North Carolinians consider themselves privy to plenty of treasures—the Outer Banks, the Wright brothers, and even Krispy Kreme. But perhaps one of the state’s sweetest secrets is the crisp, bubbling refreshment of hometown soda Cheerwine. For decades, this Salisbury-born beverage has offered the pop-top promise of a surprisingly carbonated cherry concoction—a promise that has won the company both a loyal local following and a noticeable national future.
In the early 1900s, it was common to name products after their looks, explains Cliff Ritchie, president and CEO of Carolina Beverage Corporation and great-grandson of Cheerwine inventor Lewis D. Peeler. The wine in Cheerwine’s name referred to its rich burgundy color, while the cheer emphasized its cherry effervescence. As with similarly nonalcoholic beverages ginger ale and root beer, Carolina Beverage Corporation has spent a great deal of time educating the public and clearing confusion about this drink.
“We are so grateful to our large and loyal customer base in North Carolina,” says Ritchie, who was raised in the business and joined it after college. “And right now our goal is to educate people and get others to try it. Our flavor is why we’ve been here for almost 100 years.”
But having such a unique flavor has been both a blessing and a hurdle for Cheerwine, whose tagline is “a cherry different soda.” “People always ask me, ‘What does it taste like?’ ” he says, referring to the drink’s tag line, a cherry different soda. “Honestly, it’s like asking someone to describe milk-milk tastes like milk; Cheerwine tastes like Cheerwine.”
Although glass bottles commemorating Cheerwine’s 90th anniversary are filled with the original cane-sugar recipe, today, Cheerwine is made with corn sugar and sold in a variety of sizes. And Ritchie claims the beverage is now better than ever. “I have three children, and the whole neighborhood knows where they can go to get a drink,” he says.
The company’s main focus remains the expansion of Cheerwine from a Southern soda to a national product. Most of its business resides in the Carolinas, but in recent years it has expanded to the Midwest and has added a bottler in California. “We have real potential to be a national brand,” says Ritchie, “and that’s our ultimate goal.”
Ritchie says Carolina Beverage is honored to be one of the oldest family-owned soda businesses in the United States. “I never met my great-grandfather, but I think Mr. Peeler would be most proud that we’re still a family business with a legacy that’s very much alive.”