New Orleans Retro Soda During a recent meal at Zea Rotisserie and Brewery in the Clearview Shopping Center, the waitress offered us home-brewed root beer or the specialty soda of the week, blueberry. Wow, not only does Zea brew its own beer, but the restaurant also makes its own soda pop in a variety of flavors. The blueberry was sweet and bubbly, excellent.
Then, on a trip to Santa Barbara, Calif., I discovered Plaza Deli, a store that stocks and sells old-school soda pops. There were all those lost sodas of my youth, made with real sugar (not flavor-crushing corn syrup) in a rainbow of zany bright colors and a million flavors and in retro-style glass bottles whose originals are collectibles. Plaza Deli stocks about 600 sodas. Owner Larry Leninger says that retro soda pop is wildly popular right now.
When I asked whether he has a favorite, Leninger had this to say. “There are so many flavors, it depends on my mood and the time of day … but the best root beer, my personal favorite, is without a doubt Abita Root Beer.” Abita Root Beer? I was floored – and proud. With all the root beers to choose from, this soda aficionado says our home-grown root beer is his favorite. I also asked him whether he had tried any other Louisiana sodas, but he didn’t know of any. I thought of Big Shot and Dr. Nut, even though Dr. Nut is long gone, and then I remembered something from the days of K&B, and I got the rare treat of turning an expert on to a “find” straight from home – the recently relaunched New Orleans Nectar Soda. Those who have been here awhile or are young enough at heart to remember will recall the distinctive flavor of Nectar Soda. The name “nectar” is from the Greek word meaning “a sweet drink of the gods,” and the soda has an ambrosia-like flavor of vanilla and almond.
In the late 1800s, pharmacists were known as “druggists.” These druggists concocted recipes for medicines, lotions, tonics, powders and even beverages. Local druggist I.L. Lyons is credited with having created the Nectar Soda syrup recipe that became the specialty soda of corner drugstores and soda fountains, most notably K&B.
New Orleans Nectar was originally produced as syrup to make cream soda or ice cream soda. This popular flavor was served at soda fountain counters through the 1950s and then sadly lost to time.
Fast-forward to 1999, when local businesswoman Susan Dunham was leafing through her grandmother’s recipes and came upon a handwritten recipe for Nectar Soda that had been given to her by I.L. Lyons’ wife. Dunham decided to bring back this almost forgotten soda flavor. With the blessings of the former proprietors of the syrup, soda and recipe, she set out to find a bottler and eventually wound up in Chicago, where there were too many issues with local bottling companies.
Five years later and a lot savvier, Dunham has made a few changes that could make a difference. New Orleans Nectar Soda, both the syrup and soda pop, were first bottled in amber glass to protect the color and flavor. And the soda was only available in singles or by the case. At long last there is a new clear bottle (to show off the beautiful, reddish-pink color), a new label declaring New Orleans Nectar Soda as “Mardi Gras in your Mouth,” a new diet version made with Splenda and a six-pack. Best of all, the sodas and a home-size version of the syrup are available all over metro New Orleans, including the Northshore, Houma and Hammond, in groceries, select restaurants and ice cream soda fountains, too. The soda’s biggest vendors are grocers and Ye Olde College Inn, which serves a great New Orleans Nectar ice cream soda, perfect with a chicken-fried-steak poor-boy.
New Orleans Nectar Soda is great on its own as a drink, but the syrup is amazingly versatile. It works well as a flavoring for homemade ice cream, as an ice cream topping and as a cocktail mixer. Try using the syrup to flavor cakes or icing – it tastes great, and the color is gorgeous, too!
New Orleans Nectar Soda is poised to be the next big soda ... again.
NEW ORLEANS NECTAR SODA
1 ounce Nectar Soda Syrup
5 ounces club soda or seltzer
Mix ingredients together. Serves 1.
For a New Orleans Nectar cream soda, add 1 ounce cream or half-and-half to the soda recipe.
PINK PARTY PUNCH
6 ounces Nectar Soda Syrup
1 pint vanilla ice cream or frozen yogurt
1 liter cold soda or seltzer water
Mix ingredients together in punch bowl. Makes 10 6-ounce servings.
NEW ORLEANS NECTAR DAIQUIRI
Vanilla-flavored rum or vodka may be substituted for the plain version.
3 ounces Nectar Soda Syrup
2 ounces half-and-half or heavy cream
1 ounce rum or vodka
1 1/2 cups ice cubes
Mix all ingredients together in a blender until smooth. Makes 2 6-ounce drinks and keeps well in the freezer.
NEW ORLEANS NECTAR ICE CREAM
For this recipe you may want to experiment with the amount of sugar to suit your taste.
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1 cup Nectar Soda Syrup
8 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
In a heavy saucepan bring whole milk and heavy cream to a boil, reduce to a simmer and then remove from heat. Stir in Nectar Soda Syrup and put the milk mixture to the side. In a separate bowl, whisk egg yolks with sugar until smooth. Return the milk mixture to heat and bring to a simmer again, slowly whisking in the egg yolk mixture. Strain the combined mixture through a fine-mesh sieve and cool. Process according to your ice cream maker’s instructions. Makes 1 quart.
This article appears in the October 2004 issue of New Orleans Magazine