Episode 163 – Cocktail Ingredients You've Never Heard Of

One trend in the 1800s that sort of paved the way for soda fountains is the popularity of sparkling water as a health tonic. Even before the soda shop became a mainstay of American culture, the wealthy elite were huge fans of drinking flavored fizzy waters to alleviate their headaches, or other little maladies. But, as technology continued to evolve, soda fountains became much easier to install and maintain in public venues.

This represents another thread in the intertwined history of booze and medicine. These soda fountains resided in pharmacies partially because druggists already had the tools and knowledge to create concentrates and carbonate them. But if you give a pharmacist a soda rig, it turns out, he’s really likely to start throwing things like booze, cocaine, or opium in your soda. And around the turn of the 20th century, all these things were still considered medicinal in their own ways.

Another movement that was taking off around this time, of course, was the temperance movement, which is a bit too complex to get into here, but the general thrust of it is that alcohol was considered bad for families, so if, as a politician or public figure, you claimed to be pro-family, well, to the temperance movement and the anti-saloon league, that meant you kinda had to be anti-booze. This is why soda shops were able to continue thriving during Prohibition because even though pharmacies were putting some really questionable stuff into some of their concoctions, it wasn’t alcohol, so it was pretty okay.

As the decades marched on past the roaring twenties, into the Great Depression, then World War II, and beyond, the ingredients used in fountain drinks got less dangerous and a little more desserty. But one tangy category of drink that remained somewhat popular was the phosphate or “acid phosphate.”

In a similar way that you’ll see fancy bartenders today making acid adjusted orange juice or crystal clear daiquiris using a blend of citric and malic acid, phosphate soda drinks were carbonated long drinks, often flavored with fruit syrups, with the addition of a little tincture that contained food-safe phosphoric acid supplemented with calcium, magnesium, and potassium.

According to cocktail writer Wayne Curtis:

Acid phosphate does two bewitching things to a drink: The acid gives it sourness without making it taste like anything in particular. And the salts enhance existing flavors, much as they do with food. The various elements of the drink (sweet, sour, bitter, sharp) are each discernible, but none is overwhelming. Adding a teaspoon or so of acid phosphate makes a cocktail seem slightly off center, and makes your tongue tingle.

Today, many savvy bartenders use acid phosphate in a similar manner to what Curtis describes – as that little pinch of acid and salt that brightens a flavor profile and accents the other notes in the drink. The first time I had one was probably around 2013 or 2014 at a brunch spot in DC called “Founding Farmers,” and I gotta say, it was a refreshing way to extend that old brunch time tradition, the hangover cure.

Aromatic Spirit of Ammonia

Speaking of hangovers, don’t forget about aromatic spirit of ammonia, our other chemical cocktail ingredient of note. According to an article on, it’s a 10% solution of ammonium hydroxide, mixed with water, alcohol and the essential oils of lemon, nutmeg and lavender.

Back in the 1800s, aromatic spirit of ammonia was used as OG smelling salts to prevent fainting or revive someone who has already fainted. In fact, they’re still available today at many pharmacies right alongside the heavily ammoniated smelling salts found in first aid kits. This compound was also said to have anxiety reducing properties, which may be explained away by the placebo effect. But one thing is for darn sure: ammonia is a base, which means it neutralizes acidity, so if there’s one thing I could actually see this substance being useful for, it would be dyspepsia.

Although aromatic spirit of ammonia isn’t nearly as popular behind the bar as acid phosphate, it does have its signature drink: the ammonia coke. By adding just 2 or 3 milliliters to a standard glass of coke, you’ll notice a marked drop in acidity from the cola, as well as some pleasant “top notes” from the lemon oil, lavender, and spices.

This is one additive I’d like to see used more behind the bar because I really dig the way it acts as both a flavored tincture and a pH modifier. Rarely are you going to come across ingredients that pull double duty so effortlessly, which is, I think, a really solid reason for folks to start experimenting.

The Sourtoe Cocktail Club

Rounding out this little romp through often-overlooked and esoteric cocktail ingredients, we’ve got a real stinker: the preserved medial and distal phalanges of the human hallux, which is another way of describing a pickled human toe.

As you might expect, pickled toes aren’t super popular in the craft cocktail world. It’s not like you can just order one as the garnish for your next Gibson or Dirty Martini. But one particular pickled human toe was the inspiration for a Canadian group called the Sourtoe Cocktail club.

For more about this obscure ingredient, I need to quote directly from an article from CBC Canada, which reads:

The Sourtoe Cocktail is practically a rite of passage for visitors to Dawson City, Yukon. It’s a simple drink (a shot of whiskey, usually Yukon Jack) with an unusual accompaniment: a mummified human toe. 

How did the Sourtoe cocktail come to be? It all started during prohibition, with a nasty case of frostbite. 

In the 1920s, the rum-running Linken brothers — Louie and Otto — got caught in a blizzard. Louie put his foot through a patch of ice and soaked his foot. When the brothers got back to their cabin, Louie’s right foot was frozen solid.  

To prevent gangrene, Otto used his axe to chop off Louie’s toe. He placed the toe in a jar of alcohol to commemorate the event. 

In 1973, legend has it that Captain Dick Stevenson found the jar (and the toe) in a remote cabin.

He came up with the idea of the Sourtoe Cocktail Club — an exclusive club, with one membership requirement.

In order to gain admittance to the club, potential members must drink the legendary sourtoe cocktail. There’s just one rule: “You can drink it fast. You can drink it slow. But your lips must touch that gnarly toe.

Now, if you didn’t think this story could get any weirder – of course, you’re wrong. Because in 2013, a…wait for it…New Orleanian named Joshua Clark came in and SWALLOWED the mummified toe of Louie Linken.

This put him on the shit list of toe master Terry Lee, and although they have been able to continue the tradition with a “backup toe” since that fateful day, the damage was done. Clark immediately paid the $500 fine for swallowing the toe, but was subsequently banned from the Downtown Hotel where the tradition continues to take place.

There’s a really fun 20 minute documentary about this whole situation on YouTube – which we’ll embed on the show notes page – where Joshua returns to Dawson City, Yukon in an effort to make amends with the toe master. It’s actually a really great little watch, especially if you have a drink in-hand, so I won’t spoil it for you in case you’d like to see for yourself how this story concludes.


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