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Can a bitter taste find sweet life again?

Unique N.E. soda Moxie thirsting for a revival

Cathy Bienkowski showed off a Moxie-flavored ice cream cone in Maine.
Cathy Bienkowski showed off a Moxie-flavored ice cream cone in Maine. (FRED FIELD FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

LISBON FALLS, Maine -- Moxie, the bitter soda that once outsold Coke nationally before fading to a quirky regional curiosity, is finally developing some . . . well, moxie.

Earlier this year, Cornucopia Beverages Co. of Bedford, N.H., bought the long-neglected brand from an Atlanta business, bringing it back to its New England roots and launching an ambitious plan to save Moxie, the country's first mass-produced soft drink, from irrelevance.

In recent weeks, the company has sent vendors across New Hampshire and Maine to peddle the carbonated beverage at places where prospec tive Moxie fans might congregate: at minor league baseball games, at a lottery for moose hunting permits, and at Wal-Mart stores. Last month, Cornucopia sponsored a Moxie-chugging contest here at an annual three-day festival in honor of the beverage that attracted thousands.

Cornucopia has launched a trial program to sell Moxie for the first time in Florida, where company officials believe many fans of the drink might be living in retirement. And the company is pressing for more discounts and shelf space across New England to reach the fans it believes are still here. Cornucopia used to own Coffee Frost, a sparkling coffee beverage that fizzled out a decade ago, but the company was dormant until it purchased Moxie.

"There's a diehard loyal following here in New England, but it's pretty esoteric," said Justin Conroy, Cornucopia's brand manager. "Moxie has a unique taste and we have a lot of opportunity to grow it inside our territory and beyond. And we want to have some fun doing it."

Reviving the popularity of a drink that in its heyday had high-profile endorsers and fans -- Red Sox slugger Ted Williams promoted the drink, and President Calvin Coolidge is said to have toasted his swearing-in with an ice-cold glass of Moxie -- figures to be a long, hard slurp. Detractors grimace at a drink they think is too bitter and medicinal. Even longtime Moxie enthusiasts concede that their favorite soda is liquid tough love.

"You have to acquire a taste for it," said James Jannson, 61, of Shelton, Conn., a member of the New England Moxie Congress, a loosely knit band of Moxie zealots who collect Moxie-related memorabilia, promote the drink's availability, and get together for parades.

Jannson, who works at a winery, describes Moxie as a "root beer on steroids," and likes to pour the beverage in a chilled pilsner glass. "It's refreshing, a very powerful flavor."

Even the drink's creator emphasized its reputed regenerative qualities rather than its taste. Moxie was the brainchild of Dr. Augustin Thompson, a pharmacist with the Ayer Drug Co. in Lowell, Mass., who in 1876 created a potent mixture with gentian root extract that he brought back from South America. Thompson patented his creation as a medicine and dubbed it "Moxie Nerve Food," marketing it as a cure for almost any illness, including paralysis and "softening of the brain."

In 1884, as carbonated drinks were beginning to catch on in the United States, Thompson introduced a carbonated version of his concoction. Promoted as an invigorating elixir, Moxie instantly took off, selling 5 million bottles during the first year, according to the Matthews Museum in Union, Thompson's hometown, which hosts an extensive bottle and memorabilia collection in honor of the beverage.

Moxie had to put an end to its cure-all claims after the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted in 1906. So the drink was repackaged simply as "Moxie" and marketed as the beverage for people of discerning tastes, with catchy jingles such as the 1904 hit "Just make it Moxie for Mine" and a best seller "Moxie One-Step Song" in 1921. Bottlers soon opened across the country, and Moxie operations moved to a huge showcase facility in Boston, known as Moxieland, at 74 Heath St. near Jackson Square. Eventually, the Splendid Splinter was pitching the dark brown drink.

But over the years, Moxie lost its mojo to superpowers such as Coca-Cola, which rode its multimillion dollar advertising campaigns, national distribution network, and much sweeter taste to national preeminence. Monarch Beverages, which owned Moxie for the past several decades before Cornucopia, did little to reinvigorate the brand and kept it relegated to mom-and-pop shops and the supermarket aisles of New England.

That has forced some distant diehards, such as Jack Henderson of Jacksonville, Ark., to be resourceful. A native of Saugus, Mass., Henderson, 77, pays a friend in New Hampshire who sells Moxie all over the country via eBay to ship 48 of the orange cans to his home every month. In a phone interview, Henderson said he usually runs out of Moxie by week three.

Cornucopia is constantly fielding requests for more Moxie from fans across the country, Conroy said. So the company decided to step up efforts to distribute the product and launched pilot sales in Florida. Cornucopia has another big sampling planned in a few weeks at Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.

"We have found that the product has some work to reestablish in the marketplace," he said. "But the overall results from trial have been relatively positive and well-accepted."

While the average Moxie drinker tends to be older, Conroy said the company believes the drink has wide appeal. The future seemed promising on a recent Saturday in Lisbon Falls, where Moxie was everywhere: Dr. Mike's Madness Cafe featured Moxie flavored muffins, Kennebec's offered Moxie ice cream floats, UPS advertised "Let's send some MOXIE back home for friends and family!" What started as a small book signing at Kennebec with Frank Potter, author of "The Moxie Mystique" in the early 1980s evolved over the years into three days of full-blown festivities celebrating the drink in Lisbon Falls.

Andrew Osborne of Andover, Mass., dragged his parents and sister up to Maine for the festival, where he bought an orange "I've Got Moxie" hat to match his orange "I've Got Moxie" T-shirt. The teenager is committed to spreading the love for the beverage: He brought Moxie to a party celebrating the end of the school year at his high school.

"Not many other people drank it. They thought it tasted too bitter, too much like medicine," Osborne said. "But I love it."

Nearby, Conroy presided over a Moxie recipe contest (a Moxie pizza won), saying, "There's really no words to describe this. You just don't usually see people unite around a consumer product like this."

Beverage analysts say Moxie faces an uphill battle with sagging soft drink sales and a crowded market. Still, devotees of the beverage -- and there are enough of them that in 2005 they led a successful bid to make Moxie the official drink of Maine -- think Moxie's distinct flavor may give it enough of an edge.

The company can also capitalize on the one brand extension in the past century: Moxie Energy drinks introduced in 2004. Still, it faces formidable competition with a growing number of brands such as energy king Red Bull, which some say isn't any better tasting than Moxie.

"Someone who has the moxie, the spunk, and the courage to go after the big brands can do it," said Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a marketing firm in New York City. "Who better to do it than a soft drink named Moxie?"

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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