I’m kind of a jerk sometimes.

Now, stop nodding your heads in approval; I am referring to the legacy that modern bartending owes to the soda shops of yore.

The impetus for writing about soda jerks is the book Fix the Pumps by Darcy O’Neil, from which much of this column’s content is distilled. This is a book I initially encountered at my first “real” craft cocktail gig, but I kind of ignored it in favor of the boozier tomes. It looked neat, but it was about soda. I mean, whatever.

I recently purchased the book for myself, wondering if perhaps I didn’t give it its proper due. It turns out that it had a lot more to offer than just arcane syrup recipes with ungoogleable ingredients. (What the dickens is arac de goa?! I’m guessing it’s some distilled palm-sugar hooch from Goa, India, but good luck finding it.)

The history of the soda shop is actually a lot more interesting (and ribald) than I’d imagined. For instance, the “cant,” or verbiage, of the soda shop is fascinating, especially for a language nerd like me. (It reminds me a bit of Polari, the secret language used by London’s gay men to avoid arrest under England’s draconic laws against homosexuality.) Nearly every word is a code. There’s, of course, the “86,” which we still use in the service industry to mean someone is banned from the bar, or more often, that we’re out of something. But do you know what an “eighty seven and a half” is? Much like “I gotta go fix the pumps,” it means there is an attractive woman worth taking an extra look at—the former for her sitting position, the latter for her “endowments.” (I told you this would be ribald!) Bartenders use different phrases today, but the meaning is pretty much the same.

Some other highlights are “make it virtuous,” for a cherry-flavored Coke; “twist it, choke it, make it cackle” for a chocolate malted milk with an egg; and a “Noah’s boy with Murphy carrying a wreath” for ham and potatoes on cabbage. I was also tickled to see that they used “in the weeds” back then, which is something I have said far too many times in my life when overwhelmed with orders.

The soda life, however, wasn’t just about codewords and attractive girls. It was also about drugs. I’ll bet you had no idea this column was gonna get so naughty! Much like the earliest cocktails, soda started with the legal definition of medicine. In the 19th century, it was no unusual thing at all to get yourself an “eye-opener” or “bracer”—or two—at the pharmacist in the morning, especially on the way to work. Without cars and heavy machinery to worry about, while one was in good company of other men of the “sporting type,” being intoxicated throughout the day wasn’t considered such a big deal. When you think about it, the “three Martini lunch” wasn’t really so long ago; rules against being tipsy on the clock are pretty recent.

Now, what would the average hungover clerk or lawyer prefer on his way to the office? A sazerac? A bittered sling? Or five to 10 milligrams of cocaine in a sugary, caffeinated beverage? I know which one I would choose. It’s no wonder these people were called “dopes” and “soda junkies.” Some addicts would have up to 10 of these Coca-Colas a day, and finish the night off at the saloon to come down. It wasn’t just cocaine; strychnine, morphine, cannabis and/or anything used in the “patent medicine” of the era was fair game.

The soda life, however, wasn’t just about codewords or attractive girls. It was also about drugs.

The druggists ran their racket in the U.S. until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, when they had to clean up their acts. People went back to the bars, and the soda fountain became less “hives of scum and villainy” and more watering holes for wholesome refreshments. The “soda jerks” of the time were usually young men who specialized in moving fast while not cleaning up after themselves—doing what today we might call “flair bartending.” They were known for tossing glassware into the air and pouring with a flourish; it was a show that started with bartenders like Jerry Thomas (see “the Blue Blazer” cocktail), but it really took off in the soda shops.

When the Volstead Act began the folly that was Prohibition—you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, people—thousands of bartenders found themselves out of work. While many tried to wait it out and didn’t accept the new reality, thinking that it would be a passing thing (sounds pretty familiar), other bartenders took jobs at the soda fountains. They brought with them technique, social graces and cleanliness that the teenagers couldn’t match. They also brought something else with them—women, who wanted to go out to a place where they could feel comfortable, with a handsome, mustachioed man guiding them through a menu of exotic concoctions. Hey, it kind of sounds like the craft cocktail scene! It also brought in a new type of bartender, the kind who only took the job to flirt with the ladies. Having worked with some guys like that, I can speculate that they may have done more damage to the industry than Prohibition itself.

Years later, America came to its senses, and many soda jerks became bartenders again. However, the Prohibition era hindered much of our cocktail tradition and forced a lot of talent to either retire from the scene or move abroad. The taste for sugar was well-established at this point, and exotic flavors and syrups helped set the stage for the mid-century cocktails to come—like Tiki. America would tire of soda fountains eventually, only to have the idea sold back to us at coffee shops via “Italian sodas.” (Can you imagine something more obviously an American invention than sugar, artificial flavor, and cold, fizzy water?)

There is really so much more I could write about regarding soda. I haven’t even had a chance to talk about the syrups yet! But the next time you see a bartender flipping their tins, tossing ice to a co-worker, flirting with an attractive guest, and/or making a mess of their station, feel free to call them a “jerk.” You’re just being historically accurate.

Kevin Carlow

Kevin Carlow has been a bartender and writer for most of his adult life. Having worked in nearly every position in the service industry at some point, he is currently a cocktail consultant and the co-owner...