Brooklyn mourns iconic seltzer man Eli Miller
Brooklyn native Eli Miller, who gained the moniker “the sultan of seltzer” and was one of the last remaining old fashioned seltzer salesmen, has died. Although his death was just announced publicly this past Tuesday, Miller died at his Brooklyn home on March 12 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease according to a March 24 New York Times obituary. He was 86.
“Eli Miller lives and breathes seltzer. He has been lugging 70 lb. seltzer cases across Brooklyn his entire life,” read his bio from the Brooklyn Jewish Historical Initiative’s website. The blurb was published shortly before Miller was honored in the BJHI’s 2017 Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame.
Miller’s career of selling seltzer to Brooklynites spanned six decades, a longevity that might even be linked to the fact that Miller was born on the summer solstice — the longest day of the year: June 21, 1933. He was raised in Brighton Beach and graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School.
During Miller’s day, marketing seltzer was more colorful and dramatic than in today’s culture, when one simply grabs a bottle from a supermarket shelf. In fact, Miller had a word for seltzer sold in plastic bottles: “dreck.”
An old fashioned seltzer man like Miller had customers and turf.
During the 2017 Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame presentation, Miller, in his raconteur style, told the story of how he got into the business as a young person. He took a huge risk at the time: He coaxed a store manager for whom he worked into “lending” him 40 cases of a beer that was a favorite in Bedford-Stuyvesant at the time. Miller then sold those cases on credit to the community.
After realizing that the cost of maintaining a liquor license cut into his profits, young Miller found his niche in the seltzer business for the next six decades, delivering the beverage in glass bottles to individual homes and building his customer base into a business. He even had his father, Meyer Miller (a retired house painter) help him on deliveries. Tragically, Meyer Miller died of a heart attack during a delivery run.
Upon his retirement in 2017, Miller sold his business to Alex Gomberg, whom Miller trusted to be as impassioned about seltzer as himself. Gomberg is the youngest member of the Brooklyn Seltzer Boys, another company specializing in the product. On the day he was honored, Miller brought along Gomberg, complete with a table of seltzer bottles, syrups and milk, to make for this audience the famous Brooklyn egg cream.
Seltzer is a crucial ingredient in the egg cream. “Made with a little chocolate syrup (traditionally Brooklyn-made Fox’s U-bet), a splash of milk, the rest of the glass full of plain seltzer. The milk and soda give an egg cream the froth of a root-beer float, but it isn’t too sweet,” reads the BJHI website.
Miller was one of the subjects featured in the book “Seltzertopia: The Effervescent Age,” by Barry Joseph, who spent a day with him on his route. The related website of the same name had posted several videos and other tributes to Miller as of Wednesday afternoon.
Miller was also the hero of a children’s book that fellow Brooklynite and longtime customer Ken Rush wrote and illustrated.
Rush, an author, artist and longtime upper school visual arts teacher at the Packer Collegiate Institute, wrote in his 1993 book titled “The Seltzer Man” (MacMillan Publishing Company): “A delivery man sees his job in a new light when he takes two young helpers along on his route. After ‘schlepping seltzer’ throughout Brooklyn for 40 years, Eli feels ready to retire — ‘My truck’s worn out, and folks don’t want to fuss with my old bottles and crates anymore,’ — but Beth and her sister are fascinated by his work, and jump at Eli’s suggestion that they accompany him on his rounds. The final stop on a busy delivery day is Coney Island, for ‘lunch on the boardwalk’ and a ride on the Wonder Wheel. The girls’ wide-eyed enthusiasm convinces Eli that he’s not quite prepared to park his truck for good.”
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