While looking for snacks and drinks at a nearby grocery store this weekend, I ran into a bit of Georgian history—“Laghidze’s Waters,” the first commercialized brand of soda made in Eastern Europe. Last year I had read a scholarly article (by my Caucasus studies rock star, Dr. Paul Manning of Trent University) about the role of “ethnographic brands” in Georgian markets and society. One of his case studies featured the competition between local Georgian beverage companies (which had been protected under the USSR’s regulated economy) with Western capitalist brands like Coca-Cola.
I recognized the name, although the label was in Cyrillic. Apparently the Laghidze company was purchased by a Russian group at some point and production moved out of Georgia. In order to understand all the associations tied up in Laghidze’s Waters, you could read this intensely researched working paper by Dr. Manning. Or you can just listen to me sum it up.
Either way, you have to start with Georgia’s historical relationship to Russia, particularly the imperial period, which is when Laghidze’s was established. If you’ve read Pushkin, Lermontov, or any other 19th century Russian author of note, you will know that for Russians of the period, the Caucasus meant two things: adventure, and health spas. Authors, poets, and musicians of Russia praised Georgian nature and doctors often prescribed a season in Georgia’s health resorts to take in the fresh air and water. To this day, Georgian water is considered to be good for everything from hangovers to cancer, especially by Georgians.
Laghidze’s is also the product of the era of patent medicines. Soda, originally “soda-water,” was intended as a health drink. Consuming natural or artificial mineral water was considered a healthy practice. In America and Western Europe, pharmacists selling mineral waters began to add herbs and chemicals to the unflavored mineral water (which otherwise smells a bit like fart; those who have experienced Nabeghlavi can empathize). Common additives were birch bark, sarsaparilla, and fruit extracts. Also cocaine. Flavorings were added to improve the taste, and soon soda was the edgy “in” beverage–pharmacies with soda fountains became a popular part of Western culture by the late 19th century.
Mitropane Laghidze was the first to combine Georgia’s traditional reputation for medicinal waters with the trendy soda craze of the West—and make bank. Laghidze patented a process for blending natural fruit syrups (compotes) with mineral water, which not only landed him a spot at the Russian World Exposition in 1913, but a poem written by the well-known Georgian poet and nationalist Akaki Tsereteli:
sasmelebis met’oke var— I am the rival of drinks–
ghvinis, ludis, ts’qlis da rdzisa, of wine, of beer, of water and milk,
xileulta esencia the fruit essence
mit’ropane laghidzisa. of Mitrophane Laghidze.
This poem is actually like four stanzas long, I shit you not. But Georgian nationalism was just hitting its stride, so we’ll cut them some slack on the Beverage Odes. Mr. Laghidze opened his first “Laghidze Cafe” in his hometown of Kutaisi, a backwater compared to the Georgian capital Tiflis (Tbilisi), in 1900. It was heralded as a sign of progress and modernity, of creating a uniquely Georgian way to participate in Western trends, and cities all over the Caucasus (and later, Russia) wanted a Laghidze’s fountain.
As Dr. Manning puts it, “the cartoon draws attention to the gulf between the aspirations for ‘European’ modernity (represented locally by Laghidze’s café) and the fact that throughout this period Kutaisi lacked any kind of sewer system or other provisions for urban sanitation (Mch’edlidze 1993: 87-88; 209-210). The problem of ‘Kutaisi entertainment’ is emblematic of the more general problems of modernity on European peripheries: public urban spaces have different functions, entertainment and sanitation, which are kept separate in a European metropole like Paris (for Georgians at that time Paris was the paradigmatic model of modernity), but which are juxtaposed in jarring contrast in derivative, colonial outpost like Kutaisi.”
Laghidze’s drinks remained popular even throughout the Soviet period, in that weird way that brands existed but didn’t under a controlled economy. Today, they have been almost entirely overtaken by the major global beverages, products of PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, Inc. and persist mainly as novelties. The flavors I came across were lemon and cream soda. I went for the cream soda and it was actually disconcertingly natural. As in, it looked like beer but tasted like a dairy product.
I can see how something like this probably won’t survive much longer in the modern marketplace, but I’m glad that I ran into this obscure little point of departure for so many thoughts on branding, imperialism, socialism, health trends, Westernization, and postsocialist markets.