I remember vividly one spring afternoon back in sixth grade. The brilliant sun was struggling to penetrate windows that hadn’t seen a squeegee since just after the Bridgeport Post trumpeted Dewey’s triumph over Truman. Outside, the leaves on the trees billowed in the breeze and cast shadows that danced on our desks as we counted the minutes until we would hear the shrill, sweet sound of the dismissal bell.
Carol Kovacs, who sat in front of me, spun around suddenly, opened her sky blue eyes wide and intoned coyly, “Poljubi me!”
“What did you say?”
“It’s Slovenian. My grandmother taught it to me!”
“Oh! Neat!” I replied excitedly as only a budding language fanatic might. “What does it mean?”
In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that that moment was a veritable crossroads in my life. Any smooth operating adolescent lad with raging hormones and soaring hopes would have leapt upon the opportunity to say something bordering on the salacious, perhaps even act on it. After all, she left herself wide open. I, instead, chose the path that led to eternal geekdom:
“Cool! How do you spell that?” I asked as I reached for my pen.
Guess I was a little behind the curve socially.
Not so with the youth of Slovenia, however. As a matter of fact, they have been keeping up with their Western counterparts since 1952 when then-Yugoslavia, hoist on its own Soviet-economic petard, began to experiment with creating a soft drink to rival those of Western heritage. Not content to merely copy American colas, its inventors crafted a caffeine-free recipe from rose hips and eleven local Slovenian herbs that was decidedly delicious.
Dubbed “Cockta”, nicked from the word cocktail (a drink with a mixture of ingredients) and conveniently doubled into the familiar guise “Cockta-Cockta”, the drink took Yugoslavia by storm. Impelled by truly great flavor and a procession of brilliant Western style advertising campaigns — including “You Will Never Forget Your First” — the drink soon became a proud emblem of the Slovene revolution and a national icon. It’s even immortalized in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum.
The marketing juggernaut continued over the years, culminating in 2011’s high-budget, super-slick, absofreakinlutely brilliant Nevergreen web series featuring ten compelling episodes, each better than the last. Replete with vampires, werewolves, smokin’ music, and a cast of 20-something hotties, you’ll wonder if the producers were serious or if it was all a grand parody as Napoleon and his minions follow their quest to secure their purloined supply of life-sustaining Cockta. No matter. I guarantee that whatever your demographic, if you watch all ten episodes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) you’re going to love this hysterical masterpiece.
“Yes, yes, but how does it taste?” I hear you cry. Its flavor profile is difficult to describe, just as Dr. Pepper’s is. I tried to pry the secret out of one of the representatives at their pavilion at the Summer Fancy Food Show, but all they would give me was “rose hips and caramel.” And a much appreciated sample. It has a vanilla component with a sophisticated touch of bitter orange like Chinotto; maybe a little of the herbiness of Campari or Aperol or Sanbittèr, but not nearly as bitter. There’s also a tamarind-like tanginess to it. This is a sweet drink, much as Coke is. I get marshmallowy overtones, but maybe that’s just me.
Not only that, but according to their website, they now have seven flavors: Original (Classsic), Black Tonic, Mandarin, Lime & Ginger, Rossa, Chinotto, and Easy, the diet version. Fellow ethnofoodies: if you have spotted these anywhere in the tri-state area, please let me know! You can find the original in Brooklyn at Koha & Brothers, 319 Church Avenue; in Astoria at Muncan, 4309 Broadway; in the Bronx at Mergimtari, 565 E 187th Street; and in Staten Island at Chuck’s Pizzeria and Restaurant, 340 Victory Blvd. (Confused? Don’t be: they’re Albanian. And if you get there early enough, try their boureks. Good stuff.) I’ll update this post soon with more locations. Seriously, I’m turning you on to this not because I’m some sort of marketing shill for them, but because This Stuff Rocks!
Cockta may be Slovenia’s best kept secret in the US — and the hippest drink you’ve never heard of. It’s even got a Facebook page. Everyone I’ve introduced this libation to has become an instant fan. Unless I miss my guess, you will be too.
Cockta — You’ll never forget your first!