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 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, today the memorable soda (or tonic, depending where in New England you’re from) is almost exclusively found in our 6 states.
So what’s the Moxie story? In 1876 Maine-born Dr. Augustin Thompson invented the original Moxie while living in Lowell, Massachusetts 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 after the Food and Drug Act tightened label regulations) 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 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 word meaning energy, pep, and spunk. Vigor, if you like.
Today, many Moxie memorabilia items are considered collectible. In 1969, Yankee devoted an article to Moxie memorabilia as antiques, paying particular attention to the Horsemobile — a life-sized model horse attached to a car and steered from the saddle, touting the joys of Moxie.
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 story shelves, special Moxie collections are on display at the “Moxie Wing” of Matthews Museum of Maine Heritage 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 delights as Moxie’s unofficial ambassador.
While the taste of Moxie 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.
Since 2007, Moxie has been owned by Japan’s Kirin Brewery Company, Ltd., which also owns the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of Northern New England where Moxie is made.
But like it or not, it’s ours, and has been for more than 130 years. Now that’s something to drink to!
Not in New England? Fear not! Moxie (regular, diet, and turbo-charged energy) is available for purchase online via the Moxie website, where you’ll also find historic photos and recipes for Moxie cocktails, Moxie Baked Beans, and Moxie Chocolate Cake.
Here’s to another century of Moxie!
Are you a fan of Moxie?
This post was first published in 2014 and has been updated.