New Orleans is famous for its beverages, from the Sazerac to daiquiris and Ramos gin fizzes, but one Big Easy classic drink dwells in relative obscurity to the rest of the nation: the Big Shot soda. The alcohol-free drink, which has existed since 1935, is found in most neighborhood groceries, but if you mention it to out-of-towners, no one's ever heard of the stuff.
It's absurdly cheap, at just 99 cents for a 24-ounce bottle, and is available in tons of flavors like Pineapple, Red Creme, Watermelon, Root Beer, and Peach. Big Shot's ads decorate the exteriors of corner stores and its half-full bottles litter gutters and accompany the hands of children. The soda even gets a shout-out from Hollygrove native Lil Wayne in his 2009 No Ceilings mixtape. "Young Money / Syrup in the Big Shot," he croaks in the opening of "Ice Cream Paint Job," noting a local variant of his signature codeine cocktail.
For a soda that's about to celebrates its 80th birthday this year, there's a noticeable lack of information on its origins. The "big shot" himself is the funny little mascot on the bottle: a Depression-era man in a bowler hat with a cigar stuck in his mouth.
But who is this man, and how did the company get its start? It's not written up endlessly in news or the web. Employees from the plant in Harahan, where it is manufactured, run a Facebook page for it that has 1,892 likes and regular posts updating fans on stores that have added Big Shot to their wares. When I call up the plant in Harahan to learn more about its backstory, I'm told no one there can speak to the press without first having the questions approved by the corporate headquarters in Florida. Even though Big Shot is "New Orleans' Own," he has to first answer to the man in Florida.
It makes sense that Big Shot doesn't show up on a New Orleans bucket list the way a sazerac does. Soft drinks have bad reputations—purportedly they'll ruin your body, teeth, and brain—especially in our frantic Clean Eating moments. Whereas someone probably envisions herself drinking a sazerac at a dim bar in the French Quarter surrounded by jazz music, she should probably also imagine herself the next morning, drinking a Big Shot outside on a stoop trying to chase away the dehydration of a hangover. It's not exactly sexy like that late-night cocktail, but it will be delicious and comforting (and give you a brilliant artificially-colored tongue).
When visitors plan their trips to New Orleans, a frequent request is to see "the real New Orleans," you know, the one tourists don't find on Bourbon Street. If authenticity is the currency in the Big Easy, then Big Shot may be as close as you can get to a true New Orleans beverage. It's affordable to the entire city population, and available within walking distance of most neighborhoods. It's the drink of the people in ways that the gin fizz or a fancy lunch at Commander's Palace is not.
Even though it's as local and authentic New Orleans, it's hard to get anyone to talk about it. When I ask most people, I get a lot of confused looks, shrugs, and blank stares. "Why? Is there something wrong with it?" a guy eating a hot sausage sandwich at the cash register of a corner store in Leonidas responds when I ask him if he ever buys it. "No, there's nothing wrong with it, but why doesn't anyone have anything to say about it?" I ask.
Adell Bryant is a manager at the Circle Food Store, noted as New Orleans' first African-American owned grocery store, and a top seller of Big Shot. There's a vending machine dedicated to it outside the store at 79 cents per bottle. Bryant tells me that people from out of town will come to Circle Food and stock up on the stuff during big events like Mardi Gras and Essence Fest, often clearing out the shelves. "It's a staple," she says. "They have a lot of flavors. It's a cheap, cold drink that's reasonable to buy." To some, it tastes like home. Randy Hamilton, a customer at Circle Food, tells me that while he lived in Tennessee after Hurricane Katrina, when he visited the city before he moved back, he would always stock up to take to his temporary home. Now he's back for good and Big Shot is a permanent fixture as a daily reminder.
Another Big Shot vendor, St. Vincent's Supermarket, is a little corner store in the Irish Channel that is not so much a supermarket as it is a place where neighborhood folks can run in and grab the essentials: beer, tobacco, and snacks. Cal Thabata runs and owns the store, and Clark Holmes runs the kitchen that sells hot plates of food in the back. He notes the popularity of Big Shot in his store, especially the peach and pineapple flavors. "Every city is known for their cold drinks. Detroit is known for their Faygo, Cincinnati is known for their Big K, and New Orleans is known for their Big Shot," he explains.
Big Shot also appears as a noted ingredient in Kingfish, a restaurant in the French Quarter named for eccentric Louisiana Governor Huey Long and known for contemporary Southern dishes. At the restaurant, executive Chef Nathan Richard often turns to various flavors of Big Shot to help out with recipes, including a bread pudding and most recently, a pork belly char sui, which typically requires red food coloring to achieve its signature candy apple-colored glaze. Instead of using food coloring, Richard turned to the atomically red Big Shot Red Creme.
"I have a habit of looking at labels to actually see what's in them, not for health reasons, but just out of curiosity for what's inside my kitchen," Richard explains. "One of the ingredients that makes up [red creme] Big Shot is Red #5. I wondered if I could actually dye the ribs to get that color with it, with other things like sesame oils, we soaked them in this marinade for a few days." His hunch was right, and the red dye took over the meat while adding some sweetness to chorus the dish's flavors. "The dish had a little bit of sweet notes, but the way that [the] flavors were together with the hoisin, sesame, and red creme actually had a bitter flavor to it. When you first see it, you think it's gonna taste like candy."
Richard has been the executive chef at Kingfish for eight months. When creating dishes and purchasing ingredients for the restaurant, he tries to use local ingredients, which he explains has never been an active decision as much as it has been a conditioned reflex. "I think as a chef, we try to support the local economy, and people have been supporting local market before farm-to-table was anything cool in Louisiana," he explains. "I grew up with a garden all my life; we grew our own vegetables." While using Big Shot in recipes may not seem like a typical farm-to-table ingredient, it is a local product made by fellow Louisianans.
Richard grew up in Thibodaux, a small town in Southeast Louisiana about an hour from New Orleans, so the soda has always been a presence in his life. "Big Shot was the drink of choice when you went fishing," he says. "With Zapp's potato chips and Moon Pies: it's something that you grew up on and was part of your life down here." Richard sees the way small local items have an audience, but can often get overlooked in the shadows of corporate giants like Coke and Lay's. "It's very important to preserve local companies like the legendary Hubig's pies, which is no longer here and everyone regrets it."
In the end, no one at Big Shot's production plant returns my calls. My emails disappear into the ether, and my attempts to talk to someone in their corporate headquarters bottoms out altogether. That's OK. Just let the drink speak for itself.
"They're cheap, they're good, and they're local." Chef Richard sums it up for me in six words, but it took me so many more to figure that out.