Review: Mountain Dew Throwback

Good News! As of March 2011, both Pepsi Throwback and Mountain Dew Throwback are permanent additions to the Pepsi lineup!

Read our updated Pepsi Throwback review and updated Mountain Dew Throwback review, both featuring revised designs.

Listen to our NPR interview about Mountain Dew Throwback.

Over the years, soda enthusiasts have found ways to experience sugar-sweetened Pepsi in a high fructose corn syrup era. Whether this be through Kosher Pepsi, Mexican Pepsi, Pepsi Natural, or even the new Pepsi Throwback, if you had a will, there was a way to find that familiar cola flavor with sugar. The same has not been true for the citrus-flavored delights of Mountain Dew… until now. Yes, ladies and gentlemen who desire the yellow & green elixir with sugar sweetness, your time has come. It’s time to grab hold of Mountain Dew Throwback!

Mountain Dew Throwback
Mountain Dew Throwback

Like its sibling, Pepsi Throwback, Mountain Dew Throwback is a natural sugar version of Dew sweetened with a combination of cane/beet sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Possessing an official release date of April 20, this limited edition soft drink will be available for only 8 weeks.

Back in February, we started talking about Mountain Dew Throwback when numerous trademark filings for the drink were discovered. Following that finding, prototype bottle designs were leaked, showcasing a very 1970s/80s Mountain Dew design that caught a lot of positive attention.

Mountain Dew Throwback
Small logo on can

The folks at Pepsi eventually got in touch with us to answer our questions about the new drink, including confirming the final artwork design (different from the prototypes), sugar composition (“natural sugar” = cane + beet sugar), and release window (8 weeks starting April 20).

Mountain Dew Throwback
Note the font of the “Throwback” name

Like the anticipation for Pepsi Throwback, one of the big appeals of Mountain Dew Throwback is the dropping of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Granted, the purpose of the Throwback line isn’t marketed that way. The press release notes the following: “‘As we revamp our brand with our ‘refresh everything‘ campaign, we want to give a nod to the fun things of the past… For some, it will be a trip down memory lane but for others, it will be a chance to experience a new twist on their favorite brands’.” Publicly, Pepsi does not acknowledge the debate over HFCS. When asked via e-mail, the folks at Pepsi noted that “these products were not created because of any health concerns. There is a lot of misinformation circulating about HFCS, but the truth is that it’s made from corn and contains no artificial or synthetic ingredients or color additives. HFCS is essentially the same as table sugar and is metabolized the same.” Interpret that however you’d like.

Mountain Dew Throwback
Natural Sugar = Cane + Beet Sugar

Maybe that’s why the tagline is “Made with natural sugar” — seriously, what is “natural sugar”? Officially, Pepsi says its a combination of both cane sugar and beet sugar. Cane sugar — which is sourced from sugarcane that is grown above the ground — and beet sugar — which is pulled from beets grown underground. Some prefer one type or the other, but from a marketing perspective, you’ll often see cane sugar as being sold as the “higher quality” sweetener (see Jones Soda and Boylan, to name a few). Apparently, “Made with natural sugar” is a lot more catchy than “Made with sugar, unlike that HFCS stuff that may potentially kill you.” :)

Pepsi Throwback

Mountain Dew is currently the #4 best selling brand, according to Beverage Digest‘s “Top 10 CSD Results for 2008″ report (PDF) released back in March. And you have to admit, Pepsi has owned this category for a long time with Mountain Dew’s citrus dominance. Diet Mountain Dew grew in volume by 4%, which is really good considering that the carbonated soft drink market has been shrinking over the past 4 years. Coke has tried to confront Dew over the years with Mello Yello, Surge, and probably most successfully with Vault.

As Dew fans long know, the popular drink has been leveraged quite a bit lately with numerous flavor extensions, including, but not limited to:

Even with all these flavors, this is probably the first time that we’ve seen the actual flagship formula get altered as a different beverage.

Unlike Pepsi Throwback, we don’t have a lot of sugar versions to compare when it comes to Dew… like Mexican, Kosher, etc. So, for the sake of this review, we’ll be comparing the standard high fructose corn syrup-sweetened version — which we’ll call HFCS Mountain Dew — against Mountain Dew Throwback.

Mountain Dew Throwback
Hey look, SUGAR!

Let’s start by comparing the ingredients in both entries:

HFCS Mountain Dew
Carbonated water, high fructose corn syrup, concentrated orange juice, citric acid, natural flavor, sodium benzoate (preserves freshness), caffeine, sodium citrate, erythorbic acid (preserves freshness), gum arabic, calcium disodium EDTA (to protect flavor), brominated vegetable oil, Yellow 5

Mountain Dew Throwback
Carbonated water, sugar, citric acid, natural and artificial flavor, sodium benzoate (preserves freshness), caffeine, gum arabic, brominated vegetable oil, Yellow 5

As you compare the lists of both of these Dew versions, you’ll note that there are quite a few differences (far more than between HFCS and Pepsi Throwback). For example, the most notable is the removal of concentrated orange juice from Mountain Dew Throwback. Other chemical elements are also switched out, leading one to believe that these two drinks probably don’t taste very similar.

New Mountain Dew Logo
Original Mtn Dew Logo

The bottle and can designs are quite different as well. As you will recall, PepsiCo went through massive logo redesigns across their brands recently, including changing the official spelling of Mountain Dew to simply Mtn Dew (which I still think is rather goofy). Even that original “Mtn Dew” spelling changed logo designs before finally appearing in a more conservative rendition. Thankfully, that renaming didn’t carry over to the retro-themed Mountain Dew Throwback packaging.

Mtn Dew Logo
Revised Mtn Dew Logo

On both the 20 oz. bottle and 12 oz cans, we’re presented with the Mountain Dew ‘box’ logo used throughout the 1970s/80s, oriented vertically, so you have to view it sideways. (So turn your head already… it’s not that hard!) This logo sits on a darker green background, with the phrase “Throwback” written below it in a light green color. Like the Pepsi Throwback, the font used to spell “Throwback” appears to be the same as the one used in the Pepsi logo redesign. In smaller, white type, the phrase “made with natural sugar” sits below the “Throwback” callout. The bottle is the standard green Dew bottle with the vertical ‘swirl’ pattern in the plastic. The can design pretty much mimics the bottle design exactly… but it’s on a can. Get it?

Of the two designs — Pepsi Throwback vs. Mountain Dew Throwback — I like the graphic interpretation a bit better on the Dew version. Maybe it’s just the use of the logo I remember so fondly… or the fact that I really don’t like the way Pepsi Throwback looks. My biggest concern, just like with the Pepsi version, is that the Throwback branding is so small and minimal, not really denoting that it’s a different drink. This can create quite a bit of confusion in the marketplace, in my opinion.

Mountain Dew Throwback
Prototype Mountain Dew Throwback Design
(Source: Pepsi Bottling Group)

I’m personally still a fan of the prototype bottle design for Dew, as it did a far better drop showcasing the “Throwback” branding on the product. It’s also interesting as you look at that version that the phrase “Made with real sugar” is used, yet what we ended up with was “Made with natural sugar”. Curious, huh? Perhaps PepsiCo wanted to avoid the question, “if this is made with REAL sugar, then what is normal Dew made with?” By using the phrase “natural” instead of “real”, you can play to the organic/healthy crowd and avoid that situation altogether… because after all, just what is “natural” sugar?

One thing I have noticed over the years is how the bubbles of HFCS and sugar-sweetened drinks are different when poured into a glass. We’ve definitely seen this with Kosher Pepsi, Pepsi Natural, and Pepsi Throwback. HFCS-sweetened drinks tend to have large, irregularly-shaped bubbles, while sugar-sweetened beverages have nice, tight bubbles. I wondered if the same would be true of HFCS Mountain Dew vs. Mountain Dew Throwback.

It turns out that there isn’t much of a difference in the bubble nature of the two drinks. Take a look:

Mountain Dew Throwback
HFCS Mountain Dew: Large & Small Bubbles
Mountain Dew Throwback
Mountain Dew Throwback: Looks pretty much the same

Which leads us to actually drinking these beverages, which is probably the reason you are reading this review in the first place. I’ll say from the onset that the differences between the HFCS and Throwback versions of Mountain Dew are probably more substantial than those presented with HFCS vs. Pepsi Throwback.

Mountain Dew Throwback
Yup, it’s a trademark!

When you open the bottle or can, you are greeted with the expected Mountain Dew ‘smell’, which is a good thing, providing a fresh, citrus-y scent. The color of Mountain Dew Throwback is exactly the same as HFCS Dew. The differences appear when you take that first sip. You’ll note from the get-go that Throwback is a bit less carbonated/bubbly, along with having a less acidic bite, more along the lines of Coke’s Vault. I’ve seen others mention that they feel that Throwback is ‘flatter’ when compared to HFCS Dew, but I don’t believe that is accurate. I think what is really present here is that you actually have the flavor of Mountain Dew being present during the entire drink experience, rather than having it buried by excessive carbonation, acid, and syrup. Compared to HFCS Mountain Dew, Throwback seems to have a more authentic citrus flavor. I used this term when describing Pepsi Throwback and I think it’s appropriate here… Mountain Dew Throwback is “full bodied”.

Mountain Dew Throwback
The Throwback branding is rather lost in the design

That said, there is quite a flavor difference between the two drinks. One wonders if the lack of concentrated orange juice effects that, or if we’re just reading too much into it. Even though I’m old enough to have experienced Mountain Dew with sugar, I wasn’t exactly running a beverage review website at the time, so I really can’t accurately remember the flavor experience. One notable element of Mountain Dew Throwback is the aftertaste, which has a certain element of crispness, but at the same time, harkens back to perhaps Diet Mountain Dew with a lingering, non-attractive flavor similar to an artificial sweetener. I wonder if this is how Dew originally tasted and that any negativity aimed at the Throwback flavor is simply today’s generation reacting to something that doesn’t taste like the HFCS Mountain Dew they are so familiar with.

Mountain Dew Throwback
Retro-themed Throwback Ad
(Source: TwitPic)

Overall, I have to say that I really wanted to love Mountain Dew Throwback. But some of the flavors with the drink threw me off. Of the two Throwback drinks, I prefer Pepsi Throwback. That’s not to say that Mountain Dew Throwback is bad or horrible. It’s not. It’s actually very good. If you were tasting it within a vacuum without having HFCS Dew to put it into context, then I think the discussion would be null and void. But because Dew has such a strong influence on folks, I can understand some of the criticisms that it doesn’t taste as good as the HFCS version. For the sake of innovation, however, I want to see Mountain Dew Throwback succeed, and will be enjoying it while it’s available for a limited time.

For the record, Mountain Dew Throwback contains 4.5 mg/oz. of caffeine, which is in the same ballpark as HFCS Mountain Dew. Drinking an entire 20 oz. bottle will cost you 280 calories, actually 10 less than HFCS Mountain Dew. It also contains 85 mg of sodium (vs. 100 mg in HFCS Dew) and 73 g of sugars (vs. 77 mg in HFCS Dew).

Mountain Dew Throwback produces a very flavorful citrus experience with a clean, fresh taste. That taste may be different from what you are used to with high fructose corn syrup-sweetened Dew, but it’s still a solid eye-opener. It’s not often you can find a sugar-sweetened citrus soft drink, so savor this Throwback entry while it’s available for a limited time. If you don’t, you’ll regret it!