After more than 150 years, the great American soda fountain still inspires
To sip a Pink Poodle is to experience serious liquid seduction: to fall in love with the magnolia gleam in the fluted glass, the pretty fizz that tickles your nose, the burst of floral sweetness that trips across your tongue. Perched on the edge of a burnished chrome stool at the Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, I’ve temporarily traded swizzle sticks for straws and martinis for malteds—all in the hope of better understanding a beloved, if increasingly endangered, American icon: the soda fountain.
Peter Freeman is my local soda jerk, and the Pink Poodle is one of his original creations—a riff on the soda float, carefully composed of small-batch hibiscus syrup, a coarse stream of carbonated water straight from a gleaming wall-mounted spigot, and top-hatted with a tight white scoop of vanilla ice cream. In its restrained balance of sweet and tart, carbonated and creamy, the Poodle harks back to the glory days of the American fountain, when complex drinks rooted in botanicals, bitters, and fresh fruits were seen as emblems of a soda jerk’s inventiveness, not a vehicle for corn syrup and artificial coloring.
The building where we’re sitting, on a quiet corner on the fringes of brownstone Brooklyn, has housed a drugstore continuously since 1890—though this incarnation was christened only last summer. Becoming a soda jerk at age 33 hadn’t always been part of Freeman’s plan, but he has taken to the role with passion, tinkering with recipes, stocking the bar with period glassware, scouring old pharmacy manuals for inspiration, and hunting for local ingredients to spotlight in the shop. And, happily, the community has responded to him and his anachronistic concoctions with enthusiasm.
“Families come in, sit at the counter, and know your name. And it does make you feel like you’re serving a purpose,” he says, flashing a sideways grin. “I don’t know when this kind of place became old school. It just seems like the way things should be.”
While the phrase “soda fountain” may conjure up a midcentury malt shop tableau—part Archie comic, part Happy Days—the roots of the American soda fountain run much deeper, and much darker. Carbonated water has been prized for its curative power for millennia, but commercial fountains, which claimed to artificially reproduce the benefits of spring waters, didn’t become widespread until the first quarter of the 19th century—and then were marketed primarily for their medicinal, not pleasure-giving, properties. In fact, it was because of soda water’s perceived therapeutic benefits that fountains ended up in drugstores.
It would be almost impossible to overstate the popularity of the soda fountain during its turn-of-the-century heyday: By the end of the 1800s, most U.S. towns contained at least one soda fountain (New York City alone is estimated to have had more than 670), and by 1920 their ranks had swelled to 125,000.
Savvy pharmacists began to realize that they could set their drinks apart by dressing up plain soda with a spritz of flavored syrup, a spoonful of fruit, or a dose of bitters. Owners guarded the proprietary recipes for their popular drinks fiercely to keep patrons coming back.
Of course, creating a craving for your fountain’s drinks was simple if you had addictive drugs at your disposal. In the early, unregulated days of the soda trade, pharmacists drew upon a shocking roster of additives, including strychnine, radium, morphine, heroin, cannabis, and cocaine, not to mention a hefty dose of booze. What’s more, because such “tonics” were untaxed, they could be sold much more cheaply than a jigger of gin. As temperance reform gathered speed, soda fountains became the refuge of folks looking for a fix without the stigma of the saloon. And when the passage of Prohibition put scores of bartenders out of work, many moved into positions behind pharmacy pumps.
After World War II, America’s increasingly suburban, car-obsessed culture began to abandon the local fountain for the novelty of drive-thrus and fast-food chains. The rise of mass-marketed bottled pop in the 1950s and 1960s eventually put fountains on the endangered species list, and today it’s estimated that fewer than 125 traditional soda fountains remain in the entire country.
Can an industry so defined by the past have an innovative future? If Darcy O’Neil, the bartender and blogger behind the website Art of Drink, has a say, phosphates, lactarts, and other fountain drinks may soon enjoy a revival. After growing frustrated trying to find a source of old fountain ingredients, he decided to draw on his training as a chemist and make his own. Now, operating under the moniker Extinct Chemical Company, O’Neil sells his mixtures to drink mixers all over the country, including Eben Freeman, the cocktail mastermind for the Altamarea restaurant group in New York. “It’s exciting—lactart seems to boost a drink, bringing out the character and flavors the way salt can in food,” says Freeman.
For Eric and Ryan Berley, the brothers behind the Franklin Fountain—a meticulously rebuilt turn-of-the-century fountain in Philadelphia that is frequented by locals and food cognoscenti alike—the future of fountains is a question that is answered every day. The Franklin Fountain takes authenticity seriously: Behind the counter, the jerks sport crisp white period clothes and the menu is free of flavors that wouldn’t appeal to an Edwardian.
“We were pretty surprised when we started looking into old fountain recipes to see how dramatically tastes changed over time, how popular raw egg drinks used to be, and how little people seemed to care about chocolate,” says Eric. “People in the industry definitely thought we were crazy to be so faithful to the past.”
Still, the brothers Berley like to think of their approach as an homage to the golden era of the soda fountain, not a performance piece. Thus, some allowances have been made: Exotic offerings, like the Japanese Thirst Killer Phosphate—a blended soda of orgeat and grape syrups, Angostura bitters, and phosphate—are balanced by more approachable options, like the Cherry Bomb, a scoop of homemade chocolate ice cream floated in cherry soda. “At the end of the day, we’re just regular people, trying to run a business and make a good product,” says Ryan.
Indeed, in the end, the survival of the American soda fountain might balance on an idea as simple as that: demand for a high-quality product. After all, over the past decade, we’ve witnessed another remarkable renaissance: the resurrection of the cocktail. Drinkers who once settled for Seagram’s and Sprite now brew their own bitters and barrel-age Negronis. Shouldn’t it stand to reason that eventually they’ll insist on better sodas, too?
Until then, soda fountain maestros carry the torch. We’re lucky to have these ambassadors of deliciousness, repositories of history, and touchstones of their community. Peter Freeman’s mother sums it up well: “Some moms say, ‘Look at my son the lawyer, my son the doctor.’ I’m proud to say, ‘My son the jerk.’ ”
Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York; her work has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, and other publications. Excerpted from Imbibe, a Portland-based magazine celebrating the people, places, flavors, and cultures of drinks.www.imbibemagazine.com