From the 12BB Library: “Fix the Pumps” by Darcy O’Neil

By Lesley Jacobs Solmonson

The next time you pop the top on your favorite pop, think on this.  Soda pop would never even have been invented — or become as popular — had it not been for a little something called carbonation.  As Darcy O’Neil explains in his book Fix the Pumps, “Carbonation was once the sole reason to order a glass of soda.  The lively, tingling sensation of the carbonic acid tickling the tongue was fascinating to the early drinker.”  This fascination with soda and its evolution from a stimulant to America’s most popular beverage are the center of O’Neil’s must-read book.

“Fix the Pumps” is remarkable for many things, not the least of which being its collection of old recipes drawn directly from vintage soda fountain manuals (everything from Absinthe Extract and Kola Celery Tonic to Crab Orchard Water).  Where the book truly shines, however – at least in terms of the cocktail world – is in its ability to capture the connections between cocktail and soda culture, as well as to suggest how properly-made modern sodas can be as indispensable in the mixologist’s arsenal as the perfect Manhattan.

In order to understand the link between the soda fountain and the saloon, you need to understand the time in which the former was born.  O’Neil focuses on the creation of man-made carbonated water, which was spearheaded by a fellow named Joseph Priestley in 1767.  Since the healing benefits of naturally carbonated spring waters were already recognized, the advantage of pharmaceutically-produced mineral waters, both monetarily and convenience-wise, was obvious.  As with the original alcohol-based Cocktail, known as a Pick-Me-Up or a morning energizer, soda water was flavored with sugar and fruit juice to enhance the flavor.

With the rise of Temperance movements and the growing interest in health, the concept of the soda fountain – a place where one could partake of a tasty, medicinal tonic – quickly gained popularity.  The 1813 invention of the soda siphon, which delivered carbonated water with ease, cleared the way for large-scale fountains, often as gilded and elegant as the most elegant hotel bar, to develop within pharmacies across the country.  There’s one major way that saloons and soda fountains differed, which gave the fountains a bit of an edge. Unlike bars, operated by average Joes who happened to be able to mix drinks, the original soda fountains were run by chemists who incorporated all sorts of “medicinal” compounds (many artificial and toxic) into their concoctions.  As O’Neil – a chemist himself – points out, artificial flavorings were monetarily smart and customers often thought they tasted better than the real thing.

Of course, the druggists didn’t stop there.  In the ever-evolving quest for competitive edge, they used soda water as a delivery system for their medicinal tinctures, convenient since medicine was mixed in liquid not pill form during the 19th century.  And, it just so happened that pharmacists used alcohol to dissolve their ingredients, often combining them with sweetened soda to hide the nasty flavor.  These legal, alcohol-laden tonics (sometimes containing as much as a shot of whiskey) contributed in a major way to the rise of the soda fountain’s popularity. Not only could they be consumed in dry counties, but they didn’t incur the usual taxes that bars charged for alcoholic beverages.  (A soda fountain drink might be 5 cents, while a real cocktail could set you back as much as 50 cents.)  Nice business if you could get it.

And then, there was a little something called cocaine.  And strychnine, cannabis, morphine (the cure-all for colicky babies!), opium, and heroin.  Drinks laced with these substances fell under the category of “nervines” and, boy, were they an appealing way to start the day.  Why down a depressant cocktail when a cocaine-laden glass of cola could really stimulate the senses?  With the addition of cocaine, the most popular of the cola drinks – a little number called Coca Cola – went from a zero market share to becoming the best-selling soda syrup in a one year period; citizens of Atlanta, the drink’s home town, were reportedly downing 12 glasses per day.  And, in reaction to the stimulant factor, people started downing cocktails later in the day to wind down from their high.  Soon, doctors were decrying the “habit”, claiming that Coke was creating “soda fountain fiends.”  As O’Neil aptly puts it, “the drunk had now become the druggie.”

Of course, the Temperance folks didn’t much like any of this and, by 1906, the government had caught on as well, instituting the Pure Food and Drug Act (result: no more coked-up soda sippers).  The 1920s saw soda fountains accused of all sorts of health violations (drinking your fizzy sugar drink from a sticky glass wiped out with a soiled towel wasn’t too appealing for some reason) and, post-Prohibition, people simply abandoned these ersatz “cocktails” at the fountains and started boozing it up again. The future – bottled sodas, pharmacists returning to their drug dispensing duties — was inevitable.

The history of the fountain is but a small part of “Fix the Pumps”.  Where O’Neil expertise as a chemist and bartender comes into play is when he starts investigating the actual drinks and their make-up.   While O’Neil discusses familiar drinks like the milk shake (originally shaken in a cocktail shaker not mixed with a blender) and sodas like root beer and ginger ale, he also delves into the more esoteric or defunct drinks like the Phosphate.  Enjoying enormous popularity in the 1890s, phosphates offered a pleasantly tart, tangy drink thanks to the addition of acid phosphate.  Not only did it appeal because of its apparent healthful benefits – phosphoric acid was recognized as an all-around tonic and stimulant – but because its dry, acidic profile was different and refreshing. Today, cola drinks like Coca-Cola still use phosphoric acid and O’Neil himself sells his own Acid Phosphate, should you be so inclined to make your own vintage fountain drinks.

Far more than just a chronicle of the rise and fall of the fountain, “Fix the Pumps” makes it clear how closely related the crafts of the fountain master and the bartender really are.  Further, the soda’s influence on modern cocktails, which often use soda water, compound syrups, and fruit juices (all tricks of the fountain trade) is unquestionable.  Of course, what Darcy O’Neil hopes we walk away with is a commitment to expand our bartending repertoire with the many soda recipes he has collected in the back of the book.  (A word to the wise – some of the ingredients like the sassafras originally used in root beer are considered toxic by today’s standards, so mix wisely.)

Today, mixologists make their own bitters, their own syrups, even their own tonics.  They barrel age their booze and mix up batches of maraschino cherries.  So, why not open up the door to the wide range of flavors in the soda pantheon?  As O’Neil tells us, “Unifying the best characteristics of each can only lead to better drinks.”

Esoterica:  Talk Like A Soda Jerk…

Adam’s Ale – A glass of water
Break It and Shake It – Put an egg in a milkshake
Chemist of Salt Beverages – Counter Person or Soda Jerk
Dream – Reference to Coca-Cola with Cocaine
Fifty-Five – A Root Beer
Hoboken Special – Pineapple soda with chocolate cream
Fix the Pumps – Not so fast… you’ll have to buy the book for that one.


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