With its use of nostalgic label artwork, espresso, and cane sugar, Espresso Coffee Soda is a perfect storm of 21st-century trendiness. To top it off, it’s produced by Manhattan Special, which is ironically based in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. But what appears to be “a consciously retro hipster beverage” was actually created in 1895—long before its location, ingredients, or design were fashionable.
Native New Yorkers might remember the soda, which is essentially a chilled, bottled Americano with bubbles. Unlucky drinkers may also recall being sprayed by a rogue stream upon opening one, due to the drink’s intense level of carbonation. The deep brown fizz, made from nothing but espresso, sugar, and seltzer, stains just about anything.
But Espresso Coffee Soda’s past is darker than its house-roasted coffee beans. In 1970, Albert Passaro took over Manhattan Special from his father. His two children were seven and six at the time. Passaro took pride in the family-run operation, joking that he “started at the top. The top of the delivery truck.” When his children were teenagers, Passaro was shot in the basement of his home—a homicide that remains unsolved to this day. Following the tragedy, both children dropped out of school to run Manhattan Special, and continue to operate the company today.
Albert once described Espresso Coffee Soda as being, to the Italians, “what celery soda was to the Jews.” Like Cel-Ray, the coffee pop has seen a nostalgia-based resurgence in recent years. In 2012, Serious Eats published five simple recipes starring the coffee elixir, proving it’s probably a more versatile drink than its vegetal counterpart.
Need to Know
Manhattan Special is sold mostly in specialty soda shops. Although best known for their espresso flavor, the company also sells other varieties, such as vanilla cream soda, cherry, sarsaparilla, orange, and gassosa.
Where to Try It
Ferdinando’s Focacceria151 Union St, Brooklyn, New York, 11231, United States
This Italian restaurant serves Espresso Coffee Soda on tap.
Soda Pop Stop5702 York Blvd, Los Angeles, California, 90042, United States
This specialty soda shop stocks the original and diet versions of Manhattan Special Espresso Coffee Soda.