I remember the first time I drank paneer soda. It was in front of an old temple in Thanjavur. My dad asked me, “Do you want paneer soda?”. I had no clue about what it was. I trusted my dad and said yes. When the shopkeeper handled me the old glass bottle, I was a little skeptical. It was colourless and it did not have any fancy emblem or logo like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. It had a poorly printed paper sticker on top of the bottle that said paneer soda in Tamil. But, everything changed when I took the first sip. It was refreshing, fizzy, and tasted like sweet rose petals. I instantly fell in love with paneer soda.
If you’re in Tamilnadu and if you want to quench your thirst, one of the first things you should try (of course next to water) is the paneer soda. Paneer soda is a fizzy, refreshing home grown beverage that has been a part of Tamil culture for over 100 years. With over 300 companies making different brands of paneer soda, the beverage is still competing global giants like Coca-Cola and Pepsi in the market. The success of paneer soda in the Indian market is due to several factors. Let’s take a look at them one by one.
The Carbonated Water
Before getting to know the history of paneer Soda, we should know the history of soda or carbonated water. The idea of infusing carbon dioxide to make a refreshing beverage was invented by Joseph Priestley in 1767. The British chemist found that water treated with carbon dioxide had a pleasant taste and tested it by offering it to his friends. This later led to the commercial manufacture of carbonated water and other beverages. The first commercial carbonated beverage was manufactured by Schweppes in 1783.
The Codd-Neck bottle is the most important part of a paneer soda. The bottle designed by Hiram Codd in 1872 greatly enhanced the experience of drinking a paneer soda in its initial days.
The Codd-neck bottle enclosed a marble and a rubber washer/gasket in the neck. The bottle was pinched into a special shape to provide a chamber into which the marble was pushed to open the bottle. This prevented the marble from blocking the neck as the drink was poured. This also made people to refer paneer soda by the name “Goli Soda” ( Goli in Tamil refers to marble).
With the carbonated water and codd-neck bottle in place, we need to address one more factor that led to the introduction of paneer soda in the market.
The introduction of Coca Cola in 1886 created a huge demand for aerated beverages. In the beginning of the 20th century, when the whole country was under the british rule, several companies across India introduced their version of sweetened sodas and colas. Several brands in North India sold sodas in Codd-neck bottles and called them “Banta soda”. Before the entry of coca-cola and Pepsi into the Indian market, banta sodas were in great demand. At their peak, they sold 75,00,000 bottles per annum.
But, some of the brilliant minds in Tamilnadu wanted to do something different. They thought it would be nice to infuse the flavor of rose water (‘paneer’ as known as in Tamil) into soda. Mr. Palaniappan of Kalimark was one of them. This led to the introduction of Paneer soda into the market.
Kalimark, a company that makes over 200 hundred crores (as of 2016), was started in 1916 by P.V.S.K. Palaniappa Nadar in virudhunagar.
Palaniappan’s father, was a coffee and cardamom exporter. Palaniappan, who was 23 at the time, wanted to step away from his father’s business and try something different. The idea struck him when he saw cool drinks manufactured by Spencer’s being sold on board trains (Spencer’s and Co., founded in 1865, was a store that retailed imported goods—it catered to British expatriates and the Indian elite). When he mooted the idea of manufacturing a local brand to his circle of friends, it was met with an enthusiastic response.
With the idea being an instant hit, Palaniappan jumped into the opportunity and started making soft drinks.
The company sold aerated and non-aerated beverages. The aerated beverages were called “soda” or “paneer soda” and the non-aerated flavoured beverages were referred as “colour” (because they came in different colours. Smart, right?)
The company faced a severe dip in sales when Coca-Cola was introduced in India in the 1950s. But, unfortunately, Coca-Cola had to withdrew their operation in 1977 protesting against the government regulations that limited the dilution of equity of multinational corporations.
From the late 1970s to early 1990s (until Coca-Cola was back), Kalimark had a huge, indispensable presence in Tamilnadu. Bovonto, the fizzy, grape flavored drink that was introduced in 1959 became the flagship product. It was new, refreshing and people of Tamilnadu loved it.
Thriving in the Market
Even today, Kalimark retains the fair share of Tamilnadu’s soft drink market by selling several bottles of Vibro (paneer soda) and Bovonto with bovonto being responsible for more than 90% of the company’s revenue. They hardly advertise themselves over Television, radio or Print. In fact no paneer soda maker advertises themselves. But, they made the drink available in every corner of Tamilnadu. Whichever part of the state you go, you can ask for paneer soda and no shopkeeper will say no.
There are several smaller brands who manufacture paneer soda and sell them in their locality. Even today, you can find small shops in Mylapore selling soda in Codd-neck bottles.
Paneer soda is more than just a beverage to me. It is closely tied to my culture and brings me a ton of nostalgia. Whenever I take a sip from the old bottle, I always see myself as that kid in front of the Thanjavur temple.