This list is part of a Paste series of bottom shelf liquor and craft beer style tastings. Click here to view all entries in the series.
For years, I drank a rather abhorrent amount of soda. Oh, not so much as say, Paste editor Josh Jackson consumed at his peak, but it was a lot by any measure, there’s no doubt about that. And then, like so many other adult Americans (and my fellow millennials), I slowly discovered the joys of seltzers as a less bombastic replacement.
It was a slow process, to be sure. The first handful of times I grabbed a La Croix out of the work fridge, it was hard to fathom what anyone saw in these drinks. The threshold of flavor was lower than I was accustomed to, as was the perceived sweetness level. Seltzers struck me as the worst of both worlds—too fruity to be sparkling water, and far too bland to be soda. But that’s how you’re almost guaranteed to approach these products at first, if your only point of comparison is intensely flavored sugar water. The palate needs time to adjust to the new normal, and I eventually found seltzer to my liking.
Now, I drink seltzer constantly, and my go-to flavor across almost every brand has always been ruby red grapefruit. There’s a reason that grapefruit thrives as a seltzer flavor—it’s exotic enough to not be directly compared to most mainstream soda brands, but recognizable enough that customers aren’t afraid to sample it. It’s versatile, being something that you can drink with most meals, and it can also step in for more traditional grapefruit soda in something like a paloma recipe. It’s easy, refreshing and delicious.
Which led me to wonder: If I gave the typical Paste blind tasting treatment to a handful of popular, widely available grapefruit seltzers, which one would actually come out on top? Which brands would I find myself not enjoying when hype and branding are removed from the picture? And so, I gathered 7 samples together (this mostly happened before quarantine) and set out to discover via blind-tasting which grapefruit seltzer was king.
We don’t really have to take this as seriously as our normal blind tastings of liquor or craft beer styles, so I’ll keep this brief. I tasted these seltzers all at once with the aid of my wife, who acted as my impartial pourer, selecting seltzers and pouring them into numbered glasses. I was ultimately able to gather 7 of them in total, and I chose to stick only to true “sparkling water” brands, rather than drinks with additional juice in them such as Spindrift. It felt like those kinds of brands would likely possess an unfair advantage, so you won’t find them here.
Here are my results, presented from worst to best.
It has long been a running joke among some, and deeply concerning among others, that nobody really knows what the “natural essences” of various La Croix flavors are derived from, but I still never would have expected the iconic Pamplemousse to finish dead last in my blind tasting. Pamplemousse is one of the most important and popular brands of La Croix, and it no doubt has millions of fans, but it also presented as the most distinctly artificial tasting when sampled blind.
There was just something vaguely unpleasant here—a combination of “candy flavoring” and test tube vibes that gives the grapefruit flavor of Pamplemousse an aura of “Jolly Ranchers” or Life Savers candies. It certainly doesn’t remind one in any way, shape or form of genuine grapefruit juice. Of the seven seltzers I tasted here, it was the one that felt the most like a product of a megacorporation that doesn’t want you to ask questions about ingredients. I’m in no way implying that the others are any better in that regard, but Pamplemousse still stuck out as seemingly the most blatantly artificial of the group.
With that said, if it was the only thing in the cooler, would I drink it? Sure, but this experience has probably made me less likely to seek out La Croix in the future.
“Super Chill” is a value brand of seltzers and sodas found in a variety of grocery stores, with a company tagline that doesn’t exactly project consumer confidence: “Super Chill® brand creates high quality, refreshing beverages for all tastes. Priced well below national brands, and of equal quality, our line of beverages promise the savings you’re thirsting for.”
And indeed, this grapefruit seltzer is a bit on the lacking side, suggesting that you might want to spend a bit more than buying the cheapest thing available in this case. Whereas the La Croix had issues of artificiality in its flavors, Super Chill’s problem is essentially the opposite—it has little flavor to speak of. Some drinkers like that in their seltzers, preferring the lightest possible fruit flavor profile for maximum drinkability, but in the context of Super Chill Grapefruit it just comes across as banal, mild and flat. I literally wrote the word “generic” in describing it. It’s almost entirely lacking in aroma in particular, which is somewhat disconcerting.
Of the seven grapefruit seltzers we sampled, this was definitely the most forgettably bland.
The Fresh Market is a chain of gourmet supermarkets with more than 150 locations, but their in-house, flavored sparkling water line might still need some tweaking. This one veers a bit in the direction of the previous La Croix, featuring bolder grapefruit flavors, but tinged with a noticeable degree of chemical-tasting artificiality. It isn’t lacking in assertiveness, but there’s a slightly vegetal quality that doesn’t do it any favors. I should note that some of the best seltzers in this group also possessed more of a planty, herbal or vegetal taste as is found in actual grapefruit juice to some degree, but here it just seemed to clash with the grapefruit flavor rather than work in harmony with it.
Still, the seltzers have improved by this point in the ranking, and from here on out they’re all pretty decent.
Kroger is a major chain, with almost 3,000 locations, so one would hope that their in-house seltzer lineup would be at least palatable. And for the most part it is, although this was also one of the strangest entries in this field because it really didn’t remind me of grapefruit when tasted blind. Rather, this one has a very “generic citrus” profile that tastes a bit more like lemon-lime (it almost smells like 7 Up) than it does grapefruit, which on one hand is a bit concerning, but I must also concede that it’s pretty pleasant at the same time.
Refreshing, crisp and recognizably citrusy, this entry is just more of a melange of flavors than it is recognizable grapefruit, and that turns out to not be such a bad thing when all is said and done. If it could have upped the grapefruit factor, it might have snuck into the top few selections, but as is you’ve got to knock it down slightly for missing the intended flavor, even if the results are still pleasant to drink.
I’ve always thought the Polar brand had a tendency to stand out for its lack of ornamentation and rather bland can designs, but I do enjoy their seltzer! This company—which actually has a much longer history than you’d expect—makes fruit-flavored seltzers that tend to be particularly good values, usually coming in a few dollars cheaper than the biggest name-brand competitors. Polar Grapefruit is one of the handful of seltzers we tend to keep stocked in our own fridge at home, so I hoped it would perform at least serviceably in this tasting.
As it turns out, “serviceable” is indeed the word for Polar, as this entry was arguably the most down-the-middle, happy medium product in the tasting. Drawing notes like “balanced” and “basic, but solid,” Polar features prickly carbonation that pairs well with moderately strong flavors of light grapefruit candy. It’s lightly sweet, but still refreshing, and seems like the most prototypical of all the cans in this tasting in terms of what I’d be expecting if someone said “want a grapefruit seltzer?” It was surpassed, however, by the top two seltzers, which proved to be more interestingly unique. Still, I’m quite happy to drink this.
Trader Joe’s differs from the rest of these producers in the fact that they bottle their seltzer in 1L bottles rather than cans, although I really don’t know why they wouldn’t simply do both. Regardless, their take on grapefruit seltzer is one of the most unique of the bunch. It has a hint of salinity to it, along with slightly herbaceous grapefruit juice flavors and a supporting hint of lime. Overall, it has almost a “paloma”-like note on the nose—there’s something about it that evokes cocktails with grapefruit.
Most of these seltzers are likewise zero calorie and sugar free, but Trader Joe’s example is particularly crisp, with a drying finish that makes it both refreshing and distinctive. It seems a little bit more elegant than most of the competition, if you’re asking us.
I really didn’t know much about this brand before heading into this tasting, but I leave it having found a new favorite in the seltzer field. Not only do they support the Stonewall Community Foundation, helping to provide grants and scholarships to LGBTQ people, but they’re making some of the most flavorful and genuine-tasting seltzers in the field.
Bubly Grapefruit is immediately the entry in this field that most honestly evokes grapefruit on the nose, going beyond merely the “grapefruit candy” note to encompass more of the grassy and herbal notes present in grapefruit juice. It’s spritzy and fairly assertively flavored on the palate, with slight acidity that makes the citrus notes pop. Of all the entries, it’s by far the one that most resembles carbonated water with actual grapefruit juice added.
It’s an all-around excellent combination of expressive flavors and a deeper flavor profile than is present in most of the other seltzers. For our money, it’s the best grapefruit seltzer out there today, and you should by all means give it a try if you want to make the jump from traditionally sugary sodas.