Thursday, June 8, 2006
Nesbitt’s Orange Soda: Bright Star Went Black, Now Twinkles Dimly
By ROGER M. GRACE
Orange Crush was king of the orange-flavored soda pops in the 1930s and ’40s, but was dethroned in the ’50s by Nesbitt’s Orange.
By 1952, Nesbitt’s was proclaiming itself the “LARGEST SELLING BOTTLED ORANGE DRINK IN THE WORLD.” It was also “the finest orange soft drink ever made”...at least according to ads for it in the late 1950s.
A 1958 ad claimed that Nesbitt’s Orange “contains more natural fruit juice than any other bottled orange drink made.”
Ads through the years referred to the drink’s “secret ingredients” which rendered the beverage the most “tasty” of the orange sodas. The ingredient chiefly responsible for the tang is now known. Read on….
Hugh S. Nesbitt launched the brand in 1927. It was a product of his Nesbitt Fruit Products Company, which he founded in Los Angeles three years earlier. The plant was located on 11th Street, southeast of the Civic Center.
Nesbitt, born in Illinois in 1897, led a colorful, albeit short, life. He came to be known as a wealthy “sportsman” and “ladies’ man.”
On May 3, 1941, a horse owned by Nesbitt, Staretor, came in second in the Kentucky Derby.
Nesbitt did not have an opportunity to enter another contender in that race. He died Nov. 19, 1943, of a skull fracture about six hours after he was knocked down in a fight in the lobby of a St. Louis, Mo. hotel.
Nesbitt, who was 46, was in that city attending a convention of soft drink bottlers. The confrontation apparently began in the hotel night club after Nesbitt, who was intoxicated, picked up a drink from the table where one Bernard Oonk, a stranger to him, was sitting, apparently intending to gulp down the purloined highball. AP, UP, and INS carried differing accounts of the sequence of events that followed, but it is certain that Oonk, soon after in the lobby, delivered the fatal blow.
A quickly convened coroner’s jury ruled the homicide to have been justifiable.
Just as Nesbitt’s Orange supplanted Orange Crush as the top selling orange-based soft drink, Fanta shoved Nesbitt’s aside in the 1960s.
Fanta was concocted in Germany during World War II by the Coca-Cola bottler there after Coke syrup became unavailable because of Allied blockades. In 1960, the Coca-Cola Company purchased the trademark and began promoting the product.
A June 8, 1967 ad for Fanta denominated that drink the “World’s Largest Selling Orange Soda.”
In 1972, the Nesbitt’s line of soft drinks—which included several flavors in addition to orange—was purchased by the Clorox Company, a maker of bleach, and then went through a succession of owners. The Nesbitt’s trademark is now the property of Big Red, Inc. of Waco, Texas—and not one of its most prized assets, judging from the company having let the federal registration lapse last August. Big Red petitioned to have the registration revived and the petition was granted, subject to opposition emerging. Publication for opposition occurred last Friday in the Official Gazette.
Big Red is marketing Nesbitt’s California Honey Lemonade in some states (not including California) but little has been seen of Nesbitt’s Orange in recent years.
In fact, while ads for the product used to say, “Ask for NESBITT’S wherever soft drinks are sold,” you’d have a hard time locating it nowadays anywhere but one specialty shop in Highland Park. I’m referring to John Nese’s Soda Pop Stop on York Avenue, an establishment I’ve mentioned here before. Nese has turned Galco’s Italian market, long owned by his parents, into a soft drink super mart.
It was about a year-and-a-half to two years ago, Nese recounted on Monday, that a customer came in and mentioned that his father, who had been an executive with Nesbitt’s, was probably the only person still around who had been entrusted with the recipe for the orange drink.
“The truth of the matter,” Nese said, “is that the recipe for Nesbitt’s was never written down.”
He told me that he talked by phone with the one-time Nesbitt’s exec and got him in touch with a bottler and a soft drink chemist. The bottler, through a license from Big Red, is now producing Nesbitt’s Orange, and Nese is a retailer of it.
The major secret in connection with the formula, he revealed, was that the drink got its zest from the “zest” (rind) of the orange.
One mark of faithful adherence at present to the original recipe is that the drink contains sugar, not the cheaper, ubiquitous substitute, high fructose corn syrup.
“Next week, I’m getting in Nesbitt’s Strawberry,” Nese said with enthusiasm.
Plans to reinstitute Nesbitt’s Peach and Nesbitt’s Cream Soda are also in the works, he related.
There was a battle in the courts in the 1930s over the U.S. government’s efforts to proclaim the base for Nesbitt’s Orange, used by soda fountains, an unlawful “adulterated” substance. And what vile “adulterant” fouled the product? Find out in next week’s installment.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company