In college, on certain bleary-eyed, rushed mornings, I used to gulp a Diet Coke while sprinting to class instead of a hot cup of coffee. It was a time before every coffee franchise sold bottled cold brew that you could keep in your refrigerator, and a $3 vending machine breakfast of a granola bar and a soda seemed like a good deal. Soda was an economical problem-solver—easy to grab on my way out the door and refreshing both for its caffeine and its effervescence on a sleepy afternoon or during an all-nighter.
Now, cafes from coast to coast, including chains like Stumptown and Konditori, have begun to embrace the idea of the soda pick-me-up by mixing espresso with seltzer or tonic, sometimes with fresh herbs or a slice of citrus. The result is almost like a pared down cola—a carbonated balance of bitter, herbal flavors and sweet, nutty notes, often with a hint of acidity. Crema, in Nashville, has served seasonal coffee sodas with a dash of cherry juice and a hint of cherry bitters. Neptune Coffee, in Seattle, has mixed coffee with tonic water and garnished it with rosemary. Other cafes have created their own versions with angostura bitters, lemon syrup, or sprigs of mint.
These might sound like odd combinations to Folgers-drinking traditionalists, but the idea of the coffee soda has been around in the United States for more than 100 years, long before the dawn of Red Bull. Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda, which was introduced to New York in 1895 by a family of Italian immigrants, is still made at a factory in Williamsburg and sold at delis and bodegas all over the city. It came about when the Passaros, the founding family, wanted to provide Italians in the city with an espresso alternative to the American coffee everybody else seemed to be drinking. Though Manhattan Special never took off in the same way that Coke or Pepsi did, the sodas are shipped internationally, and they still have enough of a dedicated following in New York for small grocery stores and cafes to stock them and sell them for $1.50 a pop. The coffee shop that I worked at in college sold Manhattan Special sodas, and I’d drink them periodically to break up the monotony of sipping stale hot coffee. It tastes sort of like a carbonated, syrupy instant coffee—cloying, but invigorating. Unlike most beverages that have been around for 100 years, the recipe has barely changed from the dependable mixture of coffee, carbonated water, and sugar it began with.
When sodas like Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, and Moxie came about in the late 1800's, they were marketed as all-around mood enhancers—not just for their coffee-like caffeine content, but also for their ostensible health benefits. An early ad for Coca-Cola from the 1890’s called the drink “the ideal brain tonic” and claimed that the drink “relieves mental and physical exhaustion.” An ad for Moxie from around the same time claimed that the soda “strengthens the nerves and gives you a good appetite.” Each soda's secret recipe promised a cocktail of remedies for stomach ailments, nerves, low energy, impotence, and more. A bit of cocaine or kola nuts for energy, a bit of gentian root or pepsin to soothe the stomach, and a mix of other undisclosed herbs and roots to add a touch of mystery to the formula.
Now, even though we know that ingredients like tonic water and bitters have little to no clear health benefits, there’s something nostalgic and alluring about them that has endured into cocktail and coffee culture today. Coke and Pepsi may have turned to corn syrup and artificial flavoring over the years, but we can still go to a coffee shop and order the original cornerstones of these drinks; caffeine, sugar, flavoring, and carbonation. The idea of an espresso mixed with seltzer and bitters feels more sophisticated and wholesome than grabbing a plastic bottle of soda on the way out the door. Tristan Donovan, the author of Fizz: How Soda Shook up the World, says that this may just be because we’ve become wary of mass-produced products. “People know that soda overall is bad, but somehow, there’s a bit of a blind spot where if it’s not Coca Cola or Pepsi that’s made in huge quantities, it’s somehow healthier,” he says. But aside from an air of secrecy, the net effect of a 19th century doctor mixing bitter roots and herbs with cane sugar and carbonated water is not that different from a 21st century barista doctoring an iced coffee with bitters and tonics and simple syrups. “Coffee shops are, I suppose, the nearest equivalent now of soda fountains,” says Donovan, “They’ve kind of inherited the same role in society that soda fountains used to have.”