The 1880s through the 1910s were great clanking steel years, full of smoke and progress. The Western world was undergoing an unprecedented explosion of industry and commercial innovation - the earth was being mined and drilled, plains and mountains were being girdled with networks of rail lines, and technology, whether electrical, mechanical or chemical, was being embraced unconditionally. Creative human endeavor was barreling forward at full throttle, and seat belts, both literal and regulatory, had yet to be invented. Patent medicines, containing secret compounds of narcotics and/or alcohol, unimpeded by any regulation, were such lucrative business that every magazine in the country was laden with advertisements for tonics, balms and cure-alls.
Not surprisingly, this same progress-obsessed era was the Gilded Age of the Cocktail, when similarly complex and mysterious libations were being concocted by vest-and-tied barmen, some of whom had already been dubbed 'mixologists'. In recent years, their recipes have undergone a revival - punches, flips, daisies and juleps from this great era have returned to bar menus, and new maestros are picking up where the pre-Prohibition ones left off. But few of today's enthusiasts may realize that the Victorian cocktail bar had a now-forgotten contemporary - a counterpart institution equally alluring in complexity of technique and ingredients, but still awaiting its revival.
Technically, this sibling institution never really disappeared. But if I say "soda fountain" to you today, you'll likely conjure up a schmaltzy Norman Rockwell-inspired vision of Main Street USA, where clean-cut teenagers flirt and sip chocolate malts through paper straws, wiling away their afternoons dropping nickels into the Wurlitzer. This image, common as it is, comes from a time much later in the soda establishment's metamorphosis into suburban domesticity that began even before the cocktail's decline in the 1920s.
So instead of the Happy Days of the 1950s soda fountain, let's set the destination on our culinary Delorean just a little further back. How far? Before the 1914 Harrison Act banned non-medicinal use of cocaine or morphine into pharmacy-dispensed beverages. Before 'patent medicine' got a bad name. Before Coca-Cola had emerged as anything more than an Atlanta peculiarity, not yet the supreme global representative of fizzy drinks and the de facto ambassador of American hegemony. Let's travel back to a time when local pharmacists relied on recipes, still calledreceiptsat this point, to create compelling refreshments from fruit and berry syrups, fruit phosphates, floral essences, and extracts of exotic leaves and roots, all served as adjuncts to soda water and ice.
The bar, set up along a wall of the pharmacy, was likely made of white marble, Mexican onyx, or carved mahogany. The taps were plated with either silver or nickel and polished to a mirror finish. Above the bar would have been fantastically intricate depictions, made of stained glass, brass and crystal, of polar bears climbing glaciers, frosty peaks and igloos, and other imagery designed to lure the interest of dusty-throated passers-by with the promise of a short glass of cold invigorating refreshment. Competition among druggists meant that some of these exquisite displays, even without currency adjustment, were priced in the thousands of dollars.
Behind the bar, the early soda jerks were concerned with far more than simply filling glasses with fizzy water and prepackaged syrup. Today'sten-button Wunder-Bargunslinger is about as far removed from his 1890s counterpart as aSmirnoff Iceis from a handcraftedBlood and Sand. This comparison is particularly apt, in fact, because in these early days, soda fountain operators and bartenders operated with similar attention to their respective arts, sharing among their brethren the secrets of new drinks, innovative ingredients, and sales techniques. Bartenders had their books by Jerry Thomas andGeorge J. Kappeler, while druggists and would-be soda fountaineers hadThe American DruggistandThe Spatula. These publications were geared towards pharmacists, with the requisite drabness of a trade publication, including industry gossip and highly targeted advertisements. But they also had a gold mine of soda fountain knowledge, and their back issues prove that the booze peddlers weren't the only clever mixologists in town.
Checkerberryand ginger, anyone? I'd never heard of such a thing, but apparently, checkerberry comes from the wintergreen plant, is native to North America, and has basically disappeared from the American consciousness. Add to this list of forgotten flavorscatawba grape, scuppernong,capillaire,ambrosia, andsyrup of violets, and there's a strong case being made that this variant of mixology is due for a revivial.
Soda flavorings from 1893, including the ever-popular beef and coca, for those who can't be bothered to have their cocaine and beef separately
News about the long-awaited Cherry Ripe, all new for 1893
Shaker technology From The American Druggist - now with spokes!