When you’re a chef as revered as Ashley Christensen, and you win a James Beard Award as the best chef in the country, travelers come to see you a lot. Not just people who want to visit your six restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina, but also fellow chefs who jump at the chance to cook and do events with you. And when chefs from outside of the South show up, Christensen knows they’ll always ask about a certain ingredient: Cheerwine.
What’s Cheerwine? For people outside of the South, Cheerwine is a bit of a mystery: It’s a soft drink, but it sounds like a wine cooler. It has a deep red color and a slight cherry flavor, but it’s also a cola. And it has enough tingly bubbles to make your nose twitch.
So what exactly is it? Let’s get the most common misconception out of the way: Cheerwine doesn’t contain alcohol. L.D. Peeler created Cheerwine in Salisbury, North Carolina, in 1917, when local and state-level Prohibition was spreading across the country before it became national law in 1920. North Carolina was the first state in the South to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages statewide, in 1908.
Descendants of the Peeler family, who still run the company 103 years later, don’t know for sure why Peeler picked a name that included “wine” in such a teetotaling place. But it was fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to give soft drinks names that evoked forbidden “hard” drinks, like birch beer and ginger ale, and Peeler’s new soda had a burgundy color like red wine.
“Cheer” was apparently L.D.’s way to evoke both the cherry flavor and the high effervescence of his new drink, which had a bubbliness that was a little sharper than the creamy fizz of other soft drinks. Peeler had been bottling a Kentucky-based soda called Mint Cola when sugar prices started to go up during World War I. Searching for something that didn’t need as much sugar, Peeler found a wild cherry syrup from St. Louis and discovered that cutting the traditional cola flavor with cherry made a combination that could be a little more tart and a little less sweet.
Today, there’s something about the complexity of the flavor that especially draws chefs who want to make a connection to the South. “With Cheerwine, you get a kick of dry fruit,” Christensen says. “I think about it as a little bit of a sting, the sharpness of the cherry.”
It’s not hard to find chefs and bartenders playing with it in the Carolinas. In Charlotte, Cheerwine butter is served with pretzel bread at Stoke. Cheerwine beef jerky also turned up in the city as a recent menu special at Sweet Lew’s BBQ. For a dinner at the James Beard House in New York City, Charlotte chef Marc Jacksina made a twist on boiled peanuts, combining Cheerwine with Asian ingredients, including star anise and mirin. And in Asheville, chef Elliott Moss of Buxton Hall Barbecue likes to play off Cheerwine’s traditional connection with barbecue restaurants—Sam Jones of the Skylight Inn barbecue dynasty calls the combination of barbecue sandwiches and Cheerwine “a Southern handshake.” Moss uses it in sauces and sprays it on ribs to keep them moist and form a sticky coating that helps the smoke flavor cling to the meat.
What Moss is really known for, though, is the Buxton Slushie, a frozen drink containing bourbon and Cheerwine. When he opened Buxton Hall in 2015, he wanted a frozen drink that felt newer, on the verge of trendy. He ended up reaching back in time to play off Cheerwine’s retro feel. He planned to change it out for another frozen drink, but it was so popular, he never got the chance. “People won’t let us not have it on the menu,” he says.
Bob Peters, a Charlotte cocktail consultant who planned to open a new bar, Grinning Mule, this spring (the opening has been delayed due to coronavirus closures), loves to play around with Cheerwine, for its North Carolina connection as well as for the unusual flavor. For a dinner at the James Beard House, he once went “molecular” with the soda, reducing it down to a syrup and adding a few tricks to create Cheerwine “cherries”—cherry- shaped balls with concentrated Cheerwine inside. For another event, he reduced it with added sugar to make a cordial that he mixed with barrel-aged gin and bittersweet Italian Punt e Mes for a dark, wintery take on a Negroni. “It’s a dark cherry flavor, with a little less berry flavor than you’d think,” Peters says. “When people say they don’t like cherry soda or cherry candy, I say, ‘You need to try this.’ It’s a little more complex than a cherry soda. There’s a bit of a citrus note to it.”
One thing that’s hard to find in the competitive world of sodas is a company that manages to stay family-owned for five generations. Cheerwine is still made by the Carolina Beverage Corp., still based in the small city of Salisbury, about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte, and is still run by Peeler’s descendants. L.D.’s son, Clifford Peeler, took over the company in 1931 and continued to work there until he was 93. By that time, Clifford’s grandsons, Mark and Cliff Ritchie, had joined the company. Clifford Peeler died in 2000, at age 96.
Mark Ritchie is now retired, but his brother Cliff is still president of Carolina Beverage. Cliff’s daughter, Joy Harper, is now vice president of marketing, and her brother, Carl Ritchie, is business development manager. In a story in The Charlotte Observer in 2000, Mark Ritchie credited his grandfather with the company’s survival, especially through the 1970s, when many smaller soda brands were snapped up by conglomerates. “It’s rare that family businesses make it to the fourth generation,” Ritchie told the paper. “They’re usually sold in the second generation.” The Cheerwine family stayed together, he said, because Clifford Peeler was in charge for so long. “He was able to shepherd it through all those years and keep the [company] working together.”
More than a century after Cheerwine’s debut, this family connection remains essential. “Growing up [in Salisbury], I was definitely known as ‘the Cheerwine girl,’” Joy Harper says. One thing that has kept the company in the family is an understanding that you have to earn your keep, she says. “It was never a guarantee that my dad would work here and that I would work here. It’s rare, to make it as far as I have. We’re still family run and operated. We’re one of the oldest continuously run soft drink brands left in America.”
In the same way that craft brewers have created niches that have allowed them to take on huge brewing companies, small regional sodas also have found markets that depend on customer loyalty and good backstories. The company has made several attempts to move distribution beyond North Carolina, pushing into other markets with some success. “We’re kind of in the land of giants,” Harper says. “It’s finding the right distribution partners, and having enough scale to jump into a new market.”
Cheerwine in glass bottles is sold in restaurants and shops around the country, and it’s popular on mail-order beverage sites that distribute other regional favorites, like Kentucky’s Ale-8-One, Tennessee’s Dr. Enuf, and New England’s Moxie. It’s also distributed at Cost Plus World Market and the Publix grocery chain, and in some Jewel-Osco and Meijer supermarkets in the Midwest. For a while, there was even a bottling company making it in Oslo, Norway, where there’s apparently a special appreciation for all things Americana. There’s even a barbecue restaurant in Australia that serves it.
Among aficionados, there’s a distinct preference for Cheerwine in glass bottles over the product sold in 12-packs of cans and two-liter plastic bottles. The rationale? The product in glass bottles is made with cane sugar, while cans and plastic bottles, made in larger quantities, contain soda sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. “I’m a glass- bottle person,” Christensen says.
Because the company is privately held, Harper won’t reveal financial figures, other than to say that 2019 was their best sales year, even as soda sales in general are declining. But beyond the nostalgia appeal to Southern baby boomers, Harper says young people, particularly in their 20s, are now some of the company’s key customers. “We appreciate where we come from, and millennials look for that,” she says. “Cheerwine isn’t a generic soft drink. I think that’s why it’s spanned the test of time.”
Editor’s Note: Since the publication of this article, Chuck’s in Raleigh has announced its permanent closure due to the COVID-19 crisis.
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