Drinks

Southern Sodas with a Twist

Regional favorites, from Grapico to Ale-8-One, are all grown up and ready for happy hour

photo: Margaret Houston


“There’s a sense of pride in drinking something made locally,” says Steve McHugh, executive chef and owner of Cured at Pearl, a restaurant focused on house-cured pickles and charcuterie, set in the century-old former Pearl Brewery administration building in San Antonio, Texas. And he’s not talking about booze. The South, birthplace of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi (and RC Cola and Dr. Pepper and Mountain Dew…), has given rise to dozens of other fizzy drinks with deep regional roots. From North Carolina’s iconic Cheerwine (which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year) to South Carolina’s seriously spicy Blenheim Ginger Ale to Dr. Enuf, the citrusy curiosity from the Tri-Cities of Tennessee, nearly every area South of the Mason Dixon has its own special brand of soft drink you can’t find anywhere else. So it’s only natural that bartenders throughout the South are also incorporating them into creative cocktails, like these tasty concoctions.


Margaret Houston


The soda:
Grapico

The location: Birmingham, Alabama

The cocktail: The Land of G…

Eric Bennett has something of a soda obsession. At The Louis, the bar he manages inside Birmingham’s new Pizitz Food Hall, there are sixteen different choices, including a pair of north-Alabama favorites: Buffalo Rock, a super-spicy ginger ale, and Grapico, a century-old deep-purple grape soda that’s been a favorite of Bennett’s since he was he was a kid. “I love the stuff,” he says, “but the whole thing about Grapico is that it’s crazy sweet.” Bennett’s The Land of G… features a set of strong flavors that can hold up to Grapico’s sugary punch, including Cynar, a bitter Italian liqueur flavored with artichokes of all things. (Oh, and that name? It’s in honor of a promotional song from 1916 called “Meet Me in the Land of Grapico,” for which the brand actually gave away free copies of sheet music.)

>Get the recipe


Margaret Houston


The soda:
Ale-8-One

The location: Louisville, Kentucky

The cocktail: The Commonwealth

“I’m a Kentucky girl born and raised, so I’ve been around Ale-8-One all my life,” says Stacie Stewart, general manager at MilkWood in Louisville. “But I also grew up very strict Southern Baptist, and cocktails were not something we did.” Stewart may now be one of the city’s top mixologists, but her love of the uniquely local ginger-and-citrus soda remains. Ale-8-One is less sweet than most sodas, making it especially cocktail-friendly: “You can use any base spirit with Ale-8-One and it’ll enhance them without overwhelming the flavor,” Stewart says. Her drink, The Commonwealth, will be the flagship cocktail at Whiskey Dry, a new bourbon-focused bar Stewart is set to open in Louisville this summer with the owners of MilkWood. It pairs a fine Kentucky bourbon (naturally) with Ale-8-One, a splash of coffee, a little sorghum syrup, and a simple homemade black pepper tincture that adds a sharp spice but is entirely optional.

>Get the recipe


Margaret Houston


The soda:
Dublin Vanilla Cream Soda

The location: San Antonio, Texas

The cocktail: Vanilla Mint Crush

Until 2012, the residents of central Texas were the only people in the United States with access to a cult-favorite version of Dr. Pepper made at Dublin Bottling Works with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. A legal dispute with trademark owner, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, sadly ended its production, but Dublin Bottling Works still makes several special sodas using pure cane sugar only, including the Vanilla Cream Soda that’s the centerpiece of this drink. You’ll find it on the alcohol-free “restoratives” section of the menu at Cured at Pearl in San Antonio. “Especially at lunch, people don’t want a drink, but they want something more complex than sweet tea,” says chef/owner McHugh. “That’s why we always have a zero-proof section of our cocktail menu.” His Vanilla Mint Crush is a mint julep-style refresher that’s excellent on a hot day. (If you want to spike it with some hard stuff, McHugh recommends a shot of gin, especially the brand-new Texas-made Calamity.)

>Get the recipe


Margaret Houston


The soda: 
Cheerwine
The location: Salisbury, North Carolina
The cocktail: The Avetts Made Me Do It

“My wife and I are huge Avett Brothers fans and when they did the Cheerwine Giveback Concert [in Charlottesville, Virginia], I had never heard of Cheerwine,” says barman Todd Thrasher of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia. “When I tasted it for the first time, I really wanted to use it in a cocktail.” His solution: Pair it with Cardinal Gin (another North Carolina-based company), preserved cherries, and—of course—a splash of tonic for an extra-fizzy G&T.

>Get the recipe


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