Make Mine Moxie
By Danny Schlozman.
Like many Moxie drinkers, my experience began with The Look. That is, I took a sip of the oldest continually marketed carbonated beverage in the known universe, and made a face. As the taste lingered on the tongue, I decided that, rumors to the contrary, the stuff wasn’t so bad. A few swigs later, I even began to like it. By the time I had reached the end of the can, I knew that this bizarre habit would be a tough one to kick.
I learned to drink Moxie at summer camp, the kind of dissident institution where cult classics like these keep their following. I keep it in my refrigerator all year round and, when I leave New England, I take some of the thick soda to soothe me through the hard times.
Moxie looks like tar and is only a bit less viscous. Even among aficionados, however, the taste remains a matter of debate. Most who try the beverage give The Look and assume a close connection between Moxie and motor oil; the rest of us search for words to describe the ultimate acquired taste. Much like a fine Burgundy, the experience of drinking Moxie involves an array of tastes and sensations in short succession and varying proportions, depending on variables like age, temperature, and time since opening. That said, here’s my attempt to distill Moxie into words: initially, the sarsaparilla tones come to the fore, although not quite so strongly as in root beer—one might claim a resemblance with ginger ale. As these flavors recede, vaguely fruity flavors (think cough syrup, say the detractors) combine with an overtone of wintergreen to produce a spicy mouth-feel. Finally comes the vaunted aftertaste, powerfully bitter with a hint of cinnamon and a touch of nutmeg. The key ingredient is gentian root, used for centuries as a medicinal herb—and in making bitters for mixed drinks. In the words of E.B. White, "Moxie contains gentian root, which is the path to the good life."
Moxie, therefore, is a bittersweet beverage quite unlike the super-carbonated, sticky-sweet, and utterly predictable soft drinks that dominate the market nowadays. As such, it demands much: the synonym for gumption derives from the beverage, because it takes moxie to drink Moxie. It is also a New England tradition of some renown, an idiosyncratic institution that serves as evidence for certain people’s crazy taste buds—and as a model for pure and joyous dedication. Moxie, I maintain, points the way to the good life in a free society.
For the billions and billions who do not yet know the star-crossed tale, Moxie began in 1876 as a patent medicine. An itinerant pharmacist, Civil War veteran, and native Mainer named Augustin Thompson concocted "Moxie Nerve Food" and sold it over the counter in Lowell, Mass. Eight years later, he began to distribute the stuff across New England, promoting his tonic as the cure for ailments ranging from "dullness of the brain" to hair loss.
When the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 put an end to these claims (which might explain the occurrence of so many dull brains during the past century), Moxie had to reinvent itself. Frank Archer, its brilliant adman, made virtue of necessity and claimed that drinking "the distinctive beverage for those of discerning taste" showed refinement and culture. "Learn to love Moxie," enjoined the promotions. Archer came up with other gimmicks fit for that innocent age: vast Moxie bottles at seaside amusement parks; Moxie cars designed to look like horses that drove through small towns; Moxie collectibles from china to postcards. By the time of the First World War, Moxie had become the best-selling soda in the nation.
After the war, however, Moxie tried unsuccessfully to corner the sugar market, and an upstart company out of Atlanta, whose product may once have been laced with cocaine, took the top spot. The long decline had begun. Although Ted Williams promoted the beverage relentlessly in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the age of Moxie had passed. After an ill-fated reformulation in the late ‘60s, Moxie nearly disappeared from the market. The Moxie Company folded into the Monarch Company, a family business also in Atlanta whose other brands include such favorites as NuGrape, Flavette, Dr. Wells, and Bubble Up.
Fans nowadays can find Moxie if they look—but it’s not always easy. Every convenience store in every fishing village and logging hamlet in Maine sells the stuff, as do many supermarkets in the rest of New England. In Harvard Square, Toscanini’s carries 20-ounce bottles—although aficionados swear by cans. In the rest of the world, supplies are limited to a few specialty soda shops and mail order outlets.
The unique taste and the long history begin to explain why Moxie is more than just a soda (or a tonic, as real New Englanders say), but a potable celebration of the New England character. The values of Moxie, if one can use such a portentous phrase, transcend the bittersweet concoction inside the bright orange can. As a friend of mine said, "I love the idea of Moxie; it’s just that I hate Moxie."
Although Moxie reached most of the country at its peak—Frank Potter, who wrote several books of Moxie history, has lived all his 90 years in Paducah, Kentucky—its roots remain in New England. The hard-to-love taste of Moxie meets its match in the famously taciturn Yankees who live upcountry. I cannot resist a story here: when Warren Harding died in 1923, his Vice President, Calvin Coolidge, was at the family farm in Vermont bailing hay. The telegraph messenger arrived at 2:00 a.m. with the news, and old John Coolidge, a justice of the peace, swore in his son as President of the United States. They toasted the event with Moxie. So, too, the decline of Moxie parallels America’s abandonment of its Puritan institutions and its hedonistic rush to the frontier. The Boston Red Sox and Moxie share more than Ted Williams.
In a broader sense, though, the nostalgia for Moxie harkens back to the essential goodness in American life, without touching on all its incumbent evils. The deep-seated racism and sexism of that halcyon age vanish from view. Rather, the era of Moxie reminds us of simple pleasures like watching Moxie-mobiles with horses drive into town or listening to "Just Make It Moxie for Mine" playing on the 78-speed phonograph. It transports us to a time when unabashed silliness and corniness could survive without the sex, power, and irony that products sell nowadays.
This wider sense of affirmation amid dislocation, rather than a specific love for the drink, probably explains the passionate devotion from loyal Moxieheads. Every July, 25,000 people descend on Lisbon Falls, Maine, for the Moxie Days parade complete with Moxie floats, booths of Moxie memorabilia, Moxie ice cream, and Moxie cake with Moxie frosting. The next day, the formal keepers of the flame—the Monarch Company not having advertised the beverage in decades—convene at the annual meeting of the New England Moxie Congress. For ten dollars per year, you, too, can join the Congress, which meets at the Seashore Trolley Museum—itself an amiable jungle of rusting nostalgia. Every quarter, the Congress sends out the heartwarmingly amateurish Nerve Food News. The Fall 2001 issue includes a poem from 1941 entitled "Moxie Again," with stanza after stanza of unmetered drivel: "When the weather’s/ Dull and wet/ Moxie’ll brighten/ Things you bet," ad nauseam. Other items have included pictures of Congress delegates holding Moxie bottles at famous sites (Ayers Rock, Eiffel Tower), and announcements of Moxie tastings at town fairs. One correspondent cheerily reported that "I gave out over eighty cups of Moxie, and eleven people liked it." For the past year, however, the Congress has focused on the struggle to preserve a 33-foot-tall Moxie bottle outside of Manchester, N.H. The bottle has been moved to Union, Maine, the birthplace of Augustin Thompson, but still needs investment for renovation. In tune with the spirit of Moxie, the NEMC asks for $25 donations.
In the end, all this talk dances around the essential goodness of this venerable drink. Naomi Klein has recently caused a stir in arguing that brands have overtaken our lives (the implied "we" being the few with the resources to choose among name brands) and denied us any real freedom. To drink Moxie, I counter, reaffirms Americans’ fundamental freedoms to associate—and not to associate. The Moxie subculture—the people who find me on the street when I wear my orange Moxie t-shirt or who make wisecracks in the supermarket as I stoop to the bottom shelf of the tonic aisle—proves that there is an alternative to the meaningless choices in Klein’s world. Conformism is deadening. Rebellion can follow equally formulaic paths—just ask the kids in the Pit on Saturday afternoons. Moxie resolutely avoids each peril. People can’t even agree what the stuff tastes like.
So while I hesitate to prescribe any soft drink, even an uncommonly tasty one, as the tonic for all social ills, I resolutely praise the virtues of Moxie in these trying times. It demands fortitude and strength. It mixes the bitter and the sweet. It makes people happy without any cost except, perhaps, the occasional cavity. This argument is not politics through the back door. I would have voted against Calvin Coolidge. I have no idea what Frank Potter thinks about Afghanistan. I am not so deluded as to believe that Moxie will clean the air or house the homeless. The point here is about private pursuits of happiness, about Americans’ individual uses of the freedom to choose their own ends.
In a sense, then, the New England Moxie Congress slogan, "Think Moxie. Drink Moxie," might get the story backwards. Every year, the United States produces about ten billion gallons of soda, 5.6 million gallons of which is Moxie. Love it though we happy few do, Moxie will not jump from cult favorite to popular pop anytime soon. Yet the joyous eccentricity of Moxie, and the passionate devotion of the Moxieheads, just might serve as some kind of antidote to the world’s worries. Find the Moxie for your life. Drink Moxie. Think Moxie.