Cheerwine is one of those old times sodas that doesn’t plan to stay old time. That is, the company plans to go nationwide, through distribution deals, like one with Pepsi in 2005. They are even going world-wide, having announced an agreement with a Norwegian firm to bottle the soda in Oslo. There has also been interest in Russia and Africa.
What makes a soda old-time, anyway? Most of the well-known soda brands have been around since sodas first became, well, sodas. So really, the only distinction between an old-time and a “modern” soda is whether it managed to go nationwide at one point or another. Cheerwine has been around since 1917 but few outside the southeast have ever heard of it. Let’s check it out.
In 1913, in Salisbury, North Carolina. L.D. Peeler, a general store owner, bought some stock in a Kentucky company, Maysville Syrup Company, with a couple other investors. A mint cola was the specialty of and founded the Carolina Beverage Corporation. The company began with a mint cola called, appropriately, MintCola. Peeler and investors bought out the company in 1917 and changed its name to Carolina Beverage Company. While continuing to sell the MintCola, Peeler began experimenting with other flavors of his own.
That year, a traveling salesman from St. Louis passed through town and sold Peeler the recipe for a wild cherry flavoring. He experimented with the recipe, adding nine other flavors and soon developed a “totally unique soft drink,” according to Mark Ritchie, Peeler’s great-grandson. He named it Cheerwine. The drink was essentially a highly carbonated cola with a hint of wild cherry (more carbonated than most other sodas). It was burgundy-red colored and boastfully called the Nectar of the Tar Heels, although it remained a Salisbury secret for many years.
The name did cause some trouble since many people thought it was an alcoholic beverage and alcohol was a bit frowned upon in the South. MintCola continued to be bottled into the 1930’s but by 1924, Cheerwine was outselling the mint soda and the company changed the name of the bottling company from the Mint Cola Bottling Company to Cheerwine Bottling Company. Around this time, in 1920, the company had begun selling the drink in bottles etched with a new three-cherry logo, which replaced the bottles with paper labels. Today’s logo has gone a little more retro.
L.D. Peeler died in 1931 and his son clifford took over as president until 1992 and then served as chairman until 2000, when he died at age 96. The company is still in the hands of family, however, and thrives under Peeler’s great grandsons Mark and Cliff Ritchie.
Pour some Cheerwine in a glass, and you’ll see a bubbly soda that definitely looks more like a cola than a cherry drink, but with much more red. And instead of just fizzing, you’ll get an extra pop owed to the generous carbonation. It definitely does not taste “very cherry” but you can tell the cherry is there. It is pretty sweet but has enough body not be be sickening. Like many others, if pressed to compare it to another cola, I’d say it is comparable to Dr. Pepper, or maybe Dr. Pepper Cherry…but not exactly. You’ll have to try it. I’d go so far as to say Dr. Pepper Cherry with a hint of Robitussin, but not in a bad way. I quite like it.
Krispy Kreme, which was started in North Carolina, rolls out a Cheerwine filled doughnut from time to time. As if you could possible make a soda less healthy. I’ve personally never tried it but it looks gre…it’s looks like it would put you into an instant diabetic coma. Through a partnership with Food Lion, company also sells a Cheerwine Swirl ice cream, Cheerwine sherbert, and Cheerwine cream bars, which are manufactured by Dairy Fresh, a subsidiary of Dean Foods.
Although there is a Diet and Caffeine Free Cheerwine, the recipe has been kept close to it’s origins, except for the inevitable switch to high fructose corn syrup for sweetening. There is also a Cheerwine Retro available that used cane sugar, but most people will probably not notice a difference.
Cheerwine is now available in 15 states: North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Florida, and California. This doesn’t mean, however, that you’ll find it on every grocery store shelf in those states; its still going to be hard to find. The Cheerwine website offers a search for retail vendors.