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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

TASTE: Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda

Shelved between the Frappuccinos and the Red Bull energy drinks, Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda is an often-overlooked New York City deli staple. I’ve never seen anyone buy it, and the label is so mysterious it borders on sinister. A head-banded vixen dims her eyes and drapes her long-gloved arm around the neck of a pomaded, mustachioed man, who appears not only unmoved but annoyed. Perhaps it is because an espresso percolator and brimming cup await him, just out of reach, in the foreground of the fuzzy cameo-cloud in which this couple floats, a silhouette of the New York City skyline looming behind them. The words “Since 1895” arc above the cloud, though the couple looks more flapper than Victorian.


I picked up a bottle at my local deli, intent on unbottling the secret to more than a century of local shelf life. The clerk turned the bottle in his hand, as if he hadn’t noticed he stocked it. “Have you tried this?” he asked, peering at the label. “Looks like it’s made in Brooklyn. And it’s made with real sugar!” He rang me up for a dollar fifty, seemingly impressed and reassured.

At home, I pried off the metal top. Caramel bubbles rose to the lip with a soft fizz, forming a crest that slowly sank. The first sip had all the bitter graininess of espresso, with the unmistakable tongue tingling of real sugar and a prickling of carbonation. The glass bottle was a nice weight and fit comfortably between two fingertips--not unlike an espresso cup. But the drink quickly devolved into a too-sweet soda, lacking the creamy, lip thickening, pulse-quickening quality of real espresso.

Disappointed with my first experience, I decided to try Manhattan Special the way I drink my morning coffee: in a glass with ice and a liberal dousing of half and half. What a revelation! The cream mellowed out the cloying sweetness and acidity of the coffee, but the carbonation still adds an unexpected effervescent texture to each sip. The head poured out rich and foamy, like a nice stout, rather than dissolving into a vaguely chemical lace residue as it had when drunk plain.

On a recent trip to the Gravesend, Brooklyn, Italian diner Joe’s of Avenue U (which deserves an entry in its own right), I noticed that the beverage menu comprised soda, seltzer, mineral water, coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and Manhattan Special. Apparently the parts don’t add up to the whole, which puts this local beverage in a class of its own.

N.B.: Check out the company website for a slide-show history and “guestbook” rich with local reminiscences. I called the factory—on Manhattan Avenue, in Brooklyn, hence the soda’s name--for more information about the couple on the bottle, but they could not help me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have been drinking Speacial for 50 years. the soda is tempermental. It has to be cooled, and handled softly. Sometimes I dont even like it becaues it may have been left in a warm storage area. When its fresh youll now it. Its delicious on ice. Keep on trying it is a good soda. joecigar58@msn.com