Soft drinks may be as American as apple pie, but sales have been on the decline for the past decade; last year, for the first time ever, the U.S. consumed more bottled water than soft drinks. But despite growing concern over sugar’s health effects (and the related emergence of controversial soda taxes), many Americans are unlikely to give up their beloved carbonated beverages until they’re pried from their cold, dead hands. That’s particularly true of fizzy drinks that enjoy deep-seated regional affinities — think Texas’s love for Dr Pepper, Chicago’s fondness for Green River, and in North Carolina, allegiance to a curious-sounding soda called Cheerwine.
"Cheerwine is one of those beloved, iconic North Carolina products that tend to confuse newcomers — most likely because of its unusual name,” says Amy Rogers, who writes about food and culture for Charlotte NPR station WFAE. Despite its moniker, Cheerwine contains zero alcohol. As the writers of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue explain, “Cheerwine has the same relation to wine that ginger ale has to ale: that is, it’s roughly the same color.” (The “Cheer” part is self-explanatory, at least from a marketing perspective. The brand’s original slogan: “For health and pleasure.”)
While soda titans Coca-Cola and Pepsi launched around the turn of the 20th century, Cheerwine was created some 20 years later during World War I. Not coincidentally, all three sodas, as well as a number of other competitors including Mountain Dew, Barq’s, and Big Red, were born in the South — something writer Robert Moss attributes to various forces including the region’s efforts to pull itself out of a post-Civil War economic slump and the pre-Prohibition rise of temperance. Sugar was heavily rationed at the time, and company founder L.D. Peeler wanted to create a new soft drink that would use less of it; adding cherry flavoring reduced the amount of sugar needed to make the drink palatable.
Cheerwine was the first bottled cherry soda, appearing long before the 1980s would usher in Cherry Coke and Wild Cherry Pepsi. “It’s got a depth of flavor with this cherry beginning and a root-y ending — almost like a cross between Cherry Coke and Dr Pepper, but better, obviously,” says N.C. chef/restaurateur and A Chef’s Life star Vivian Howard.
Beyond its unique flavor, Cheerwine fans claim it’s also more carbonated than other types of soda. Serious Eats’ J. Kenji Lopez-Alt describes it as “an extra big jolt of bubbliness.” Cheerwine marketing director Joy Harper, Peeler’s great-great granddaughter, explains it as having a “sparkling” quality, noting that “it’s not foamy like other soft drinks.”
Now the oldest continuously family-owned soft drink company in America, the Carolina Beverage Corporation produces Cheerwine and only Cheerwine, with a few variations on the theme: an “original” cane sugar variety that comes in glass bottles and can be found at specialty stores — the mass-market cans and two-liters, like most other sodas, contain high-fructose corn syrup — plus a Diet Cheerwine that was first launched in the ‘60s.
Having bubbled into existence in Salisbury, N.C., in 1917, this year marks Cheerwine’s centennial, and the city will fete its homegrown hero with a free festival slated for May 20, where attendees can guzzle as much free Cheerwine as they can handle. But though the sugary beverage remains a mystery to most people who weren’t born in North Carolina, the soda is slowly but surely creeping onto store shelves across the rest of the country, thanks to the demands of loyal fans and a determined marketing department.
Born for Barbecue
Cheerwine is widely held up by North Carolinians as the best beverage to pair with barbecue, providing a sweet foil to both the vinegar-based sauce that’s traditionally paired with smoked pork shoulder in the eastern part of the state and the ketchup-y sauce that dominates at barbecue joints across the state’s western half. “Cheerwine is pretty much the sweetest soft drink ever made, and in my opinion the greatest accompaniment to barbecue ever produced,” restaurant critic Alan Richman wrote in 2006, pronouncing its flavor “a little like Dr Pepper with cherry syrup stirred in.”
Though it’s difficult to pinpoint how or when exactly the drink became inextricably linked to N.C.’s most famous culinary tradition, according to Harper, “Barbecue restaurants have been serving Cheerwine since the very beginning” — a pairing the soda company has come to refer to as a “Southern handshake.”
Friends of pitmaster Sam Jones, a sixth-generation smoked meat guru known for serving up whole hog barbecue at the acclaimed Skylight Inn in Ayden as well as the more recently opened Sam Jones BBQ in Winterville, say he’s rarely seen without a Cheerwine in his hand. “Cheerwine is one of those drinks, you either love it or think it’s disgusting,” Jones says, noting that he’s been drinking it since he was a kid. He now serves the soft drink at both his restaurants, both on tap from the soda fountain and in glass bottles. It’s one of his best-selling drinks, second only to Pepsi.
Vinegar based barbecue and Cheerwine make life worth living.— Britton John. (@BrittonSettle10) July 20, 2016
If you don't like chopped barbecue plates with a Cheerwine can you really claim North Carolina— bri (@bwanuh) July 3, 2016
When I die, let me go by the way of barbecue, hush puppies, and cheerwine— Kylee (@kylapeyrouse) December 29, 2016
In Literary Trails of the North Carolina Piedmont: A Guidebook, writer Georgann Eubanks says the soda makes “a particularly effective digestive agent” when paired with barbecue, a meal that can sit notoriously heavy on the stomach. It’s also the official soft drink of the NBA — not the basketball league, but the National Barbecue Association.
Of course, Cheerwine’s not the only red soft drink that’s come to be associated with barbecue. In Texas, land of smoked brisket, a soda called Big Red enjoys a similarly loyal following. Found in cans, bottles, or — if you’re lucky — on tap at various barbecue restaurants across the state, it has a saccharine-sweet flavor that some describe as bubblegum, though others will insist it just tastes “red.”
Thank the Internet
For the vast majority of its life, Cheerwine went largely unknown outside its region of origin; as Rogers notes, “until recently, Cheerwine was all but impossible to find outside of a few Southern states.” In the mid-aughts, however, the brand began to enjoy an uptick in sales. As the New York Times discovered in 2011, the driving forces behind the drink’s “expanding cult” have been the internet and social media, which have played a major role in spreading the gospel of regional favorites (i.e., Martin’s potato rolls) in recent years.
Online stores specializing in sales of nostalgic soft drinks and favorite regional foods have helped get Cheerwine into the hands of N.C. expats all over the world; like everything else, it’s now available via Amazon. Cheerwine drinkers are a loyal bunch: The company has more than 150,000 Facebook fans, and its page is dominated by photos of devoted drinkers holding up bottles in front of famous global landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower.
The company has also tried out some decidedly vintage advertising tactics. In 2009, it rebranded with a throwback-style logo based on its original design in an attempt to lure a younger demographic, and in 2011 it launched a "Miss Cheerwine" contest to appoint brand ambassadors to promote its products throughout the South. (Thankfully, the use of female human mascots seems to have fallen by the wayside in the past few years.)
The Cheerwine Industrial Complex
Sometimes referred to as “North Carolina nectar,” the drink has also become a popular cooking ingredient: It’s frequently used in barbecue sauces, including a commercially made version from a brand called Cackalacky. Cheerwine also appears in numerous desserts and baked goods, as well as non-alcoholic punch and cocktails (think bourbon-Cheerwine slushes). At Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen in Raleigh, N.C. the menu includes both Cheerwine-glazed spareribs and Cheerwine cheesecake. Online, recipes abound for everything from Cheerwine cobbler to Cheerwine sangria by way of Alton Brown.
In 2010, Cheerwine teamed up with another native son, North Carolina-born Krispy Kreme, to launch Cheerwine doughnuts that are revived annually for a limited time. Last year, the companies doubled down on the collaboration, with Cheerwine releasing Cheerwine Kreme, a soda promising a “flavorful hint of Krispy Kreme’s Original Glazed doughnut.” Reception to the limited-edition product was mixed, with one fan tweeting, “This is big news for you if a diabetic coma is on your #bucketlist.”
The beverage company also produces Cheerwine sherbet and ice cream bars for Food Lion, a regional grocery store that also got its start in Cheerwine’s hometown of Salisbury. (Side note: The city is not the birthplace of Salisbury steak; that saucy lunchroom staple was in fact invented by a Civil War-era New York doctor named James Salisbury.)
The Future Looks Bubbly
Despite concerns about a shrinking soda market that’s leading big bottlers like Coca-Cola to focus their efforts on other products such as ready-to drink tea and coffee and flavored water, the company seems fairly confident about its future: “Sales have continued to increase even as the [soft drink] category has been shrinking, and we do credit our fans for that,” Harper says. Cheerwine is slowly expanding its footprint, largely thanks to distribution agreements with PepsiCo, and eventually hopes to be available in all 50 states. (Facebook overlord Mark Zuckerberg sampled it for the first time this month and apparently enjoyed it, for whatever that’s worth.)
The soda’s future is also insured by some top North Carolina chefs who, after childhoods spent drinking Cheerwine, are now serving it in their restaurants — including Ashley Christensen, the Raleigh-based chef behind Poole’s Diner and several other acclaimed establishments.
"I didn't drink much soda when I was a kid — my parents didn't keep sugar in the house — so it was always a special treat when we got to drink Cheerwine,” Christensen says. “Now, we serve it in glass bottles at Beasley's, our fried chicken restaurant. And something about a bottle of Cheerwine, poured over crushed ice, just pairs so perfectly with the crispy, salty flavors and textures of fried chicken."
Meanwhile, Vivian Howard serves a pulled pork sandwich doctored up with Cheerwine barbecue sauce at her Kinston oyster bar, Boiler Room. “Since you can’t get it everywhere, a bottle of Cheerwine feels special, so we exalt it,” the chef says.
While Cheerwine’s regional exclusivity might be part of its appeal, if the company has its way it’ll soon be available in every corner of the U.S. Going mainstream seems unlikely to disrupt its status as a beloved local favorite, though: As food writer Amy Rogers proclaims, “Cheerwine drinkers are unwavering in their loyalty.”
Whitney Filloon is Eater’s senior reporter.
Editor: Daniela Galarza