Taking a sip of Moxie soda is not unlike swallowing medicine for some deadly tropical disease. Its flavor has also been compared to licking a telephone pole.

Be honest: How many of you have offered a can of Moxie to some unwitting newcomer to Maine just to see the look on their face when they try it for the first time? (If you’re lucky, you’ll get a spit take.)

Granted, some people love the stuff – it’s a love-it-or-hate-it kind of drink – but even those who love it admit that Moxie is an acquired taste. So why would chefs want to build special dishes around it, and risk alienating diners who are unofficial members of the Moxie haters club?

Because, despite the strong feelings it evokes, Moxie has been turning up on Maine restaurant menus lately. Sur Lie in Portland has included both Moxie-braised pork and beef cheeks on its winter menus. Little Giant has had a Moxie-braised pork belly dish on the menu ever since the Portland restaurant opened last year. Biscuits & Company in Biddeford considers its Moxie BBQ pulled pork on a biscuit, served with slaw and housemade pickles, one of its signature dishes. And in April, Sea Glass, the restaurant at the Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth, cooked its Moxie-braised pork cheeks at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City.

Dr. Augustin Thompson, a native of Union who invented Moxie as a patent medicine in 1876, might be astonished not only that his product has survived so long, but also at the ways in which it is being used – even celebrated – 142 years later. Moxie has long been popular as an ingredient in marinades or barbecue sauce. Now it’s showing up in drinks and desserts, too, as well as in entrees at well-regarded restaurants.

“We’re all trying to really embrace Maine as a sense of place, and Moxie is a part of that sense of place,” said Ali Waks Adams, executive chef at the Brunswick Inn.

‘HOW BAD COULD IT BE?’

Adams won the Moxie Festival’s recipe contest a few years ago with her Moxie Shoo Fly Pie, when she was a newcomer to Maine, and plans to use the soda in a dish of pork shanks with grits and greens that she’s serving next week at the inn. The distinctive bitter taste of Moxie, which comes from gentian root, tickles both taste buds and memory, and at the same time gives chefs a challenge and a chance to offer diners something new from an old, familiar taste.

“When you’re creating a dish, you’re sort of reaching back into someone’s memory for something they’ve had before,” Adams said. “And you’re going to do a new twist on it because you really want them to sink into that food and be surprised by it and maybe recognize it.”

A dish made with Moxie, says Andrew Volk, owner of Little Giant, gives diners something that is comfortable, cozy and recognizable, but in the hands of a good chef is elevated. “It’s one of those intriguing flavors that is a challenge to use in a way that people like,” he said.

That challenge is enhanced when the chef making the dish is a Moxie hater. Emil Rivera, executive chef at Sur Lie, is a native of Puerto Rico and worked for years under José Andrés at Jaleo in Washington, D.C. He says he first tried Moxie in the summer of 2014, when his father-in-law bought him a can at Tess’ Market in Brunswick. Rivera’s father-in-law told him it was a local soda and an acquired taste, and if he didn’t like it he would be happy to finish the can for him.

“I’m eating brains and all these things that are worse than that, so I’ll give it a try,” Rivera recalled. “How bad could it be? I had one sip, and I said, ‘This is for you,’ and that was that. That was the end of it.”

Even though Rivera didn’t care for the soda – he doesn’t like Dr Pepper or root beer, either – he says he understood the complexity of its flavor. While he didn’t like it on its own, as an ingredient, Rivera said, “it might bring a certain amount of bitterness and some sweetness to a dish. We just fell in love with it.”

Rivera also likes to explore local ingredients. In addition to using Moxie, he makes a blue spruce ash from trees in his own yard to add a pungent flavor to a duck egg-and-parsnips dish.

Rivera uses Moxie with pork and beef cheeks, always in the winter – the slowest part of the year – because cheeks have lots of sinew and fat and are labor intensive to prepare. He braises the cheeks for three hours with local apples, sweet onions, garlic and Moxie, and serves them with parsnip puree and pickled apples.

WHEN MOXIE MEETS MEAT

Moxie seems to go well with pork and beef. Chefs say its unusual taste provides depth of flavor while the fattiness of the meat balances the bitterness of the soda.

“It pairs very well with savory foods,” said Andrew Chadwick, executive chef at Sea Glass. “Adding a little bit of vinegar and a little bit of brown sugar to it really rounds out the flavor. It doesn’t overpower when you cook it into something, so it adds a good kind of ‘What flavor is in there?’ ”

Moxie was Chadwick’s father’s favorite soda, and the chef is a big fan as well. He drinks it on its own, “and I think it makes a great barbecue sauce.”

When Chadwick cooked at the James Beard House in New York in April, he confited pork cheeks – cooking them in fat for a long time at a low temperature until they are meltingly soft – then braised them in a Moxie barbecue sauce. He served them with kohlrabi slaw and pork rinds for crunch. The dish was part of a five-course menu that also included Alewives Farm Chilled Lobster Tail and Nonesuch Oysters Stew.

Chef Andrew Chadwick and his team from Sea Glass at Inn by the Sea cooked Moxie-braised pork cheeks for dinner at the James Beard House in New York. Photo by Clay Williams for the James Beard Foundation

At Little Giant, Moxie is part of the restaurant’s effort to embrace traditional foods, according to Volk, who says he, personally, would choose a can of Moxie over a can of Coke. Diners at Little Giant can order the soda on its own (it’s also sold at the grocery connected to the restaurant), or in a cocktail. A brunch cocktail called Vacationland includes both Moxie and cardamom-infused Allen’s Coffee Brandy.

While a can of Moxie isn’t the most popular thing on the Little Giant menu, executive chef Ryan Wyllie’s Moxie-braised pork belly dish is definitely a crowd pleaser, Volk says. The restaurant goes through an estimated 25 liters of Moxie each month to prepare the pork belly, which is served on smoked-onion purée and garnished with pickled blueberries and toasted hazelnuts.

“The Moxie really plays well in that flavor set,” Volk said. “It helps bring out the smokiness in the onions.”

Little Giant isn’t alone in its exploration of Moxie cocktails. John Myers, director of beverage and production at Stroudwater Distillery in Portland – and probably the best-known bartender in Portland – was messing around one day with Vespertino, a cream liqueur made with silver tequila, fresh cream, brown sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and vanilla. On a whim, he added about six ounces of Moxie to 2.5-3 ounces of Vespertino, and discovered he’d made a “ridiculously simple” happy accident. It’s one of his favorite creations.

Moxie-Vespertino Cocktail. Courtesy of Stroudwater Distillery

“It’s an adult root beer float,” Myers said. “Of all the drinks I’ve ever made and gotten published, this is one of the best and one of the simplest.”

Sam Richman, chef/owner of Sammy’s Deluxe in Rockland, jokes that aside from drinking Moxie himself on hot, busy nights in the kitchen and “taking the rust off our skates with it in the winter,” he adds it to a glass of fernet. “Coke and fernet is super popular in South America, but the Moxie works better,” he said. “The bitterness of the Moxie plays off the bitterness of the fernet with just enough sweetness. It makes a great aperitif.”

TAMING THE SAVAGE SODA

Richman was one of several restaurateurs who mentioned using Moxie in floats (with vanilla or salted caramel ice cream) and other desserts.

Ilma Lopez, who co-owns the Portland restaurants Piccolo and Chaval with her husband Damian Sansonetti, does a take on a chocolate tart at Chaval, which – like the brunch cocktail at Little Giant – contains both Moxie and Allen’s Coffee Brandy. Her husband loves Moxie. “I don’t mind Moxie,” she said, “but it’s not my first choice.” She does, however, love Allen’s Coffee Brandy in a little milk.

Lopez fills a vanilla tart shell with warm chocolate that’s been mixed with Moxie. She tops the tart with coffee ice cream made with Allen’s Coffee Brandy.

“You want people like Damian who love (Moxie) to be able to recognize that there’s Moxie in it,” she said. But she also has to “make sure it’s balanced for people like me that don’t naturally go for it. We don’t want to scare anyone away.”

As Rivera from Sur Lie put it, Moxie is “a strange beast, but it’s tameable.”

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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