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Cheerwine

Embossed

Cheerwine bottle, 12oz

 Since 1917

      Southern culture bubbles over with soft drinks. Some left the South and became giants, like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper. Some fizzled out altogether, leaving only their names and dusty bottles. And then there are the native drinks, cult favorites with loyal fans.

     Where does Cheerwine fit among those?

     It had wide distribution all around the southeast and almost made it to China once. Sometimes called "the Nectar of the Tarheels," Cheerwine has been credited with at least one native North Carolinian's longevity. It also gained popularity outside its distribution area - a popularity much like that of Coors Beer before it went into national distribution. People who have moved out of the area write back and have it sent to them, even to foreign countries. Cheerwine and pineapple juice is often served at parties in Salisbury, particularly when prominent North Carolinian Elizabeth Dole visits her mother there.

     Clifford Peeler, worked everyday as president of his own company for 61 years (from 1931, when his father died) until 1992, when he became chairman. Mark Ritchie is the fourth generation president (and CEO) of Carolina Beverage Corporation, which owns the formula and does the marketing for Cheerwine. The bottling and distributing is done by Piedmont Cheerwine Bottling Company, led by Mark's brother, Clifford, as its President and CEO. There are at least six bottlers that mix Cheerwine concentrate and put it into bottles. There are also lines of other company's drinks trucked in and out of Salisbury from Orange Crush to Countrytime Lemonade.

     Cheerwine actually "began" in Kentucky, where the Maysville Syrup Company made a drink called Mint Cola. Maysville's cola was well established in that area and the company was looking to move east. Salisbury was a good choice because it had the railroad, which was necessary to move the fifty-gallon barrels in which the syrup was shipped, plus Salisbury was located between Washington and Atlanta.

     So in 1913, a group of local investors opened Mint Cola Company of Salisbury to sell Maryville's syrup. One of these investors was L. D. Peeler, who owned the area's nicest hotel, the Yadkin, and had a grocery business a block from the rail line. Since he already distributed groceries and had space in his building, he opened a bottling company, Mint Cola Bottling.

     When the sugar shortages hit, L. D. found that wild cherry, with its natural sweetness, required less sugar. Cherry cola was already being made in soda fountains by adding cherry syrup to cola, and had a following. So Cheerwine was first formulated in the basement of Peeler's grocery store in 1917 by mixing wild cherry with nine other flavors. The idea for the name Cheerwine came from the "cheer" of its sparkling bubbles and "wine" for its deep burgundy color.

     By 1918, Maysville Syrup was bankrupt and the Salisbury investors bought the company's stock in their regional branch and changed the company to the Carolina Beverage Corporation, and Peeler's Mint Cola Bottling became Piedmont Cheerwine Bottling in an effort to distance themselves from the bankrupt Kentucky company. Carolina Beverage Corporation continued to make Mint Cola into the 1930s, when Coca-Cola effectively cornered the cola market. But Cheerwine's popularity continued to grow steadily in Western North Carolina and parts of South Carolina.

     In 1967 Cheerwine moved its operation from the building at 322 East Council Street to a larger facility off Jake Alexander Boulevard, using the old building for storage until donating it to Downtown Salisbury Inc. in 1997. The building was then saved from the ravages of time and neglect by being newly renovated to a new life as ground floor office spaces and upper floor residential lofts.

     It was L. D.'s son, Clifford, who guided Cheerwine on a larger scale and gained a following outside of Salisbury. Carolina Beverage had chosen not to expand beyond Western North Carolina for its first 65 years. It was L. D.'s great-grandson, Mark Ritchie, who put together a ten-year marketing plan in 1981, increasing spending for consumer market research, advertising and promotion, targeting Cheerwine's appeal. Carolina Beverage reached its goal in 1986, partly as a result of Coke's introduction of Cherry Coke in 1985, after which Cheerwine sales increased. Even distributors that handled Coke products would carry Cheerwine. 

     All that changed, however, in the early 90s when some distributors changed which brands they carried, and Cheerwine lost its foothold in some places outside the Carolinas. Clifford Peeler was still president then, and being a conservative man, pulled the company back. The family began to buy their public stock and focused on buying distribution companies, like Quality Beverage.

     During those crucial 90s, there was another battle for Carolina Beverage to fight, with the "giant" of Cola. In 1992, Carolina Beverage agreed to enter a license with Coca-Cola to distribute Cheerwine in 22 western North Carolina counties for three years, during which time the two companies tried to negotiate an agreement giving Coca-Cola Bottling the perpetuity Cheerwine distribution rights. But the two never came to terms because Coke would not accept volume requirements set by Carolina Beverage, and so when the three years ended, Cheerwine terminated the contract.

     This angered Coca-Cola, and the Company threatened to use all legal matters to retain Cheerwine distribution rights in western North Carolina. Carolina Beverage answered that threat by filing suit in 1995 to allow the courts to decide.

     After termination of the contract, Carolina Beverage assigned distribution for western NC to Carolina Bottling in Hickory, Dr Pepper Bottling in West Jefferson, RC Bottling in Asheville and Nehi Bottling Company in Murphy. In response to this, Coke filed an injunction, but the court denied it. Carolina Beverage prevailed through five more hearings. Finally Coke filed a suit claiming breach of contract claiming damages of $6.7 million in lost profits which went for jury trial. The jury dismissed the suit stating that Carolina Bottling had been legally correct in terminating the three-year contract with Coke, leaving Coke no grounds for damages. So once again, David won against Goliath.

     Not many independent drinks have survived out of the thousands which were introduced, but Cheerwine not only just survived, but has survived the whole industry.

     Cheerwine also produces Cool Moon, a citrus flavored soft drink as different as Cheerwine is itself. You can also visit Cheerwine on the web at www.cheerwine.com for a fun website about a fun soda, or purchase a case of 12oz cans for $12. If you prefer bottles, you can get them at The Soda Pop Shop, a case of 24 for $31.99, or a six-pack for $8.49.

Copyright CokeGirl Reprint by permission only.

Above - First Bottle on Left:
Embossed Cheerwine (aqua) 6oz
Cheerwine Bottling Company
Johnson City, TN
Above - Second Bottle on Left:
Embossed Mint Cola Bottling Company
Asheville NC "AGW MC 13-1"

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