I've been wanting to write about the quintessentially New Orleans soda flavor called Nectar for about two years now. Imbibe finally gave me license. Here's the article:
If Susan Dunham’s grandmother and the Lyons family hadn’t happened to attend the same church, one of the signature flavors of New Orleans’ liquid cuisine might have been lost forever.
That flavor is something called Nectar, and you’ll only find it in the Crescent City. It was created by I.L. Lyons, a Civil War officer and pharmacist who, after hanging up his saber, moved from South Carolina to New Orleans, where he founded I.L. Lyons Pharmaceutical Products in 1866. Some time after, he invented a beguiling, bright red syrup that tasted of vanilla and almonds. He sold it to a local chain of soda fountains called Katz and Besthoff pharmacies (known colloquially at K&B), where is was served three ways: as a soda (add selzter), a cream soda (add cream and seltzer) and an ice cream soda. The local population couldn’t get enough. In the final decades of the 20th century, however, soda fountains went the way of the drive-in theater, the Lyons family had sold the company and K&B was absorbed by Rite Aid. Nectar became a dim memory.
It would have stayed that way, but for Dunham. “My grandmother grew up on Octavia Street and knew a lot of people from her church on St. Charles Avenue,” says Dunham, president of the Nectar Soda Company. Those worthies included some descendants of I.L. Lyons. Dunham’s grandma and the Lyons ran in the same wholesome circles. They shared a poker group and made fruitcakes together. So Dunham knew where to go when she hatched the idea of bringing Nectar back to life.
It wasn’t her first try. As the local supplier of ICEE—the makers of the ubiquitous, neon-colored frozen carbonated beverages—she had tried to convince the company to sell a Nectar flavor in New Orleans. But ICEE didn’t bite. The market was too provincial. So Dunham turned to plan B and coaxed the Lyon family into sharing the secret formula. “We had to modify it to get a standard beverage density,” she says. “It had sugar then. The plant I work with only uses high fructose syrup.” (Dunham is currently working on an all-natural version of Nectar that will use cane sugar and natural dyes.)
At first, she made a bottled Nectar soda, but it was made in Chicago and became too cumbersome to produce. So Dunham focused on quart bottles of Nectar syrup, which run about $9.
Jeffrey Gulotta, who creates many of the cocktails and drinks for chef Josh Besh’s string of New Orleans restaurants, also recalls Nectar. “My grandmother would talk to me about when she would go to K&B to get a nectar snowball,” he says. (Snowball is New Orleans lingo for sno-cone.) “I remember a girl I dated in high school. We would go to this little place in the Lakeview neighborhood called Russell’s Marina Grille, and she would always get a nectar ice cream soda.”
Gulotta decided to sell a Nectar ice cream soda at the Soda Shop, an old-fashioned fountain inside the National World War II Museum, which Besh opened in 2011. Gulotta wasn’t aware of Dunham’s product, so he configured his own method of resurrecting the lost potion by enlisting the sense memories of a nonagenarian war veteran. “He said he could remember it perfectly,” Gulotta says. After a few trial mixings of almond and vanilla syrups, the soldier nodded his approval.
Gulotta compares the renewed interest in Nectar to the recent revival of absinthe. “You’re seeing a renaissance of the artisan thing in New Orleans,” he says. “There’s this exploration of local flavors. They’re coming back to the front.”
Despite its new lease on life, Nectar seems destined to remain a Big Easy phenomenon. The syrup is only sold in Louisiana, and Dunham says she’s had little incentive to expand its base. “Ask any kid in New Orleans to describe Nectar, and they will tell you it’s bright pink and tastes like almonds and vanilla,” she said. “Put the same question to anyone from out of town, and you’ll get a blank stare.”
—By Robert Simonson