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."