photograph by Johnny Autry

Unforgettable for tourists and irreplaceable for locals, Cheerwine is part of North Carolina’s identity. With its deep red color and a fizz that seems to last forever, Cheerwine is an exceptional soft drink. And although we locals have known about Cheerwine for years, we’re still as excited about it as that tourist taking a first sip. It might be because the company is based in Salisbury and has long been integral to North Carolina’s culinary culture, or it might be because there’s something so addictive about Cheerwine’s tangy cherry flavor. It’s both for Tom Barbitta, the company’s vice president of marketing. “It’s a taste of home for people of the Carolinas,” he says. “It’s a unique and versatile flavor — a one-of-a-kind soft drink.”

But Cheerwine isn’t just for drinking. After all, a drink that’s been in Carolinians’ pantries for more than 90 years was bound to find its way into local cuisine, working magic in an abundance of recipes for cakes, barbecue sauces, stews, and baked beans. And no matter what the recipe, its distinctive flavor always manages to stand out. “It can easily be mixed with other ingredients,” says Barbitta, “and still keep its character.”

Lately, Cheerwine has been catching the attention of area chefs. Executive Chef Chuck Nelson of The Table at Crestwood in Boone created a Cheerwine ice cream napoleon as the finale for his award-winning menu at last year’s state-sponsored “Best Dish” restaurant competition. “I was looking to use North Carolina products,” he says. “And you don’t get much more North Carolina than Cheerwine.”

Cook’s Note: Be sure to use only regular Cheerwine for these recipes, not diet. And pour carefully when measuring to avoid foam.

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Cheerwine Ice Cream
Yields: 5 cups.

2 large eggs
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk (about half a 14-ounce can)
3/4 cup evaporated milk (about half a 12-ounce can)
1 1/4 cups Cheerwine, chilled
1 cup whole milk

In a large heatproof bowl, whisk together eggs and sugar until pale yellow and combined; set aside. In a small saucepan set over medium heat, bring heavy cream just to a boil. Very slowly, add hot cream to egg mixture, whisking constantly. Set bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture coats the back of a spoon, about 4 minutes. Remove from heat and add condensed and evaporated milks. Chill in refrigerator until completely cold. Whisk in Cheerwine and milk. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions until the mixture has the consistency of soft serve. Place ice cream in freezer until set to your liking. Serve and enjoy. This recipe comes courtesy of Chef Chuck Nelson of The Table at Crestwood in Boone.

Easy Ribs with Tangy Cheerwine
Yield: 4 servings.
Note: Be sure to use only regular Cheerwine for these recipes, not diet. And pour carefully when measuring to avoid foam.

For Ribs:
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons light brown sugar
1 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
1 teaspoon chili powder
4 pounds baby back pork ribs
4 cups Cheerwine

For Glaze:
1 1/2 cups Cheerwine
1/2 cup cherry jam
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons soy sauce

Preheat oven to 400°, and begin preparing ribs. In a small bowl, mix together salt, brown sugar, black pepper, and chili powder; rub all over ribs. Divide ribs between 2 large disposable aluminum roasting pans, being sure to place meat side up. Pour 2 cups Cheerwine into each pan, and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Roast ribs, switching pans’ positions halfway through cooking, until very tender, about 1 hour and 45 minutes.

While ribs cook, prepare the glaze. In a medium-size saucepan, whisk together Cheerwine, jam, brown sugar, Worcestershire, vinegar, tomato paste, mustard, and soy sauce; set over medium heat. Let cook, whisking occasionally, until reduced and syrupy, about 20 to 25 minutes. Set aside.

Remove ribs from oven when tender. Remove foil and ribs from pans; pour fat and remaining liquid out of pans and discard. Carefully arrange for oven rack to be about 8 inches from broiler (no closer); preheat broiler. Brush ribs all over with prepared glaze and return to pans, placing meat side up. Broil for about 5 minutes or until lightly charred. Serve with extra glaze on the side.

Cheerwine Baked Beans
Yields: 4 servings. 

3/4 cup Cheerwine
1/3 cup tomato paste
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons molasses
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 15 1/2-ounce cans Great Northern beans, drained

Preheat oven to 400°. In a large bowl, whisk together Cheerwine, tomato paste, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce and molasses. Stir in onion and beans; season with salt and pepper. Transfer to an 8 x 8 inch baking dish. Bake until thickened and bubbly, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Stir and serve.