I have a lot of tacit memories of Zima.
I remember crawling under rose bushes to collect Zima bottle caps when my family still lived next to a bar. I remember finding flattened boxes bearing the name left over from the teenagers who snuck into my treehouse to get drunk. I’m pretty sure my uncle drank it at cookouts until he permanently switched over to Cape Codders.
None of my memories involve actually tasting Zima, though. I was too young.
A lot happened between the translucent, charcoal-filtered malt-ernative’s introduction in 1993 and its long overdue demise in 2008. My family moved away from the bar, 70% all drinkers in America were persuaded to try Zima, I graduated middle school, and before I ever made it to legal drinking age, Zima had gone the way of Betamax. All said and done, it lasted five years longer than Friends and made an equally permanent mark on my childhood.
As a kid, I didn’t know what Zima was. I always assumed it was just Adult Sprite (probably not a coincidental association), and I remember watching an ad where a thirsty, panting man dashed into a bar to evade a dog, finding a moment of restorative euphoria in a well-chilled glass of the stuff. I remember thinking confidently to myself, “When I’m older, I’m drinking that.”
That ambition festered over the years. You know the tease of seeing a Sonic ad on TV even though the closest Sonic is in Kansas City? Imagine that but extrapolated over puberty. But in February, when it was announced that Zima would be making a limited release return, a second chance materialized right before my eyes. A chance at redemption. When those unmistakable bottles hit the shelf this week after a nine-year hiatus, I immediately grabbed a six pack and recommitted to my childhood dream of trying something different.
I’m a barefaced and unapologetic Millennial. I ride a vintage bicycle and sometimes wear my hair in a bun. My dog sleeps with his head on the pillow. As such an egregious mascot for humanity’s most think-pieced generation, I’m aware of the gravitational allure of nostalgia. Surge, Twin Peaks, and American Baseball have all launched into financially potent revivals in the past year, promising nothing more than the return of an absent familiar. But the fact that Zima was such a punchline in its heyday makes it all the more attractive. Millennials are so often cited for killing things, but now I have the chance to taste something that my parents killed.
It doesn’t even occur to me that Zima might not be good until I get home from the store. In all honesty, the taste is immaterial to the gag, but still, I actually have to drink it. I’m having a couple friends over for a Bob’s Burgers-themed cookout, so I throw my six Zimas into an ice bucket atop some local beers and two different flavors of La Croix. It’s an odd sight, watching them all float together, bedfellows in a time rift created by decreasingly creative marketing professionals.
My friend Brad notices the Zimas right away. He’s 32 and technically still a Millennial, but he’s actually had Zima before. Or maybe he hasn’t, he can’t remember. This belies the exact reason behind Zima’s extinction: despite its attempt to become a standby for people sick of beer, Zima was never more than a novelty. It exists forever in the periphery of the people who once drank it, drumming up a casual “oh yeah!” whenever its Slavic name is mentioned, but no one was filling the shelves of their bunker with the stuff.
We each crack a bottle and suck down a mouthful. It takes me a few sips to place the flavor. Brad is immediately repulsed as he relives an unpleasant memory from college.
The taste is vaguely citrus, but more than anything, it just tastes clear. Like carbonated Capri Sun. It gives me nostalgia for the times in college when my roommates would sabotage our couches with Smirnoff Ice, and I’d be forced to chug a bottle, knee to the ground, before sociology. Not exactly the nostalgia buzz I was hoping for, but I finish the first bottle anyway.
There is good news, though.
The oft-attributed reason for Zima’s downfall was its inability to attract a consistent male audience. As soon as women got their hands on the transparent booze, Coors lost their faith in Zima, trying twice to man it up by adding bourbon flavoring (Zima Amber) and upping the ABV to 5.9% (Zima XXX). Both attempts went ass up, and Zima retained its reluctant stigma of art deco bitch drink. But in 2017, to a drinker who’s largely done away with the gender politics of alcohol, drinking Zima is just another thing to do ironically. No, Zima’s still not being taken seriously, but at least there’s purchasing power behind the decision to lampoon it this time.
Somewhere in the middle of the second bottle, it hits me: orange soda. That’s the flavor. It feels like I’m drinking Sunkist from the node of a cheap chandelier. The taste is thin, and there’s a shallowness that spreads all over my tongue and soft palette. The warmer it gets, the less funny this whole “Millennial jumps wantonly back through time” bit is getting. I recycle the second bottle and consider letting Brad take the last two. He refuses, opting for a Lagunitas kettle sour.
With that, I’m forced to dig down into the rapidly liquefying ice cubes, past layers of good beer and naturally-essenced seltzer, to grab another Zima. When I pull it out of the icy slurry — a moment of triumph for Zima in damn near every TV spot that ran in the ‘90s — the label is dappled with water stains and peeling off. I am unenthused, but I press on, anyway, pairing the last bottle with my burger.
At the end of the day, MillerCoors doesn’t really care if the grandeur of my memories is achieved. Their job is only to supply the means and let me fall short of fulfillment on my own. As someone who’s on an interest-only payment plan with Navient, this is nothing foreign to me, but in the pantheon of stupid shit I’ve done to repay that debt, drinking six Zima on a Sunday is pretty forgettable.
With the ever-shortening recoil of the nostalgia cycle, I’m sure Zima will disappear and be back before long. Probably next summer, running under some cutesty #TBT gimmick. And I will buy it, because I am powerless to resist the things that connect me to my youth, even the inane and frankly gross things. And someone will get promoted for their zinging idea. And then we’ll both die, but Zima never will.