Dirty soda turns trendy with help from TikTok

Washington Post photo by Emily Heil.
A dirty soda made with Coca-Cola, coconut syrup, half and half and lime.

Dirty sodas – carbonated drinks “spiked” with cream, syrups and other add-ins – are having a moment on TikTok, propelled, some say, by pop star Oliva Rodrigo, who was photographed with a cup full of the pebble-iced treat.

Mormon mommies, too, can lay claim to fueling the Utah-based trend.

And let’s talk for a moment about an original soda-dairy influencer: Laverne DeFazio, the tough-talking half of the TV duo Laverne & Shirley, whose drink of choice was Pepsi and milk. Penny Marshall, the actress and director who played DeFazio, wrote in her autobiography that the running gag was inspired by a drink she had enjoyed growing up.

But it isn’t Milwaukee, where Laverne famously worked at Shotz Brewery, that’s most associated with sodas gone wild – it’s Utah, where chains catering to a Mormon clientele offer bubbly drinks mixed with all manner of adornments, from mango puree to watermelon syrup to coconut cream. The drinks are often referred to as “Utah Dirty Sodas,” they’re so associated with the Beehive State – although the companies that started there are expanding beyond the so-called Mormon Corridor across Idaho and Arizona and spilling into other regions of the country.

Cooking show host and cookbook author Kelsey Nixon, who was raised in Utah and attended Brigham Young University, said the appeal of the drinks to young TikTokers is exactly what made them popular among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – namely, that they mimic some of what others enjoy about alcohol: They are highly customizable and often enjoyed in social settings. They might have playful names, and they offer the feeling of indulging in a vice, albeit a sanctioned one. (Hot caffeinated drinks such as coffee and tea are forbidden by the LDS Church health manual, but caffeine, the church clarified in 2012, is okay in cold drinks.) “There’s the 17 year-old who can’t drink alcohol legally thinking, ‘this is cool that I can participate in a kind of drinks culture,'” she says.

At a recent girlfriends getaway, Nixon recalled, the question wasn’t ‘who brought the tequila?’ “It was like, who brought the True Lime? Who brought the coconut syrup?” she says, name-checking the ingredients to her preferred concoction.

While the phenomenon of dirty soda began in the early 2010s, Nixon notes that there’s long been a strong soda culture in the Mountain West. At her own 2008 wedding, she and her husband offered a soda bar, where guests could add various syrups and garnishes to their drinks. “We were calling them Italian sodas back then,” she says. The proliferation of chains such as Swig and Sodalicious soon brought the concept to a larger audience, and social media to an even broader one more recently.

But the drinks’ roots go back to the 19th century, notes Gina Chersevani, the mixologist who owns the soda-bar-themed Buffalo & Bergen, with two locations in Washington, D.C. Long before there were even bottled colas – let alone TikTok stars – soda fountains serving the first carbonated beverages offered both fruit and cream sodas. “They’re the original dirty sodas,” she says. Soda’s popularity rose as Prohibition went into effect, she notes. “You couldn’t drink liquor, but what could you drink to get high?” she asked. “Sugar.”

Chersevani is a fan of the surge in interest in sweet and carbonated drinks, which she thinks have gotten a bad rap. She likes a good cane cola with spicy Asian food, and says mixing sodas offers the opportunity for all kinds of sophisticated pairings. “Imagine a Thai-flavored cream soda with a bowl of hot green curry,” she suggests.

The trend, in other words, shouldn’t just be seen as the purview of teetotalers and teens.

I decided to give the everything-comes-back-around trend a whirl, and whipped up the genre’s most classic variety, a Diet Coke mixed with coconut syrup, half and half, and lime. On TikTok and elsewhere, people riff on the basic gist of this concoction, sometimes swapping coconut-flavored creamer for the dairy and the syrup, or like Nixon, using a package of lime-flavored granules. I adapted it a little, because I detest diet drinks, substituting a regular Coke for the main ingredient.

The result was predictably sweet – after all, we’re talking about adding sugar to an already sugary beverage. But it was plenty complex, with the lime and coconut flavors doing their famous tropical duet and the creamy texture playing off the tang of the cola. The combined effect was giving me vibes that were a little piña colada and a little Cuba libre, although obviously sans the booze that would definitely run afoul of the church’s restrictions.

It’s not the prettiest drink, especially if you let it sit for a minute and the acid in the lime curdles the dairy. (Pebbled ice, the preferred medium for dirty sodas, probably helps with this, and I only had cubes.) And did I mention it was sugary? Ten minutes after sipping it, my teeth were wrapped in sweaters thick enough for an Arctic outing.

Chersevani offers some guidance here – just like with booze, it seems that a splash of moderation is in order. “A little,” she says, “goes a long way.”