Monday, January 4, 2010

Brooklyn soda in da house and on da floor: Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda

Manhattan Special before...

...and after.

Would you like a little soda with your caffeine and sugar?

On my last visit to New York, I took Bobby Pinn's great Rock Junket Tour - a walking tour of the East Village - a rock, punk, and glam all-inclusive.

At the end of the tour, Bobby gives you a homemade brochure with his list of must-sees in the city, including riding the Cyclone at Coney Island and having an egg cream soda at the Gem Spa.

Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda to go

Having gleefully thrown my neck out on the Cyclone and gulped an egg cream soda at the New York Dolls' old hangout, I wanted to accomplish the next item on the list, which is to drink a Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda.

The beverage is surprisingly difficult to find: I couldn't track it down at a single New York deli (where the brochure said I could), and when I emailed the company, I got back a grammatically incorrect auto-response that said that I couldn't get it in Winnipeg or North Dakota.

But my prayers were answered recently when my mother came back from Brooklyn - home of the Manhattan Special since 1895! - and scored me two bottles of the stuff, one of which I brought to school today for a student taste test. More on that in a second.

"The story"

In advertising these days, everything is about "the product story" and Manhattan Special has a good one:
"Take a little pride and a little loving care, that's what has been going into the production of Manhattan Special since 1895.

"As the original and award-winning Pure Espresso Coffee Soda, we have satisfied loyal consumers with our family's secret recipe for over 100 years.

"Our unique blend of the world's finest coffee beans (which are hand brewed to perfection), along with the use of pure cane sugar, has allowed us to create a truly delicious coffee experience!"

Although the company uses my least-favorite advertising word, "unique," who can resist the allure of "secret recipe," "100 years," and "truly delicious?" Not me!

The company's website is full of comments from satisfied New Yorkers, and is beloved in the tri-state area as something of a high-octane Pic-a-Pop. One typical comment (I couldn't resist correcting the typos, though I know I'm not supposed to do it in a direct quotation - sorry!):
"What goes better with a Panella sandwich but an ICE COLD MANHATTAN Special? That was living. We would plan shopping days with my grandmother, who would bring us to get the sandwich en route to placing her shopping orders at each shop keep. Some days we would pick up 1/2 lb of Procutto and mozzarella at Morris' Itatian Latticini, go next door to the bakery, and eat in the back where my grandmother was friends with the bakers. Don't ever change that classic recipe. I've since moved out of state, however I am blessed to be able to get your coffee treat."
In 2008, the New York Times said that Manhattan Special was, for New Yorkers of a certain age, a first rite after nursing (the full story is here) and talks about the death of its founder - a mysterious homicide that still hasn't been solved. Ah, "mystery," the secret ingredient of every successful product.


Given the high degree of brand loyalty, it was with high expectations that I popped open the strangely heavy, 828 ml bottle of Manhattan Special the second I got it home. However, since the bottle made the trip back from New York on a plane, and the contents are pressurized, it sprayed me in the face and spilled all over the floor.

I eventually wrestled it into submission, but not before noticing that the beverage smells a lot like the Nonsuch exhibit at the Manitoba Museum. Honestly, the beverage, not the floor, has the pungent aroma of oiled, wood floors after being washed with Pledge.

Drink up, Johnny!

The ingredients listed on the bottle: pure coffee, carbonated water, sugar, caramel color and preserved potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate. No floor polish, then? Hmmm....

Thankfully, there was still some left over after the bottle exploded, so I tried it, expecting it to taste like it smelled: Mr. Clean meets Coke Blak. Instead, I took a sip and experienced a rush of caffeine that made me go blind, black out, and wake up naked in a strange back alley.

OK, not really, but that's what the experience brought to mind over the two seconds the beverage took to get from my mouth to my stomach, where it then began battling the other stuff that was hanging out there in a no-holds-barred cage match.

The student taste test

I wanted to share this delightful experience with my first-year students on their first day back to school today, so I brought along a decanter of Manhattan Special to class - yes, it exploded, again (sorry to Jess in the front row and the carpet).

I poured a shot-glass portion into a styrofoam cup for each student, expecting them to gag and pass out like me. I was even planning to post their hilarious quotes here.

But something surprising happened: they actually liked it. Go figure.

So tonight, I'll drink the last glassful of the stuff in my fridge to toast to a new semester and give it one more chance to awaken my inner caffeine and sugar demon. If that doesn't work, mark my words: I'm drinking all of the Coca-Cola and lemon-fresh Pledge in the house.


  1. I was about to post that it sounds very much like Coke Blak, which was surprisingly tolerable when I tried it, even as a non-coffee drinker. But I think if I were to drink coffee I'd want it non-carbonated.

    You ever try the turkey and gravy flavoured Jones Soda ( I don't know if I would ever be able to bring myself to try that.

  2. I think it's possible a classroom full of CreComms liked it because their systems have become accustomed to enormous concentrated doses of caffeine.

  3. Have you ever tried the celery-flavoured soda you can get in the States? Refreshing! (Dr. Brown's I think is the brand.)

    Melanie, I see we are both on here reading Kenton's blog at 8:30 at night. Something is wrong.

  4. Jennifer: never had the turkey and gravy Jones soda. Sounds gross!

    Melanie and Karen: yeah, what's wrong with you guys anyway? Ha, ha!

  5. Best. Product review. Ever.
    The Nonesuch comparison really brought it to life, for better or worse.

  6. Apology accepted for the spraying. Apparently art imitates life:

  7. Karen (and Kenton): Babies in bed, we turn from Goodnight Moon to Kenton's Infotainment Scan. Who wouldn't?!


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