Americana | Robert Dickinson

Moxie: A Flavor for the Few

from Gastronomica 10:1

If you grew up anywhere but New England, you’ve probably never heard of a drink called Moxie, yet it is the oldest continually produced soda in America—and quite possibly the worst tasting, as well. Moxie inspires fierce devotion in its fans, which have included presidents, baseball stars, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, and confused disbelief among its detractors, who just can’t fathom what anyone would see in the stuff. I discovered Moxie while doing a little routine Web browsing, and after reading its illustrious history, I knew that I had to have a taste. I was particularly curious as to why, if Moxie really does taste like a telephone pole, as one Web site claims—or dirt, or battery acid—the drink has such a passionate following.

Unfortunately, Moxie isn’t sold in the Southeast where I live, so I turned to the Internet to try to track down a can. Several Web sites actually specialize in regional sodas and can ship you a case of Moxie or Cheerwine or Boylan Grape any time you get a hankering. The problem was that these specialty stores don’t just give away the Moxie, and being thrifty on the best of days, and given the high probability that I wouldn’t actually like Moxie, I was hesitant to place the thirty- to forty-dollar minimum order that the online soda merchants require. It occurred to me, though, that the folks who actually make Moxie must be quite proud of a soda that can produce such varied and extreme reactions among its drinkers; since only a few companies currently bottle Moxie, it stood to reason that one of them might be happy to send a can or two to a benighted, Moxie-less southerner if he asked in just the right way.

A Proposition

So, on a cold Nashville day in the winter of 2007, I composed the following letter and mailed it to the Catawissa Bottling Company of Catawissa, Pennsylvania, and to the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England, Inc., both of which bottle and distribute the beverage in question:

Dear Sir/Madam:

As a southerner, I’m no stranger to the charms of a nice, cold soda pop, although we often just call it “coke,” no matter what the brand. Until a few days ago, however, I was completely unaware of the existence of one of your products. It started innocently enough. A friend wanted to know what the state dog of Tennessee was (there isn’t one). A few clicks on the Internet later, and we learned that the state drink of Maine is a mysterious brew called Moxie. Now, like everyone who’s seen a gangster movie, I was familiar with the term, but not, as I’ve said, with the drink.

Not content to let it rest at that, and not anxious to go back to work, we dug deeper and uncovered a whole subculture of Moxie lore—stories, memorabilia, rumors, testimonials. A sample:

“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie. I learned you can throw all of your normal conceptions of soda out the window when it comes to the taste of Moxie.”1

“History has known only a few standards that cleanly divide Earth’s population into irreconcilable camps. Moxie is one of these. No one is apathetic in the matter.”2

“I grew up in mid-coast Maine where Moxie was more beloved than mother’s milk … and more widely consumed.”3

It’s clear that Moxie is more than a drink, more than the longest continually produced soda in our great nation’s history, more than the source of a great word for nerve, spunk, chutzpah. Moxie is the fluidic substance of the collective memory of a people, the taste of childhood, the pride of New Englanders, who know that not just anyone can suck down a Moxie and stick around to tell the tale.

Which brings me to my point. I would like to try my first Moxie—to be an initiate, to take a side. But, as you may know, none of the stores in my town of Nashville, tn, sell Moxie. I propose a trade—regional treat for regional treat. I will send you a box of Goo Goo Clusters (delicious blend of caramel, marshmallow, peanuts, and chocolate—my friends from New York City always ask for a box when I visit), a picture of Elvis, AND a bag of pork rinds, for a 6-pack of your finest Moxie.

Please consider my offer and respond via post or email. I hope you’ll find my terms acceptable, but in any case, please keep doing what you do, and remember…If you’ve got Moxie, you’ve got taste. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Robert T. Dickinson



Since 1876

While I waited to see whether anything would come of my proposal, I went back to the Internet to conduct more research and found references to Moxie lurking in sources ranging from the New York Times to etymology blogs such as www.word-detective.com. Americans have been drinking Moxie since 1884, although a similar drink first appeared in 1876 as a patent medicine called “Moxie Nerve Food.” We’re all familiar with moxie as a slang term for nerve or spunk (e.g., “Say what you will about that Al Capone, the man’s got moxie”), and when I discovered the drink, I could only assume that slang preceded soda, that Moxie’s name was the result of a slick young marketing man bathing his product in the allure of the speakeasy. Surprisingly, however, it was the drink that was apparently so chock-full of bubbly refreshment that its name was later used to describe that indefinable quality of folks who just seem to know the score.4

Until the early 1920s Moxie was one of the most popular soft drinks in America and was enjoyed by some of our finest citizens. The story goes that Vice-President Calvin Coolidge toasted his ascendance to the presidency with a glass of Moxie. E.B. White, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of Charlotte’s Web, had high praise for the soda as well. “Moxie contains gentian root,” White said, “which is the path to the good life.”5 Even Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams, the Splendid Splinter, got into the act as a Moxie pitchman in the 1950s.6

Despite such an impressive history, however, people in most areas of the country have never heard of Moxie, let alone tasted it. Moxie was once nationally distributed, but due to the vagaries of free-market economics, including competition with Coca-Cola, the soda took a smaller and smaller share of the soft-drink market over the years until it became a regional curiosity, unknown to Tennesseans, even ones who are pretty well traveled. These days Moxie distribution is concentrated in New England, although Cornucopia Beverages, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England (itself a subsidiary of Japan’s Kirin Brewing Company), began selling Moxie in Florida through Sweetbay Supermarkets in October 2007.7

As unknown as it is in most of the United States, Moxie has developed a fiercely devoted following in the areas where it is sold. Case in point: the Moxie World Web site (www.moxieworld.us). Here, devotees can find a detailed listing of retail outlets and restaurants that carry Moxie, links to collectors’ sites, and lists of Moxie-related events, such as the twenty-sixth annual Moxie Days Festival held in July 2009 in Lisbon Falls, Maine. Fans even have a governing body of sorts in the Moxie Congress, a group of memorabilia collectors and Moxie connoisseurs whose mission is to promote and celebrate their favorite soft drink. Moxie displayed its real-life political clout as well when the Maine legislature made Moxie the state’s official drink in 2005.8

Curiously enough, however, a large contingent of naysayers holds the equally strong opinion that Moxie is, well, not very good. To wit:

“The taste of Moxie is hard to describe, but if you have some really old sarsaparilla or birch beer around the house, mix it with a little battery acid and you’ll get the general idea.”9

“Have you ever licked a telephone pole or railroad tie? That is about what Moxie tastes like.”10

The phrase “acquired taste” also appears quite frequently. But for every slur against Moxie, you’ll find a glowing tribute, a paean to Moxie’s wholesomeness, a fierce defense of its good name:

“It’s not a syrupy fruit or cola, and it’s not a trendy California dill flavored monstrosity—it’s the grandpappy of all of those! It’s been marketed as a health elixir, it is the reason we say ‘that kid’s got Moxie!’ and it’s history in a bottle. And I adore it!”11

“There is nothing finer than smoking a fine cigar and having a snifter of Cognac, aged Scotch, a Tawny Port Wine, dry red wine, a harsh warm Guinness Stout or a cold glass of Moxie.”12

If nothing more, my research had shown that Moxie refuses to be lumped in with the ubiquitous carbonated sugar waters that fill our grocery stores and vending machines, and I was even more anxious to take my first sip.



Contact

Less than a week after I made my offer, I received my first response from Paula at Catawissa:

Hello Robert,

I really appreciated the letter you sent. I had to pass it around the office. I hope you don’t mind. Our company has been in business since 1926 and often the barter system was used. So sure, I’ll send a couple of bottles and cans of diet and regular.

We also make our own line of soft drink flavors and are known for our famous Big Ben’s Blue Birch Beer, along with 16 other flavors. Samples will be included.

Respectfully,

Paula Clark

Catawissa Bottling Company

Since 1926

True to her word, Paula sent the following to my apartment in Nashville:

1 can Moxie
1 can diet Moxie
1 bottle Moxie
1 bottle Big Ben’s Sarsaparilla
1 bottle Big Ben’s Birch Beer
1 bottle Big Ben’s Cream Soda
1 bottle Big Ben’s Ginger Beer

Judging by my shipment, Catawissa seems to specialize in the quaint sodas of yesteryear—drinks that evoke first dates at the soda shop, zoot-suited gangsters, or old West gunslingers. Put another way, many Catawissa products are drinks that have little chance of grabbing a very large share of most markets. According to Beverage Digest, a beverage industry trade journal, the Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola companies controlled a 75 percent share of the carbonated soft drink market in 2005, selling over 7.6 billion cases of soda. In the same year the Atlanta-based Monarch Beverage Company, which owned Moxie before selling the brand to Cornucopia in early 2007, commanded a 0.1 percent market share and sold approximately 9.8 million cases of all of its products combined.13 Nonetheless, Catawissa was clearly proud of its own carbonated wares, even if many of its products don’t generate the same eye-popping sales figures as the corporate behemoths that it competes with for shelf space.

The Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England also came through with a shipment of Moxie. The following letter was enclosed:

Dear Mr. Dickinson,

We are well aware of the regional distribution of Moxie and the pride this product instills in Maine. We are also well aware of the problems finding Moxie south of the Mason-Dixon line. Snowbirds commonly complain about missing Moxie during their winter pilgrimages down South.

Enclosed you will find not six cans of Moxie as requested, but twelve cans in a convenient “fridge pack” designed to help better fit in your refrigerator and enjoy this beverage ice cold. In return, we are interested in trying your favorite regional treat—if you want to send the mentioned Goo Goo Clusters, that would be outstanding.

Please let us know what you think of Moxie and thank you for your interest in our hidden gem!

Sincerely,

Justin J. Conroy

Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England

Of course, a good southerner isn’t one to back out on a deal. I had promised an assortment of Tennessee treats and was ready to make good on that promise. In the spirit of regional good will, I sent not one but two boxes of Goo Goo Clusters to the Catawissa staff—one regular (with peanuts) and one “deluxe,” which replaces the peanut with the slightly more upscale pecan. I also enclosed a bag of Golden Flake pork rinds and a postcard of Elvis circa 1970 with full muttonchops, taken during a recording session in Vegas. Finally, the Catawissa folks got Polaroids of myself and two friends—one smiling, and one grimacing in pain after taking a sip of Moxie. To the Coca-Cola Bottling people I sent the same two boxes of Goo Goos and a photo of a young Elvis astride a motorcycle. I had had a change of heart about the pork rinds. They are, after all, pretty unhealthy. I’ll have to hope that the younger, better-looking Elvis made up the difference.



The Tasting

The moment of truth took place on Tuesday, January 23, 2007. At first sip, Moxie is reminiscent of a weak root beer. Not bad, but not memorable either. Then the bitterness takes hold. Like medicine. Like the tar on a telephone pole. Like the sludge at the bottom of the barrel that you’re supposed to just throw away. But Moxie is a complex beast, and once the initial shock wears away, the bitterness mellows, and one is left with a bittersweet taste that isn’t so bad and may even qualify as, dare I say it … pleasant. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, however, I was eager to get a more representative sample than just myself, so I decided to share a little ice-cold Moxie with my friends. Here are a few opinions:

Don: “It was like nothing I have ever sipped before. That says it all. It was OK, but that aftertaste was …” [he trails off here]

Laura: “BLECH!”

Jeff: “Since I was a young man, I’ve tried to live my life the ‘right’ way, set my goals and life expectations on the straight and narrow path. Moxie was not the ‘right’ way.”

Philip: “It’s different, but I didn’t think it was too bitter. I’d definitely buy a case occasionally if they sold it around here.”

Elizabeth: “It was awful. At first, you’re like, this is fine, but then the aftertaste kicks in.”

Matt: “I like the bitterness. It’s good.”

Victoria: “I don’t think I’ll be drinking the rest of this.”

Overall, Moxie wasn’t the biggest hit in my study group, but comparisons with battery acid and railroad ties may not be quite fair either; some of the group, after all, did enjoy it. My final assessment, therefore, is that Moxie is a soda, and, like other sodas, some people like the taste and some people don’t. The cult of Moxie, however, isn’t so much about taste as it is about history and place. In other words, drinking a soda isn’t just about quenching your thirst and getting a caffeine fix. Just as much as an accent, what a person drinks is a badge of identity. For someone raised on it, sipping a Moxie is a symbolic act, a performance of one’s “Maineness.” It’s the Louisianian sucking the head of a crawfish. The debate over the relative merits of Memphis, Texas, and Carolina barbecues. The Tennessean passing on an iced tea in a chain restaurant because it’s not “sweet tea.” I suspect that my trades with these companies were so satisfying because, in addition to swapping Goo Goo for Moxie, sweet for bitter, they were an exchange of two cultures and a recognition that these traditions have an intrinsic value that transcends the monetary values attached to a soda and a candy bar. Paula and Justin had mailed me a small piece of New England, I had offered a taste of my own heritage, and we had found the deal mutually agreeable.

notes

1. http://www.amazon.com/Moxie-Soda/dp/B0002BQLIM (accessed 11 May 2008; not currently posted).

2. http://www.amazon.com/gp/cdp/member-reviews/ARN08JJ0DXOAK (accessed 11 May 2008).

3. Ibid.

4. Paul Lukas, “Surviving By Fizzy Logic,” New York Times, 23 July 2003, at http://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/23/dining/23SODA.html?pagewanted=all (accessed 19 October 2009).

5. Scott Elledge, E.B. White: A Biography (New York: W.W Norton and Co., 1986), viii.

6. Jenn Abelson, “Can A Bitter Taste Find Sweet Life Again?” Boston Globe, http://www.boston.com/business/articles/2007/08/05/can_a_bitter_taste_find_sweet_life_again (accessed 11 May 2008).

7. Personal e-mail correspondence with Justin Conroy, marketing analyst, Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England, Inc., 17 December 2007.

8. Abelson, “Can a Bitter Taste Find Sweet Life Again?”

9. http://www.word-detective.com/111097.html (accessed 11 May 2008).

10. http://www.roadfood.com/Forums/tm.aspx?high=&m=10927&=1#10943 (accessed 19 October 2009).

11. http://www.exoticsoda.com/moxie.html (accessed 19 October 2009).

12. http://www.moxie.info/editoral.htm (accessed 11 May 2008).

13. Beverage Digest 48:7 (8 March 2006), at http://www.beverage-digest.com/pdf/top-10_2006.pdf (accessed 11 May 2008).

3 Responses to Moxie: A Flavor for the Few

  1. Lance King April 1, 2014 at 1:18 pm #

    Thanks for the entertaining tale on your Moxie adventure.

    I’m a New England transplant (New Hampshire), living in east Tennessee. Whenever I drive home to visit, I usually bring back a fair quantity of Moxie to hold me over. Like you, I’ve had multiple people down here taste Moxie and the majority aren’t exactly fans. It’s most definitely an acquired taste, and a piece of my New England heritage that I cherish as a New Englander in the South.

  2. CJ and Ben October 21, 2013 at 9:58 am #

    Thanks for the charming article. We enjoyed hearing about your adventures, and are now craving the chance to sit in rocking chairs on the front porch of the general store, on a crisp Fall day, watching the leaves change color, and listening to the crack of the bat in a late season baseball game, all while enjoying the refreshing taste of Moxie.

    Pork rinds, not so much.

  3. mary June 6, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    mmmmmmoxie! weird but good! ^^

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