John Nese knows everything about the 700 sodas he carries at Galco’s Old World Grocery in Highland Park, Los Angeles. Not just what they taste like, but their histories. He can tell you the names of the bottlers, the year he discovered them, how they’re made, how carbonated they feel. As we stroll through aisle after aisle of soda, he says, “You want stories? I got stories.”
Galco’s originally started out as an Italian grocery store in 1897, and Nese is the second generation to own the store. “I’ve been involved with soda since I was that big,” laughs Nese, holding a hand up to his waist, “and I asked my father if I could go work with him when I was about five or six years old so I could have a Cheerwine and a sandwich for lunch.” In 1995, Nese started to let his soda obsession run wild, converting Galco’s into a pop depository and seeking out increasingly rare bottles to add to his collection. 20 years later, he runs what may be the most complete library of soft drinks on the planet. And he ships nationwide through his online store, Soda Pop Stop.
Below, we’ve highlighted 11 especially strange sodas from Galco’s that you’ve probably never heard of—but you should definitely give them a try.
Nese carries these Armenian soft drinks (technically infused waters) in a lot of flavors, from sea buckthorn to peach to cherry, and what sets them apart is that there is real fruit bobbing around in the bottles. “They just put the fruit in the water and it picks up the flavor,” Nese says.
He pulls a bottle off the shelf to show me what look like little yellow tennis balls bobbing along the top. “These are pears before they became domesticated. They’re wild pears. This is what a pear used to look like thousands of years ago, and they still grow them.” Even the strawberries are exceptional, according to Nese. “They’re not those great big beautiful strawberries we get that taste like cardboard. They actually taste like strawberries.” And once you finish the soda, make sure to try the fruit.
If you read the name, you might think these are little bubbly bottles of wine, but they’re actually non-alcoholic sodas sweetened with California wine varietal grapes. Nese has been working with the company almost since the beginning, and he definitely recommends these drinks: “They’re real dry, and they’re absolutely delicious.” At Galco, you can get these sodas in a pinot noir, a chardonnay, and a rose.
“I have to tell you about Hotlips. This is an Oregon company. They’re actually a pizza company in Oregon. They weren’t carrying Coke and Pepsi, so they made their own sodas,” Nese explains. “And these are actually made from the fruits that are grown by the local farmers in Oregon.” You can only find Hotlips in a few states (California, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, and Washington), but Nese strongly recommends getting your hands on one of their six flavors.
When Nese first heard about Sweet Blossom’s rose petal flavor, he was hesitant (“My first thought was, ‘Oh no, perfume!’”), but the soda is actually made by a Romanian, who told Nese, “We still know how to press the rose petals.” Nese loved it, and requested lavender next. The secret to keep it from tasting like soap? Bulgarian lavender.
When Coca Cola bought Barq’s Root Beer in 1992, Nese was no longer able to stock Delaware Punch in his store, but that wasn’t going to stop him from figuring out how to get it in his store. He managed to find someone who could get him the formula, and he started making it under the name Pennsylvania Punch. “There were more Delaware grapes grown in Pennsylvania than there were grown in Delaware,” Nese explains. “What we found out later on is, the owner of the company actually lived in Pennsylvania, and the formula goes back to 1924. They were trying anything and everything they could to develop a use for their wine grapes that they couldn’t make wine out of anymore.” Nese recommends Pennsylvania Punch for everyone, even people who don’t usually like carbonation, since it’s not as bubbly as a normal soda.
The same Romanian soda carrier who makes Sweet Blossom and Lavender sodas also provides Galco’s with Mr. Q. Cumber. According to Nese, “That is absolutely delicious. It’s so crisp and clean, the flavor just pops.”
If you’re looking for a lemony soda to sip on, Nese suggests Lemmy. “There’s a lot of lemon sodas out there,” Nese tells me. “This one for some reason just tastes more like lemon than most other lemon sodas. It has real lemon juice in it, but besides that, everybody has their own formula. But this one is just very refreshing, I really like it.”
Nese admits he’s particularly partial to mint, and this is one of his favorites. “It’s so crisp, so clean-tasting,” he tells me. He also says that the bottler uses a pinpoint carbonator, which uses dry ice and produces a smaller, smoother bubble. “You can actually open the bottle, taste it, or drink part of it, set it down and forget about it, come back four hours later and still have carbonation. You’re not going to find that with today’s sodas,” Nese says.
Think you’ve tried Moxie before? According to Nese, if you had it out of a can, you should probably try it again. The cans, he said, are made by Coca Cola of New England. The one he stocks is cane sugar Moxie. “It’s about a 1955 formula. It’s totally different than the watered-down Pepsi Cola you tried in a Moxie label,” he says.
What he really likes about Moxie, though, is that everyone tastes something a little different. “Get a bunch of people together and give them an ounce, an ounce and a half, and ask, ‘What are you tasting?’ And if you go around the room, you might get a cola, root beer, cinnamon, vanilla, licorice, black cherry. You might get one, you might get two or three flavors. And everybody will taste something different. It’s really interesting. If you pick it up and drink it like people drink sodas today, you’re going to get carbonated cough medicine from this.”
Nese starts off by saying that these sodas, which come in tarragon, grape, and pear flavors, come from the Republic of Georgia, but what is the most interesting is they don’t even use equipment to carbonate their soda. “It just bubbles out of the ground that way,” explains Nese. “That’s the way the whole industry got started 150 years ago!”
Nese also stocks a banana soda from Honduras that he says tastes like a Jolly Rancher. But Nese suggests you grab one while you can: “They’re undependable, they’ll be here and then they’ll be gone.”