The histories of beer and soda in America are intricately linked, especially during Prohibition. When saloons closed their doors, they were replaced by soda fountains and pharmacies, where people could enjoy cold refreshments, and where they peddled stimulants in the form of carbonated patent medicines (they also did a swift business in “medicinal alcohol,” a loophole in Prohibition law that made people like Charles R. Walgreen fantastically rich). Many brewers also started making soda, and when Prohibition was lifted, some soda makers ditched the sugar water and got into the beer business.
This exploration of regional soda was inspired by a recent trip to Maine, home to one of the most celebrated regional sodas, Moxie. Invented in 1876 in Union, Maine (it’s iconic Moxie Man logo inscribed with “Since 1884” denotes when the soda water was added to turn the patent medicine into a mass market beverage), by the 1920’s, Moxie had become the most popular soft drink in the country, preferred by the likes of Babe Ruth and President Calvin Coolidge. The teetotaling Coolidge even toasted his inauguration after President Harding’s death with a glass of Moxie, which is a popular drink at his boyhood home in Plymouth, Vermont, now a historic site, where he was sworn in as president.
New York City has given birth to some major players in the soft drink industry. Arizona Beverage Company started off as a beverage distributor in Brooklyn in the 1970’s founded by John Ferolito and Don Vultaggio (they ran into trouble with the provocative ads for their Midnight Dragon malt liquor) before hitting it big with their iced tea. Another non-carbonated drinks purveyor, Snapple, was founded in Valley Stream, within sight of JFK Airport; now it is part of the Dr. Pepper Snapple empire, though the other half also has New York connections – Dr. Pepper was invented by a Brooklynite, Charles Alderton. Then of course there is Dr. Brown’s – like Foxon Park and pizza in New Haven, it used to be that you couldn’t eat a pastrami sandwich without washing it down with a Dr. Brown’s. Their Cel-Ray celery soda isn’t as popular as it used to be, but their products are still certified Kosher. Though it is still made on Long Island, Dr. Brown’s is now bottled by Pepsi.
On the side of the Gomberg building, you will find an old advertisement for No-Cal Ginger Ale, the world's first zero-calorie soda, introduced by Kirsch Bottling of Williamsburg in 1952. The soda enjoyed some early success, scoring some celebrity endorsements, but it ultimately failed because it's sugar-free formula was targeted at diabetics, not weight-conscious consumers. This is a similar tale as that of light beer, though in reverse. The first light beer was also released by a Brooklyn company, Rheingold Brewing, in 1967 under the name Gablinger's. The tagline, "A light beer with less calories than skim milk" did not exactly excite beer drinkers, and it was not until the formula passed to Miller that it became a massive success. "Great taste, less filling" – rather than a beer for dieters, Miller Lite was a beer than you drink more of (and get more drunk) without feeling full. Now that's a selling point.
If you like the painting at left, check out more art from John Tebeau – he's also been known to paint Vernor's and a Rhode Island favorite, Del's Frozen Lemonade. For questions or comments about this blog post, please contact Andrew Gustafson (firstname.lastname@example.org). All photos are by Andrew Gustafson unless otherwise noted.
Do you have a favorite regional or niche soda that everybody should try? Email me suggestions or post them in the comments.