When you think of taking a sip of something sweet and thirst-quenching in New Orleans, you usually think of imbibing something alcoholic. However, there’s another type of beverage that has its own place in the annals of NOLA history. Carbonated drinks can be delightful and refreshing, and they can be enjoyed by people of all ages. Locals have been enjoying fizzy drinks for many years, and the tradition is only growing stronger.
Carbonated water first came about in the mid-1700s when Englishman Joseph Priestly positioned a bowl of water in a beer vat, which infused the water with carbon dioxide. In 1772, Priestly published a scientific paper entitled “Impregnating Water with Fixed Air” that explained how to drop sulfuric acid onto chalk to produce CO2 gas that one would dissolve into still water to create soda water.
His method was refined by scientists over the decades, and the bubbly water became popular in pharmacies, where medicine makers mixed it with bitter, unpalatable medications or sold it mixed with herbs, juice, or wine because it was considered to be healthy.
Though soda water was created in Europe, the beverage became huge in America in the 1800s. Pharmacies and apothecaries were the biggest suppliers of sodas. As soda fountains became fixtures in corner shops, they became more of a gathering place where sweet, non-medicinal drinks were dispensed. You can see a soda fountain made in 1855 from the glory days of house-made sodas at the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum on Chartres Street.
In New Orleans, soda fountain owners either made their own flavors or purchased flavored syrups from suppliers. Civil War veteran Isaac Lyons went into the pharmaceutical supply business in 1866. In the 1880s, he created a sweet pink syrup called “nectar” that he sold to soda fountain owners for their soda water. The vanilla-almond flavored syrup became a staple of local fountains, especially at the K&B soda fountains, and it became a bottled soda over the next few decades.
Nectar Soda was briefly revived in the 1990s and 2000s because of the patronage of Susan Dunham, but it stopped being produced again when she passed away in 2012. Times Picayune food columnist Myriam Guidroz figured out the recipe, however, and she published it so that her readers could make it at home. Boil 2 cups of sugar and 1 cup of water until the sugar is dissolved. Cool it and add 1 large can of evaporated milk (not condensed), 1 tablespoon vanilla extract, 1 tablespoon of almond extract, and a few drops of red food coloring. Keep it refrigerated once it’s done.
Though Dr. Pepper is the oldest major soft drink in America, Barq’s Root Beer was started just five years later. Edward Charles Edmond Barq, Sr., was born in New Orleans in 1871. He and his older brother Gaston got into the soda business in 1890 when they founded the Barq Brothers Bottling Co. in the French Quarter. They sold many flavors of soda, and their Orangine flavor won a gold medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.
After Edward got married in 1897, he moved to Biloxi, MS, and he founded Biloxi Artesian Bottling Works.
It was in Biloxi that Barq’s root beer was created and sold. Edward employed a young man named Jesse Robinson, and the two men grew so close that Edward shared the rights of Barq’s with him. Jesse moved to New Orleans and began making and marketing his own brand of Barq’s root beer. Edward’s Biloxi-made Barq’s had a blue label, and Jesse’s New Orleans-made Barq’s had a red label. Though there was tension between the two businesses as new generations of family members battled over the rights to Barq’s, the company was sold to Coca-Cola in 2000.
Big Shot Soda can be found on store shelves throughout metro New Orleans. The colorful, fruity sodas, with flavors like Red Crème, Pineapple, Peach, and Watermelon, have been a local staple since 1935, but not much is known about their history. Big Shot Soda was founded by Paillet Industries, which owned several ice suppliers around New Orleans. Big Shot Soda was purchased by National Beverage Corp. in the 1990s, and they’ve continued to manufacture the beverage in a warehouse in Harahan ever since.
Though soda fountains aren’t around anymore, several businesses are happy to keep up the tradition of creating their own sodas. Bar Tonique creates several specialty sodas that are non-alcoholic and highly flavorful. The Celery Soda and Angostura Phosphate Soda will make you feel as though you’re imbibing the fanciest and most complex of cocktails without the booze. Dat Dog offers several sweet house-made sodas that pair perfectly with their savory gourmet hot dogs.
You can also taste local sodas when you sip on one of Fest Cola's or Swamp Pop’s sweet sodas. Lafayette-based cousins John Petersen and Collin Cormier created their Swamp Pop sodas using Louisiana sugarcane. The pretty pink Ponchatoula Pop Rouge and the Satsuma Fizz are my personal favorites of their six flavors. Roy and Ashley Nelson also make their sodas with sugarcane, but they encourage their adult drinkers to try out their Fest Colas mixed with their favorite liquor. One of their suggested cocktails is mixing their Bourbon Cream Soda with Maker’s Mark.
Take a sip of something sweet, fizzy, and fun while supporting local business!