The citrus-kissed malt beverage Zima was nothing new when I first dropped a watermelon Jolly Rancher into the frosty bottle sometime around the turn of the millennium. First released in 1993, Zima was one of several citrus-flavor malt beverages—Mike’s Hard, Smirnoff Ice—of questionable construction marketed as a beer alternative. In need of a boost in a crowded beverage market, Zima’s ironic, Gen X slacker–oriented TV ads targeted a male audience with the tough question: Do men want to “try zomething different?”
The answer was, almost resoundingly, no. Critics, both men and women, described the flavor as unremarkable to terrible. And sales, while promising in 1994, with 1.3 million barrels sold, dropped a third to 403,000 barrels in 1996. David Letterman pounced on it often during his Top Tens, once asking bandleader Paul Shaffer, “What’s the deal with this Zima crap?” But, having sunk a reported $50 million into the launch, parent company MillerCoors stuck by its genre-defying beverage. As did I. Which brings us to the back of a car parked on an empty ramp one night in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2001.
We’d eventually end up at a club dancing to 50 Cent rapping about—what else?—the club. But we had a pre-game tradition, and the liquor store haul was always the same: cans of Bud Ice (yeah, remember that?), Zima and a bag of Jolly Ranchers. I’m not sure who the first teenager was to drop a Jolly into a bottle of Zima, but I can tell you that it was likely out of necessity. Zima drunk alone is a gut-punch of chemically engineered lemon that drinks like watered-down Pine-Sol. But Zima with the syrupy-sweet addition of a dissolved watermelon or grape hard candy was a revelation. After the required sip or two to make room for the candy, and a couple minutes bubbling away at the bottom, the liquid took on the flavor and color of its fruity invader. Was it good? On the lips of a 21-year-old with warm Bud Ice as his only alternative, absolutely.
It would be generous to say that the combination of Zima and Jolly Ranchers was a breakout trend with kids in the late 1990s, but it surely had its fans. When I took to Twitter, a space always happy to fire-hose opinion and mad with ’90s nostalgia these days, two camps emerged: those who liked the combination, and those who were devoted to it. “I mostly hung out with people who had a few years on me, and one of the cool, older girls introduced me to it,” recalls Emily Farris, a writer and recipe developer who first encountered the mix in an apartment complex in the “fancy” part of Independence, Missouri. “In the summer of 1996, Zima with a Jolly Rancher was as peak Jersey as a tramp stamp,” recalls Laura, who works in education and requested her last name be withheld, lest her students learn about her affinity. “So, yes, I adopted both.”
At the brand level, Zima was clued into the practice, but despite its nontraditional, sometimes whimsical approach to marketing, it never sought to capitalize on it. “We are definitely aware of the trend, which started way back during our first launch,” recalls MillerCoors VP Bryan Ferschinger. “Most of those who enjoyed Zima have a story associated with it.”
After an unheroic 15-year run, MillerCoors discontinued Zima on October 20, 2008. But like so many ’90s trends—cassette tapes, fanny packs, Beverly Hills, 90210—it was destined to reemerge. In the summers of 2017 and 2018, MillerCoors reintroduced Zima, offering six-packs and recruiting “some of the people that worked on Zima in the ’90s to recreate the look, feel and taste so that it is almost identical to the original,” said spokesman Marty Maloney before the July 4, 2017, rollout. But what about the summer of 2019? Bottles have been spotted in stores as recently as a couple months ago, but the official website, zima.com, redirects to a corporate page.
“We had a great time bringing Zima back in 2017 and 2018, but we decided to let the crystal-clear brand chill this summer,” says Ferschinger, revealing that during its previous renaissance he saw interest from people who have never heard of Zima before and were curious to try it. “After all, vintage is the new modern to the newest generation of legal drinkers.”
It can sometimes be tough to derive meaning from the misguided decisions mixed together and drunk from so many Solo cups. But drinking young is not just a matter of negotiating limited resources, it’s a time of great experimentation. Dropping a colorful candy into a bottle of malt liquor is a literal experiment, chemical cause and effect, and it’s no wonder it resonated with youth culture in the ’90s and early ’00s. For Gen Xers, “zomething different” meant a whole lot more than drinking lemon malt liquor.