Fizz and Fizzle: A History of Soft Drinks

Not to be outdone by Dr. Pepper's '10, 2 and 4' campaign . . .

A recent rabbit hole started innocently enough as I enjoyed an article about local foods/drinks that are not easily available outside their home geographic area. The North Carolina beverage Cheerwine was prominently featured.

When we first moved to the Carolinas several years ago, Cheerwine had me guessing. Is it wine? If so, why is it sold in a can like beer or soda? Of course the best way to get my questions answered was to try one. Turns out it's a soft drink, or as we say in Texas, it's a coke. Tastes similar to Dr. Pepper but is even sweeter IMO if you can imagine such a thing. Fruity, hint of cherry, hence the name.

I've always been curious about that name, so close to what it actually is, but just a little off (like using the Car Fox to shill for the Car Fax product. Still confused about that.). Shouldn't Cheerwine be Cherr Wine as in 'cherry'? But then maybe Chair Wine to get the pronunciation correct, because you know everyone would be pronouncing Cherr 'share'. The problem with Chair Wine is of course that we sacrifice meaning for pronunciation. No one would have a clue what it's supposed to be - is it so awful/amazing, you need to be sitting in a chair to drink it? Obviously way too many issues with Cherr/Chair, so they went with the next best thing: Cheer. That still doesn't explain the 'wine' part. . .

But I digress -

So I'm reading this article and my South Carolina hackles rise because we have our own local soft drink here, Blenheim Ginger Ale, so where's the love, dang it?? Blenheim was omitted from the article, but you know I won't leave it out of this post.

I did a little poking around and found some interesting stuff about the history of soft drinks. The term 'soft' is to differentiate them from 'hard' drinks, or drinks that contain alcohol. Soft drinks are non-alcoholic (or very low alcohol) and are often, but not always, carbonated and flavored. The soft drink biz is a $50 billion industry (flavoring and manufacturing combined) in the U.S.  Yes, billion with a B. Their popularity is linked to many serious health issues including diabetes and obesity. In other words, people can't get enough of the stuff!

The roots of this addictive habit can be traced to ancient times, when naturally carbonated mineral spring waters were prized for their healing properties. It's our nature to believe this stuff is healthy! But in ancient times, no festively decorated 18-wheelers rolled into your village and dropped off conveniently packaged cans of the stuff.  If you wanted some, you had to hoof it to the nearest mineral springs, the locations of which may have been the origin for the phrase 'few and far between'. Most folks just were not up for that, considering they were busy avoiding the Mongol hoards, Viking raids, the Black Death, and other delights of bygone eras.

So the trick to enjoying refreshing drinks was either to live near a mineral spring, or find a way to bring the mineral spring waters to you. In 1767, Joseph Priestly made this one step closer to a possibility. If you're thinking he was a master plumber of the Roman aqueduct school, not exactly. Running miles of plumbing pipes wouldn't have worked - the spring water would get flat by the time it arrived at your house. If you're thinking he invented glass bottles, wrong again by over a hundred years. No, what Mr. Priestly came up with was pretty ingenious - he figured out how to add bubbles to plain old water.

Riker's Drug Store soda fountain New York City 1923

Okay, great - now, with the right equipment, we have the potential for creating an endless supply of bubbly water on premises. And that's exactly what businesses did. They set up carbonation rooms and connected the bubbliciousness to a tap. Voila! Fizzy water on demand without all that annoying trekking cross-country to the mineral spring.

This was all well and good except for one small problem: the product didn't taste all that great. Appetizing ingredients required to create the bubbles such as sulphuric acid, calcium carbonate, and marble dust didn't translate well to the average palate. But not to worry: recall that the early mineral waters were consumed primarily for their purported health benefits, so the natural place to purchase them was at the local pharmacy. Also note: many early medicines were consumed in liquid form. Experienced pharmacists had long been in the business of making yucky liquid medicine taste good enough that their patients would actually take it. If it tastes good, they will drink. Light bulb moment! By the mid-1800s the great experimentation with adding flavors to carbonated water had begun.

Soda fountains also came in tabletop versions if you couldn't afford a big production like Riker's

Flash forward to the early 20th century. Soda fountains were popular, but bars were still their primary competition - until Prohibition came along. From 1920-1933, the soda biz exploded (literally as well as figuratively - explosions during the carbonation process were a known hazard). The trifecta of technology (carbonation process), increased demand (due to the addition of appealing flavors), and economics (Prohibition drastically reducing competition from the bar sector) resulted in a boom time for soda fountains. It was very similar to what we are seeing today with craft beers. As with all things, the soft drink boom did not last. Once the bars were back up and running, the soda fountain business flattened out. But a surprising number of these drinks are still around. Many have been gobbled up by conglomerates, but their hometown roots are still there if you look hard enough. Here's a great article listing the local brews from all 50 states.

Some fun facts

Because the soft drink boom was long before artificial colors and flavors existed, many early soft drinks relied on plant-based ingredients such as roots (ginger, sassafras, gentian), vegetables (celery), and fruits (grapes, cherries, lemons, limes) for their flavors. You're probably aware the original recipes for many popular drinks also contained ingredients that are now considered illegal and addictive. After all, Coca-Cola didn't get its name because the inventor had a stammer - it actually did contain a form of cocaine. Around the turn of the century, soft drinks were positioned more as health pick-me-ups, the forerunners of today's energy drinks. Ingredients were often touted to improve health in various ways, and early on, products from the coca plant were considered beneficial. Lithium was also included in some early recipes, notably 7UP, and of course caffeine. Lithium and coca were eliminated when their possible deleterious side effects were discovered. Curiously, the same cannot be said for sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and the various alphabet soup of chemicals currently in many sodas. Maybe some day we will all be reading one of my future blog posts talking about the olden days when people actually enjoyed drinking the gut-destroying concoctions known as 'soft drinks'.

New York entrepreneur John Matthews is known by some as the Father of the Soda Fountain. Not long after he emigrated from England and determined to get into the soda fountain business, the iconic St. Patrick's Cathedral had undergone a recent renovation. Knowing that marble dust could be used in the chemical reaction to create carbonation, Matthews bought up all the crumbled marble. It's estimated the holy scrap fueled 25 million gallons of soda water.

A passing resemblance

Ginger ales were far more popular in the early days of soft drinks than they are now. Many contemporary soft drinks available in a variety of flavors today such as Shasta, Polar, RC Cola, and Vernors have ginger ale roots. Literally. Ginger root has been used as a flavoring ingredient and as well as a health aid for thousands of years. When found to flourish in the Caribbean, ginger was readily available in the New World and as such, a natural to make the leap to flavoring carbonated water as well as many other types of food and drink. True ginger ale bears little flavor resemblance to the bland tasting stuff primarily used today as a background for mixed alcoholic drinks. My first Blenheim Ginger Ale was a delightful surprise. If you think you don't like ginger ale, and you have the chance to taste one of these heirloom brews, do it. You'll thank me. Beware the hot versions if you don't like spicy stuff. They're not kidding. Also beware that at a distance, to the South Carolina DNR (boat staties), a clear glass bottle of the golden goodness that is Blenheim looks very much like a clear glass bottle of Corona. . .

Speaking of beer: the various beer-named soft drinks of course do not contain alcohol, much to every child's chagrin. Who of us didn't feel a guilty pleasure/burst into giggles/think we were more grown up when allowed to have a root 'beer'? Root beer is the foundation for many soft drink dynasties such as Barq's, IBC, and the granddaddy of all root beers, A&W (interesting side note: California-based A&W was America's first franchised restaurant chain and the first restaurant to use drive-in and curbside service. Take that, Mickey D's!) The root used for 'root beer' originally was the sassafras root until one of its components, safrole, was found to be carcinogenic  - yikes! Nowadays the safrole is removed from the sassafras compound or an artificial sassafras flavoring is used. This is one of the rare cases when no one will be carping about going back to the original natural ingredient! Sarsaparilla is a close cousin to sassafras, and therefore root beer, in taste if not in taxonomy. Birch beer is flavored with an extract of tree bark, usually birch, and also tastes similar to plain old root beer.

Grape flavors have also proved popular over the years, as evidenced by Alabama's Grapico,

Arkansas' Grapette, and Louisiana's Delaware Punch (which is named for the Delaware grape, not the state). There's nothing like an ice-cold grape soda to give you a temporary but delicious soda mustache.

Arizona's orange-pineapple Cactus Cooler may not have as lengthy a pedigree as some drinks I have mentioned, but it's the only one I found that was inspired by a cartoon (The Flintstones).

Thanks to the bitterness of Maine's local brew's main ingredient, gentian root, it has entered our lexicon as a synonym for 'guts', as in, you have to have plenty of guts to drink it. The name? 'Moxie'.

Michigan's Feigenson brothers weren't pharmacists; they were bakers. Like pharmacists, their profession also lent itself beautifully to the soft drink biz. Icing recipes did double duty as inspiration for the many flavors of their in-house beverage, Faygo. Mmmmmm, icing . . .

As a kid, I grew up drinking Kool-Aid. One of the few bright spots of being hauled along on the drudgery of grocery shopping trips was being allowed to choose which Kool-Aid flavor packets went into our basket (Black Cherry was my favorite, and yes, my mom used real sugar when she mixed up a pitcher). But Kool-Aid wasn't always sold dry. Back when Kool-Aid was getting its start in Prohibition-era Nebraska, they briefly offered a bottled, carbonated version of the iconic powder mix.

New York's Dr. Browns figured out a clever niche for their product. They were one of the few, if not the only, early soft drinks that was Kosher certified. That may be why people continued to drink it, despite the celery they insisted on adding to their flavors. Celery was the hot new health fad once upon a time. Look for a blog post about that here soon.

No treatise on soft drink history would be complete without a mention of Texas' multi-ingredient, cherry cola-flavored Dr. Pepper. DP is one of the few drinks from the soda fountain heydey still going strong today. Invented in 1885 by a pharmacist in Waco, Texas, Dr. Pepper was light years ahead in the marketing game. It got a big publicity bump when it was featured at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis. As a Texan, I have a soft spot for DP. Back in the 1970s Dr. Pepper earned my undying devotion when they introduced a diet version. It tasted great! At that time, the only other diet soda available in our area was an abomination known as Tab. Think carbonated cod liver oil. Diet DP was my morning office pick-me-up for years since I'm not a coffee drinker. Envision a hot summer day, walking in from the shimmering asphalt of the company parking lot, greeted by a blast of air frostily conditioned the way only Texans know how, and reach for that chilled bottle of DP straight out of the artic atmosphere of the behemoth coke machine. Heaven!

I don't drink much in the way of soft drinks anymore. I gave up my hardcore forty-year one-a-day Diet Coke/Coke Zero habit in November 2013, thank you very much. At the peak of my addiction, I would scoff at my mom's insistence that cokes just didn't taste the same without the pure cane sugar and the other natural ingredients she remembered from her youth. I was so busy counting calories, I wouldn't have dreamed of drinking a 'real' coke. My, how things have changed. I think that's why I enjoyed that Blenheim ginger ale. So much flavor, without the chemicals in most modern soft drinks that I can taste now that I've kicked the habit. It's definitely an experience I would like to repeat in moderation. What's the best soft drink produced locally in your area? And how can I get some?

The original version of this post was published in July 2015.

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