Classic Citrus Sodas Endure Behind the Bar - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Classic Citrus Sodas Endure Behind the Bar

Squirt has long known which side its bread was buttered on. In 1954, a magazine ad for the grapefruit-flavored soft drink advised, “When you serve mixed drinks, when you drink, be smooth about it … switch to Squirt, the smooth mixer.” A decade later, the company was even more specific, saying, “Squirt treats whiskey, gin, and vodka with respect, gentles them with the fresh, dry taste of sun-ripened citrus. It’s the real thing—a fresh approach to the mixed drink.” By 1970, the citrus soda had gone all in, running a picture of Squirt surrounded by a mixing glass, ice bucket, tongs, and a rocks glass, as if it was a bottle of liquor itself.

Squirt’s decades-long booze-friendly campaign paid off. While as a soda, it might be your ninth or 10th choice when browsing the beverage aisle at the supermarket, it still retains a small but certain foothold in the world of adult drinks. It’s nearly essential to the lion’s share of Palomas and is employed as a topper when the call goes out in Wisconsin for a “Brandy Old-Fashioned ‘Sour.’” 

Brian Bartels, co-owner of Oz by Oz. | Photo by Ryan Huber

In a soda world dominated by colas and straight-forward lemon-lime propositions like Sprite and 7-Up (and whatever it is Mountain Dew represents), also-ran citrus sodas refuse to go away. They’ve managed to hang on somehow, buoyed by a flavor profile plucked from a quirkier selection of orchards, small but loyal fan bases, and pockets of regional devotion.

Some of these brands have been gobbled up by international conglomerates. Squirt, which was invented by Herb Bishop in Arizona in 1938, is part of Keurig Dr. Pepper, which owns dozens of beverages from Clamato to Hawaiian Punch. So is Sun Drop, which was created by Charles Lazier in Missouri in 1949, and, like Squirt, began as a southern brand. And Ting, a grapefruit soda that was invented in Jamaica and has a devoted following in the U.S., is made by Pepsi-Cola.

But others are still small, independent, and occasionally family-owned. Green River, invented by Richard C. Jones in Davenport, Iowa, in 1919, is now owned by Wisconsin’s Sprecher Brewery, which is best known for a well-loved root beer. Ale-8-One (pronounced “a late one”), based in Winchester, Kentucky, is currently in its fourth generation of family ownership. Ski, meanwhile, was formulated in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at The Double Cola Company, in 1956. It’s now made by the family-owned Excel Bottling Company in Breese, Illinois. 

Asked the secret of their longevity in the face of unrelenting competition, the people behind these soft drinks say the same thing: there’s just nothing like it. “There really isn’t anything like Ski,” says Katrina Farmer, the brand marketing manager for Double Cola Company. “Its authenticity and quality are unparalleled.” 

Squirt is famously grapefruit-forward, as is Ting. Green River, while it has lemon in its makeup, hits its lime note hard. Ski is made with an unusual combination of lemon and orange. Sun Drop combines the trifecta of lemon, lime, and orange.

Kevin Price, the chief marketing officer at Ale-8-One, says the soda’s low carbonation, plus unusual mix of ginger ale, citrus, and caffeine, helps it to stand out. “It’s crafted differently and with care,” he says. “It’s survived because of our fans. We are the humble and grateful beneficiaries of an unparalleled and highly engaged fan base.” They are not wrong. The concept of a citrus soda may seem at first like a flavor monolith, not unlike colas, with all bottles tasting like a variation on the same sweet-tart theme. But when a producer strays even a little bit from the generic lemon-lime blueprint, the difference can be striking. Squirt is famously grapefruit-forward, as is Ting. Green River, while it has lemon in its makeup, hits its lime note hard. Ski is made with an unusual combination of lemon and orange. Sun Drop combines the trifecta of lemon, lime, and orange. 

Idiosyncratic citrus sodas stand a fighting chance behind the bar in a way that off-brand colas do not. (When Jack and Coke works so well, and the name is so embedded in the consumer’s mind, who’s going to bother with a Jack and RC Cola?)

Citrus Soda Oz by Oz Squirt Cocktail
Squirt in an X-Box Jukebox cocktail at Oz by Oz in Madison, Wisconsin. | Photo by Matt Haas

These sodas’ often-intense regionality tends to benefit them, in terms of mixed drinks. Squirt’s Arizona origins, so close to the border, very probably had a lot to do with its being taken up by Mexico as a good match for tequila. And its Wisconsin following remains strong: Most every bar in America’s Dairyland has Squirt on hand to complete Old Fashioneds. Brian Bartels, co-owner of Oz by Oz in Madison, recently put an X-Box Jukebox on the menu, a Gin & Juice variation calling for gin, dry vermouth, ginger brandy, lemon juice, and Squirt. “I’m admittedly late to the Squirt game after being away from Wisconsin so long,” says Bartels, who previously worked Squirt into Old Fashioned recipes as a college bartender before moving to New York and managing several bars in Manhattan. “But ever since coming back, just like the sun, it seems impossible to avoid.”

Like Squirt, Sun Drop’s fan base is an odd mix of southern and midwestern states, with the Carolinas, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Missouri, Alabama, and Minnesota home to the most ardent fans. Sun Drop—which has more caffeine than even Mountain Dew—is so popular in Shawano, Wisconsin, where it’s been bottled by Twig’s Beverages since 1951, that there’s an annual Sundrop Dayz festival. There’s also a Sun Drop university museum in Shawano run by Twig’s. Admission is free.

In Tennessee, Sun Drop is regularly mixed with local whiskey favorite, George Dickel. “One of our biggest accounts, the Bluegill Grill in Tullahoma, does frozen Dickel and Sun Drop slushies that are ridiculously good,” says Dickel general manager and distiller Nicole Austin. “The volume they move is astonishing. It is 100 percent a thing.” Bluegill Grill estimates it sells 100 slushies a day historically and goes through more than 80 12-pack cases in a season on average. 

Bluegill Grill estimates it sells 100 [frozen George Dickel and Sun Drop] slushies a day historically and goes through more than 80 12-pack cases in a season on average. 

The area around Charlotte, North Carolina, is another Sun Drop hotbed—but with a twist. There, the favored drink is Cherry Lemon Sun Drop, a mixture first concocted in the 1960s that includes Sun Drop, a squeeze of lemon, and either cherry syrup or Cheer-wine, another local soda. (These homemade virgin cocktails were popular enough that Sun Drop came out with its own Cherry Lemon flavor in the 1990s.) At the South 21 Drive-In, which has been in business since 1955, the menu features Sun Drop as well as a 25-cent option called “add cherry flavor.” The cherry-lemon version is also a staple at the area institutions R.O.’s Bar-B-Cue and What-a-Burger. Hello, Sailor, a bar in nearby Cornelius, North Carolina, sells a frozen Negroni made with Cherry Lemon Sun Drop. 

“When we were drinking illegally in high school [the legal drinking age at the time in North Carolina was 18], Sun Drop was the mixer of choice,” recalls Chris Crunkleton, a North Carolina native and brother of Gary Crunkleton, who owns the popular Charlotte bar The Crunkleton. “You never went to Myrtle Beach without a couple of liters. And if you ran out, you called home to find out who was coming to the beach to bring more.”

Ale-8-One and Ski benefit mightily from having their headquarters in bourbon country. “Ale-8 and bourbon over ice is the most common pairing,” says Kevin Price. “The Ale-8 bourbon slushy is also quite popular in Kentucky. We have a dedicated Ale-8 slushy machine for use by establishments in the region.”

A frozen-drink machine at Belle’s Cocktail House making a Blackberry Ale-8 Slushy. | Photo by Victor Sizemore

At North of Bourbon, a restaurant in Louisville, a cocktail called Shelby Drink Your Juice is made of Old Forester 100, orange and lemon juices, passion fruit syrup, and Ale-8-One. At Belle’s Cocktail House in Lexington, the Maker’s Mark/Ale-8 slushies are such a part of the bar’s identity that they’re featured on the website. Molly Wellman, who until recently owned the cocktail bar Japp’s in Cincinnati, thinks Ale-8 blends perfectly in a gin highball, and the soda is ubiquitous in whiskey highballs throughout the region. “If you’re ordering bourbon and ginger in Louisville, it’s the rule [to include Ale-8], not the exception,” says Larry Rice, co-owner of The Silver Dollar in Louisville. 

Hacienda is a chain of Mexican restaurants with locations throughout Indiana. Each outlet offers its own specialty Margarita. In the Evansville locations, that Margarita is made with Ski. That’s because Evansville deeply loves its Ski. For reasons that are unclear, the soda has long held a tight grip on the public thirst, so much so that it’s referred to by locals as “west side water,” after the west side of the city. If you need something to eat with your drink, Ski-flavored pie can be had. In 2020, when a rumor went around that Ski wouldn’t be sold in Evansville any longer, there was a brief panic. In nearby Breese, Illinois, a restaurant called the Turf Bar & Grill declares on T-shirts and social media that it is “the home of the Snoot Shooter,” an hourglass-shaped shot of layered whiskey and Ski. 

Ski is more than happy to assist its fans in their search for adult-drinking choices using the soda. The company had its eye on cocktails from the get-go. When Ski launched in the late 1950s, it distributed a catalog promoting a Ski-and-vodka mixture called the Ski Hopper. “Ski was a popular mixer for young people in later decades,” says Joe Henken, a Ski superfan who owns a vast collection of Ski memorabilia. “For kids who grew up drinking Ski, I guess there was a familiarity there that provided a smooth transition to more adult drinks.”

Ski is more than happy to assist its fans in their search for adult-drinking choices using the soda. The company had its eye on cocktails from the get-go.

That approach continues today. The company, having found that Ski pairs well with light-bodied beer, launched the Brewski line of beers in 2020, including the Citrus Shandy, made of equal parts Kolsch and Ski. They have since released two more tropical-forward flavors.

Green River takes full advantage of its strong connection to Chicago, where the soda was made for a time in the 1980s. The city remains Green River’s biggest market. On St. Patrick’s Day, when the Chicago River is dyed green, consumption of the soda skyrockets. “Sales are way up during St. Patrick’s season, and especially social media mentions,” says Tim Cigelske, director of communications at Sprecher. “I saw someone with 1.1 million followers tag us on Instagram just chugging two bottles of Green River at once.”

Cigelske has also seen someone drinking a mix of Green River and Malört, the very bitter wormwood spirit loved in the Windy City and nowhere else, making for perhaps the most Chicago highball ever. “There’s a huge amount of regional pride and nostalgia for the brand and any drink recipe that involves it,” he adds. (For any Creedence Clearwater Revival fans out there, yes, the band’s 1969 hit “Green River” was inspired by the soda, which singer-songwriter John Fogerty drank as a kid.)

Mixing a Wray & Ting at Miss Lily’s 7A Cafe in New York City. | Photo by Clay Williams

Some citrus sodas don’t have to work as hard to create a signature cocktail. Squirt, of course, has the Paloma. (Squirt declined to speak on the record for this article.) Ting has something almost as good, the Wray & Ting, a mix of two distinctly Jamaican products, Ting and Wray & Nephew overproof rum. The drink is so popular it amounts to the unofficial cocktail of the island nation. Ivy Mix, co-owner of Leyenda, a bar in Brooklyn with a focus on Latin American spirits, is a fan. “We make our own grapefruit soda at Leyenda, but I’m a huge fan of Ting,” she says. “A Paloma with Ting is the second best to our own at Leyenda. A total staple and go-to. Living in Crown Heights, there’s Ting everywhere, and I always have a few bottles on hand.” 

Kenney Marlett, a journalist who works at the Chicago Tribune, and a cocktail enthusiast who visits Jamaica often, says a common serve in Jamaica is a bottle of Ting and a flask-sized 200ml bottle of Wray & Nephew. “The last time we were in Jamaica we were also introduced to the ‘Rumpari,’ a drink that Campari corporate was pushing that mixes Wray, Campari, and Ting. That led us to try a highball that was just Campari and Ting, which has become a surprising favorite.” 

In fact, Ting could—as could any of these sodas, really—easily market itself with the same winking slogan Squirt used back in 1970s: “the semi-soft drink.”

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