Phosphate Drinks Are Back in Favor at Benchmark

The bygone quack elixir with a toxic-sounding name is making an unexpected comeback as an avant-garde cocktail ingredient.


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Acid phosphate is making its way into more cocktails, and Benchmark Oakland is embracing it.

Photo by Lance Yamamoto

A bygone quack elixir with a toxic-sounding name is making an unexpected comeback as an avant-garde cocktail ingredient.

Acid phosphate was first concocted in 1868 by Harvard professor Eben Norton Horsford as a patent-medicine cure for — as early advertisements claimed — “Dyspepsia, Indigestion, Headache, Mental and Physical Exhaustion, Nervousness, Hysteria, Night Sweats of Consumption, Etc.,” not to mention cholera, old age, and “retarded growth.” While it failed as a cure-all, the medicine unexpectedly became a nationwide fad in the 1870s as the key ingredient in soda-fountain drinks, which it made tangy and sour in an era when fresh fruit juice was a rarity across many parts of the country. Acid phosphate rapidly became so popular and ubiquitous that the generic slang for any soft drink in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was simply “a phosphate.”

Surprisingly, the term “acid phosphate” is actually not a chemical formula, no matter how official it sounds, but rather merely a marketing slogan from an age when scary-sounding science-y nonsense jargon was an effective way to sell products. (One company at the time, for example, named its cough syrup “Tuberclecide,” while another dubbed its headache pills “Nervine Pain Extractor.”) To the modern ear, acid phosphate’s very name now exudes a kind of retro evil — like something Ming the Merciless might have used to dissolve Flash Gordon’s ray gun. Instead, it’s merely phosphoric acid that has been neutralized with mineral salts, which not only renders it mild enough to drink — in fact, slightly less acidic than lemon juice — but also imparts taste-enhancing properties to the resulting liquid, even though acid phosphate itself is completely flavorless. Think of it as the essence of pure sourness.

The eventual dominance of bottled soft drinks, plus the demise of soda fountains and newfound easy access to fresh citrus spelled doom for the phosphate drink, and acid phosphate not only disappeared from the national consciousness by the 1950s, but ceased to be manufactured at all. (Had Horsford only named it “Yum Juice,” it might have never fallen out of favor.) That is — until a few years ago, when beverage historian Darcy O’Neil founded The Extinct Chemical Company for the sole purpose of reintroducing American palates to acid phosphate.

While the general public these days seems contented enough with its Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and Frappuccino, adventuresome bartenders are beginning to introduce acid phosphate as a secret ingredient in craft cocktails, even though it’s not always listed on the menu.

Benchmark Oakland’s new cocktail array features an acid-phosphate concoction called the Colorado Bulldog, devised by Tamir Ben Shalom of Port Costa’s Bull Valley Roadhouse. 

“Our version of the Colorado Bulldog blends vodka, cream, seltzer, New Orleans-style coffee, spiced cherry liqueur — and of course, acid phosphate,” said Benchmark Oakland general manager Joshua Bergman. “It was inspired by the pre-Prohibition drinks that started reappearing on lots of menus recently.”

“The acid phosphate gives it an extra zing, another layer of flavor. But it’s not something you’d want to drink on its own — it’s too strong,” he added. “I think it’s best mixed with something creamy or sweet — it cuts right through that creaminess and sweetness and gives you a different experience you wouldn’t expect.”

Benchmark Oakland is taking the smooth and tangy Colorado Bulldog off its cocktail menu, transporting it to the dessert menu. That move will complete the circle, as acid phosphate again finds itself among sweet treats just as it did in those soda-fountain days.

Benchmark Oakland, 499 Ninth St., Oakland, 510-488-6677, BenchmarkPizzeria.com/Oakland.

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