The word of carbonated beverages is dominated by monoliths—and monotony. Coke or Pepsi, Sprite or 7-Up, the choices aren’t much of a choice at all. But there are plenty of exciting flavors out there—if you look on a smaller scale. Regional bottlers tend to get a bit more creative with flavors, with glass bottles and nifty retro logos, and here are nine that I think are worth seeking out online, or even making a detour for.
Abita has been brewing beer in New Orleans for decades, from basics such as amber and IPAs to the more creative Purple Haze and Horchata Turbodog brews. But Abita also extends it expertise to the teetotalers with their line of sodas: Seasonal varieties include king cake and pecan pie—both do a fine job of rendering those deserts in liquid form—but the root beer is always on the menu. Made with cane sugar, it’s got a richer flavor than most root beers, with hints of chocolate and caramel.
The pride of Kentucky (other than bourbon), Ale-8-One is a bubbly combination of citrus and ginger, ideal for hot, languid days. It’s available in traditional, diet and lollipop versions—the website also features recipes including “Ale-8 Chili for a Crowd” and “Ale-8-One Fruit Dump Pie.” The company has also made the best of their groovy throwback logo, emblazoning it on everything from sweatshirts to champagne glasses.
Truly the O.G. of soft drinks, Cheerwine just celebrated its 100th anniversary and the Peeler family of North Carolina has been running the show the entire time.The flavor is roughly cola-based, but richer, with a sort of sweet/dark cherry undertone. For the drink’s big birthday this summer, Cheerwine got together with Krispy Kreme to create a glazed-doughnut variation on the soda called Cheerwine Kreme—their second collaboration after 2010’s doughnut version. Also, if you’re a fan of the rum n’ coke, why not give the rum n’ cheer a shot—the more complex flavor really gives your adult beverage a boost.
Made in Detroit for 110 years, Faygo began when two baker brothers decided to give their soda water “frosting” flavors. Thus, it’s unsurprising that Faygo runs sweet—the grape especially feels as though it is generating cavities with every sip, although the cotton candy and caramel apple options have the same effect. Of course, it must be mentioned that Faygo is the official drink of the Juggalos—the Insane Clown Posse frequently check it in their songs and have one tune simply entitled “Faygo Song,” about getting “butt naked all over the floor” at the “Faygo store.”
Filbert’s Old Time
In 1926 Chicago, most folks were focused more on bootlegging than soda-making, but the Filbert family made root beer. The family is still churning it out, as well as more exotic flavors from banana to watermelon. Mr. Newport Lemon-Lime features a label with elegant, Astaire-like tuxedoed silhouettes, claiming to be “a delightful beverage,” as well as “a distinguished mixer” and it certainly is: A smooth, subtle flavor, like a lighter, less-sweet Sprite with milder carbonation, it goes well with a variety of spirits or is wonderfully refreshing by itself.
Bottled in St. Louis, Fitz’s began as a drive-thru burger joint that made its own root beer in 1947. The restaurant closed in the '70s, but the soda returned almost 20 years later, bottled in a new plant with some new flavors alongside. The new Fitz’s restaurant is a vast space styled like a throwback diner—and, yes, they have specialty cocktails featuring their sodas. All sodas are made with real cane sugar. The root beer is still the most popular, but their orange cream soda is also a standout, with a mellow flavor that tastes very much like a summer creamsicle.
Moxie began in 1876, not as a soft drink, but as a “nerve tonic.” Since then, it’s been seen in Bugs Bunny cartoons and Stephen King novels, as well as helping introduce the term “moxie” into the vernacular, as a rough synonym for chutzpah. Now the official drink of the state of Maine, Moxie is unlike other sodas—a little like cola with bitters, it’s best served icy cold. The logo is a slick-haired man who seems to be some kind of gangster soda jerk pointing at you as you drink, another unique Moxie throwback touch.
Located near Pittsburgh, Natrona Bottling has been filling their glass bottles since 1904, with Red Ribbon as their leading house brand. They use real cane sugar for that extra jolt of sweet and pinpoint carbonation, meaning tiny, tiny bubbles. Red Ribbon makes both a vanilla cream soda and an almond cream soda—the former tastes slightly like cake, the latter gets a nice rounding-out by the hint of almond and would be fabulous in an ice cream soda. There’s also Pennsylvania Punch, a version of the famed Delaware Punch, which is best described as a less-aggressive grape soda.
Tom Tucker began bottling soda in Pittsburgh during the 1930s and, while times may have changed, the simple-yet-evocative logo of a round-cheeked boy in a tall top hat remains—and vintage bottles still fetch a decent price on eBay. The company is known for their mint ginger ale, which is truly a thing of beauty and a joy forever—the light flavor of the herb lending just a bit of green. With vodka, lime and ice, it’s an ideal summer cocktail and, if you’ve had too many and need ginger ale to rest your stomach, bear in mind than mint is also beneficial for digestive troubles. The company closed in the '70s, but the brand has been resurrected so that all may partake in the bounty of the little guy in the big hat.