How sweet it was: The history of New Orleans nectar soda
In 1866, a decorated Civil War veteran named Isaac Lyons went into business in New Orleans, hanging out a shingle for his eponymous I.L. Lyons and Co., a pharmaceutical supply business. It would grow to be an enormous regional player, supplying businesses throughout the South with all manner of drugstore wares, from liver pills to cough syrups. Easily, however, the company’s most enduring product would be a sugary-sweet, shock-pink syrup Lyons first whipped up in the 1880s and labeled “nectar.” It would become the key ingredient in nectar soda, a distinctly New Orleans concoction and for decades a staple at drugstore soda fountains throughout the city.
Like I.L. Lyons and Co., drugstore soda fountains — while once ubiquitous — are now a thing of the past. For the most part, nectar soda has gone with them. Attempts have been made by various companies to resurrect it, and New Orleans’ passion for it, over the years, but with mixed results at best. Today, the best place to find New Orleans-style nectar with any degree of regularity is at your local snowball stand, where it is a standard flavor — and where locals can still get a taste of the past.
- In Greek and Roman mythology, nectar was the drink of the gods.
- So what exactly does “nectar” taste like? In the case of nectar soda, it was a blend of vanilla and almond, kicked up with red food coloring.
- In New Orleans, the syrup was generally served three ways: mixed with seltzer water to make a nectar soda, with cream and seltzer to make a nectar cream soda, or with ice cream and seltzer to make a nectar ice cream soda.
- While nectar sodas were a trademark offering of the soda fountains at the dearly departed K&B Drugs chain, any number of local drugstores offered their own versions, from Schweighardt’s to Bradley’s to Berner’s to Walgreen’s.
- In 1994, local businesswoman Susan Dunham used her connections with the Lyons family to produce a nectar soda syrup based on the original Lyons recipe. “Unfortunately, when Dunham died in 2012, so did her brand,” according to Phillip and Riki Collier’s 2013 book “Making New Orleans.”
- You can make your own nectar syrup at home by following this recipe, one of several variations published over the years by longtime Times-Picayune food columnist Myriam Guidroz: Boil two cups sugar and one cup water. Cool, then add 1 large can evaporated milk (not condensed), 1 tablespoon vanilla, 1 tablespoon almond extract, and a few drops of red food coloring. “The syrup must be kept refrigerated and … the best way to enjoy it is to place two scoops of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass, (add) lots of syrup, and fill the glass with sparkling water,” Guidroz wrote in 1985.
- By the time Lyons died in 1923, the company that bore his name — based at Camp and Gravier streets — had grown to become “one of the largest wholesale properties in New Orleans,” according to a story in The Times-Picayune.
- Lyons’ front-page obituary in The Times-Picayune noted his philanthropic endeavors, including his one-time directorship of Kinglsey House and longtime association with child welfare concerns. Interestingly, it didn’t mention what would end up being arguably his greatest contribution to the city: nectar syrup.
Nectar soda has never really caught on with people outside of the Crescent City. That’s probably because to them, the geographically unlucky, it’s just a flavor. In New Orleans, it is more. In New Orleans, like so many long-gone places and flavors, it is a nostalgia touchstone. Firmly lodged in the flavor-memories of generations of locals, it can be counted on to deliver a rush of mental images: of frosted glasses on steamy Sunday afternoons, of weary feet on Canal Street, and of something sweet from a time that — thanks to the fog of passing time, if not reality — is often remembered as having been generally sweeter.