Kentucky is home to a local drink that makes residents beam with pride. Made from the same family recipe for generations, it’s a staple anywhere from casual hikes through national forests to formal events and weddings, and common complement to — and often cause for — celebration.
But this is no small-batch bourbon (although it does make an excellent match for Kentucky’s finest). This is Ale-8-One, a ginger-citrus soft drink that’s been distributed here since 1926, and has made its mark on nearly every pillar of Kentucky drinking culture since.
If bourbon is America’s spirit, then Ale-8-One, better known to locals as simply “Ale-8,” is Kentucky’s mixer.
While spectators in the stands of the Kentucky Derby sip Mint Juleps, tailgaters in the parking lot gather around “Kentucky Classics,” a cocktail of Ale-8 and bourbon. Both of Kentucky’s premier universities, Louisville University and the University of Kentucky, serve the craft soda at campus events. And for outdoors enthusiasts in east-central Kentucky, a visit to the iconic canyon system, Red River Gorge, simply isn’t complete without one.
“Oh, yeah, there is Ale-8 right there at the welcome center,” says Stacy Bovee, a freelance stylist who hikes “the gorge” often. On her first visit, fellow hikers clued her into the tradition: toasting the finish of a hike with a bottle of Ale-8. She now orders one at the gorge’s most popular restaurant, Miguel’s Pizza, after every visit — and she doesn’t even really drink soda, she says.
Ale-8’s vessel is perhaps equally revered: Some swear it tastes better in its emblematic heavy glass bottle, even going as far as to conspire that this is, intentionally, a different recipe. (Ale-8-One Bottling Co. marketing director Chris Doyle assures that’s not true: “For the hardcore fans, the experience of having a cold Ale-8 in the thick glass longneck bottle is really meaningful,” he says.)
In any case, the green glass is an integral part of the experience. On Bovee’s hikes at the gorge, “You’re out in nature drinking out of a glass bottle — it’s not a can or plastic,” she says. “It’s really nostalgic.”
That heavy glass is there for more than optics or sentiment. The recognizable “longnecks” are returnable and refillable: In fact, every Ale-8-One longneck bottle gets reused 6.8 times on average (after going through a three-step cleaning process), according to the company.
This, too, is an almost century-old tradition. Ale-8-One was served out of reusable bottles when it was first released in the 1920s, “and we just never stopped,” says Doyle. Continuing to collect, inspect, clean, and refill bottles requires special equipment and extra time, which is why, by the 1970s, other beverage companies had largely discontinued the practice. Ale-8 is only able to keep up the practice, Doyle says, because of its dedicated fan base — one that stretches from its factory in Winchester, Ky., to Ohio. Retail partners pitch in, too: Chains like Kroger grocery stores make drop-off easy for both customers and the bottling company.
After years of decline, the refillable bottles are gaining popularity — saving resources for the company as well as for the greater region, Doyle says. As part of the 1% for the Planet initiative, 1 percent of longneck sales are designated for protecting natural land areas in Kentucky. Included in these areas are, in full-circle satisfaction, the forests and canyons of Red River Gorge.
The adoration and success of Ale-8’s sugar-and-corn-sweetened soft drinks could be written off as nostalgia, or a regional quirk. Its popularity is at least partly owed to the pride its fans feel in supporting a nearly century-old, family-owned drink. Perhaps its light carbonation, hint of citrus, and ginger kick really is the ultimate complement to bourbon, and that’s why so many couples insist on serving it at their weddings. Perhaps its sweet enjoyment is the reason teenagers take photos with it before prom.
And it might be Ale-8’s sustainable bottles and support of local parks that thousands of hikers reach for it as their beverage of choice every year. Or maybe there’s a hint of magic when local pride mixes with a secret family recipe, and if you sip one under the right Kentucky sunset, you’ll be under Ale-8’s spell, too.
Ed. note: At press time, Miguel’s Pizza is open for outdoor seating and pickup.