Obviously we love a soda, but what we now see as a sweet drink for kids, has a pretty unsavoury past. It started life as a health supplement, trying to recreate the mysteriously-healing affects of naturally-carbonated water from volcanic springs. Unfortunately, thanks to the meddling of Victorian pharmacists, these medicinal tonics often did more harm than good.
When Mark set up Roots Soda Company back in 2012 he began by looking into soda’s history. Along the way he came across Darcy O’Neil. Darcy is a bartender-mixologist-chemist who has spent years researching the origins of all things drinks in America. He started documenting cocktail recipes and their history in 2005 on his website Art of Drink, and since then has written a book - Fix the Pumps - about soda and its foundations. The practical advice found in this book on how to make sodas has been really useful and it’s a great source for an in-depth history of soda.
“Mocktail, virgin cocktail, and Preggatini are all terms for non-alcoholic beverages, and all are drinks men would never order. Mocktail screams out for taunting, guys don’t like to be classified as a virgin in any endeavour and a guy ordering a Preggatini was obviously coerced by his pregnant wife.
Whether we like it or not, society has picked some regretful names for non-alcoholic beverages. However, there is one non-intoxicating drink that is an American institution. Millions of people fondly remember ordering this drink and having it served to them by a Jerk. No one chastises a person for ordering and enjoying one. The American soda was the alternative for abstainers. Unfortunately, Americans have passively allowed their unique culinary creation to fade into the past.
Drinks are one area of cuisine where Americans have been exceptionally creative. The cocktail and soda fountain are both American inventions. They reached their peak in periods where choice, quality and service were the battlegrounds. Today, brand, speed and price are considered premiums and quality is an afterthought. The drive for efficiency, power and the almighty buck have decimated that creativity and turned carbonated beverages into industrial products of commerce served from a cold faceless machine.” Fix the Pumps - Darcy O’Neil
We think of soda as an American drink, but man-made carbonated water has its origins in Europe. In 1767 an Englishman, John Priestly, first produced carbonated water by infusing pure water with CO2 above a fermenting mash. Priestly’s results were questionable, but sufficient. Inspired, a Johann Jacob Schweppe quickly invented a device to artificially carbonated water. So began the soda revolution. Schweppe retired but his name lives on in Schweppes tonic, and we have him to thank every time we fancy a G&T.
Given that soda was invented for medicinal purposes, it’s maybe not surprising that it was monopolised by scientists and pharmacists for the first one hundred years or so of its long and illustrious life. Londoner Herbert Hewitt started adding radium to his tonics, rendering them radioactive. His (very wrong) logic was that the radioactivity present in natural springs was what gave them such wonderful healing powers, and therefore everyone should drink radioactive sodas.
In time, soda became a vehicle for other treatments. Alcohol was often added to absorb the organic compounds found in prescribed medicines. Seeing as there was no tax on medicinal alcohol, you could get a drink in a pharmacy at a fraction of the prices found down at the local saloon. Soda popularity boomed.
Narcotic based medicines were also used and sodas began to contain anything from quinine and cocaine to cannabis, opium and heroin. This was at a time when tobacco injections and cocaine lozenges were seen as perfectly acceptable medicines.
In order to disguise the terrible taste of these concoctions, fruit syrups were added to sodas. Sometimes these syrups were made from actual fruit, but mostly, they were not. Fruit was expensive to get hold of, and difficult to keep over winter, so instead cocktails of chemical compounds were used to create artificial flavours. Strawberry, raspberry and pineapple were amongst the favourites. Pineapple flavouring derived from a mix of butyric ether, acetic aldehyde, chloroform, amyl butyrate, glycerin and ethanol - many said it tasted better than the real thing!
Unsurprisingly, sodas could be addictive. Starting with an innocent one or two sodas a day, some people began drinking up to fifteen - they had the “soda habit”. To some extent the “soda habit” was tolerated because the effects of the narcotics in the sodas; a sharpening of the mind, an increase in productivity, were preferred to the results of alcoholism. In 1885 the Boston Daily Globe newspaper even celebrated “temperance beverages” such as soda because they were pulling men out of bars and back in to society. But actually men were still drinking, just in the evenings now rather than during the day. It’s no surprise that this mix of narcotics and alcohol made soda more addictive, not less.
Destructive soda continued on its merry way until 1906 when, as people became more aware of the negative effects of their medicines, chemicals and drugs were banned from drinks production.
At the same time there was a move towards serving drinks in individual bottles, and improvements in technology meant that anyone and everyone now had access to refrigerating units and were able to store and sell soda. These two things meant that soda was no longer in the pocket of the pharmacists but could venture out into mainstream businesses. Traditional proprietors of soda began to serve food alongside their drinks in order to survive now that they no longer had the monopoly, and so was born the american diner. Consumption of soda increased rapidly - whereas in 1892 the average person drank around 12 bottles of soda a year, by the 1960s this figure had reached over 400. Soda had stopped being a luxury and become a commonality.
These figures continue to grow, and today the average American drinks 3 litres of the stuff each week, as convenience and cost reign supreme.
True fruit flavours soda advert 1911.
Advert for celery soda.
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