Please welcome guest writer Fred Sauceman. Tomorrow on “Food with Fred” (noon on WJHL-TV, Johnson City, TN), Fred talks about a Kentucky soft drink that turns 85 this year: Ale-8-One. Sauceman is a longtime administrator at East Tennessee State University, has written extensively on the foodways of the South. Each fall, he teaches a course entitled “The Foodways of Appalachia” at ETSU. Southern soft drinks are among the topics.
Soft drinks were invented in the South, and the region still leads the nation in their consumption. The top 10 soft-drinking states are all below the Mason-Dixon Line. At a bottling plant in Winchester, Kentucky, the formula for a ginger-flavored beverage has been a family secret for 85 years.
Say the name quickly and you get a hint about its origin. Ale-8-One. When the drink was invented in 1926 by George Lee Wainscott, his company had already been in business for 24 years, making a cola that attempted to compete with the big boys in the market. Unable to come up with a name he liked for his new drink, Wainscott asked for ideas at the Clark County Fair. The winning entry was from a 14-year-old girl, whose name has been lost to time. She submitted “a late one,” to describe the latest thing in soft drinks.
“Wainscott punned that down to the play on words, Ale, dash, eight, dash, one. And that’s what it’s stayed ever since,” says Wainscott’s great-great-nephew, Fielding Rogers, now Executive Vice President of the Ale-8-One Bottling Company.
The business has remained in the same family since 1902, and with the exception of the addition of a diet version in 2003, Ale-8-One hasn’t changed since its introduction in the Roaring Twenties.
“Usually I describe it as like a ginger ale but with a lot more flavor,” says Rogers. “Some people remark that it has kind of a fruity twist, but it certainly has a lot more bite than just a ginger ale. It’s got caffeine in it, which gives it a bit more flavor, and it has different carbonation levels, which I think gives it a lot more taste than normal ginger ale.”
Whereas most of the soft drink industry has converted to plastic and metal, Ale-8-One has kept the tradition of selling returnable glass bottles, trucked around central and eastern Kentucky in wooden crates.
“The returnable bottles still make up about a quarter of our sales through this plant,” says Rogers, who has a business degree from Washington & Lee University. “The customers really like the bottle. There’s a 30-cent deposit on the bottle, and it’s really just kind of an icon associated with Ale8. A lot of people will swear that the returnable’s the best-tasting Ale8. But the returnable bottle and the non-returnable bottle are made by the same company with the same glass, filled with the same machinery, so I think they taste just the same.”
In-store sales, up to now, are limited to Kentucky, a stretch of southern Ohio, and a piece of southern Indiana. Still, the company sells about a million and a half cases a year.
“We ship Ale8 anywhere in the world via UPS. We have Internet sales on Ale-8-One.com, and people all over the world will order Ale8, and right now we’re sending quite a few cases per month to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Ale-8-One is flavored with natural ginger. In the 1920s, Wainscott traveled all over Northern Europe, where he acquired ginger-blended recipes for experimentation. Just as important for the blending of the drink is the purity of the water. It’s Winchester city water, but it’s filtered through a complex cleansing system.
Rogers notes that Kentuckians are especially partial to the marriage of Ale-8 and one of the state’s many bourbons. In the Rogers household, Ale-8’s mixed into waffle and French toast batter as well as the family recipe for chili.
“We take a normal chili recipe with ground sausage, ground beef, beans, and then anytime we have cans with either beans or tomato paste, or tomato sauce, we just rinse the cans out with Ale8 and then pour it in the chili pot and simmer it down. It just gives it a different kind of flavor that you wouldn’t normally expect with chili. I think the ginger cooks in there really well.”
Whether cooked into a pot of chili in the fall or quaffed on a hot day in July or August when sales are at their peak, the fizzy, green-bottled product has become known as Kentucky’s soft drink. But the Rogers family is now negotiating with distributors to spread the drink’s fruity ginger flavor and its 85-year history beyond the borders of the Bluegrass State.