by Jim Ridley
I was supposed to be looking at the four-walled mural Mrs. Pink had helped paint in the Sylvan Park Elementary cafeteria — a cheery panorama of farmers' market stalls, flowers and rolling hills. But all I could see were the brown glass bottles scattered around the lunchroom like mushrooms after rain. The logo was unfamiliar. What's this? I asked.
The label read: Ale-8-1.
The bottles were brought in by Chelle Baldwin, the Sylvan Park mom and artist who designed the lunchroom mural. Ale-8-One is her soft drink of choice.
Turns out Baldwin is a native of Winchester, Ky. That's where the soft drink Ale-8-One has been brewed and bottled since 1926. Its inventor, G.L. Wainscott, had created a turn-of-the-century soda called Roxa-Kola but ended up fighting a lengthy court battle over it. According to the history on the Ale-8-1 website, Wainscott then experimented with ginger flavoring until he came up with the drink's closely guarded formula.
Yeah, history, Kentucky's oldest native still-bottled soft drink, blah blah, ginger. All I knew was, I had to taste one of those brown bottles. Especially once Chelle informed me you can't find the brew around here. Turns out it's only available in Kentucky, northern Georgia and parts of Alabama (with an exception I'll get to shortly).
"Would you like to try one?" Chelle said, offering to bring me a sample from the cases she hauls back from Winchester. "Oh, I couldn't," I replied, fluttering my eyelashes, while looking around for a bottle opener and some ice. Besides, it would have been inhospitable to refuse — particularly when Chelle described the substance as "liquid crack."
Was she right?
Evidence is inconclusive. I'll need several more cases to confirm her description. But on the basis of one bottle, Ale-8-One is an interesting brew indeed. It's a smooth, syrupy ginger ale with a spicy, cinnamon-y undertone. It doesn't taste like Big Cola product: it's more like something you'd have received at a Depression-era drugstore soda fountain. My one complaint is that the bottle I tasted could've have used a little more bite — it didn't quite have that satisfying carbonated battery-acid tang I associate with bottled sodas. But would I drink one again? Try me and see.
Which brings me to local availability. Chelle says she found a little convenience store on Charlotte Pike near Kingston Springs that lays in a stock of Ale-8-One ... but she can't remember the name! If anyone in the Bites Brigade knows of whence she speaks, cough it up. Oh, and check out the awesome Ale-8-One website, a must for fans of arcane regional cola history and cool T-shirts. (Chelle also recommends the plant tours.)
UPDATE: A call to the Granny White Market at the corner of Granny White Pike and Otter Creek Road confirmed that, yes indeedy, they stock Ale-8-One sodas. For those of you furiously programming your GPS, the address is 5301 Granny White Pike. Thanks, Mike!