Taste Test: 4 Colas from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, RC Cola, and Zesto to Guzzle Down on Your Holiday CelebrationsDecember 29, 2017
While feasting on plate upon plate of lechon, hamon, and other holiday party provisions, few things refresh better than an ice-cold bottle of sweet, fizzy cola. Invented by pharmacist John Pemberton in 1886 (and originally as a medicine of sorts, delivering the health benefits of the coca plant through a palatable vehicle), the drink employs a unique (but highly-guarded) combination of flavorings (just a few of the purported ones of which are citric acid, vanilla extract, lime juice, coriander, nutmeg) to produce a one-of-a-kind flavor that’s more than just the sum of its parts. Pemberton’s creation went on to become the brand known as Coca-Cola, which—thanks to the power of branding—would soon win over audiences and become the cultural icon it is today. Through marketing, Coca-Cola’s also managed to establish itself to become synonymous with the holidays, even believed by some to have helped shape the red suit-wearing image of Santa Claus as most people think of him today. The brand now enjoys fame in numerous countries, including our own since being introduced to the Philippines in 1912. As with any cult legend however, this would spawn the creation of other brands offering the same sort of product and threatening to knock Coca-Cola off its throne. Most prominent of these is Pepsi, its long-standing rivalry with which is frequently referred to as the “Cola Wars”, as well as other succeeding players that would follow in their footsteps. With that, we wondered: how do these brands differ?
More than being the one who started it all, this multinational (and more than a century old) brand is said to be the long-standing champion of the cola wars even to this day. As you take a sip it immediately reveals its highly-carbonated body on the tongue, during which you don’t really taste much—we’d describe the sensation as being bubbly, but empty-tasting. As the fizz settles down however, it delivers the classic cola taste profile: a fusion of different flavors we can’t completely break down but we’d describe to have a slight acidity (without actually tasting sour), warm spices (we suspect cinnamon and/or clove), and a small amount of vanilla to round off the flavors.
Created just a few years after the OG and still its biggest rival (of cola brand) in this era, Pepsi delivers a different cola experience with what seems to be a sweeter, fruitier profile—characteristics which are thought to be the reason Pepsi notoriously performs better than Coke in taste tests (during which you’re made to drink a small amount) than when guzzled by the bottle. With the increased sweetness, members of the team describe it as tasting “less aggressive”, “more bubblegum-like” and “molasses-y” compared to Coke. A tinge of cinnamon makes its way through, and the flavor wave is concluded by a lemon-y fragrance which does not make it sour (think lemon zest as opposed to lemon juice) , but brings a welcome vibrance to the mix.
In spite of a tragic life story (the US-originating brand boasts of many achievements, most notable of which is being the first to popularize diet soda using an alternative-sweetener called cyclamate—only to later face controversy for the sweetener’s apparently hazardous nature, from which they would continue to descend down in popularity and land in the mere mid-tier spot they remain on today), RC Cola—”RC” being an abbreviation of its full name, Royal Crown—does have its fair share of fans here in the Philippines (the highest in the world as of 2010). Their take on the beverage strikes us as being in between Coke and Pepsi in many ways: it’s similar Coca-Cola in having a lot of carbonation that can get in the way of flavor delivery for the first few moments as it hits your tongue, but is closer to Pepsi in level of sweetness once it does settle in. What follows is a flavor profile with a mild citrusy taste (right dabsmack the intensity you’ll find in Coke and Pepsi), a heavier dash of cinnamon and clove (between brands this carries the heaviest spices), and a caramelized-sugar aftertaste to round the other tastes off.
Not a lot of people know Zesto—a local brand known for primarily for their juice drinks—makes its own cola (which since 2014 has been acquired by the owners of RC), but it’s worth seeking out if you’re into zestier, fruitier flavors. It carries a profile similar to Coke but with stronger spices and more tongue-tingling acidity. As with Pepsi, you get distinctive citrus notes here—and they stand out better given Zesto’s more acidic profile (as members of the team put it, it comes the closest to tasting like cola-flavored gummies). It’s refreshing enough to gulp down by itself, but it also cuts through fatty meats and greasy chips magnificently, making it a great, versatile option.
The Verdict: RC Cola
While the team was divided in choosing between Coke and Pepsi (the author, in particular, is a staunch Pepsi Max loyalist when it comes to diet soda), in a surprising turn of events, RC wins over the team by offering the best of both worlds into one smooth, refreshing beverage. It carries the optimum amount of sweetness that keeps it a stimulating drink on its own, but also a fair amount of tanginess and a standout amount of spice that makes for an excellent pair with any food. Another surprising standout is Zesto—its zestier, brighter blend is especially wonderful for drinking with meals. Coca-Cola still reigns as a reliable refreshment with its signature cola taste, and the mild sweetness allows you to keep guzzling and guzzling without it feeling as saccharine. Pepsi’s sweeter, citrusy profile gives it an appealing candy-like quality that’s great for enjoying on its own or with anything greasy and salty, e.g. chips. Consumed in moderation, cola’s distinctive harmony of flavors will always be refreshing.