By John Thorne
If you’re not doing anything else today, you might consider driving to Waldoboro, Maine, to help celebrate Moxie Day. The Moxiemobile will be there and other Moxie-intensive excitements, plus free samples of that beverage for everyone. Despite the fact that, before the Great Depression (I mean the earlier one), Moxie was America’s bestselling soft drink (okay, I don’t believe it either, but it does seem to be a fact), most people south of the Maine border have never heard of the drink, and the few who have, more than not, have refused to sample it again. Among them I count my doctor, who favors diet Dr Pepper, a drink which in any form should never have been allowed to cross the Mason-Dixon Line. (We already have it in New England; we call it cough syrup). When I suggested he might try diet Moxie, he reacted as though I had suggested he sip iced sewage.
Moxie’s popularity in Maine is genuine. Checking online to confirm the Waldoboro event, I discovered that there are other Moxie Day celebrations in Maine this summer — in Lisbon Falls, Kennebunkport, and Union. I mention this only in passing, since my interest is in the beverage, not the “famous” Moxiemobile, Moxie memorabilia, or even Moxie ice cream. Even so, that these things actually exist gives me that comforting feeling you have when you discover you’re not alone.
This is because I have never personally known anyone else who drinks Moxie, and only a few who have tasted it. Before I moved to Maine, when I visited my parents there, I would always stop at the nearest Shop & Save and load up the trunk with bottles of Moxie and cans of State-of-Maine baked soldier beans, although there were many more of the former than the latter. Any fool can make a pot of first-rate baked beans if he puts his mind to it. But Moxie is on a whole other plane.
This isn’t to say that Moxie is universally quaffed in Vacationland. For one thing, many who live there are originally from “away.” When my mother had a stroke while living in a retirement community in Belfast, I struck up an acquaintance with one of her caretakers, a woman who had moved from Massachusetts to Maine twenty years before. She had never tasted Moxie. Since I’d bought a bottle for my own consumption, I persuaded her try some and gave it to her in a glass full of cracked ice (the ideal way to drink it; a wedge of lime doesn’t hurt, either). She took a sip, thought for a moment, took another sip, then set the glass down and remarked, “Well, that was an experience.”
Moxie and I go back so far that I don’t remember when I first tried it, but there was no learning experience involved. I loved it from the start. Moxie’s defining ingredient is extractives of gentian root. One of the definitions for “gentian” in my dictionary is “a tonic liquor ….” When I was growing up, “tonic” was the word for soda in my part of New England, and I still heard it being used in Maine, many years later, when I moved there. (“Sody” was a popular alternative.)
Of course, many of the older patented sodas were tonics and nothing else, offered as curatives rather than refreshments. Coca Cola, for example, promised to tackle “morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence.” Moxie was intended as a “nerve food”; its creator, Dr. Augustin Thompson, prescribed it for “paralysis, softening of the brain, nervousness, and insomnia.” If you drank a glass of Coca Cola in the morning and one of Moxie in the evening, you had your bases pretty covered.
Unlike Coke, Moxie still tastes of its origins. It has a refreshingly sharp and bitter edge that has the added advantage, if this sort of thing interests you, of entirely masking the taste of the artificial sweetener in the diet version — the only soda, apart from diet quinine water (which I also enjoy), that does so. I’ve always been attracted to root beer, especially when it is made from genuine botanicals. Of this ilk, Virgil’s Root Beer is the best of the best, but, even so, it is sweet first, rooty second — which is to say, it has gotten too popular for its own good.
In later installments, I’ll have more to say about my pursuit of bitter-edged sodies. But for now, make mine Moxie.
Copyright © John Thorne 2010