Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mel Tillis and ammonia Coke

In his 1984 autobiography Stutterin' Boy, Mel Tillis briefly reminisces about his days as a teenage soda jerk, when he served up old-time refreshments like phosphates, fizzes, and... ammonia Cokes?

Drug store soda fountains used to add common ingredients like chocolate syrup and vanilla extract to Coca-Cola to create flavored Coke. Cherry, vanilla, chocolate, lemon, and peppermint were popular Coke flavorings.

The most unusual flavored Coke, by a mile, was ammonia Coke. It was a popular beverage in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in the American South, and some outlets reportedly continued to offer ammonia Coke into the 1960s. Mel Tillis was a teenager in the 1940s, so that's when he was serving ammonia Coke to the people of Florida. (Mel was born in Dover, Florida.)

Ammonia Coke was regular Coca-Cola served over ice with a dash of aromatic spirit of ammonia. Aromatic spirit of ammonia is something you buy at a drugstore—it's not the ammonia in plastic gallon jugs that you find in the cleaning-supplies section of the grocery store. 

Ammonia Coke was alleged to have medicinal qualities, from relieving anxiety and headaches to jolting college students awake for all-night study sessions. It supposedly worked as an antacid and also counteracted the effects of a hangover. Some people drank it just because they liked the flavor. Even today, ammonia is a common flavoring in European salt licorice, so some portion of the world's population must like the flavor of ammonia.

Ingesting ammonia doesn't normally result in fatal poisoning, but it can cause irritation and burns. Very little ammonia was added to ammonia Coke, and aromatic spirit of ammonia is diluted to begin with, so drinkers were unlikely to suffer any immediate ill effects.

Mel Tillis' autobiography is the only music-related reference to ammonia Coke that I know of, but Coca-Cola was mentioned in popular songs occasionally in the 1940s and 1950s and more frequently thereafter. The most popular early recording that referenced Coke was the Andrews Sisters' 1945 hit "Rum and Coca-Cola." In the 1960s, dozens of popular artists performed Coca-Cola jingles, and many of these recordings were compiled on the anthology Things Go Better with Coke.

Here's Ray Stanley's 1957 recording of "Over a Coke," which features Eddie Cochran on guitar:

And here is the Ventures first record, "Cookies and Coke." It's a vocal tune that was released in 1959: 

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