At rum shops in the Caribbean, sunny afternoons slip into dusky evenings as drinkers talk about the news, personal affairs, island gossip or whatever the day brought into their lives over the soft sounds of reggae and pop, or the hard drum and frenetic-paced soca music. Islanders’ allegiances to their rum shops run deep—almost as deep as allegiances to particular rums—and while the liquor is often served neat or over ice, sometimes it’s topped or mixed with a bubbly soda. The soda used varies depending on the island, but the effect is the same: a simple, fruity, effervescent highball that drinkers can casually sip as the night goes on.
Caribbean sodas are their own category of soft drink, different from the big brands available in the states. Often brightly colored and saccharine sweet, and varying from island to island, they offer teetotalers and tipplers alike a refreshing respite from the sun and the heat often found in Caribbean food. With flavors running the gamut from raspberry to coconut to banana to malted molasses, they’re the drink of choice for children heading home from school, as well as rum drinkers looking for something to mix. They’re also a part of each island’s distinct culture, and beloved edible ties to the islands, displayed in grocery stores, rum shops and Caribbean immigrant enclaves around the world.
As with rum, there are as many Caribbean sodas as there are islands, but Jamaica’s Ting, Puerto Rico’s Coco Rico and Haiti’s Cola Couronne are among the most popular and recognizable examples of Caribbean-born and -bottled alcohol-free beverages. For Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans and Haitians, these sodas aren’t just great pairings for the local fare—they act as calling cards for Caribbean immigrants, offering a punch of tropical flavor and reminding them of home.
“Sodas are one of those nationalistic things that Caribbean people get so prideful of,” says St. Croix native Steve Bennett, co-founder (with his brother, Patrick) of Uncommon Caribbean, a website dedicated to highlighting each island’s unique characteristics, including food and drink. As a writer and PR professional who travels extensively in the region, Bennett says one of the ways he gets a feel for an island is to try the soda there. “It’s a taste of the local culture, and I encourage people to try them.” Visitors to the website can find a running list of which local soft drinks the brothers have tried over the course of their travels through the islands, along with notes on each soda’s distinct taste and sometimes noting the dishes with which it pairs best.
For Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans and Haitians, these sodas aren’t just great pairings for the local fare—they act as calling cards for Caribbean immigrants, offering a punch of tropical flavor and reminding them of home.
“If you want to make a quick friend, head to a bar, order the local rum and a Caribbean soda,” says Shelley Worrell, founder of Caribbeing, a Caribbean cultural organization based in New York. Having grown up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, part of the city’s Little Caribbean, Worrell loves this category of drinks and has enjoyed them during her extensive travels throughout the Caribbean. “They’re sweeter than American sodas, and hella refreshing,” she says.
Citrus notes often lighten up these soft drinks’ effect on the palate. One of the most refreshing options is the fizzy, slightly opaque Ting, from Jamaica. Made with real Caribbean grapefruit juice, the soda is beloved for the authenticity of its fruity flavor. “Ting is the quintessential taste of Jamaica,” says Bennett.
The soda was introduced in 1976 by Desnoes & Geddes Limited, and the company’s soda component was sold to PepsiCo in 1999. Sweet upfront, with a pleasant, slightly bitter finish, Ting’s refreshing snap makes it a natural accompaniment to the earthy, spicy, salty flavors of Jamaican dishes like jerked pork or chicken, rice and peas, and spicy beef patties. “Jamaican food always has that zing, so it’s a natural thing to have a Ting with roast pork over rice and peas, because it brings a bit of freshness,” Bennett says. The drink is so popular that it’s spawned additional products like Pink Ting—a flamingo-colored brew that tastes more like the ruby red grapefruits drinkers are familiar with in the States—as well as a sugar-free light version.
“Adding it to cocktails adds sparkling citrus flavor and a dash of Jamaican sunshine,” says Paul Salmon, owner of The Rockhouse Hotel and Skylark Negril Beach Resort in Jamaica and a partner in Miss Lily’s, a Caribbean restaurant with four locations worldwide, including two in New York City. “Ting is ubiquitous in Jamaica, and the most common soda throughout the island,” he adds. “Ting has been an ever-present local brand as Jamaican as Bob Marley.”
Caribbean sodas typically pack a particular crispness that isn’t found in many American soft drinks, says Bennett. In Haiti, Cola Couronne is the country’s best-selling soda and is found in many Haitian restaurants in other parts of the world, where the bottles with their retro font and bright colors are displayed prominently in reach-in refrigerators. “Anywhere there are Haitians in the world, you’ll find Cola Couronne,” says Bennett.
Contrary to its name, the drink isn’t actually a “cola” at all and is instead a tangerine-tinged sparkling fruit punch that’s syrupy sweet and heavy on the palate, with notes of oranges and pineapple. Cola Couronne was introduced in Haitian supermarkets by Brasserie de la Couronne, a soda manufacturer founded in Port-au-Prince in 1924 and partnered with Coca-Cola in 1927. For Worrell, the soda also carries a heady aroma that mimics the rich, sweet flavor. “It smells like when you walk into a Caribbean bakery and you smell the sweet breads,” she says. “It’s highly aromatic.”
A generous dose of sugar helps island sodas stand up to the intense flavors of Caribbean cuisine—and this is especially true in Haiti, where dishes can be umami-rich, salty or intensely spicy. Bennett points to pikliz—a condiment made with cabbage, vinegar, bell peppers and fiery scotch bonnets, a must on any Haitian table—as an example of why Cola Couronne’s potent flavor is necessary. “You definitely want something refreshing when you’re eating that,” he says.
While Cola Couronne blends many fruit flavors into one drink to create a tropical profile, most sodas focus on a single flavor—usually a hallmark Caribbean ingredient—adding to the soda’s feeling of location. In Puerto Rico, you’ll find lime-green plastic bottles of Coco Rico, a clear, sparkling, coconut-flavored beverage that’s tangy and mildly sweet. Created in 1934 and patented in 1935, Coco Rico is a mellow ode to the region’s iconic tree nut (or is it a fruit?), the coconut flavor intimately familiar to most Caribbean people. One of only a few Caribbean sodas still locally owned and produced (in Santurce, just east of San Juan), Coco Rico is a favorite of Puerto Ricans, a perfect accompaniment to the deep-fried, salty bacalaítos that are available along the island’s highways and beach shacks. Widely distributed around the world, the soda has even become a part of Vietnamese cuisine and is considered a staple of any Vietnamese pantry.
Of course, one of the most popular ways to drink Coco Rico is to combine it with white rum and a lime wedge, or to use it in highballs in place of lemon-lime soda or coconut water. Many Caribbean sodas are ultimately added to rum to create a pleasant, easy-drinking mix that combines two of the region’s most beloved items. “Rum is the essential Caribbean spirit, so naturally it always gets combined with sodas because it’s easy and it tastes good,” Bennett says. “In the case of overproof and homemade ‘bush’ rums, sodas are sometimes employed as a chaser.”
While everyone is familiar with a rum and Coke, a highball made with an island’s local rum and homegrown soda is much more authentic. Oftentimes, the local brand is more widely available on the island, says Bennett, and imported products used to be more expensive. “Back then, economics would likely steer people away from Coca-Cola and toward local sodas,” he says. “So the soda being added to rum would be a local specialty.” Possibly the most famous of this genre is the Wray & Ting, a simple mix of Ting soda with Jamaican overproof rum (typically Wray & Nephew, but also excellent with Rum-Bar overproof or Rum Fire)—a combination that’s ubiquitous not only in Jamaica, but in Caribbean restaurants and rum bars worldwide.
These sodas are produced, bottled or canned, and shipped to be purchased at Caribbean carryout restaurants, lunch counters, grocery stores and shacks serving Caribbean food around the world. For many, they are an integral component to any Caribbean meal, adding an extra bit of authentic flavor to the dishes of the region being re-created. At The Freakin Rican, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Astoria, Queens, Coco Rico is always on the menu and displayed prominently so diners can order one with their pernil or pasteles. Worrell likes to grab a Cola Couronne from La Baguette, a family-owned chain of French-Caribbean bakeries in New York, when she picks up smoked herring paté. It adds a layer of authenticity to the menu, Worrell says. “If a Haitian or Puerto Rican restaurant didn’t have these sodas, I probably wouldn’t order food from them because they’re missing a big part of the culture,” she says. Opening a soda with lunch or dinner is a natural part of dining in the region, and that tradition is carried on in Caribbean restaurants around the world. “It’s almost like another condiment,” she says.
But more than taste, these sodas offer drinkers a liquid tie to an island that may be many miles away. “It just reminds you of being on that island, and you can’t replicate it with an American soda,” Bennett says. Just like a signature dish can immediately make vivid the memory of a place that is far away or doesn’t exist anymore, these beverages do the same for Caribbean people around the world. “You have to have the soda that’s made on the same island as the food. It’s the best combination. I always crave jerk pork or chicken when I’m enjoying Ting,” Bennett says. It’s also a source of pride and assurance for those missing home that the things they remember are still very real. “It’s just soda, but it’s so prideful for Caribbean people.”
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