The Department of Weird Soft Drinks—Carbonated Milk

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I don't usually take much notice of new products, especially in the soft drink category, but Coca-Cola is test-marketing a new beverage called Vio that caught my attention because it sounded so bizarre. Vio is a carbonated fruit-flavored milk drink—or, as it says on the bottle, a "vibrancy drink."

I can just picture the brainstorming sessions that led to that descriptor: "Milk soda" didn't test well in focus groups, so what else could we call it that gets across the idea of bubbles? Ebullience? Exuberance? Effervescence? Oh, and it contains vitamin C and calcium—what suggests health without actually making health claims, since it also contains 26 grams of sugar? Vitality? Vibrancy? That's it!

As strange as carbonated milk sounds, it's not unprecedented. The favorite drink of Laverne DiFazio, a character on one of my favorite childhood sitcoms, Laverne & Shirley, was milk and Pepsi. I'm sure I must have tried it myself, although I don't remember what it tasted like. Salted yogurt drinks, including ayran and doogh, which is carbonated, are popular in the Middle East.

Carbonated milk drinks are also apparently popular in Asia, where they are not even the strangest beverage you can find. A company in Japan recently launched what may be the weirdest product idea ever: a line of cheese drinks.

So is Coca-Cola targeting the novelty-drink-buying market? It's not really clear. At least one business blogger thinks the company is aiming for the school market, hoping to squeak by the school beverage guidelines implemented in 2004 that prohibit sugary sodas. This sounds plausible, since Vio is sold in an 8 oz. bottle and contains 120 calories—just under the 150-calorie limit imposed by the guidelines. And one copywriter's description of it as tasting "like a birthday party for a polar bear" sounds like it would appeal to kids.

But the name and the packaging don't seem very kid-oriented to me. In fact, the cheerful but sophisticated bottle graphics are probably the most appealing part of the concept. I'm a sucker for attractive product design. That, and curiosity about what it would taste like, prompted me to ask a friend in New York City (the only place it is presently sold) to mail me a sample.

The verdict is mixed. The first flavor I tried, Tropical Colada, was by far the best. It tasted pretty much like a slightly fizzy virgin pina colada. I would drink it as an occasional sweet treat. It went downhill from there, though. Very Berry wasn't bad—kind of like Strawberry Quik, which I loved as a kid. But Mango Peach tasted too artificial, and Citrus Burst was undrinkable. All were too sweet. Other reviewers liked it even less than I did—Time magazine named it one of the top 10 bad beverage ideas.

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