Why Cheerwine is North Carolina’s favorite cherry soda

Even diet soda drinkers can enjoy the cherry flavors of Cheerwine — Photo courtesy of Travis Seward

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.’

On all occasions, it's good tasteOn all occasions, it’s good taste — Photo courtesy of Travis Seward

That’s not the case with Cheerwine. “On all occasions, it’s good taste,” those signs promised – and more than a century 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.

A bottle of Cheerwine on a sunny Carolina afternoon.A bottle of Cheerwine on a sunny Carolina afternoon. — Photo courtesy of Travis Seward

Sugar had been rationed due to World War I, so Peeler used cherry flavoring to help 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.

So no, there’s not a single drop of wine in Cheerwine; although it was originally made in a former whiskey distillery, that’s as close to booze as Cheerwine gets.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 all these decades later, and the Carolina Beverage Corporation is still owned and managed by the fifth generation of the Peeler family.

Cheerwine is a staple at general stores throughout the CarolinasCheerwine is a staple at general stores throughout the Carolinas — Photo courtesy of Travis Seward

Cheerwine has a distinct flavor that brings the best out of both artificial cherries and cola. (“Like Cherry Coke?” you may be asking yourself. No. Not even close.) 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,” wrote James Beard award-winning Cheerwine fan J. Kenji López-Alt.

In May 2017, Cheerwine commemorated its centennial with a festival in Salisbury, and it’s since become an annual tradition. More than 50,000 people attended the 2019 celebration of “life, liberty and the pursuit of cheerfulness,” and who wouldn’t want to 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 institution – 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.

Cheerwine tastes amazing no matter the container, but there's something especially magical about a glass bottleCheerwine tastes amazing no matter the container, but there’s something especially magical about a glass bottle — Photo courtesy of Travis Seward

If you live beyond the North Carolina border and are ready to give this a go, you’re lucky that times have changed. Cheerwine wasn’t available outside the state until the 1980s – and it wasn’t even for sale in the entire state until the 1970s.

Although there aren’t distributors in every state (yet), you can order it through the company’s website, and you can also find it at places as varied as World Market and Cracker Barrel. And if you live in one of those sad states bereft of this superior beverage, write to your senators and demand that they address this terrible wrong!

Let’s raise a Cheerwine towards Salisbury, towards the late L.D. Peeler and towards Andy Griffith. Wholesomeness has never tasted so good.

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