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In Soda Revival, Fizzy Taste Bubbles Up From The Past

Aug 31, 2011
Originally published on September 6, 2011 8:26 am

If you're hankering for something new to drink — something more interesting than the usual cocktail or soda — you may want to look to the past. Way back in the 19th century, pharmacists and soda-jerks created all sorts of exotic, lip-smacking sensations by mixing fizzy mineral water with unique blends of sweet syrups and bitters.

"The soda fountain was once an equivalent to the local saloon," says Darcy O'Neil, the author of Fix the Pumps, a history of the golden age of soda fountains. In 1875, he explains, there was a soda counter in almost every American city.

By dusting off these old recipes and publishing them, he's helped launch a bit of a renaissance. From New Orleans to Boston, Nashville and Washington, D.C., mixologists are serving up this style of drinks.

The trend reflects a shift away from the industrial soft drinks most of us grew up with, says Melissa Abbott, director of culinary insights at the Hartman Group, a consumer trends consultancy. "Old-timey sodas represent the movement toward higher quality — meaning seasonal, small-batch, local, even organic," she says.

An Aromatic Batch Of Sarsaparilla

America Eats Tavern in Washington, D.C., is reviving all sorts of forgotten tastes from early American history — and re-creating the feel of the old-timey soda fountain, too.

"These became the gathering places for people," explains mixologist Owen Thomson as a work-day crowd begins to settle in at his bar-turned-soda-counter.

"Let's start with a little sarsaparilla," Thomson says as he whips up an aromatic blend. "That's good for you!"

Sarsaparilla is a root that was once listed in the U.S. Pharmacopeia. It was used as a treatment for everything from syphilis to eczema. Thomson uses a mortar and pestle to grind up eucalyptus, birch bark, spearmint and the sarsaparilla. He tosses it all into a stainless-steel shaker — and mixes it with carbonated water from his soda fountain.

"It's refreshing," says Ross Robertson, a patron. "I like that. Earthy."

"I always gets notes of anise," says Thomson. The taste is reminiscent of licorice, which shows up in a lot of old root soda recipes.

Hiding The Taste Of Medicine

To make his recipes authentic, Thomson has turned to a collection of old books. The hard-back tome he consults today is called Dr. Chase's Recipes. "It's sort of an old pharmacist's textbook," says Thomson.

The story of the American soda fountain begins with people like Chase. The pages of his book smell like the past, and they're filled with home remedies for almost any condition you can imagine — from curing an upset stomach to preventing scurvy.

"You can flip open to any part," says Thomson, "and you'll see the pharmacist was the catch-all for everything." One chapter explains how to diagnose and treat typhoid using a remedy called a febrefuge, made with lavender, nitrites and gum camphor.

This was the medicine of the day. And because these hand-crafted remedies tasted so vile, pharmacists needed a solution.

"In the beginning, pharmacists are using good flavors to hide flavors they need us to drink," explains Thomson.

So, you'd walk into the pharmacy, pick up your foul-tasting medicine, and then walk to the other side of the counter, where the pharmacist had a soda jerk. He'd mix the medicine with a sweet, flavored syrup and soda water.

"At first, [the pharmacists] used sweetened soda water to conceal the taste of bitter drugs like quinine and iron. Then they started to add more exotic substances," says O'Neil, the drink historian.

From Mineral Water To Egg Creams

In Europe, natural spring waters and flavored seltzers were starting to take off. There was a belief that the minerals and the carbonation were health-promoting. Americans decided to add the sugary syrup. "It was America's lust for sugar that made the combination a success," says O'Neil.

The era of the American soda fountain spanned nearly a century. Throughout the 1900s, soda jerks evolved from the guys who helped make the medicine go down into purveyors of rich, creamy treats. Think the malt or the milkshake. And these drinks — such as the egg cream soda, orange cream soda and root beer float — are making a comeback, too.

"All of us are experimenting more and more with the old-school soda fountain drinks," says Gina Chersevani, lead mixologist at the D.C. restaurant PS7's.

Acid Phosphate: Pucker Your Lips

Chersevani borrows a secret ingredient from the soda jerks of her mother's generation to mix up an orange cream soda. She picks up a little dish filled with salt-like crystals. It's a chemical called acid phosphate, which was first used as a replacement for lime when you couldn't get citrus year-round. Nowadays, there's been some concern that steady consumption of colas, which still contain phosphate, may leach calcium from bones. But when it's mixed just the right way as a special treat, it gives drinks a lot of pizzazz.

Remember Lemon Heads, those penny candies that were like an explosion of sour in your mouth? That's where this seems to be headed. She adds vanilla ice cream, orange syrup and some bitters and tops it off with soda water.

In reviving the old recipes of the soda fountain era, mixologists are bringing back more than just forgotten tastes.

"What we try to do here is give people a nice, full experience," says Thomson. "They sit down and have a good time. And that's about as restorative as it gets."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

Now, if you're looking for an occasional alternative, an occasional treat, you may want to look to the past. The fizzy, tangy, lip-smacking tastes of the soda fountain are making a comeback. NPR's Allison Aubrey introduces us to two modern day soda jerks who are dusting off recipes and serving them up.

ALLISON AUBREY: Sometimes the past is carried into the present by a sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUBREY: When these carousel horses took their first spin around back in 1921, soda counters had sprung up across the country, thousands of them, mostly inside neighborhood pharmacies. Some were gilded and ornate like this carousel, and some even played this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUBREY: Now, a few places here in DC are recreating this old-timey soda fountain feel.

OWEN THOMSON: Well, these sort of became the gathering places for people. They probably would have been pretty noisy, bustling little places.

AUBREY: So what should we try first?

THOMSON: Let's start out with a little sarsaparilla. Good for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING SODA)

AUBREY: Sarsaparilla is a root. It was once listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia and used as a treatment for everything from syphilis to eczema. Thomson uses a mortar and pestle to grind up eucalyptus, birch bark, spearmint, and tosses it all into a stainless-steel shaker.

THOMSON: We're going to throw it back and forth - from the shaker into the glass.

(SOUNDBITE OF ICE CUBES)

AUBREY: It's so aromatic, you can smell it before you taste it.

ROSS ROBERTSON: Oh, that's good.

ROBBIE METZER: Very refreshing. I like that.

AUBREY: Ross Robertson and Robbie Meltzer gather at the soda pump. They're drinking the sarsaparilla syrup - mixed with extremely fizzy mineral water.

METZER: Earthy, eucalyptuses maybe.

ROBERTSON: Well, it's kind of eucalyptus-y.

THOMSON: I always get notes of anise - that's like a big one for me.

AUBREY: Something is standing out here - it's - I love this. It's definitely the licorice.

THOMSON: Yeah, that's a big element that shows up in a lot of these old school root sodas.

AUBREY: Now, Thomson is a bartender, but he's also part historian. And to make his recipes authentic, he's turned to a collection of old books. The hardback tome he's flipping through now dates back to 1860.

THOMSON: So this is "Dr. Chase's Recipes; or Information for Everybody," which is sort of an old pharmacist textbook.

AUBREY: The story of soda fountains begins with people like Dr. Chase. The pages of his book smell like the past. They're yellowed and tattered. And in old-timey script Dr. Chase spells out home remedies for almost any condition you can imagine, from curing an upset stomach to preventing scurvy.

THOMSON: I mean, for instance, like we can just flip open anywhere in this book and you can see that the pharmacist was the catch-all for everything. It's funny to me how much one person did.

AUBREY: Often the pharmacist had to know how to make a diagnosis.

THOMSON: Here's one for typhoid fever.

AUBREY: Thomson reads directly from the text.

THOMSON: If a patient be typhoid - that is, if his tongue be brown or black and dry in the center with glossy red edges...

AUBREY: Then Dr. Chase suggests a mixture he calls a febrifuge. Now, remember, back then there were no pharmaceutical companies making pills for a pharmacist to sell, so medicines were basically concoctions they made up themselves. So what was Dr. Chase's recipe for this febrifuge?

THOMSON: Sweet spirits of nitrate, compound spirits of lavender, balsam...

AUBREY: Toss in some gum camphor. But wait, what would something like this have tasted like?

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGH)

AUBREY: Yuck. Not so good.

THOMSON: That's right.

AUBREY: The soda fountain was the solution to this problem. People got so fed up with the vile tastes of the pharmacists' remedies, they needed some way to make the medicine go down easier.

THOMSON: So you start to see that, like, in the beginning pharmacists are using good flavors to hide flavors they need us to drink.

AUBREY: So you'd walk into the pharmacy, pick up your foul-tasting medicine, and then walk to the other side of the counter, where the pharmacist had hired a soda jerk. He'd mix the medicine with a sweet flavored syrup and soda water. So many of these early sarsaparillas and colas were first served in the neighborhood pharmacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUBREY: Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Didn't this used to be Bullard's drug store?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES")

THOMSON: Unidentified Woman: (as character) But old Mr. Bullard's still here in charge of prescriptions.

AUBREY: These prescriptions were now for mainly pills made by pharmaceutical companies. People no longer needed a soda jerk to help make the medicine go down. Americans were now in love with bottled sodas: Coke and Pepsi. So the soda counter had to reinvent itself. Instead of herbs and syrups, they went for rich and creamy. Think the milkshake. People loved them and soda fountains flourished as neighborhood hang-outs, offering drinks like egg cream sodas, orange cream soda and root beer floats. These fizzy concoctions are making a comeback too.

GINA CHERSAVANAI: Yes, that's really what it is. You know, it's experimenting more and more with the old-school soda fountains.

AUBREY: Gina Chersavanai mixes up libations at the DC restaurant PS7.

CHERSAVANAI: Let's do one right now that's really simple and easy - this is just fresh vanilla bean ice cream. And basically what we're going to make is a New York soda. So we take three scoops of vanilla ice-cream...

AUBREY: And she's borrowing a secret ingredient from the soda jerks of her mother's generation. She picks up a little dish filled with translucent crystals. It's acid phosphate, which was first used as a replacement for lime, when you couldn't get citrus year-round. And it's about to give this drink a lot of pizzazz.

CHERSAVANAI: I'm going to put two pinches in the bottom - or a half a teaspoon.

AUBREY: Remember Lemonheads, those penny candies that were like an explosion of sour in your mouth? That's where this seems to be headed. She tops it off with a little soda water.

CHERSAVANAI: And that's how you would have served it.

AUBREY: Oh my gosh. Mmmm. Lip-smacking.

CHERSAVANAI: DO you like it?

AUBREY: Pucker your lips.

CHERSAVANAI: Pucker your lips. Oh yeah, pucker your lips.

AUDREY: Back at America Eats, Owen Thomson says what he loves about the revival of the soda fountains is not just the tastes of the past.

THOMSON: Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.