Culture  /  Origin Story

All Soda Is Lemon-Lime Soda

It’s not a flavor; it’s a vibe.

Seeking answers, I embarked on a voyage into the history of citrus and soda—and learned from my travels that lemon-lime is less a flavor than an archetype, a bright, vibrant antidote to heat and sluggishness that gets delivered through the excited medium of carbonation. Indeed, a certain spectral lemon-lime-ness has been with us since the very start of manufactured fizzy water in the 18th century. It’s the ghost, you might say, in the soda machine.

By the fall of 1929, Charles Leiper Grigg had failed at making soft drinks once already. His orange soda, Howdy, had been crushed by Orange Crush. 7Up would be his follow-up and great success. From the start, it was flavored lemon-lime—a combination Grigg would come to dominate. In that sense, Sprite, Sierra Mist, and Starry are his children too.

The time was right for innovation. In the 1920s, improved bottling technology, reliable caps, and modern refrigeration made soda a viable packaged good for the first time. Aspiring soft-drink designers of the Jazz Age saw dollars in bubbles and tripped over one another to establish the next big thing. Therapeutic properties were a natural selling point: Fizzy mineral waters had long been considered curative on their own terms—mineral springs were the original spas—and corner shops fused them with medicinals. That’s why John Pemberton put the stimulants cocaine and kola nut in his concoction Coca-Cola, first served in 1886. Pepsi was so named because it was thought to provide relief for dyspepsia. And the mood-enhancing lithium that Grigg put into his drink—which was originally called Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda—followed this tradition.

But the other half of his concoction—the lemon-lime—carried on a tradition too. The essence of that flavor, its sharp brightness on the tongue, goes back at least to 1772, when the English chemist Joseph Priestley published his Directions for Impregnating Water With Fixed Air, the first influential manual for the artificial manufacture of carbonated water. Inheriting from the perceived health benefits of natural spa water, Priestley hoped to win over the British Admiralty on a method for improving water drunk at sea by, well, impregnating it with fixed air. Even without added flavors, carbonated water contains carbonic acid, giving it a mild taste in addition to its fizz: Plain synthetic seltzer has the sensibility of citrus.