I’ll have a New York Soda, please

by convivialist

Ever since I studied in Italy years ago, I have been a coffee lover. I just don’t think I understood it before I actually lived there, where good, rich espresso is a given part of daily life. Sure, I drank coffee every once in a while, but coming from Massachusetts, the home of Dunkin’ Donuts (but, really, I swear it wasn’t so bad when I was young!), my choices for freshly ground coffee, never mind espresso drinks, were practically nil. Remember, this was the 90s, before terms like “single-origin espresso” and “third wave” and “aeropress” became themes one could read about in the food section of any major newspaper on a weekly basis. [If coffee and Massachusetts interests you, there was actually just this week a column in the NYTimes by Oliver Strand about the subject.]

I think I can recall the first time I went into a Starbucks as a naive high school student. It was in Boston on Newbury Street and the drink was a Caramel Macchiato. It all felt so… fancy. At the time of course I had no idea what was inside that cloying frothy drink, nor did I realize that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what you would be presented with when ordering a caffè macchiato in Italy. Nevertheless, ignorance is bliss and I happily sipped the novel treat.

Now, thirteen years and thousands of cups of coffee later, my general mantra is that there is no excuse for a bad coffee. There are a multitude of possibilities out there to find great coffee beans and brew a cup yourself at home with very simple means or, if you live in a larger city, to go to one of many coffee shops and let the experts make you a fine espresso. In Berlin, my current favorite is Five Elephant in Kreuzberg, which just so happens to also be very close to my apartment. That said, I wouldn’t quite say I am a coffee snob; sometimes 80-cent deli coffee is just right and if you are in New York on a very limited budget, there is no shame in Bustelo. But I do try to drink the good stuff as much as possible.

Enough of boring you with my personal path to coffee enlightenment. The moral of this story is actually to bring the highbrow and the lowbrow together in one glass of, shall we call it, New York Soda. I first heard about the concept from my very special friend (boyfriend sounds too young, partner too old!) Paul, who is a life-long New Yorker. Paul is anything but a coffee snob. He cringes at the thought of spending $4 on a cappuccino. I have on more than one occasion caught him eating ground coffee out of the can on the way out the door in the morning. He hates drinking coffee hot. All this I could deal with. But one day – must have been a few years ago – I was horrified to see him pour seltzer over day-old cold coffee, hold it up to examine the carbonation, only to gulp it down in three seconds.

“What did you just do?” I asked, not quite trusting my own eyes. “You don’t know it? It’s coffee and selzer- a New York Soda,” he replied casually. As new waves of ever more complex gadgets and fads have entered the world of coffee, that New York Soda has stuck with me. The audacious simplicity of it! How has it not been ironically adopted by some fourth-wave coffee shop?

It turns out that a brand called Manhattan Special has made an espresso soda since 1895. Manufactured not in Manhattan but Brooklyn and founded by southern Italian immigrants, bottles of the stuff can still be found in some delis and old-style restaurants around New York City. It appears, however, to be a marginalized cult drink.

I personally have never been much of a fan of bubbly water, but Paul is, and due to an unfortunate accident, he is now confined to bed for the next weeks with a fractured knee. Therefore, I am running out to the store twice a day to satisfy his effervescence cravings. Which is not entirely bad, since it got me thinking again about this New York Soda business. Paul and I began brainstorming.

While one could ostensibly make a satisfying New York Soda with regular drip coffee, we both agreed that espresso would be richer and more cola-like. Depending on how strong you like it, you could begin with 1 – 1 ½ shots of espresso (we made ours using a stovetop Moka pot). The next question was sweetened or unsweetened. Paul insisted on unsweetened: pure so that the true flavors of the coffee could shine through. I thought it would be nice to try it with a sweetener, and ended up using maple syrup, though I suppose cane sugar would also work well.

Finally and also very importantly is the bubble issue. Paul feels that carbonation emphasizes and brings to the surface the aromatics of the coffee in a way that drinking it straight cannot. He may be onto something. Just think about it: it is accepted that many single-origin brews, and the lighter and fruitier ones, should not be drunk hot but left to cool a bit so that the mouth can detect the full bouquet of flavors. I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for all of this and I will look into it further, but for the purpose of this experiment, I will leave it at that. Moreover, the carbonation encapsulates the vibrancy and complexity of the coffee and, according to Paul, creates little explosions of flavor burps in the mouth. Therefore, he decided that New York Soda should be made with a fruitier, lighter brew, not too dark or woody, which would just deaden when cooled. The water should be very carbonated, but the bubbles not too big. This may take some experimentation and is also based largely on personal preference.

I personally found the sweetened version of the New York Soda to be more quaffable. It is a thirst-quenching alternative to straight iced coffee in the summer and one that I wonder whether will eventually catch on in coffee shops. But for now, it remains one of those old New York quirks, paved over by an insatiable search for the unprecedented.


New York Soda


1 – 1 ½ shots of espresso (ideally a lighter, fruiter blend), cooled to room temperature

2 tsp. maple syrup

Carbonated water (Natürliches Mineralwasser mit viel Kohlensäure)


  1. Brew the espresso. Pour into a heatproof container and stir in the maple syrup. Let cool to room temperature.
  2. Fill a 12 oz glass with a couple of ice cubes (not too much). Pour in the espresso and top with carbonated water. Stir slightly and drink immediately before the effervescence weakens