The South is known for its singular and unique culinary dishes. From hushpuppies to liver mush to the classic RC Cola and Moon Pies, we’ll slave over a skillet or walk miles barefoot to get our hands on our favorite treats. For us native-born North Carolinians, nothing sings the sweet song of our palates quite like Cheerwine. For nearly a century, Salisbury, North Carolina, has been the home base for the bubbly beverage with distribution limited to a short radius, but with big plans to expand nationwide by 2017, it’s time to educate the rest of the country about The Nectar of North Carolina.
1917 was a big year for Salisbury general store owner L.D. Peeler. That year, Maysville Syrup Company of Maysville, Kentucky, went bankrupt, and Peeler, along with a few wise investors, purchased the company and moved it to North Carolina, renaming it Carolina Beverage Corporation. That same year, a traveling salesman from St. Louis passed through Salisbury and Peeler’s general store. Peeler had been considering adding a cherry-flavored soda to his repertoire for the new Carolina Beverage Corp. and, inspired, purchased a distinctly cherry-flavored syrup from the salesman. After tinkering with other syrup combinations, Peeler discovered the unique flavor combination that is Cheerwine.
Named for its color (the deep burgundy of red wine) and happiness-inducing flavor, Cheerwine quickly gained traction and popularity through the neighboring boroughs around Salisbury. Locals would walk miles for the refreshing flavor and effervescence of Cheerwine found only at Peeler’s general store. Mint Cola, the recipe originally developed by the Maysville Syrup Company, was initially the most popular soda, and Peeler’s bottling company, Mint Cola Bottling Company, was named after it. But by 1920 Cheerwine’s popularity had grown to such an extent that Peeler renamed the company Cheerwine Bottling Company, and our burgundy beverage eventually completely overcame its minty predecessor.
It was also in 1920 that the design of the Cheerwine label changed to include three cherries etched into the glass of its bottles. Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, it was also around this time that slot machines began utilizing cherry images, three cherries coming to symbolize good luck. True fans of Cheerwine read this historical continuity not as coincidence but as fate.
After L.D. Peeler died in 1931, his son Clifford took over the business. Clifford managed not only to carry the company through the Great Depression but to maintain its profitability throughout the decade. With the 1940’s and World War II, Cheerwine, like many American businesses, contributed to the war effort in whatever ways possible, including donating old signage. Rumors flew, in fact, that one could make out the faint Cheerwine emblem on the helm of the USS Intrepid. And Cheerwine lovers still adore the tale of the young soldier, hailing from Salisbury, who received a package on the frontline and shared his bottle of Cheerwine with his comrade.
Cheerwine continued to grow as a company during the remainder of the twentieth century, though their distribution remained limited to the Piedmont of North Carolina. When President Eisenhower passed through Salisbury in 1953, he snagged a bottle of the elusive pop and, upon first sip, proclaimed simply, “Ike likes!” Even presidents can’t refuse the cherry-tart of Cheerwine, and visitors to the state have been hauling back booty of the beverage for decades.
It was not until the 1980’s that Cheerwine began to expand their sphere of influence to include their Southern neighbor, South Carolina, as well as the remainder of their own state. Recently, collaboration with local companies like Krispy Kreme and Food Lion have propelled Cheerwine to fan-swooning celebrity. You can find “the Legend,” as some like to call it, at fountains and in fridges across the Southeast, inside doughnuts, ice creams, and cakes, and its emblem plastered across t-shirts, koozies, and boxer shorts.
As Cheerwine’s slogan proclaims, our favorite soft drink is “born in the South; raised in a glass.” We North Carolinians certainly hold onto the pride and privilege that comes with raising such a lauded beverage, but we’re not afraid to share a bottle with a friend. So grab a glass and a Cheerwine—we’ll be waiting on the porch.