spice that it has become one of my go-to drink orders.
A quick Twitter search reveals that every year — especially right around Christmas time, and further fueled by Crystal Pepsi’s 2015 re-release — people ask Pepsi about a grand return. But requests go unanswered. The company keeps launching craft sodas and other limited-edition gimmicks, but Holiday Spice remains elusive. Stranger yet, there is no mention of Pepsi Holiday Spice on PepsiCo’s official website.
Pepsi Holiday Spice was introduced at the same time as the grape-flavored Mountain Dew Pitch Black, a seasonal offering tied to Halloween. “People like new products — they’re much more interested in variety nowadays than they were just a few years ago,” said Dave Burwick, SVP and chief marketing officer of Pepsi-Cola North America at the time. “By introducing new flavors for a short period of time, then taking them away, we’re meeting the wants and needs of soft-drink consumers while playing directly to their purchasing patterns.”
During the 2007 and 2008 Christmas seasons, PepsiCo marketed Christmas Pepsi, which was, to casual consumers, similar enough to Pepsi Holiday Spice. Pepsi Holiday Spice drinkers, however, aren’t the most casual of consumers. They’re the kind of folks who shell out nearly $50 for an old two-liter and turn their PHS cans into nostalgic Christmas ornaments. Nutmeg and cocoa were added to the ingredient list for Christmas Pepsi. It was overly sweet — often the problem with Pepsi products — and overwhelming, pushing the holiday drink even further from its julmust roots.
This year, Mountain Dew Pitch Black was voted into the permanent Mountain Dew collection. But Pepsi Holiday Spice remains gone and, it seems, forgotten by its creators. Other than the original press release, there isn’t much official documentation of its existence readily available to consumers. Is PepsiCo attempting to erase Pepsi Holiday Spice from our minds?
After many attempts to reach PepsiCo for comment, I was informed that no one from the media relations team would be able to speak to me about this particular product. “I can share that Pepsi Holiday Spice was a limited-time offer and there are currently no plans to bring it back,” wrote a member of the Pepsi PR team.
And that was that. There isn’t exactly a PepsiCo mind-erasing conspiracy afoot, but the company clearly has no interest in discussing Pepsi Holiday Spice in 2016, a full decade after the drink was retired to the Pepsi vault indefinitely. Drinking Pepsi Holiday Spice never became the Thanksgiving tradition we imagined it would, but instead, my aunt and I have turned lamenting the novelty soda’s disappearance into a tradition in and of itself. Even if it never returns, I’ll always remember my first sip.
Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is a freelance television critic and culture writer living in Brooklyn. She is a staff writer for Autostraddle and wrote the queer webseries Sidetrack.
Editor: Erin DeJesus