In yesterday’s post about Serge Lutens’ Jeux de Peau, the fragrance that smells like “buttered toast,” I mentioned that a friend detected notes of celery in it, specifically Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda. As promised, I cracked open a can of Cel-Ray to compare notes. I still don’t smell any celery in Jeux de Peau (although others have), but I thought it worthwhile to examine the taste—and aroma—of this odd celery-flavored soda.
It has a bright, sweet and unmistakably celery smell to it. That may sound obvious—of course celery soda smells like celery—but it’s unexpected: it smells exactly like celery, only amplified. Perhaps it’s the bubbles, but the aroma has a sharp, citrus quality akin to (but not quite like) grapefruit. Celery has a lively vegetal freshness, like cucumbers and green peppers, that few other vegetables have. Maybe it’s the lack of sweetness you find in carrots and tomatoes.
The taste is milder, and more savory, but it’s also quite sweet: imagine ginger ale, but with celery instead of ginger. It sounds disgusting—is there any other soda out there flavored with the sweetened essence of veggies?—but it’s very drinkable. Mixed with gin and a squeeze of lemon, and it might make a great summer drink. Could it work with Pimm’s?
I found one Cel-Ray-based cocktail recipe online that uses an extra dry, light sherry as the alcohol:
3 oz. Fino Sherry
2 oz. fresh lemon juice
1 oz. fresh orange juice
1 tsp. liquid honey
It may be worth some experimentation, and given how easy it is to find Cel-Ray in New York, it wouldn’t be difficult.
Cel-Ray wasn’t the only celery soda in American history. A other companies made it, according to my modest internet research, in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Lake’s Celery (Mississippi), Celery-Cola (Alabama), Celery Champagne (Texas?), Alfa-Celo (California)—a post in a forum on antique-bottles.net lists dozens of them from all over the country. Tastes have apparently changed. That antique bottle collector wrote:
I have over 300 bottles and advertising items in my Celery Soda collection. There were hundreds of different companies making some variation of Celery Soda from the 1880s to the present. The flavors varied widely.
Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray is a Celery Tonic which was most popular in New York and New England although I have items in my collection from other places like Mississippi and Louisiana. They had a lot of competition especially in New York City area and Boston. Celery Phosphate was a variation popular across the North. Celery Cream was a celery/vanilla combo similar to Cream Soda. Celery-Cola was a caramel-colored drink similar in taste to Coca-Cola. There was even a celery/alfalfa combo called Alfa-Celo sold briefly in California around World War I.
All of this makes me wonder why a strong celery note wouldn’t appear in more fragrances. A little more research led me to a men’s cologne by Caron called Yatagan (1976). Named after a kind of Turkish sword, Yatagan is a woody oriental fragrance with notes of (according to the company) celery, patchouli and musk. Many reviewers can’t stand it, but Luca Turin gave it five stars (out of five) in Perfumes: The A to Z Guide. He called it “one of the most disturbing masculine fragrances of all time,” and describes its smell as having “borderline sweaty-sour notes of caraway and sage up top, and a dry, inky wood structure below.” Ah, the smell of celery.