The Story Behind Jones Soda’s Turkey & Gravy, The Soft Drink No One Likes But Everyone Wants to Try
What started as a Thanksgiving flavor gimmick has turned into a holiday tradition in a bottle
I don’t know what I expected the people at Jones Soda to say when I called to talk about their Turkey & Gravy flavor, a liquid version of the Thanksgiving staples first released in 2003. But it wasn’t this.
“There’s not a huge number of internal defenders based on flavor,” Curt Thompson, director of marketing for the Seattle-based craft beverage company, told me. As for Sarah Colbert, a beverage technologist who actually worked on dialing in the salty, meaty, saucy flavor, she cut right to the chase, “Personally, I do not love this flavor in a beverage format.” And these are the people trying to convince you to buy this soda instead of a Santa Claus-branded bottle of Coke.
So why does Jones go through the trouble of filling thousands of bottles of Turkey & Gravy, a brown-colored soft drink that’s more likely to inspire spit takes than second rounds? To understand that, you need to hear the full context behind Thompson and Colbert’s answers. Despite admitting that they don’t find themselves jonesing for a glass, they both said that they will be bringing bottles to their respective Thanksgiving gatherings, and not just because company policy requires it.
“I love the experience it brings to a gathering,” Colbert said. “It will absolutely be at my Thanksgiving. Maybe a prize to the first person to finish a full bottle.”
Over the years, Jones has become known for its headline-grabbing novelty sodas as well as its standard nontraditional flavors you’ll find readily available in grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada. Alongside legitimately delicious cane-sugar mainstays like Strawberry Lime, Cream Soda and Fufu Berry (which they don’t define beyond a “mysteriously charming pink flavor”), they’ve released limited-edition bottles like Pea, Dinner Roll and Antacid. (You read that right.) But while the brand has always positioned itself as an alternative to Big Soda since it hit the market in 1996, it wasn’t until 2003 that they decided to truly push the limits of soft drinks.
“Early on, before my time, there was that conversation of like, what’s the weirdest, wildest thing we could make?” Thompson explained of the genesis. “Somebody suggested, how about a gravy soda? And that became turkey and gravy. Although it sounded like a wild idea, a small soda company needs to explore the boundaries of what’s possible. From that initial idea, we went into R&D and talked to some people and people said we were crazy, and we pressed onward and found a flavor house that could help us develop a turkey and gravy soda.”
“Turkey & Gravy was launched as a sort of: could we do this?” he said. “And it turned into a cultural moment around, you know, we can do this.”
After the original Turkey & Gravy release sold out online in a matter of hours in 2003, no Thanksgiving dish or holiday gag was off limits for the Jones flavor wizards. The following year they created a whole turkey day Holiday Pack with the addition of Green Bean Casserole, Cranberry Sauce, Fruitcake and Mashed Potatoes & Butter. They expanded to Halloween with Candy Corn, then got in the Yuletide spirit with Egg Nog and Christmas Ham. For the 2009 season, they were approached by the company behind Tofurky to make a “100% vegan” version of the original viral soda (even though the first and current T&G variants are also vegan, as they don’t actually include meat in the recipe). In a Thanksgiving week episode of The Tonight Show during Conan O’Brien’s short tenure as host, they did a tasting segment featuring Tofurky & Gravy in which trombonist Richie “LaBamba” Rosenberg chugged a healthy pour, only to spit it back up again.
Then, throughout the 2010s, the world went without the bottled bird. (Well, besides the ones from previous years that people sold on eBay.) When Jones decided to finally bring it back in 2021 for the company’s 25th anniversary as part of a new Special Release program, citing it as the “unusual flavor [that] helped solidify the brand’s innovative, boundary-pushing reputation,” they tweaked the recipe to make it, if nothing else, more dynamic.
“In the process of re-releasing our Turkey & Gravy, we received samples of the old formulation from 20 years prior,” said Colbert. “During the internal tasting we believed the original samples tasted more like salty water. We felt we could do better, and I think we achieved this.”
While she can’t divulge the secret formula used, if you do get your hands on a single bottle or four-pack this year at your local grocery store (or a six- or twelve-pack direct from their website), Colbert says to taste for “some light pepper, and dairy notes added to evoke the gravy flavor.” As Thompson added, “What we’re hearing from people who have tried them all is that this one does taste better and it tastes a little less salty and a little more savory.”
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Apart from customer reactions, Thompson has actually been conducting some personal tastings of his own. “I served it to my daughter’s Girl Scout troop yesterday,” he said. “A bunch of pre-teen Girl Scouts. I think nine of them tried it. It got a pretty mixed review from all of them. It wasn’t exactly a very clean focus group, but there was one girl who said she liked it.”
Even if that one gracious Girl Scout hadn’t been there that day and it was a full panel of thumbs-down votes, Thompson says that a lot of the fun of this soda comes from “introducing new people to it.” Some would classify that as a gimmick, and many have applied that label to Turkey & Gravy — and rightly so, as it certainly started out that way. But almost 20 years after it was first released, long before edible challenges like atomic hot sauces and tear-inducing chips took over social media, this unapologetically unappetizing flavor is still an experience that thousands of people willingly seek out. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, this soda started out as a gimmick but has become a holiday tradition.
That doesn’t mean the future of Turkey & Gravy is certain. Far from it. Jones said that they have three Special Release flavors currently planned for 2023, but they’re not sure if the Thanksgiving special will be making a comeback next year for its 20th anniversary. Thankfully, the company keeps a submission form open year-round for fans to suggest new flavors and advocate for the revival of old favorites. Just be careful what you wish for. As Jones has shown time and time again, they’re not afraid to turn anything into a soda.
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