Is there anything that whips up the fervor of mistrust in the average consumer more than a recipe change to a monolithic soft drink? We’re decades removed from the disaster of New Coke at this point, and it’s still so deeply embedded in our cultural memory that it can make celebrity cameos in the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Consumers get deeply attached to brands with millions of dollars in marketing stacked behind them, and you can never count on an average consumer to be truly objective when tasting something new. People don’t want new—not really. They may claim to want it, but what they really want 90% of the time is something comfortably familiar.
So yeah—any time a company like Coca-Cola announces in a high-profile way that they’re giving a brand a major facelift and recipe tweak, they’re going to be playing with fire. So it is with the newly rebranded and reformulated version of Coke Zero Sugar, which many fans still refer to as just “Coke Zero,” despite the name having changed back in 2017. The recipe for Coke Zero was also tweaked then, four years ago, but this 2021 rebrand is significantly more daring in terms of the visual and flavor evolution of the product. Gone is the primarily black can, replaced with one where red is now the dominant color, offset by black font. It’s a bit more simple a design, perhaps, but it’s still easy to pick out in the soft drink aisle.
More importantly, though, how does the new version of Coke Zero taste? I figured I’m as good a person as any to answer this: Not only do I conduct spirits and beer tastings and drink reviews for Paste on a daily basis, but I’ve been an avid Coke Zero consumer for more than a decade. Somewhere around 2010, I waved goodbye to “full sugar” soft drinks and made the leap to zero calorie alternatives, deciding then (as now) that Coke Zero seemed like the closest approximation on the market to the soda that inspired it. To this day, this strikes me as true: Coke Zero tends to taste more like Coca-Cola Classic than the likes of Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi do to their parent brands. Is it a perfect likeness? Of course not, but you’re never going to be able to emulate genuine sugar perfectly. That’s just a reality of life that all of us have to accept.
Still, we can easily compare the NEW Coke Zero Sugar to the OLD Coke Zero Sugar, now that both of them are on the shelves at the same time during the nationwide rollout. So that’s exactly what we did, as I poured a few Glencairn scotch glasses of Coke Zero and subjected them to a side-by-side tasting. Here are the results, which I found surprisingly pleasant.
Old Coke Zero Sugar (black can)
This is the standard Coke Zero I’ve been drinking fairly regularly—probably a few cans per week—for the last decade or so, whenever I have a particular hankering for “cola.” It comes in the black-wrapped can initially devised to entice male consumers who were too afraid and emasculated to buy “Diet” Coke, although I was instead drawn to it for the fact that it promised to emulate the flavor of Coca Cola Classic more closely, without all the sugar and calories. And indeed, that’s basically its claim to fame—it’s a good facsimile for the original Coke, for people who don’t want to consumer all that sugar.
Nosing this one today from my whiskey glass—which is a very amusing thing to do, and I recommend you try it sometime—the old Coke Zero is quite familiar. Compared with the new version, it seems a bit brighter to me, with a bit more of a citrus zest/juice vibe, mingled with the classic cola spices. Notably, the nose seems a little bit more muted compared to the new version of Coke Zero Sugar.
On the palate, this version of Coke Zero offers up a well-balanced blend of sweetness and hard-to-place spice flavors. The “natural flavors” of Coke have always been difficult to parse, but they’re said to include the likes of vanilla, lime, orange, lemon, caramel, nutmeg, coriander and cinnamon. Nothing sticks out here too urgently, but in comparison to the new version it’s perhaps not as assertive or bold. It is, however, very easy to drink.
Coke Zero Sugar 2021 (red can)
The new version of Coke Zero Sugar for 2021 comes in the red can with black lettering, and seems to be built around an ethos of being a bit more assertive—but rounded at the same time—in its flavors. It would seem that the company is trying to push Coke Zero even closer to the profile of the original Coca-Cola Classic, and I think they may actually be doing pretty well if this is the aim.
On the nose, this new Coke Zero Sugar is similar, but the spice notes seem a bit more effusive. It results in an aroma that would be fairly described as a little bit more complex.
The same thing holds true on the palate—everything has been subtly cranked up in comparison with the old Coke Zero. It feels a bit sweeter initially, with the cola spices being somewhat more assertive, which I happen to enjoy. The profile feels a bit fuller and more rounded—less angular than the old Coke when tasting the two back to back. It is perhaps somewhat less refreshing than other other Coke Zero, but I would expect that to be accurate if the flavor is even closer to Coca-Cola Classic, which has always been more syrupy. I’m getting more pronounced flashes of specific flavors such as vanilla and cherry here, which all in all makes this version more interesting to drink than the previous one.
Now, I’m sure that some consumers will characterize any change, such as additional sweetness, as something that makes the new Coke Zero Sugar saccharine or undrinkable, but bear in mind that the way I consumed Coke is primarily in tiny, 7.5 oz cans. I’m alright with that drink being a little bit more decadent than it was before, because I’m not downing these one Big Gulp at a time. If you guzzle Coke Zero, perhaps the sweetness would become more undesirable over time, but from my end I actually believe I prefer this new version to the old. That’s not exactly what I was expecting to conclude—and it’s rarely popular to praise the “new recipe” of anything—but I’ll stand by this particular opinion. The new version of Coke Zero Sugar is worthy in its own way.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.