There’s a certain kind of North Carolina wholesomeness that was depicted in black and white episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” in the front porch bluegrass of the late Doc Watson and on dented tin signs politely asking us to drink Cheerwine soda. Although you can take a Griffith-themed tour in Mount Airy – the real-life inspiration for the show’s Mayberry setting – and you can still hear Watson on public radio theme hours, they both exist in reruns and memories, left behind in a time that men in sharply creased khakis refer to as ‘the good ol’ days.’
That’s not the case with Cheerwine. “On all occasions, it’s good taste,” those signs promised – and 101 years later, it still is. If you’re from North Carolina or have spent any time in the superior Carolina, you’re nodding your head in agreement.
The story of this extra-fizzy cherry soda began in Salisbury, North Carolina, in more or less the same place where new chapters are still being added. According to the North Carolina History Project, a businessman named Lewis D. Peeler bought into a Kentucky bottling company in 1913 and started selling its signature drink, Mint Cola. When the company went bankrupt (possibly because Mint Cola sounds disgusting), he bought the local franchise, renamed it the Carolina Beverage Corporation and started to work on a new, less minty soda.
Sugar had been rationed due to World War I, so Peeler used cherry flavoring to sweeten his new soda, which he called Cheerwine, getting the ‘cheer’ because he deemed it a “pleasure” to drink, and ‘wine’ because of its deep burgundy color. By 1924, Cheerwine was already outselling Mint Cola, again, because there’s no way it didn’t taste like carbonated toothpaste.
So no, there’s not a single drop of wine in Cheerwine; although it was originally made in a former whisky distillery, that’s as close to booze as Cheerwine gets. That was news to federal regulators, though, who once pointed their hilariously misguided fingers at the company, accusing it of encouraging children and teens to drink wine. “Cheerwine is wine like root beer is beer,” the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms reluctantly admitted in 1992. “Cheerwine is none of our business.”
Peeler died in 1931, and his son Clifford took over as the company president, leading it through the dark days of the Great Depression. As Cheerwine’s own corporate timeline says, “it was good to have a product with the word ‘Cheer’ in the name back then.” Fast-forward about 87 years, and the Carolina Beverage Corporation is still owned and managed by the fifth generation of the Peeler family.
Cheerwine has a distinct flavor that brings the best out of both artificial cherries and cola (“Like Cherry Coke?” you’re asking yourself. NO, THAT IS NOT EVEN CLOSE TO CHEERWINE) but that taste is only part of its appeal: the other is its extra fizz, which makes it an even more satisfying soda. (“It’s got an extra big jolt of bubbliness to help offset and lighten that sweetness,” James Beard award-winning Cheerwine fan J. Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote.)
Last May, it commemorated its 100th year with a festival in Salisbury and, this May, another festival was held for its 101st year. More than 30,000 people attended the second celebration of “life, liberty and the pursuit of cheerfulness,” because why would you not spend an afternoon drinking Cheerwine slushies and buying “Drink Cheerwine” t-shirts? It’s hard to underestimate the appeal of the soda in this state; Our State magazine pointed out that when Krispy Kreme – another North Carolina company – released a limited-edition Cheerwine cream filled donut, it sold more than a million of them in less than a month.
Cheerwine refers to itself as “Southern food’s trusty sidekick,” and there might not be a better pairing than a cold Cheerwine and a plate of North Carolina BBQ. It’s the perfect accompaniment, whether you enjoy the vinegar tang of a Lexington-style chopped plate or the wrong kind. (Sorry, tomato-based Easterners. You’ll come around eventually.) If you go into one of the state’s most authentic BBQ joints, there’s a better-than-average chance that Cheerwine will be an option at the soda fountain.
If you live beyond the North Carolina border and you’re ready to give this a go, you’re lucky we live in 2017. Cheerwine wasn’t available outside the state until the late 1980s – and it wasn’t even for sale in the entire state until the late 1970s. Although there aren’t distributors in every state (yet), you can order it through the company’s website, and apparently you can also find it at a lot of Fresh Markets, World Markets and…Cracker Barrels (unless you live in Hawaii, Vermont and Wyoming, which are apparently bereft of this superior beverage. WRITE TO YOUR SENATORS AND DEMAND THAT THEY FIX THIS.)
So let’s raise a Cheerwine toward Salisbury, toward the late L.D. Peeler and toward Andy Griffith. Wholesomeness has never tasted so good.