Plenty of Moxie

Last modified: 7/9/2010 12:00:00 AM
 As Maine marks Moxie with a festival, we throw our own party for the distinctive soda

Mainers celebrate the ruggedly flavorful Moxie soft drink this weekend with an annual festival. While the state has named Moxie its official soda, that's no reason to leave New Hampshire out of the fun.

After all, three-quarters of Moxie sold is bottled in Londonderry. And the brand is owned by Cornucopia Beverages of Bedford. We have just as much right to laud (or condemn) the uniquely New England beverage as our lobster-loving neighbors to the east.

Join us, then, for the Friday page's celebration of all things Moxie. We'll debate its bitter flavor. We'll show its connection to local politics (well, to one local politician, anyway). And we'll toss out facts aplenty about this iconic refreshment.

 That taste

Features section editor Sarah Earle agreed to weigh in on Moxie's most controversial aspect: that flavor. My response follows.

Sarah's take: I like the idea of Moxie. The name leads you to believe you're getting the soft drink equivalent of a three-alarm chili or a double espresso, something feisty and confrontational and a little Eastwood-esque. But tasting the stuff is like meeting a notorious mobster and finding out he's a pasty-skinned martial arts school drop-out who makes pleasant small talk with you and then kicks you in the kidneys as you turn to leave.

At first sip, it's like root beer without the right sweetness or bite, and you find yourself slurping up more in a futile attempt to experience that familiar soda shop taste. Alas, no amount of sipping and visualizing quite gets you there.

And then the aftertaste hits. You put your glass down, you shake your head and sigh and return to the task at hand, and there it is - bitter and metallic and insistent, like something your mother would have made you drink to ward off rickets. It sets up shop in your mouth and won't go away until you stuff something else in there.

I can appreciate the kitschy, quirky appeal of this classic concoction (the artificial ingredients on its orange label notwithstanding). Just don't ask me to actually drink it.

Clay's rebuttal: Until a month or so ago, I had no conception that the spirit of our region was bottled and sold as soda. The region? New England. The soda? Moxie. I've become a dedicated convert, but it took some effort.

The experience of drinking Moxie, for a first-timer, consists of four distinct steps.

1. Actually finding the stuff. You won't find Moxie in Target. You might not even find it at your favorite convenience store. You have to go deep into the soda aisle at the supermarket, near the generic brands, to find the distinctive orange Moxie bottle.

2. Taking the first sip. You'll experience a taste much like black licorice. "Hey," you'll say. "This isn't so bad."

3. Taking the first swallow. Something begins to seem amiss. The taste of Moxie doesn't flatten and simplify, urging you to quickly drink more. Instead it grows more complex, nuanced, deeper and darker. "That's odd," you think.

4. Experiencing the aftertaste. Moxie fully flowers some 10 seconds after the first swallow. The root beer flavor has passed. A peculiar bitterness spreads throughout your mouth, apparently the result of "gentian root extractives."

The taste of Moxie is, in essence, the taste of New England. Not Massachusetts-idyllic New England, but of the rural states in the region, places like New Hampshire. Places defined by craggy rock outcroppings and craggy, independent spirits.

You could find more palatable beverages. And you could visit the South and meet people who, on the outside, seem a bit more personable.

But where else will you find the fierce individualism, fervent love of community and fevered dedication to peculiar tradition? You find that in the Northeast. And you find it in our soda.

You find it in Moxie.

 Moxie facts

•Invented in Lowell, Mass., in 1876 by Dr. Augustin Thompson as "Moxie Nerve Food," a patent medicine. A few years later, he reformulated the elixir as a soda fountain drink.

Even in its glory days, the minds behind Moxie knew that the flavor needed some defense or explanation. Early slogans included: "Learn to drink Moxie" and "It's the drink for those who are at all particular."

Moxie outsold the much sweeter Coca-Cola in 1920. In 1925, the company sold 25 million cases of the stuff. In 2006, only 450,000 cases were sold.

Hard times hit Moxie as more palatable soft drinks caught on. After World War II, high sugar prices hit the company, and it retreated to its stronghold in the Northeast.

Thompson was born in Union, Maine, so the state claims a special affinity for the soda. It was chosen the state's official soft drink in 2005.

The brand is owned by Bedford's Cornucopia Beverage, a division of the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England. On a less local note, the bottling company is owned by Kirin Brewery Company, a Japanese beer-maker.

Regular Moxie not good enough? A sugar-free version is available, as are a range of energy drinks using the Moxie name (if not the distinctive flavor).

 Political appeal

Tom Watman's trusty can of Moxie is a frequent companion at public hearings and town events in Henniker. He even devoted a recent column in the Villager weekly newspaper ("Watman's World" is his regular feature) to the Maine cola, which was a favorite drink of another New England politician, former president Calvin Coolidge.

We spoke with Watman, a member of Henniker's board of selectmen, about his favorite soda.

When were you first introduced to Moxie? Jeez, I had to be maybe 9 or 10 years old. That's 50 or 60 years ago. . . . It was really at my grandparents' . . . they always seemed to be drinking Moxie. And when I was a kid, they'd give me Moxie mixed with milk, and they'd tell me, when I was older, I could have the real stuff.

Look, I've tasted Moxie. Really, what's the appeal? I'm sitting here right now and I'm drinking Moxie. . . . We always have a big pack of it in the refrigerator. It's my drink of preference. For me, personally, I think it's because it isn't very sugary, but it still has a bit of a kick to it, which a lot of other drinks don't have it.

How much do you drink a week? I probably drink a couple of cans a day, to the point where, a while back you couldn't find Moxie in Henniker very easily without buying a whole 12-pack, and I convinced the people at Henniker Pharmacy (4 Bridge St.) that they ought to try putting some Moxie in their freezer, which they did. So to encourage them, I try to have one of my Moxies every evening at the pharmacy. . . .

At one point in time, when Henniker Pharmacy had a counter, a bunch of John Stark (Regional High School) hockey players were sitting at the counter with me and I was drinking a Moxie and they were giving me a hard time . . . so I challenged them, five or six of them, to see which of them could drink a whole glass. And none of them could.

So you're something of a Moxie evangelist? Well, I always tell people, if they haven't had one, they should have one and try it two or three times before you make a judgment, because I think, for most people, it's not something that you're going to jump for joy the first time you try it. . . . I guess it's not for everyone.

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