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Review: Manhattan Special Espresso Soda

Manhattan Special's legendary Espresso Sodas
Energy drinks -- fizzy, sugary concoctions that combine high doses of caffeiene and sugar for a quick jolt -- are everywhere these days, with brands like Monster, Red Bull and Nos being popular with kids and adults alike. If you live in the tri-state area, however, you know that those brands are young whippersnappers compared to Manhattan Special. As far as we know, it's never been marketed as an energy drink, but anyone who's ever had one -- and millions of people have -- will tell you it's the real deal. Manhattan Special was founded in 1895. Somewhat ironically* for a company named for Manhattan, it's located in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood. Their Espresso Coffee Soda, made with not much more than espresso beans (the company roasts its own), seltzer water, and sugar, is the company's signature product. There are also diet and decaffeinated diet versions, which seems to somewhat defeat the purpose. Though it's typically pegged as a stubbornly regional product, the company began selling online in 2008 to reach customers who'd left the tri-state area, and in an effort to attract new drinkers. Feeling a bit nostalgic, we decided to crack open a bottle recently. Pro tip: open the bottle over a glass, or over the sink. The bottle has a tendency to erupt, belching out some of its contents when it's first opened. So: open with care, and enjoy. The first sip is the best part, delivering a bittersweet wallop that's as likely to jolt you awake as the soda's sugar and caffeine content. Unfortunately, it went downhill from there. Once you've adjusted to the first sip, each one that follows delivers more sugary sweetness than black coffee bitterness. And then more sugar. The coffee tries valiantly to keep up, and can't. Here's why: for something that's billed as an espresso coffee, it tastes more like medium-dark roast from a KONE pour over than espresso. Perhaps owing to the bottling process and the addition of carbonation (and did we mention sugar?), it doesn't have the kind of mouthfeel that one would typically expect of espresso (dense, oily, and faintly grainy). If anything, it's distinctly syrupy, and leaves a sweet aftertaste that lingers long after the coffee bitterness has breathed its last. I'd welcome a version that contained less sugar to let more of the coffee shine through. Some changes have come to Manhattan Special over the years. The company now sells bottled iced coffee, and its soda offerings include Cherry, Gassosa (lemon-lime), Orange, Sasparilla and Vanilla Cream, each made with natural ingredients. For generations of Italian-Americans and those who've grown up in or near cities with significant Italian-American populations, however, Manhattan Special will always be synonymous with its espresso soda -- and the rush of energy that comes with it.


A 2008 New York Times article takes a rare look at the company -- and an even rarer look inside its bottling plant: "A Modern Comeback for a Taste of Brooklyn" You can also visit Manhattan Special on the web *Which I suppose made them ironic about Brooklyn before it was cool, which is where the irony starts to get a bit meta...