Hunkered down in a foxhole halfway around the world, Bob Morgan prepared for a taste of combat against Germany’s fierce Nazi war machine. It was mid-January 1945, and Morgan’s unit — the 94th Infantry Division — had braced itself along the front line between France and Germany, about to join the fray that would come to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. Morgan, a wide-eyed, 19-year-old infantryman from North Carolina, could not have been any farther removed from his native Salisbury.
That morning, however, as rations were being distributed, a package arrived for Morgan from home — specifically, from his father. The three comrades sharing the foxhole with Morgan watched as he opened the box and pulled out two bottles of Cheerwine — the cherry-flavored soft drink that was born in Salisbury, eight years before he was — and two bottles of, shall we say, a well-known soft drink with a much broader customer base than Cheerwine’s small, but loyal, following. The platoon leader, a Californian who’d never even heard of Cheerwine, much less tasted it, offered Morgan $25 for one of those other colas. Morgan eyed the machine guns in the foxhole and, assessing the danger he was about to face in combat, realized he might never get a chance to spend the money anyway. He gave the platoon leader a cola for free, and gave the other to another of his comrades.
“But this Cheerwine I’m gonna keep for me and Doc,” Morgan proclaimed, nodding toward the fourth man in the foxhole, fellow North Carolinian William “Doc” Dean. Although he was from Raleigh, Dean was another Cheerwine virgin — and honestly, he probably wished he could’ve had one of those colas instead.
Until, that is, his taste buds were introduced to that first swig of Cheerwine.
“Man, I’ve never had anything that tasted this good,” he told Morgan, and Morgan readily agreed.
Despite temperatures in the teens — not exactly soft drink weather — the soldiers downed their beverages hastily, then planted four sticks in the French soil and placed their inverted, empty bottles on the sticks.
Nearly 70 years later, Morgan — now 88 and still living in Salisbury — can remember noticing the imprint on the bottom of his glass Cheerwine bottle: “Salisbury, N.C.”
Morgan drank a lot of Cheerwine growing up, and he’s drunk a lot more since returning home from World War II. But that Cheerwine he drank in a foxhole — right there on the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge — was the best one he ever had.
“It tasted like home,” he says.
I met Bob Morgan a few months ago in his native Salisbury, where he began drinking the soft drink as a boy in the mid-1930s. He told me about choosing Cheerwine over the other soda choices at an end-of-the-year party at his two-room schoolhouse when he finished third or fourth grade. He told me about the old country store where he used to get a balogna-and-cheese sandwich and a Cheerwine for a quarter. And, of course, he told me his priceless story about drinking Cheerwine in a foxhole amid the combat of World War II. He also told me that after the war, his buddy Doc — the kid from Raleigh who tasted his first Cheerwine in that same foxhole — used to visit Morgan every now and then to catch up on old times.
“But whenever he came, the first thing he’d have me do is round up a case of Cheerwine for him,” Morgan says, “because they didn’t have any down in Raleigh back then.”
That’s hard to fathom for those of us who grew up close enough to Salisbury that we took Cheerwine for granted. I grew up in Statesville, for example — easily within the realm of Cheerwine country — so I never knew a world without it. For many Tar Heels, though, decades passed before Cheerwine finally reached their grocery stores and corner grills and refrigerators.
“We were pretty content just to stay in basically the Piedmont and in the western North Carolina area,” says Cliff Ritchie, president and chief executive officer of Carolina Beverage Corp., the maker of Cheerwine. “As late as the early ’70s, you still couldn’t buy Cheerwine in Raleigh — the farthest east you could get it was Burlington.”
Ritchie is the fourth generation of Cheerwine leadership. His great-grandfather, L.D. Peeler, concocted the soft drink in 1917, when a sugar shortage during World War I led him to experiment with cherry flavoring. Peeler had been selling a soda called Mint Cola until the shortage, but this new creation was such a hit that it quickly began outselling — and eventually led to the elimination of — Mint Cola. And it all began in a building, a former whiskey distillery, says Ritchie, in downtown Salisbury.
It’s ironic that Cheerwine got its start in a former whiskey distillery, because — although it contains no alcohol, and never has — the soft drink is often confused for an alcoholic beverage. The “wine” part of Cheerwine’s name actually comes from its deep burgundy color, nearly identical to the color of red wines, but that’s where the confusion begins. According to Ritchie, countless people throughout Cheerwine’s history have assumed it’s some sort of wine product because of its name.
Bob Morgan says it happened to his late wife, Katie, in the late 1930s, when she was about 16 or 17 years old.
“She lived in town, and she had Cheerwine all the time,” he recalls. “But when she went to visit her sister in Washington, D.C., they went out to have lunch, and she asked for Cheerwine. The waitress told her, ‘Sorry, we don’t serve wine to minors.’ ”
Even more comical was what happened in 1992, when The Wall Street Journal reported federal regulators and anti-alcohol activists were accusing Cheerwine of encouraging teens to drink alcohol. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms quickly backed off after a preliminary investigation, though, and a bureau spokesman acknowledged, “Cheerwine is wine like root beer is beer. Cheerwine is none of our business.”
Despite such misunderstandings, the company has shown continued growth through the years. Ritchie, whose son and daughter now work for the company, too, can trace that growth from one generation to the next. He can walk you through the evolution of the Cheerwine bottle, which eventually became the Cheerwine can. He can tell you about the addition of Diet Cheerwine in the 1970s, a product he says still accounts for about 25 percent of the total brand today. He can tell you all about the company’s business model, in which pails of Cheerwine concentrate — “the secret formula,” Ritchie calls it — are shipped elsewhere to facilities that do the actual bottling and distributing.
Eventually, the conversation comes back to stories. Some of them are every bit as delicious as Bob Morgan’s foxhole story.
“Some of them are hard to believe, but we couldn’t make this stuff up,” Ritchie says. “I can cite several stories of people driving thousands of miles to get Cheerwine. They’ll drive from, say, Texas to here to load up on Cheerwine and drive back. It’s just phenomenal.”
Mike Fuller probably met a few of those folks while they were in Salisbury. Fuller owns Innes Street Drug, the only place in town that sells officially licensed Cheerwine merchandise, including everything from shirts, hats, and boxer shorts to clocks, license plates, and bumper stickers.
“People find out we have Cheerwine stuff here, and they have to have it,” Fuller says. “We’ll have people buying $600 or $700 worth of stuff sometimes.”
Fuller’s drugstore also features a Cheerwine-only soda fountain, where the faithful can order Cheerwine-flavored slushies, milkshakes, and floats, as well as slices of Cheerwine cake and Cheerwine fudge. “If somebody wants vanilla ice cream with Cheerwine syrup on it, we’ll do that, too,” Fuller promises. “Anything you want that’s Cheerwine-related.”
Meanwhile, couples from across the country — presumably former North Carolinians — call Cheerwine headquarters requesting glass bottles of the soft drink for their weddings. “Apparently, they pass ’em out at the reception and have a toast with Cheerwine,” Ritchie explains. “The number of requests we get for that is pretty amazing.”
Stories abound of parents who put Cheerwine in their children’s baby bottles or fans who were buried in licensed Cheerwine apparel. One rumor even claims a man was buried with Cheerwine itself, although no one in the know seems able to confirm it.
And who could ever forget the summer of 2010, when Krispy Kreme introduced a Cheerwine cream-filled doughnut? The company sold more than a million of those in only a month.
The stories make for interesting reading, but if you want a story about true, unbridled Cheerwine loyalty, the discussion begins and ends with Blake Schooley, an Albemarle man who some claim is Cheerwine’s No. 1 fan. Schooley has been collecting Cheerwine memorabilia for nearly 20 years, boasting a virtual museum that includes everything from antique bottles and vintage signs and posters to a Cheerwine deliveryman’s hat from the soft drink’s earliest years. Even Ritchie, who collects Cheerwine memorabilia himself, admits Schooley probably has the better collection.
“I’m not a golfer or hunter or fisherman,” says Schooley, who manages “Blake’s Cheerwine Oldies,” a website for Cheerwine fans. “I just go out and hunt for Cheerwine stuff. That’s my passion.”
But wait, that’s not even the best part of Schooley’s story. When he and his wife, Chasity, got married, they planned their entire wedding around Cheerwine — from the burgundy colors and Cheerwine-themed decorations to the Cheerwine bottles and the Cheerwine bottle-shaped cake served at the reception. And when their children, Brianna and Brice, were born, he shared the good news by handing out bottles of Cheerwine instead of cigars.
“I don’t want to say I’m addicted, but I just grew up drinking Cheerwine every day, all day long,” says Schooley, who once drank as much as two six-packs a day of his favorite soft drink. “Friends never saw me without a Cheerwine. And even today, instead of drinking coffee in the morning, I wake up and drink my Cheerwine.”
Schooley traces his love for Cheerwine to his childhood, when he used to travel to country stores all across North Carolina with his father, a Ramon’s Brownie Calendar salesman.
“He took me with him during the summer,” Schooley recalls. “I fell in love with the sound of the old country store screen doors opening, the cracking sounds of those wooden floors, and really enjoyed the men sitting around sharing stories. It was what made the old country stores so special. My dad would buy me a Cheerwine from the drink box, and I was the happiest kid in the world.”
Cheerwine, that bubbly, burgundy nectar that we’ve cherished as a Tar Heel treasure for all of its nearly 100 years of existence, has taken the Southeast by storm in recent years, and company officials want to do the same thing nationally. It’s currently available in 12 states, but by 2017, when the soft drink will become a centenarian, Cheerwine executives hope to have their product readily available in all 50 states. I’m just really not sure how I feel about this.
Here in North Carolina, we can’t help but feel a little possessive when it comes to Cheerwine, and that’s especially true for those of us who grew up drinking it. We’re proud to claim it as our own and we’re not sure we want to share what we have — what we’ve had for nearly a century — with anyone else.
Does that make us Cheerwine snobs? Probably.
In the end, we will do what Bob Morgan did in that foxhole during World War II — we’ll share our Cheerwine bounty with the less fortunate who’ve been deprived for so long. Sharing is just what we do here in the South, whether it’s tomatoes from our garden, sugar from our pantry, wisdom from our life experiences or, in this case, Cheerwine from our refrigerators.
Know this, though: Even if the soft drink reaches all 50 states, there’s one thing we can claim about our Cheerwine that the rest of the country cannot.
It tastes like home. It tastes like North Carolina.