In August 2018, the Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) announced that it would acquire Moxie, a small regional soda brand known mostly in New England, for an undisclosed sum.1,2 Moxie is one of the oldest surviving bottled soda brands in the United States* and predates Coca-Cola and Pepsi (see “History of Moxie” section).3 Its unusual flavor, which has been described as bittersweet, owes largely to the presence of gentian (Gentiana spp., Gentianaceae) root extract.2-4
TCCC’s purchase of Moxie is part of a steady stream of acquisitions by the Atlanta-based beverage behemoth, which now produces more than 800 beverages in the United States across 100 brands.1,5 However, this acquisition may seem surprising to some. After all, while Moxie reportedly produced about 225,000 cases of its soda in 2017,1,2 TCCC sold a prodigious 29.2 billion unit cases.6†
TCCC reportedly wants to separate bottling operations from its corporate umbrella. Both TCCC and its bottling partner, Coca-Cola of Northern New England (CCNNE), which previously owned Moxie, agreed it made sense to transfer ownership of the brand to TCCC.2 “CCNNE purchased the Moxie brand, well known for its ‘distinctively different’ flavor, over a decade ago in order to bring its roots back to New England,” wrote Nick Martin, a CCNNE spokesman (email, September 7, 2018). “TCCC’s acquisition will provide the Moxie brand with the resources needed to evolve for a new generation of drinkers.”
A general, gradual decline in sales of sugary beverages in the United States (as many consumers have started reducing their consumption of sugar and/or high-fructose corn syrup) may be largely responsible for TCCC’s acquisition flurry. In October 2015, The New York Times reported that “Over the last 20 years, sales of full-calorie soda in the United States have plummeted by more than 25 percent.” Many TCCC brands reportedly have declined. So, it is likely that the company has made a habit of buying brands like Moxie to maintain market share.1
TCCC reportedly wants to be “a total beverage company” and has claimed it will focus on more low- and no-sugar beverage options.5,7 It apparently supports the World Health Organization’s 2015 sugar guideline, which includes a recommendation for adults and children to reduce daily intake of free sugars‡ to less than 10% of their total energy intake, or less than 5% (roughly 25 grams) for additional health benefits.7,8 Previously, Moxie was known for its low sugar content, with 25 grams per can.1 (However, this author recently ordered some through Moxie’s website9 and observed that each can now contains 37 grams of sugar.) Regular Moxie also contains less caffeine than other sodas, including Dr Pepper, Coca-Cola, and Pepsi.9
Moxie’s taste apparently is quite polarizing. An article in HuffPost notes: “Moxie lovers are just slightly less effusive than Moxie haters. We’re pretty sure we’ve never met anyone who thinks this oddly bittersweet soda is ‘just okay.’” Some describe it as “root beer on steroids” and some have compared it to bubble gum.4 Even Moxie’s website admits it can be “an acquired taste.”9 This author thinks it has an interesting and pleasant smell and tastes like root beer with a bitter aftertaste: sweet at first, then noticeably bitter.
There apparently are no plans to change that distinctive taste. TCCC “will ensure Moxie stays true to its Northeastern roots, as it has done with many other fan-favorite and regional brands,” Martin wrote. To Moxie lovers, that is a relief. In addition, Moxie will continue to be produced in Londonderry, New Hampshire.2 TCCC has no immediate plans to change Moxie distribution, but at least one industry expert thinks TCCC can incrementally increase annual sales of Moxie to 500,000 cases.1,2 Publicity from the transaction may prompt a new group of Americans to finally acquire a taste for one of the oldest soda brands in the United States.
History of Moxie
In the late 1800s, Augustin Thompson, a homeopathic physician, US Civil War veteran, playwright, and native of Union, Maine, created Moxie in Lowell, Massachusetts. He wanted to introduce a “cure-all” without cocaine or alcohol and reportedly included gentian root extract, cinchona (Cinchona spp., Rubiaceae) bark extract, sassafras (Sassafras albidum, Lauraceae) root bark extract (the primary botanical flavoring used in root beer), caramel, and other ingredients in his early formulation.3,9 Moxie’s formulation has changed over the years, and it now includes high-fructose corn syrup, like many sodas.4
“Moxie Nerve Food,” as it was originally called, was invented and patented in 1885, according to Moxie’s website.9 Dr Pepper was introduced the same year, and Coca-Cola followed in 1886.3 Moxie distribution initially was attempted in Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver, but the soda never really became successful outside the Northeast. Early on, Moxie was introduced in an ultimately unsuccessful lozenge form.9 Like other early sodas in the United States, Moxie originally was intended as a medicine, not a refreshment, and it was once the subject of many far-fetched curative claims. Carbonated liquids, or tonics, had been thought to have medicinal benefits for centuries. Thompson claimed that Moxie could address imbecility, helplessness, and paralysis, among other conditions.3,10 An early ad stated: “Moxie Nerve Food is a most healthful drink, strengthens the nerves and gives you a good appetite.”9 These claims, however, stopped with the passage and implementation of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.3,10
Gentian, the source of Moxie’s main ingredient, is a name that refers to species in the genus Gentiana. There are about 40 or 50 species in the genus, all of which contain the bitter principles for which gentian is known. King Gentius of Illyria (on the Balkan Peninsula), who died sometime after 167 BCE and for whom the genus was later named, reportedly was the first to discover the plant’s medicinal value and gave it to his army to treat a mysterious fever. Since then, gentian (mainly G. lutea) root has been widely used for medicinal purposes, including the treatment of digestive issues and wounds. It also has long been used to flavor alcoholic drinks, especially in Germany and Switzerland, where it was used to make beer before hops (Humulus lupulus, Cannabaceae) was introduced.11,12 So, it is not unexpected that Thompson used gentian to make Moxie (and added sugar to help mask its bitterness).3
Moxie was a big hit at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (the St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904.10 In 1920, it outsold Coca-Cola, probably largely because of promotional strategies that included a Moxie Song, magazine ads, Moxiemobiles, and the Moxie Man, who still appears on Moxie products.3 US President Calvin Coolidge reportedly was a fan of Moxie, and, in 1923, celebrated his inauguration with a cold glass of the soda. It was also popular with Pulitzer Prize winner E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web. In the 1950s, baseball great Ted Williams, left fielder for the Boston Red Sox, was a spokesman for the brand. And in 2005, the state of Maine made Moxie its official state soft drink.9
“Moxie” has come to mean nerve, verve, spirit, spunk, etc. Some say Moxie gives the drinker moxie, and some say it requires moxie to drink Moxie. Perhaps surprisingly, though, the name of the soda seems to have preceded this use of the word.3 It is possible that “moxie” derives from the Abenaki term for “dark water,” which would be an understandable description of the soda. The Abenaki are a Native American tribe and First Nation from New England, Quebec, and the Canadian Maritime provinces. “Moxie” also figures in waterway names in Maine, including Moxie Falls (one of New England’s highest waterfalls).13 The soda’s early curative claims (including that it “strengthens the nerves”) may in fact explain today’s common definition of the term.3
SIDEBAR: Coca-Cola’s Botanical Beverages
Moxie now joins TCCC’s portfolio of beverage brands with notable plant-derived ingredients. In 2016, the company launched Aquarius Vive, which is available in Spain and includes baobab (Adansonia spp., Malvaceae) extract. The baobab tree, sometimes called “the tree of life,” is native to sub-Saharan Africa, and its fruits are rich in calcium and vitamin C.14,15
In 2018, TCCC introduced a version of Coca-Cola that is sweetened with only a purified extract of the leaves of the South American herb stevia (Stevia rebaudiana, Asteraceae). This product, first launched in New Zealand, reportedly avoids the bitterness that can be caused by steviol glycosides, the sweet-tasting constituents of stevia.16
TCCC also distributes Core Power, a high-protein, cow’s milk-based recovery shake for fitness enthusiasts that is sweetened with monk fruit (Siraitia grosvenorii), a vine in the gourd family (Cucurbitaceae) that is native to China.17 One of monk fruit’s constituents, mogroside V, is approximately 250 times sweeter than common table sugar. Inclusion of these plant-derived ingredients in TCCC beverages likely reflects its attempts to offer options with less sugar and fewer calories without compromising taste.
* Vernon, a ginger ale brand that was started in Detroit, is older than Moxie
† TCCC defines a unit case as 24 eight-ounce bottles
‡ According to the World Health Organization, “free sugars include monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods and beverages by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, and sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates.”
- Stern G. What’s Driving Coca-Cola’s Recent Acquisitions? Forbes website. September 4, 2018. Available at: www.forbes.com/sites/garystern/2018/09/04/whats-driving-coca-colas-recent-acquisitions/. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Murphy ED. Coca-Cola Acquires a Taste for Maine’s Beloved Moxie—and Buys the Brand. Portland Press Herald website. August 28, 2018. Available at: www.pressherald.com/2018/08/28/coca-cola-acquires-moxie-soda-beloved-in-maine/. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Tchudi SN. Soda Poppery: The History of Soft Drinks in America. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 1986.
- Orchant R. Moxie: The Distinctively Different Soda that New England Loves. HuffPost website. March 1, 2013. Available at: www.huffpost.com/entry/moxie-soda-new-england_n_2784571. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Moye J. Coca-Cola USA: A Total Beverage Company with Local Roots. Coca-Cola website. August 30, 2017. Available at: www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coca-cola-usa-a-total-beverage-company-with-local-roots. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Coca-Cola Annual Report 2017. Coca-Cola website. Available at: www.coca-colacompany.com/content/dam/journey/us/en/private/fileassets/pdf/2018/2017-10K.pdf. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Moye J. Coke’s Way Forward: New Business Strategy to Focus on Choice, Convenience and the Consumer. Coca-Cola website. February 23, 2017. Available at: www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/cokes-way-forward-new-business-strategy-to-focus-on-choice-convenience-and-the-consumer. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children. World Health Organization website. March 4, 2015. Available at: www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Moxie: Distinctively Different. Moxie website. Available at: www.drinkmoxie.com/. Accessed October 3, 2018.
- Moxie Soda Outsold Coca-Cola. Jamaica Plain Historical Society website. Available at: www.jphs.org/20th-century/moxie-soda-outsold-coca-cola.html. Accessed October 4, 2018.
- Gentian: A Bitter Pill to Swallow. Christopher Hobbs website. Available at: www.christopherhobbs.com/library/articles-on-herbs-and-health/gentian-a-bitter-pill-to-swallow/. Accessed October 4, 2018.
- Gentian. Gaia Herbs website. Available at: www.gaiaherbs.com/products/ingredient/38/Gentian. Accessed October 4, 2018.
- Moxie (n.). Etymonline website. Available at: www.etymonline.com/word/moxie. Accessed October 4, 2018.
- Arthur R. Coca-Cola turns to baobab in new low-calorie soft drink brand. Beverage Daily website. July 18, 2016. Available at: www.beveragedaily.com/Article/2016/07/19/Coca-Cola-turns-to-baobab-in-new-low-calorie-soft-drink-brand. Accessed October 4, 2018.
- Jackson S. Baobab: The Tree of Life—An Ethnopharmacological Review. HerbalGram. 2015-2016;108:42-53. Available at: http://herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/108/table-of-contents/hg108-feat-baobab/.
- Prince J. Coca-Cola Launches First 100% Stevia-Sweetened Beverage. Nutritional Outlook website. May 9, 2018. Available at: www.nutritionaloutlook.com/food-beverage/coca-cola-launches-first-100-stevia-sweetened-beverage. Accessed October 4, 2018.
- Esterl M. Coca-Cola to Distribute High-Protein Milk Shake in U.S. The Wall Street Journal website. June 20, 2012. Available at: www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304765304577479070452891852. Accessed October 4, 2018.