The overarching goal of the Road Trip Kentucky project is to, ultimately, tell some of the great stories of successful, meaningful, and impactful businesses throughout the history of our state. The beauty, and also the tragedy, of this effort is those stories aren’t too difficult to find. The problem is, we can’t tell them ALL.
But when it comes to brands born in the Commonwealth, there is one story that HAS to be told. It’s that of one of Kentucky’s oldest and boldest brands: Ale-8-One.
G.L. Wainscott began making and bottling soda water and other flavored drinks in Winchester, Ky., back in 1902. A couple of decades (and one lawsuit) later, he developed what would be his, and in time Kentucky’s, signature soft drink.
Cheekily dubbed “Ale-8-One,” this “Ginger Ale with a Kick” got its name through one of the earliest examples of crowdsourcing on record. Wainscott held a contest at the Clark County Fair to let the public decide what his unique, carbonated concoction should be called. The people deemed it “A Late One,” as it was the “latest thing” in the soft drink boom of the 1920s, and from there, Ale-8-One was born.
Ale-8-One carved a niche in not just soft drink history, but also Kentucky history. As President and COO of Ale-8-One Ellen McGeeney so succinctly put it, “If you’re from Kentucky, there isn’t a cooler brand…”
Even if you aren’t from Kentucky, Ale-8-One’s track record is hard to deny. Take, for example, the soft drink’s nearly century-old history. A plethora of soft drinks have come and gone since 1926, and while the “craft soda” trend might be on the rise, none can touch the staying power of Ale-8-One.
One of the more surprising facts about the Ale-8-One history is that they only recently began distributing outside of the state. Which begs the question: how have they managed to sustain for so long in such a competitive industry? One could argue that it’s in great part to those behind the scenes.
G.L. Wainscott’s soft drink endeavors have kept jobs in Winchester for over a century. “It’s kind of a family culture,” Fielding Rogers, owner and great, great nephew of Wainscott, told us. “We’ve never had any layoffs. We have a lot of people that care an awful lot about the company. We’re going to take care of them, and they are going to take care of us.”
To give you an idea of how much “family culture” exists in the factory, Ellen told us they have employees who have worked there their entire lives. More so, there are actual families that work for Ale-8-One. “We’ve got second generation employees,” she said, “We’ve got brothers who work here … it is a family business, truly, and in a wonderful sense.”
Just as Ale-8-One has been a pillar of the Winchester community, it has also cemented itself into other communities as well, such as the climbing community.
One of Ale-8-One’s biggest bottle return facilities is at an unassuming pizza joint well off the beaten path, but right at the heart of a worldwide Kentucky attraction: Red River Gorge. Miguel’s Pizza has long been the launching point and community campsite for rock climbers from around the country, and world. Ale-8-One serves as its unofficial beverage.
“It really started at Miguel’s where our returnable bottles are served,” Ellen told us, “and it kind of became a tradition that when you go on a climb you have an Ale-8 and a pizza at the end of the day. And so many people come from so many states, I was surprised by how much brand equity and love for this brand outside the state of Kentucky [there is] …”
After our visit to Ale-8-One, we headed south toward the Gorge to see (and taste) for ourselves. Sure enough, once we pulled into the parking lot of the famed pizza shop, we found license plates from New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Georgia, just to name a few. And this was a Wednesday afternoon in June.
Spread among dozens of wooden picnic tables outside were climbers from around the country, snacking on pizza and swilling Ale-8-One from the unmistakable green bottles. Others were testing their grips on climbing rocks affixed to the rafters of the awning, while others played basketball as they passed the time before the next climb.
Elsewhere, alongside the bright yellow building was a line of wooden crates holding empty Ale-8-One bottles waiting to make their way back to Winchester to be cleaned and refilled.
It was here that you could feel the sense of community come full circle. Watching a community of people come together and share experiences over this iconic beverage, it’s easy to see why Ellen was so excited about what’s to come for this business. Ale-8-One is lovingly created by a community of folks, a family, who know those bottles will come right back to where they came from to complete this cycle of camaraderie.
“It is fun, man,” Ellen said with an eager smile, “ I love my job, I have to say, I love my job.”
To read more about Ale-8-One, visit their website.