Zima, we hardly knew ye.
By Jason Wilson and Meg Favreau
An era came to a quiet end last week, when MillerCoors announced that it would be discontinuing the sales of Zima, the original "malternative."
If you are, say, in your late 30s and I say "Zima" to you, what comes to mind? Maybe your former crush on heroin-chic Kate Moss? Maybe living in your mom's basement playing Nintendo Tecmo Bowl? Maybe sitting on a ratty apartment couch watching the season premier of 90210? Maybe the wincing memory of that lousy temp job you had right before they invented The Internet and everyone else made a tech fortune?
I realize that Ethan Hawke and Winona Ryder didn't drink Zima in Reality Bites. But every one of the proper nouns in the preceding sentence resides in the same place in my mind. Zima totally feels like something out of Douglas Coupland novel. In fact, in Coupland's novel jPod, one of the characters says, "drinking Zima is something Douglas Coupland would make a character do."
Everything about Zima was wrong, every note tone deaf, every step a mistep. The Zima marketing people grasped hamhandedly at the early 90s slacker fad — sort of like those fashion designers who tried to sell upscale flannel shirts in their boutiques.
One misstep was that ridiculous "Zomething Different" ad campaign. You remember, the ones with the group of supposedly hip Gen X-ers (the collection of whom would never actually be friends with one another in real life) grilling non-traditional fare on a roofdeck? "Are those burgers free-range?" asks one of the young women. "Who cares?" replies the narrator.
Perhaps these ads were effective, but they surely missed their target. Here's evidence of that: Within days of Zima's launch in the summer of 1993, my mother bought me and my brother (who were then in our early 20s) a four-pack of Zima. Maybe she believed this was a symbol of the "Zomething Different" lifestyle her children aspired to? Who knows? We drank three of the four bottles, and stopped. Ugh, the taste! Then for next decade, one lone bottle of Zima stood in the back of my parents' refrigerator, untouched, though that bottle often came up in conversation. For instance, the bottle of Zima would be used:
a) As a point of comparison ("I'd rather drink that bottle of Zima than…")
b) As the reward for a dare ("Dude, if you go run down the beach naked, I'll drink that Zima")
c) As a punitive threat ("If you don't shut up, I'm going to pour that Zima down your throat.")
Here's what I'm trying to say: Zima will surely go down as the one of the most maligned drinks ever invented. And yet. And yet.
Zima does leave something behind, and that something would be the legacy of the malternative. In fact, MillerCoors said it was discontinuing Zima in order to reduce "complexity" in their brand portfolio, and would allow it to focus more on other malternative brands such as Sparks. Think about it: If it wasn't for Zima, there'd likely be no Sparks, no Mike's Hard Lemonade, no Twisted Tea, no Smirnoff Ice.
The supreme irony of Zima's legacy, of course, is that it wasn't upwardly mobile Gen X-ers who adopted malternatives, but rather our younger brothers and sisters. These types of drinks are often referred to as "alcopops" and sometimes come under harsh criticism by people who believe the drinks are marketed to kids as starter-liquors.
That's the way it played out among our staff. Meg says the first thing she ever consumed, as an underage drinker, was a Smirnoff Green Apple Twist. She agreed to bravely revisit the horror of those formative years, and this week hosted a tasting of the remaining malternatives on the market. It wasn't pretty, but her tasting notes follow:
Bartles and Jaymes Mojito Mike's hard lemonade Smirnoff Ice Twisted Tea, hard iced tea Sparks caffeinated malt beverage
Bartles and Jaymes Mojito
Bartles and Jaymes, the creator of the wine cooler, produced the best of the offerings we tasted. Balanced lime and mint flavors left the panel feeling like they were tasting a high-end soda, not a candy-flavored drink made to lure teenagers into drinking. Comments included, "Actually not totally horrible," and "Ok." We also tried another Mojito manufactured by Bacardi, and it was awful enough to garner the comment "Repulsive. It tastes like gum spit."
Mike's Hard Lemonade
Mike's Hard Lemonade is like the kid in school who just wants to be left alone, so he goes to classes, does his homework, and tries not to say anything offensive. The flavor is fake — there's no getting around the Country Time-style taste. But mostly the beverage garnered shrugs. One taster said she liked Mike's tinge of salt, and even the most vitriolic comment, "It smells like a cleaning product," was followed by, "but it leaves your mouth feeling fresh."
If there we had been able to find three more flavors of Smirnoff Ice, we would have had a bottle to signify every circle of hell. But we made do with six flavors that ranged from the gag-worthy candy sweetness of Raspberry Burst to the almost tasteless Triple Black. One taster, age 22, said that the most common use she's seen for Smirnoff Ice is as a chaser at parties. Another taster noted that the original Smirnoff Ice is closest in taste to Zima.
The only uncarbonated malt beverage in the bunch, Twisted Tea led us to a discovery about our group of tasters: Almost nobody liked regular iced tea, which meant that this beverage was pretty well hated. Only one taster took a shine to it, remarking that, "It didn't taste all that different from Snapple or Lipton's." But another likened the tea's flavoring to dishwasher detergent.
The most hated of all the drinks we tested, Sparks is also what MillerCoors is asking distributors to replace for Zima on their shelves. An alcoholic energy beverage that's popular with hipsters, Sparks prompted one tester to say, "It looks like urine. It really looks like urine," while pouring some out of the battery-styled can. After he took a sip, he followed up with: "It's unbelievable how bad that is." Nobody could think of anything better to say.