Everyone remembers their first time.
I was 11. Adelaide, 1998. I was visiting my Grandma during one of her frequent stints in hospital no thanks to five decades of smoking. Her, not me. As was customary, she gave me two dollars to buy myself something sweet from the canteen.
A plastic bottle in the drinks fridge caught my eye. A black liquid with a red label I’d never seen before: “Dr Pepper”. Wow! What better place to try a medical-themed beverage than in a hospital? And if it’s poisonous, intensive care was just a short crawl away. I gave it a try.
That first sip was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted. It was worse than cough medicine. Had it not been for my total lack of confidence, I would have asked the little old lady behind the counter for a refund.
My mind was made up. Never buying one of those again. A lot of people must have come to the same conclusion. Dr Pepper was suddenly everywhere but no one was drinking it.
A big TV ad campaign featured panicked Australians in biohazard suits handling the suspicious new beverage as if it were a bottle of anthrax. In hindsight, perhaps not the best marketing strategy. After literally minutes of searching on YouTube, I haven’t been able to find that ad. If I find it on VHS, I’ll make sure to donate it to the cloud like I have with so many others.
But it was still the early days of Dr Pepper’s Australian invasion. Americans had been guzzling down the soft drink since 1885 and the company wasn’t going to give up on the market down under so easily.
So they started a promotional campaign to get Aussies hooked. One in four 600ml bottles of Dr Pepper had a voucher for a free one under the cap. Pretty good odds. And in those days, the word “congratulations” on your soft drink meant you had actually won something.
It clearly didn’t get the spike in sales the Dr Pepper people wanted because soon after they upped the odds so one in two Dr Peppers wins a free one. ONE IN TWO! You had a 50 per cent chance of winning a free drink! Never before or since has a confectionery brand run a sweeter promotion. About 64 grams of sweetness per bottle, in fact.
That’s when they won me over. Hey, I was a thrifty pre-teen. I forced myself to drink it. And I kept winning. And I kept drinking. I think I had a chain of five wins in a row.
Dr Pepper is an acquired taste. It’s also unique. I don’t know what it is, but I love it. My Dad reckons it tastes like liquid marzipan. He hates marzipan.
The company itself claims it’s a secret concoction of 23 flavours. Move over Colonel Sanders. One time I swear I stumbled upon the Dr Pepper formula by combining just the right ratio of all the other flavours from the post-mix machine at Pizza Hut. A feat sadly never to be repeated.
I drank Dr Pepper at every opportunity, long after the excessively generous promotional campaigns ended. One time at the zoo, I walked past a bank of vending machines, pressing all the buttons in the off chance a mechanical malfunction would result in a freebie. Wouldn’t you know it? Free Dr Pepper.
They were great days for a soft drink connoisseur.
But Dr Pepper just couldn’t get a foothold in Australia’s overcrowded soft drink market. At the turn of the millennium, we had reached peak carbonation. And the Doc slowly began to disappear. I know Marty, this is heavy. By 2003, it was only available at a handful of supermarkets in 1.25L bottles.
That same year, the makers of Dr Pepper in Australia – Schweppes – ceased local production. The doctor was out. Forget hen’s teeth. Dr Pepper had become rarer than teeth at a Collingwood hen’s night.
The last place I know of that had it was a chicken shop down the road from where I worked at the Mitcham GameTraders in early 2005. I was 17. I saw my manager drinking one, straight out of the big bottle. He said the chicken shop had four left – probably sitting there for over a year. I didn’t care. I went in there the next day intent on buying up the lot.
Someone else had beaten me to it. And the sweaty man at the fryer said he couldn’t order any more. You couldn’t find Dr Pepper anywhere. Soda aficionados refer to this period as “The Apepperlypse”. I may have made that up. But I just had to have it. I called the Schweppes factory in Ringwood. They told me the dream was over. Also, to please stop calling them.
In desperation, I turned to this new thing called the Internet. I found a place in Melbourne called USA Foods. They imported Dr Pepper direct from the United States. So I started ordering 355ml American cans in bulk and getting them mailed to me in Adelaide at great expense. FYI, shipping liquid is quite costly. But I considered it worth the price. Looks like the Dr Pepper people were getting a nice ROI from their l998 campaign. From me, anyway.
Arriving home one day, there was a gigantic cardboard box waiting for me. It was filled with cans of Dr Pepper individually wrapped in newspaper. I remember the first sip of that first can from that first shipment. It was the most glorious thing I’ve ever tasted.
Suddenly I was the man. I was giving cans of Dr Pepper as gifts for friends’ birthdays. “Where the hell did you get that?!?”
I even tried to recoup some of the cost by on-selling some of the cans on ebay. I sold a 6-pack to some dude in Sydney for forty dollars. Forty freaking dollars. He bought them and he drank them.
I fantasised about opening my own little shop that just sold imported soft drinks. The people at Schweppes were crazy. There was clearly a demand for Dr Pepper in Australia.
In late 2005 I went to the USA with my parents and sister for the holiday of a lifetime. Dr Pepper everywhere. I drank it constantly. You could get it in every restaurant and there were always free refills. Yes. This is how it should be.
On my last day in Los Angeles, I bought two 2L bottles from a convenience store and carried them without incident onto the plane. I didn’t want to put them in my suitcase because I was paranoid they’d explode in the unpressurised baggage compartment.
Ironically, you can’t carry that much liquid onto a plane now after a failed 2006 UK terrorist plot to detonate explosive liquids on several transatlantic flights. And a note to my 18-year-old self: 747 baggage compartments are pressurised.
Personally, I believe if you can’t carry a Dr Pepper onto a plane, the terrorists have already won.
Five years later, I moved to Melbourne and Dr Pepper gradually started re-appearing. This time as a boutique carbonated beverage. First at those little British-style lolly shops, then at the odd independent burrito place in a tiny fridge behind the counter, along with other exotic drinks like Snapple and Irn-Bru and A&W Root Beer.
To my delight, it’s come full circle and now you can get Dr Pepper at pretty much every hipster hamburger donut joint and Chinese supermarket. All imported from the US and usually reasonably priced.
It’s available at more places now than it was 15 years ago when they still bottled it here. We truly live in a Golden Cola Age. Or “Gola Age” if you have a speech impediment.
Though despite Dr Pepper’s newfound abundance, I don’t actually drink it much these days – on the strict advice of my dentist. And my doctor.
- David M. Green