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, MA 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 (founded in 1965) 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.