Whatever Happened To Green River Soda?

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A zingy, lime flavored, caffeine-free soda with a tangy sweetness and a hint of citrus, the taste of Green River packs a punch that's as zesty as its bright green color (via Soda Pop Craft). Here's a soda that takes you back through the ages — Green River soda dates back to the time of Prohibition, through the diners and drugstore soda fountains of 1950s and '60s vintage America, and remains today a nostalgic local relic. It's a beloved Chicago favorite, though the pop wasn't actually born in the city, but it was here that it found its home and its fans during alcohol-free times when it offered a fresh new taste and a citrusy kick (via The Takeout).

If nostalgia was served in a beverage, it'd be Green River soda for those Midwesterners old enough to remember its heyday. A bestselling soda back in the day, Green River has even inspired famous songs, and become part of our favorite Irish holiday each year. It's even the reason why soda itself is called pop in Chicago. The tale of Green River is one of survival against a fast-changing landscape. And today, its Midwest roots are still strong, and the future of Green River looks brighter than ever. 

A candy store owner invented Green River

While Green River would become an iconic soda associated with Chicago, this isn't where the soda originates. In fact, it's not from Illinois at all. The story of Green River soda actually starts in Iowa. The sweet-toothed students in Davenport were changed forever when Richard C. Jones took over a confectionary shop close to the high school in 1914. It was here that the electric-green soda was invented in 1916. With Jones selling ice cream and sodas at his shop, Green River was first used as a soda fountain syrup (via Green River). But Jones also served it to students and locals alike until 1919 when, thanks to the soda's instant success, he sold his secret recipe and retired from the business (via Davenport Public Library). At that point, Green River's new owners moved the brand to Chicago, where it would find much greater fame in its new home. 

It's not totally clear how Green River got its name. Some say the Mississippi River, near where it was concocted, was the inspiration for the drink's moniker (via The Chicago Food Encyclopedia). However, it's also been suggested that the name came from Jones himself, referencing the bright green color of his sugary soda. 

Green River was a popular prohibition pop

There's no doubt that what really pushed Green River soda into the Midwest was the hugely impact ban on alcohol in the U.S. in the early 20th century. As Prohibition came rolling in at the start of 1920, the Schoenhofen Edelweiss Brewing Company, based in Chicago, was forced to shift focus away from brewing beer. Its new, non-alcoholic savior turned out to be Green River soda, with its sharp taste, strong flavor, and eye-popping color (via Lifestyle Beverages). 

After buying the recipe in 1919, the company started selling the soda in recycled beer bottles, and locals took to it quickly. Schoenhofen Edelweiss produced Green River soda right up to 1950 when the brewery closed down (via Atlas Obscura). After that, the recipe was passed around for a while among several different manufacturers, and almost totally disappeared into obscurity (via Illinois History Journal). But as of 2021, the rights to make Green River soda were acquired by Sprecher Brewing Company in Glendale, Wisconsin, which bottles and sells the soda today. 

Green River was sealed with a marble

If you're not from the Midwest, then you may not know that soda is actually called pop in that part of the country. And if you're wondering why, it has been speculated that the reason may be connected with Green River soda. Sold in old beer bottles in Chicago during the Prohibition era and beyond, Green River sodas weren't originally sealed with a cap in the 1920s. Instead, a marble was used to close the top. The idea was that the marble would not only serve to seal the bottles but stir the syrup into the carbonated water too (via Soda Pop Craft).

To release the green nectar, you'd have to sharply jolt the bottle upward so that the marble popped down to the bottom of the bottle. As it did, the fizz would create a popping noise, which folklore suggests is where the term pop actually came from — the sound of a Green River soda being opened. You could seal the drink again by simply tipping the bottle upside down to lodge the marble in place once again with the help of the carbonated gases. Of course, the marble stoppers were not to last and were eventually replaced by caps. 

Whether the legend is true or not, the word pop is definitely a colloquial term that has, over the years, stood the test of time — just as Green River soda has, becoming a taste of nostalgia today. 

Sales were once second to Coca-Cola

In terms of soda fountain sale, the thirst for Green River spread throughout the Midwestern states during Prohibition. Such was its popularity, that when the Prohibition era ended in 1933, Green River sales in the region were only topped by one brand that was to go on to be arguably the most iconic of them all – Coca-Cola. This success was to last through the '30s into the '50s, as it continued to be second to Coca-Cola (via The Takeout). After 1950, when Schoenhofen closed down, Green River was produced under different licences (with some legal wrangling involved), and at one point the soda production rights were actually taken up by the same bottlers for Coca-Cola and other sodas in the '50s. But the brand continued, renowned as a soda fountain institution well into the '60s (via Chicago Magazine). 

After a steady decline through the '70s and '80s, by the 1990s, you could reportedly only find Green River being served in the Seattle area (via Illinois History Journal). But the soda has seen a comeback, and today, Chicago's pop has become a beloved taste of yesteryear, with its association with drive-in movies and old-fashioned soda fountains. Not only can you order it online, but if you look hard enough, you'll find it at some stores and shops as well as some restaurants in the city. 

Other flavors were introduced

To match its vibrant color, the taste of Green River soda is sweet and citrusy. And perhaps in a bid to expand its success, other flavors of Green River were introduced in the 1960s. In fact, Green River at one point offered its own rainbow of soda flavors. There was purple Grape soda in a pull-top can, or bright pink Strawberry soda, and classic Orange soda. Other varieties included Creamy Cream soda, Diet ColaBlack Cherry soda, and even Lemon Lime soda. A diet version of original Green River was also introduced a few years later (via Chicago Magazine). 

Although diet Green River is said to taste something close to cough syrup, this zero calorie soda is still available today if you want to get your hands on it (via Soda Pop Craft). However, you won't find any other flavors of Green River. Chicago Magazine reports that the alternative soda flavors were on the market for less than a decade before they disappeared. 

Green River is the ultimate St Patrick's Day drink

It's a tradition in the windy city to dye the Chicago River green to commemorate the Irish festival of St. Patrick's Day each year (via Smithsonian Magazine). The custom began in the 1960s, when it's reputed that members of a plumber's union in the city added a bright green chemical they used to the water one year, and it changed color for weeks. Today, a vegetable dye that turns from orange to green is used and lasts just a few hours (via CNN). So what's this got to do with Green River soda? Quite a lot, as it happens. 

In 1950, Green River was passed on to a dye and food flavoring company called Sethness Greenleaf for a time. And it was Sethness Greenleaf CEO Barry McRaith who provided the less toxic dye for Chicago's annual St. Patrick's Day celebration. So it seems the man who helped produce Green River in Chicago was also responsible for making the city's river green, too — although that's not the case for either anymore (via Eater Chicago). 

It's also worth noting that sales for Green River soda in the weeks around the yearly holiday are reported to account for 30% of the brand's annual sales, no doubt because its green color is so perfect for sipping on St. Patrick's Day (via Thrillist). 

Famous musicians sang about Green River

Such is the impression that the chartreuse-colored pop has made, it's even been mentioned in songs, too. The first time was way back in the 1920s, when famed vaudeville entertainer Eddie Cantor wrote an eponymous jingle for Green River (via Facebook). It was performed by songwriting duo Gus Van and Joe Schenck, as reported in Chicago Magazine. Lyrics included the lines, "For a drink that's fine without a kick, oh! Green River, it's the only drink that does the trick, just Green River. Has other beat a mile, makes drinking worthwhile." Green River also claims that Al Jolson recorded a song about the drink. And that's not all. 

In 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival's album, Green River, featuring a track by the same name, was inspired by the Green River soda brand design. As the band's lead singer and guitarist, John Fogerty, recounted on TikTok, he remembers drinking Green River soda at the local drug store when he was a kid, and how the soda's label made an impression on him. He later felt that it reminded him of the Sun Records label. It was this design that stuck in his mind, years before he released Green River (via Ultimate Classic Rock). 

Green River soda has been on TV

As well as appearing in songs, Green River soda has also been featured on television. The Facebook page for Green River noted back in 2017 that the soda made a guest appearance in an episode of "Hawaii Five-0". In the clip, a policeman is seen with a glass in his hand filled with something green and fizzy, with a bottle of Green River sitting right beside it. 

Meanwhile, retro diner South Side Soda Shop, in Indiana, was featured in an episode of Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives", with host Guy Fieri sampling the green stuff. After drinking the syrup alone, he reportedly described the taste as being like, "liquid Life Savers", while the 1950s-style diner owner made him a classic ice cream soda made using Green River (via Live Journal). 

And more recently, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that execs ordered in some Green River to add as props to some scenes for TV series, "The Bear." The Chicago-based drama is about a chef who goes from gourmet cooking to running his family's local sandwich shop in the city. And nothing screams local in Chicago like a bottle of Green River soda. 

Green River soda was revived in the 1990s

After it's rise to popularity from Prohibition through the 1960s, Green River soda nearly faded into obscurity. And we might not even able to enjoy and reminisce about this drink today if it weren't for the Clover Club Bottling Company's efforts. The company bought Green River in the early '90s, started ramping up production, and introduced new bottle sizes (via Illinois History Journal). By 2009, a report in the Chicago Tribune states that Green River was being supplied to 6,000 different accounts in the city. 

New life was breathed into Green River once more in 2011, when it was acquired by the WIT Beverage Company. The California company boosted the soda's availability in more outlets. A 2013 article in the Chicago Sun Times notes how the soda soon became the company's top seller out of its six brands, with the business bringing in $15 million in sales the year before. 

Even with this revival, Green River soda has never reached the output or the popularity it once had. It exists more as a nostalgic relic than a beverage go-to for most soda-drinkers and Chicago natives alike. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have staying power. As WIT's owner explained to the Chicago Sun Times, Green River is appealing because it is "easy to drink, refreshing, and mixable" and it comes with "a lot of emotions and loyalty attached."

Mix Green River soda for a boozy kick

Whether you've long loved the secret that is Green River soda, or you're now feeling tempted to try it out, go ahead and have some fun with it. Green River recommends using the soda to make a super tasting Super Bowl margarita cocktail. All you have to do is mix two 12-ounce bottles of Green River with a bottle of your favorite light beer, and 12-ounces of frozen limeade concentrate that's been partially thawed-out. You'll also need some tequila and limes, of course. To make the drink, simply add all the ingredients to a pitcher with ice and stir.

Another Green River concoction to try is The Moneyball. It's made with vodka and Green River and gets its name from its signature garnish, a dollar sign-shaped piece of lime peel (via ABC 7 Chicago). Green River's current owners, Sprecher Brewing, also suggests some mixology possibilities, including a mojito and a mocktail made with Green River and cherry soda. Or just go classic with an ice cream float with two scoops of vanilla in a pint glass topped up with Green River — which could be given a boozy kick as well.

You can also try out our own recipe for a Green River Cooler for your next St. Patrick's Day party. To make this emerald-colored cocktail, fill a tall glass with ice cubes, add a shot of melon liqueur and a shot of triple sec, then top the glass with Green River. 

You can still find Green River soda

A recent viral TikTok post highlighted the fondness and nostalgia that some still feel for Green River soda. The video shows shows an 89-year-old being surprised by his granddaughter with a delivery of the sodas he remembers from his youth. After his first taste, he describes the soda as, "limey" and agrees that it tastes just like it did all those years ago. It's perhaps this longevity and yearning for a past time that gives Green River soda its kick — somehow reminding even those who've never tasted the bright, tangy, green soda of a time not spent in digital spaces, but filled with simple pleasures, like the sugar rush from a bubbly soda and childhoods spent running around, burning all that sugar off.

And you can still embody this spirit with a Green River soda today. In 2021, more than a century after it was first fizzing up to the delight of patrons at one soda fountain in Illinois, Green River moved into the hands of Sprecher Brewing in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which currently sells 12-packs of Green River online. You can also find the soda in other quantities online, including from Amazon, Beverages Direct, and more. Green River's history in Chicago is still honored too, with select stores and eateries in the city stocking it (via Eater Chicago). And you still find Green River in its original home of Davenport, Iowa, as places like Lagomarcino's confectionary shop.