The Untold Truth Of Cheerwine

The drink known as Cheerwine is a bit of a contradiction. It's somehow mega-famous — it has its own festival and fan club, says Southern Living – and it's almost totally under the radar at the same time, depending on what region of the United States we're talking about. If you're from the Southeast, you undoubtedly know and probably love the stuff. If you call anywhere else home, however, you might have only a passing familiarity with this beverage, or maybe you've never even heard of it. 

And if you've never tried Cheerwine, you might have also assumed that it's, well, wine. But that's where another contradiction comes in. Despite its name, Cheerwine has no booze. It's actually a soda, a sweet cherry one at that, and it's been a bonafide hit in the South for a century, according to the official website.

Whether this is all news to you or you're actually sipping on a Cheerwine right now, we're betting there are a few things you didn't know about this North Carolina-helmed staple. We're about to pop open all the bubbly details, from how it first originated to how cooking with it is all the rage.

It was born out of a sugar shortage

According to Eater, the first half of the 20th century was a big time for soda in the South. Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Barq's all fizzed up into existence around this time. Coca-Cola and Pepsi in particular led the charge at the turn of the century, a time when the southern part of the country was still trying to make economic gains after the Civil War as well as monitoring a rising temperance movement — and as such, soda became all the rage.

A man named L.D. Peeler bought Kentucky's Maysville Syrup Company after it went bankrupt, writes Thrillist, and moved it to his own hometown in Salisbury, North Carolina. It became the Carolina Beverage Corporation and was first making a mint cola. Peeler was looking for a new flavor, along with a way to give his drink a sweet taste despite the fact that there was a sugar shortage and cane sugar was being rationed. In a twist of fate, a traveling salesman knocked on Peeler's door in 1917 with cherry flavoring. Peeler bought into it, and it turns out the flavoring worked well to make the soda sweet and delicious without having to use as much as sugar. Instantly, Peeler had a product that tasted great and could go on to market as a slightly healthier alternative to more sugary soft drinks. 

Peeler named it "Cheerwine" because it was cheery — the first slogan was "For health and pleasure," Eater says — and because it's the color of wine. By 1924, Cheerwine was outselling Mint Cola and Peeler's company became Cheerwine Bottling Co. Today, it's still family-run, making it the oldest continuously-run soda company in the country (via Southern Living).

Cheerwine was the first bottled cherry soda - and where to get it today

When you think of cherry soda, especially if you're a Yankee, you probably think of Cherry Coke, which debuted in 1985 (via Insider) or Wild Cherry Pepsi, which hit shelves in 1988 (per Pepsi Brattleboro). Cheerwine, of course, beat these soda giants to the punch a bit earlier, having first bottled their cherry soda in 1917. While it does still contain some sugar — though there is a zero sugar variety now, according to the brand's website – Cheerwine also had the unique twist of getting sweetness from that cherry flavor, instead of just adding it to an already sugary soda.

The early bottles had paper labels with the Cheerwine name along with three cherries molded into the top. By the 1950s, says Cheerwine, bottles of the soda sold for just 5¢ a pop, and cases for 80¢. That's a bit less than today's $22 for cases with 24 bottles! The first cans were unveiled in the 1960s, and Diet Cheerwine came into the picture in the 1970s, along with two-liter plastic bottles. Today, you can get those glass bottles (made with cane sugar) in specialty shops, while grocery stores are more likely to have the cans and plastic bottles.

While Cheerwine set the bar for cherry soda in the beginning of the 20th century, the drink has only become more widely known and available far more recently. Thrillist says only in 2017 was Cheerwine around in all 50 states.

It's a part of American history

Southern Living writes that Cheerwine actually helped with war effort during World War II, making for one patriotic soft drink. Indeed, says Cheerwine's website, Clifford Peeler — L.D.'s son who took over the reins when L.D. passed away in 1931 — donated scrap metal from Cheerwine production, including canning machinery, old signs, and assorted memorabilia. Cheerwine says there's a rumor that some soldiers claim they could even kind of make out the drink's logo on the hull of the USS Intrepid.

Cheerwine also has a reputation for getting the presidential seal of approval. For example, the brand recounts, President Dwight D. Eisenhower enjoyed his first Cheerwine in 1953 and is reported to have exclaimed, "Ike likes!". In 1992, George H.W. Bush, Sr. celebrated the Fourth of July in Salisbury, North Carolina, where he could indulge in the drink straight from the source. Today, the company leans into its all-American, especially Southern, identity with its nickname, "Nectar of North Carolina."

Cheerwine has inspired other products

The turn of the 21st century was a period of innovation for Cheerwine, as the company's website explains. After all, the cherry soda had been around for nearly a century at that point and had become a legend — so why not mix things up a little?

First, Cheerwine made what felt like a very organic partnership with a grocery store chain that just so happened to also be headquartered in Salisbury called Food Lion. The store rolled out a Cheerwine ice cream flavor at its stores in 2006, and fifth-generation Peelers served up scoops at the launch party. There were also popsicles and a sorbet on hand. Sadly, these no longer seem to be available, but there are tons of recipes for DIY Cheerwine ice cream, like this one from Taste of the South.

In 2010, Cheerwine teamed up with another North Carolina-based company, Krispy Kreme for specialty doughnuts that were chocolate-frosted with Cheerwine-flavored filling. More recently, Cheerwine has turned its attention back to soda but still keeps experimenting. They debuted a Holiday Punch in 2014, which you can still get every November, plus a Squeeze flavor launched in 2015. There's even a flavor based on the doughnut collab called Kreme that debuted in 2016.

People love to cook with Cheerwine

Naturally, because it's from the South, Cheerwine has become a big partner for barbecue, particularly in its home base of North Carolina.

"Cheerwine is pretty much the sweetest soft drink ever made, and in my opinion the greatest accompaniment to barbecue ever produced," food critic Alan Richman wrote in GQ. As well, Eater says that Cheerwine is such an integral part of the barbecue experience, it's part of what's known as the "Southern Handshake," which means barbecue in one hand and Cheerwine in the other, explains Southern Living

The drink doesn't just go with food, though. It also goes in it. There are barbecue sauces using it, including this commercially made one available on Cheerwine's website and recipes for DIY options like this one on Foodie Post. At Rye Bar & Souther Kitchen in Raleigh, North Carolina, Eater reports, there are even Cheerwine-glazed spare ribs and Cheerwine cheesecake. Alton Brown has a recipe for Cheerwine sangria on his website

You can also make Cheerwine bundt cake with this recipe from Spicy Southern Kitchen, or Cheerwine barbecue chicken from the Charlotte Observer. Or, head to the drink's website for pages upon pages of ideas, from sweet to savory to alcohol-based. Cheers to Cheerwine!