If you’re “from away” you might not like the taste, but for many New Englanders, a long, cold sip of Moxie is a crisp, carbonated reminder of home. If you’ve never tried it, it’s hard to describe the distinct flavor, but like a lot of things in life, people seem to either love it or hate it. I think Moxie soda tastes like a subtle, not-too-sweet blend of wintergreen and licorice, but others…well…they toss around words like medicine, motor oil, and “root beer that’s gone really funky.”
Of course, to drink Moxie you’ve got to be able to find it. While it was once available in more than 30 states and parts of Canada, in recent years the memorable Moxie soda (or tonic, depending where in New England you’re from) has been almost exclusively found in our 6 states. (See update below for information on how this may be changing.)
Moxie Soda History
So what’s the Moxie soda story? In 1876, while living in Lowell, Massachusetts, the Maine-born Dr. Augustin Thompson invented the original Moxie as a concentrated medicine (the name might have been inspired by Moxie Falls or Moxie Pond in Maine, but nobody knows for sure) with ingredients like gentian root, wintergreen, sassafras and possibly even cocaine. In 1884 he decided to add carbonation and re-brand the product “Moxie Nerve Food” which claimed to have “cured drunkards by the thousands, effectively too; made more homes happy; cured more nervous, prostrated, overworked people; prevented more crime and suffering in New England than all other agencies combined” — at 40 cents per quart bottle. By the early 1900s, Moxie (they dropped the “nerve food” in 1906) was the nation’s favorite soft drink, outselling modern-giant Coca-Cola, which first hit the market in 1886.
Wildly popular, Moxie had a lot of imitators, but the brand worked hard to hold onto its title as the original “distinctively different” drink. Imagine a soda claiming it was pure and wholesome for children today? In the 1920s Moxie did!
By the 1940s, Moxie soda was especially known for its advertising gimmicks, giveaways, Ted Williams endorsements, and the signature “pointing” Moxie Boy. The giveaways ran the gamut from posters, bottle openers, and paper fans to sheet music, sets of dishware, and ornate, carved clocks. In fact, Moxie was such a household name that the word “moxie” also entered the lexicon as a word meaning energy, pep, and spunk. Vigor, if you like.
Moxie Soda in New England
While the drink’s national popularity began to decline as tastes evolved and Coca-Cola and Pepsi (which dates back to the 1890s) grew stronger, New Englanders refused to give it up. It’s true that Moxie maintains a core group of loving loyalists throughout the region, but Maine is where Moxie is arguably most beloved. For more than 30 years the town of Lisbon has held a 3-day Moxie Festival the second week in July, celebrating all things Moxie with a clambake, fireworks, cooking contest, parade, book sale, car show, race, and more. The state loves Moxie so much that in 2005 it became the state’s official soft drink.
Beyond grocery store shelves, special Moxie collections are on display at the “Moxie Wing” of Matthews Museum of Maine Heritage in Union, Maine, and Clark’s Trading Post in Lincoln, New Hampshire (where the world’s only surviving original Moxie Horsemobile is on display), not to mention for sale at places like Zeb’s General Store in North Conway, Hampshire and the Kennebec Fruit Co. in Lisbon Falls, Maine, where owner Frank Anicetti delighted as Moxie’s unofficial ambassador for decades. Sadly, Frank passed away in May 2017.
While the taste of Moxie soda is memorably distinct, there are many who point out that if you’re trying it now for the first time, you’re still not getting the “original” Moxie experience. They say it’s not as carbonated as it used to be, or as bitter (which is a bad thing). This could be changing palates or the loss of sassafras (federally banned in 1960 as a potential carcinogen), but it could also be the high fructose corn syrup instead of sugar.
But like it or not, it’s ours and has been for more than 130 years. Now that’s something to drink to!
Here’s to another century of Moxie!
Are you a fan of Moxie soda?
Moxie Soda Update
On August 28, 2018, The Coca-Cola Company announced that it was buying Moxie. For the time being, though, the brand will remain New England-centric. Or, at the very least, it will remain as genuinely “New England” as it has been in recent years. This gets complicated, so bear with us for a few moments: Since 2007, Moxie had been owned by Bedford, NH-based Cornucopia Beverages, who, starting in 2011, also did business as the Moxie Beverage Company. Cornucopia is owned by Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England (not directly affiliated with The Coca-Cola Company), which is a subsidiary of Kirin Brewing Company, whose parent company, Tokyo-based Kirin Holdings Company, Limited, is part of the Mitsubishi business group. So large corporate ownership is nothing new for Moxie. And to their credit, Coke’s early statements about their new acquisition emphasize the importance of Moxie’s regional footprint, and confirm that the brand’s production and bottling operations will remain in New Hampshire for the foreseeable future.
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.