Trivia

Hard

The Beverage Category “Soft Drink” Derives Its Name From?

Baseball
Alcohol
French Customs
Carbonation
Soft drinks on shelves in a Woolworth's supermarket.
SMC/Wikimedia

Answer: Alcohol

Whether you call it soda, pop, cola, fizzy drink, or minerals, when talking about flavored carbonated drinks, you’re really talking about soft drinks as the industry that produces them calls them. Why is “soft drink” the industry term for the wide array of drinks available from worldwide brands like Coca-Cola to the small batch ginger ales brewed right in your city? In a word: alcohol.

Not alcohol in the soft drinks, mind you, alcohol in the hard drinks. You see, soft drinks exist in direct contrast to the alcohol-rich drinks that preceded them. For centuries preceding the very invention of man-made carbonated drinks and the soft drink industry itself, the term “hard” had come to mean intoxicating and spirituous and was used in relation to alcoholic drinks. To this day we still use the term in relation to alcohol like with “hard liquor,” “hard cider,” and even in brand names like “Mike’s Hard Lemonade” (which distinguishes the brand from plain old non-alcoholic lemonade).

The term “soft drink” evolved in contrast to hard drinks and was in use by the end of the 17th century wherein drink stock was called “soft” if it had no alcohol content. Later, when the growing carbonated drink industry needed a blanket term that would apply across markets regardless of the local slang (a cola in one county was the same as a soda pop in another, after all) they adopted the old term “soft drink” to serve as an umbrella term for their carbonated non-alcoholic drinks. This is why today, even though things like fruit juice, tea, and the like are non-alcoholic, the term is only applied to carbonated drinks.

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