|Photo by Jones Soda Co.
It's become a tradition of the Jones Soda Company to introduce special flavors for the holiday season. Often, these flavors are not only unique but uniquely unpalatable, such as 2005's "Brussels Sprouts" variety (it tasted like Alka-Seltzer dissolved in the pot liquor from boiled cabbage - I could barely take a single swallow without gagging.)
This year, Jones teamed up with J&D's, the maker of Bacon Salt, to produce a supposedly bacon-flavored soda to be packaged in a holiday presentation along with three other J&D products: microwave popcorn, lip balm, and powdered gravy mix, all of them "bacon" flavored.
As soon as I heard of this holiday pack, I hopped onto Jones' website and ordered one. It arrived yesterday, and the family and I did some sampling. It should come as no surprise that not a single one of these products really tastes like bacon. Most of them don't even come close.
This shouldn't have surprised me. Despite J&D's quite successful marketing campaign, their flagship product Bacon Salt doesn't taste anything like bacon either. It simply tastes like smoke-flavor seasoned salt - which it is - with an extremely catchy and well-thought-out name. Bacon Salt, and other J&D's smoke-flavored products, owe their existence and their sales to the Internet Bacon Meme,. They never would have become such a success on the basis of their flavor alone. And speaking of flavors:
Jones Bacon Flavor Soda - Singularly nasty. It tastes like sweetened, carbonated liquid smoke with absolutely none of the subtle, complex flavor notes found in actual bacon. Really vomitous. And yet, the horrid and gag-inducing taste is just the beginning.
Much as the way the smell of cigarette smoke clings to hair and clothing, the rank and somewhat stale smoke flavoring of the soda clings to the mouth and throat for hours after only a single swallow. Not even brushing my teeth and taking a swig of Listerine could completely eliminate it.
The microwave popcorn was similarly unsuccessful. I have to admit that it smelled delicious as it popped - so good, in fact, that I actually held a faint hope that it wouldn't be too bad. Alas, this was not to be. The predominant flavor was - can you guess? - smoke, along with a subtle and sour dairy-like component that I suppose from the label ("Cheddar Bacon Pop") was meant to be cheese but came across mostly as reminiscent of baby puke. To the manufacturer's credit, however, the popping oil was fairly high-quality and didn't coat my mouth like some other brands do.
I don't use lip balm, so I gave it to Lynnafred to try out. She sniffed at it suspiciously and gave it a try, but was wiping it off in a few minutes. She compared it to rubbing her lips with Vaseline that had been swirled around in an ashtray.
Last - and least, for all I care - is the "Bacon Gravy." It's one of those dry-mix packets that you add to water and simmer for a few minutes. There are a couple "country gravy" mixes like this that aren't too bad, but Bacon Gravy doesn't qualify. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: Not bacony. Smoky. Salty. Artificial-tasting. It's easy to make real bacon gravy from pan drippings if that's what you want. When you're done frying bacon, pour off all but a tablespoon or so of the fat. Blend in a couple of tablespoons of flour with the fat and drippings in the pan over low heat, and let it cook for a few minutes to eliminate the "raw flour" taste. Then add a cup of milk, turn up the heat to medium and stir while the gravy thickens. Taste and add seasonings to your liking, and you have real bacon gravy - that will taste like real bacon and not some shitty mix - in only a couple of minutes longer than the mix will take.
Let's just face some facts here, okay? Bacon - real honest pigmeat bacon - is the product of an amazing process by which pork, curing, and smoke combine to create something far more than the sum of its parts. The hunger for cured and smoked pork almost seems hardwired into our genetic makeup - bacon is such a sought-after flavor that people whose most deeply-held beliefs forbid them from eating it drive them to create substitutions and imitations of it. It's completely understandable to me why someone would try to place that flavor into other products in an attempt to spread the joy.
The problem is this: Every one of the many, many "bacon-flavored" products I've tasted relies on one specific characteristic of bacon for it's primary flavor component: Smoke. And that's a big problem, because bacon doesn't taste like smoke alone. Bacon has a complex flavor profile of which smoke is simply one component. There's salt, and various sugars, and rich meaty pork, and other almost subliminal notes which come from aromatics used in the brine or which result from curing, like lactose. There simply is no way - short of adding bacon itself to a dish - that anyone is going to get a true and decent bacon "flavor" from salt, smoke, maltodextrin, and autolyzed yeast extract.
As of right now, I'm done with the fake bacon crap. I'm not buying any more of it, and I'm not reviewing any more of it either unless a manufacturer or public relations firm spends their own coin to treat me to a sample. And they've got to make a product that's a hell of a lot better than the usual junk if they expect a thumbs-up from me.