In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the drugstore and the soda fountain were not only intertwined, but often one and the same. Pharmacists were masters of tinctures and tonics, many of which became popular refreshments with curative promises across the United States. And though people are still familiar with the fizzy stomach-salve that is ginger ale, only the rare senior citizen tends to bring up the once-popular concoction known as ammoniated Coca-Cola.
Although Coke is popular around the world, the other component of this cocktail is more obscure. Aromatic spirits of ammonia is only 2 percent ammonia, with water, ethyl alcohol, and essential oils such as lemon, lavender, and nutmeg added to form a pungent tincture. While certainly not as potent as household-cleaner ammonia, the tincture was still powerful and needed to be diluted before consumption. Enter: Coca-Cola. A few drops (roughly 1/2 to 3/4 of a teaspoon) added to a full 8-ounce glass of Coke was said to cure anything from hysteria to hangovers. Apparently, even the actress Tallulah Bankhead was a fan. In a biography of Vincent Price, the actor is quoted as saying, “I’ve seen Tallulah look absolutely dreadful, then take a shot of ammonia and Coca-Cola and turn into a beauty.”
Many also used the pairing to alleviate indigestion. The medicinal spirits were said to bring down the soda’s effervescence and neutralize its acidity, making for a sweet, soothing drink with an enlivening bouquet. And it was quite enlivening: While there’s little evidence backing up most of the health claims surrounding aromatic spirits of ammonia, they do hold a place in the modern medicine cabinet as smelling salts.
Whether or not the pairing was a placebo, ammoniated Coke’s role as a tool in the nation’s pervasive “dyspepsia” remains a nostalgic bookmark for those who still remember the old-school druggist and their flowing fountains.