This Trend piece featured in the recent issue of Australian Bartender
By Simon McGoram
The Early Days
Natural carbonated waters have long been known by man and long too has their effervescence been believed to hold curative powers. Transporting naturally sparkling water from volcanic springs to an eager consumer base however had its limitations and much more so before the advent of the combustion engine. It was the popular demand and potential economic boon that led scientists to investigate impregnating non-fermented beverages with bubbles.
Joseph Priestley first discovered a way to infuse liquid with carbon dioxide bubbles by suspending a vessel of water over fermenting mash in 1767. It wasn’t until a German-born, naturalised Swiss watchmaker and tinkering scientist by the name of Jacob Schweppes gave it a crack that commercial applications became possible. Schweppes took Priestley’s learnings and invented a device to artificially carbonate water then founded the Schweppes Company in Geneva in 1783.
There were carbonated beverages around before Schweppes. Darcy O’Neil author of Fix the Pumps and The Art of Drink website tells us: “Before devices were created to artificially carbonate water, people realized they could duplicate the tingling sensation, though poorly, by combining sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid in water. This resulted in a glass of fizzy saltwater similar to Alka-Seltzer.”
A real leap forward in the distribution of artificially carbonated waters was the invention of the soda siphon in 1813 by Charles Plinth. A pressurised bottle affixed with a valve meant that seltzers could be dispensed a glass at a time – a huge improvement from the cork.
Over the next two decades it even became viable for local pharmacists and street vendors to make soda water. A design by John Mathews in 1832 consisting of a lead lined tank where sulphuric acid and powdered marble (calcium carbonate) were mixed to produce carbon dioxide revolutionised the business. By 1836 there were estimated to be 670 soda draught fountains in New York City alone.
Quackery and the Rise of the Soda Fiend
The popularity of the soda fountain rose dramatically throughout the 19th century. Carbonated waters were associated with health benefits and initially championed by the Temperance movement. Families, women and children could enter a drug store which traded during daylight hours – seemly the complete opposite of seedy saloon. But competition was fierce – prices needed to be kept low and your fountain’s range of flavours had to meet with the fad of the week. Soon all sorts of syrups, synthetic flavours and even grade-A narcotics where being added to the mix.
By the late 1870s American sodas fountains were being sold into Australian stores. The Maitland Mercury & Hunter River General Advertiser ran an interview with an un-named “prominent down-town druggist” who was asked about the syrups added to the artificially carbonated waters coming from fountains:
“In most cases they are unfit for drink, positively injurious, and very often made from an inferior quality of drugs. The so-called pure fruit syrups, in nine cases out of ten, do not contain a smell of the fruit they are supposed to be made of, but they are concocted with such skill as to deceive the sensitive taste.”
Druggists didn’t stop with artificial flavours. In the 19th century most medicines came in liquid form so the soda fountain proved to be a great vehicle for the prescription side of their business.
“Drinking these medicines straight-up was probably a nasty experience,” explains O’Neil in his e-book Fix the Pumps, “but diluted with sweetened soda, these patent medicines were probably quite acceptable, even pleasurable”
It must be noted that at the time most medicines contained as much alcohol as any shot of whiskey with mixtures known as ‘nervines’ containing cocaine, strychnine, cannabis, morphine, opium, heroin, and other neurochemicals. Coca-Cola originally may have contained between 5mg to 10mg of cocaine per glass. To top it all off medicinal alcohol was tax free – so an imbiber could get his fix at a drug store for the fraction of the price found at the bar.
It’s also no small wonder that these flavoured sodas were highly addictive – in New York ‘brain workers’ – lawyers, accountants and brokers etc. – would come into a drugstore for a pick-me-up half a dozen times a day before clocking off work to load up on cocktails. These habitual soda drinkers became known as ‘soda fiends’.
The Soda Jerk and the Decline of the Soda Fountain
In 1906, America’s Pure Food and Drug Act was implemented and saw the medical profession start to clean its act up. It put a dent in the soda business for pharmacists, but carbonated beverages were still in high enough demand that most drugstores had to employ a ‘soda jerk’ to dispense these beverages. Before Prohibition most of these soda jerks were young teenagers often called ‘squirts’ after all the syrups they squirted into their sodas. When Prohibition hit in 1920 the country’s barkeeps were all made redundant in one foul swoop. Those that didn’t expatriate themselves or work in a speakeasy could often be found at a soda fountain – they were mostly more mature, more skilled and more charming than teenage soda jerks. They also had the ability to stay cool under pressure and maintain control of crowds and were much more appealing to the female clientele than spotty teenagers.
The soda fountain became such an important part of American culture that soda jerks developed their own code language to captivate the crowds. It’s during this time that terms still in used in the bar like ’86’ for something that’s run out (or someone ‘cut- off’) and ‘in the weeds’ were invented.
By the end of Prohibition as punters headed back to the bar we start to see the decline of the traditional soda fountain. Women are now readily accepted into bars, pharmacists start to focus on prescribing medicine and pre-mixed sodas are available in myriad flavours from vending machines or straight from the local store. Soda culture still survives to some degree with re-usable soda siphons being used in many homes and the oft imitated 1950s American diner burns a small flame for the traditional soda fountain of old.
Soda Jerk Code
You want to talk like soda jerk? Try these on for size:
“One on the House”
Glass of water
“Go For a Walk”
“Fix the Pumps”
See the girl with the large breasts
“Eighty-Seven and a Half”
Girl at table with legs conspicuously crossed or otherwise attractive
“Dining Room Lumber”
“Hold the Hail”
Soda without ice
Glass of beer
“Shake One in the Hay”
Strawberry milk shake
Manager or boss
The Siphon Returns
In the ’80s and ’90s even the soda siphon fell by the wayside. Sure a few homes were lucky enough to have a Soda Stream, but by in large the device which got the whole soda business on the road in the first place almost disappeared.
The siphon though has for the last couple of years made a real return to the bar-room. Jason Williams, Bartender magazine’s Bartender of the Year 2010 and Keystone’s Group Cocktail Manager reckons it’s another way for modern bartenders and cocktail programs to show off their creativity and gourmet approach while showcasing their knowledge of old world bar room techniques.
“There is also a great element of theatre” adds Williams. “Bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts might be familiar with soda siphons, but the general consumer might not have ever seen one in use and it gets people talking when there is a siphon on the table or used in preparation of one’s cocktail.”
Soda siphons are used at Sydney’s theloft to serve ‘Soda Pop Punches’ – basically a litre of punch served from the siphon.
“It’s a balance between the alcohol, sugar and acid but the light carbonation is there and guests are loving it” explains Williams.
Williams sights better quality of flavoured soda – ginger being a sterling example – as a real benefit of using a siphon though he adds the caveat that; “why would you need to make a tonic when there are such good bottled products out there?”
Some great gadgets are now available overseas too like the Perlini that allows you to carbonate beverages with its patent shaker design.
“A few bars in the states have gas tanks in the bar and use them to carbonate all their drinks,” comments Williams. “Lot 308 in Nashville have a fully rigged up bar with each station having a holster with a gun connected to a bank of CO2 tanks out the back. They simply make syrups, add to a plastic bottle, fizz with the gun shake up then pour out the drink.”
Fix the Pumps
Fix the Pumps by Darcy O’Neil is the authoritative work on soda available today. Buy a copy online at artofdrink.com to find out how to make goodies like phosphate sodas, lacarts and more.