You know that mixology and the American liquor/cocktail market are booming when even the country’s non-alcoholic juggernauts desperately want to revamp the image of their products to snatch up a piece of the pie. In the eyes of brands like Coke and Pepsi, every newly anointed guzzler of negronis or artisanal, locally produced ginger beer is a potential customer lost. Something must be done! And hence: Pepsi 1893.
1893, in both its new “original cola” and ginger-flavored guises, is a product just now appearing on shelves from Pepsi that is aiming for a narrow, possibly nonexistent market—upscale soda, but from a national commercial juggernaut. It’s like the Pepsi version of McDonald’s famed, failed “Arch Deluxe” sandwich from the ‘90s, meant to convey some sort of adult gravitas on a brand associated with families and kids. It also seems built to willfully confuse anyone who sees one of the commercials.
Okay, so great! It’s an alcoholic version of Pepsi, right? At a time when hard soda is all the rage, and all the major alcohol companies are launching their own hard root beers and colas, this is Pepsi’s jump into the alcohol market, right? Why else would they be using shakers and lemon peels and muddled mint and cocktail glasses, right? Right?
Except … nope, 1893 isn’t alcoholic. Instead, in a perfect storm of marketing bullshit buzzwords, it’s clearly just meant to evoke alcohol and mixology. Presumably what they’re actually saying is that the 1893 products are at home in this kind of speakeasy environment, filled with hot jazz (nonexistent in 1893) and Prohibition style (still 27 years away in 1893). But hey, what’s a few decades between friends. And if you don’t believe me that the marketing is liable to confuse people not paying attention, just look at the YouTube comments.
The brand’s other primary commercial, which has been running regular in national TV spots, hammers home this would-be high class perception with its “soda sommelier.”
It’s a confusing point, because you can more or less feel the marketing department’s dual aims as they vie against one another. On one hand, they want to sell a “bolder” cola as hard as they can, implying that it’s a more rich or intense experience. But at the same time, they need to act like boldening up an already saccharine product has no effect on “refreshment.” It’s the classic conundrum of “It’s new and better tasting—but we didn’t change it too much, so don’t worry!” In this case, Pepsi is simply welcome at distilleries now. That’s where this is supposed to be taking place, right, a distillery? Unless those are barrels of the non-barrel-aged Pepsi 1893 back there, of course.
But enough framework. Let’s actually taste the damn things.
Pepsi 1893 Original Cola
I also bought a regular Pepsi, just for the sake of being able to compare them directly, and having the flagship cola on hand was helpful in drawing the following conclusion: Pepsi 1893 actually is a significantly different product, and a pretty good one at that. As much as I may belittle the marketing or the company’s belief that they’re going to “class up” their cola, I can at least admit that this is a huge improvement in the flavor department.
The aromatic differences are initially subtle, but then become more pronounced the more you go back to it. The nose on 1893 is deeper and more complex, full of caramel, spice and an almost bourbon-like vanilla and woodiness. It’s “fragrant” in a way that you simply wouldn’t describe Pepsi, with rum-like warming spices that almost remind me of what you’d expect in a mug of wassail during the holiday season.
On the palate, those holiday-reminiscent flavors are also present. It’s just as sweet as regular Pepsi (which is to say, very sweet), but the presence of the increased spices serves to slightly round out that sweetness and make it seem less contrived and more earned, in the same sense that a well-made dessert earns its sweetness. The deep, caramelized flavors are almost molasses-like, with a persistent warming spice that is presumably derived from the kola nut—I couldn’t say for sure, having never chewed one.
All in all, though, what 1893 offers is a more complex cola. Given a choice between regular Pepsi and this product, I’d choose this one every time. However, given that I only regularly drink zero-calorie colas, I wish such a thing was possible as a potential replacement for my trusty cans of Coke Zero. 1893 isn’t something that I’d see myself consuming in quantity, due to the eventually oppressive sugar, but for the purpose they envision it’s certainly superior to their flagship product. Whether that will actually entice any bartenders to invite Pepsi into their dimly lit temple of modern mixology, I definitely cannot say.
Pepsi 1893 Ginger Cola
The 1893 Ginger Cola is likewise an interesting new product, but it’s executed with a little bit less consideration and complexity. On the nose, there’s certainly no missing that this is their ginger beer analogue. The aroma is full-on spicy ginger; they clearly didn’t want any complaints that they didn’t go hard enough on the main attraction of the gold can cola variant. The flip side is that you essentially only get the ginger. If you put a glass of this in front of someone while they were wearing a blindfold and asked them to guess what it is, I’m confident that 99% of tasters would simply think it was a ginger beer, or maybe a particularly strong ginger ale. It’s a missed opportunity to make a product that is a true crossover with more subtlety.
On the palate, the cola aspect is once again lost in the flow. The ginger, thankfully, isn’t genuinely on the “hot” side—just the smallest tingle of perceptible heat from the spice. It has the exact same amount of sugar as the Original Cola, but the ginger cuts the perception of sweetness down by a little bit. What you’re left with is more reminiscent of a strong ginger ale here, but one that is unusually sweet and syrupy.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he’d happily drink a zero calorie version of 1893, as oxymoronic as that would be. You can follow him on Twitter.