Ale-8-One quenches thirsts in Kentucky and beyond
The makers of the last original Kentucky soft drink are looking for new markets to conquer
WINCHESTER, Ky. - Agriculture Commissioner James Comer grew up drinking Ale-8-One in his native Monroe County. He said he also “loves” spicy Ale-8-One salsa made from Kentucky-grown tomatoes and peppers.
So it was only natural that a satisfied, longtime customer such as Commissioner Comer would want to visit Ale-8-One’s plant in Winchester. The iconic Kentucky Proud soft drink has been bottled in the Clark County seat since 1926 and is the only soda pop invented in Kentucky that is still in existence.
“I'm a big fan of the product and think that they have great growing potential, especially with their salsa and the different food products that feature the Kentucky Proud logo,” Commissioner Comer said during a tour in July. “Ale-8 has done an outstanding job utilizing the [Kentucky Proud] program. So we wanted to come by and tour the plant and thank them for everything that they are doing with our partnership.”
The Winchester plant distributes Ale-8-One bottles to 25 Kentucky counties. It also bottles Ski and NuGrape soda pop for other companies. The plant’s 80 employees also make the Ale-8-One concentrate used to produce its canned soft drinks.
The production line at the Winchester plant can churn out more than 600 bottles per minute. The bottles are washed, labeled, filled, and capped in a 72,000-square-foot former bowling alley that the company bought in 1966. An adjoining warehouse was added in 1989.
One local mother drops by the warehouse to buy Ale-8-One by the case. “She sends it to her son in Arizona because it reminds him so much of home,” Ale-8-One marketing and public relations director DeAnne Elmore said.
Like corporate icons Kentucky Fried Chicken and Coca-Cola, Ale-8-One’s recipe is secret. Ale-8-One President Fielding Rogers, the fifth generation of his family to own and operate the business, and his father and predecessor, Frank A. “Buddy” Rogers, are the only two people who know it from memory.
“I drove the whole family to Iowa [on a recent trip], and the whole time I was thinking, ‘I’ve gotta be safe today,’” Fielding Rogers joked.
Don’t worry – a copy of the original, hand-written recipe by company founder G.L. Wainscott is safely locked in a bank vault.
In 2009, Buddy Rogers turned the reins of the company over to his son, whose boyish looks belie his experience.
“Fielding started working here summers when he was in high school and college,” Elmore said. “He didn’t just walk in and take over. He’s done his due diligence.”
Ale-8-One prominently displays the Kentucky Proud logo on its soft drink machines and new caffeine-free labels. Labels for its standard caffeinated variety will soon feature the logo.
Fielding Rogers told The Winchester Sun that Ale-8 and Kentucky Proud are a good mix, and the program has served Ale-8 well.
“I think us being a Kentucky-grown company, we fit together very well with the [Kentucky Proud] program,” Rogers told the local newspaper. “Being a very small business ourselves, we understand what it’s like to have very large competitors, so this is a great program for us to be able to get our name out in places and get recognition where it would be very difficult otherwise.”
Roger Snell, the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s farm to retail liaison, said Ale-8-One benefits from Kentucky Proud cost-share funding for advertising. But he said the return is much more than the investment.
“They’ve gone way beyond the match, far exceeding anything we can do for them,” Snell said. “They’ve been fantastic.”
The idea for the salsa emerged from a recipe contest for students at Sullivan University that was held in 2006 to celebrate Ale-8-One’s 80th anniversary. The students were required to use the ginger-flavored soft drink in their recipes.
John Morris, then of Allied Food Marketers, saw the winning recipes in a newspaper and suggested to northern Kentucky processor Millard Long that an Ale-8-One salsa might be worth a try.
Fielding Rogers admitted he wasn’t sure about such a combination. “At first, I was kinda skeptical of it,” he said, smiling.
Rogers changed his mind when Snell and Morris brought a dozen jars to sample.
To make the salsa, Ale-8-One sells the concentrated form of its soft drink to Long, who processes and bottles two varieties, sweet and spicy, at his plant. The salsa recipe was tested at Ale-8-One company potlucks.
Ale-8-One collaborated with another Kentucky Proud company, Ruth Hunt Candies in Mount Sterling, to create a line of Ale-8-One flavored suckers.
After touring the bottling facility, Commissioner Comer, Snell, Kentucky Proud director Jennifer Mueller, and KDA marketing director Kristen Branscum sat down with Rogers and Elmore to discuss ways of improving the partnership and getting Ale-8-One into venues it doesn’t currently serve.
“Ale-8 is a landmark for this area, and we support them and want to work with them to do everything we can within the department to foster their growth and development,” Commissioner Comer said. “We are going to try to help them expand their markets.”
New marketing possibilities include the Kentucky State Fair, the Kentucky Speedway, and rest areas throughout the state.
“We don’t want to be the only one [soft drink sold],” Elmore said. “We just don’t want to be excluded.
“Here [in Winchester], we’re very strong,” Elmore said of Ale-8-One’s presence on local grocery shelves. “But go to Lexington and other places and we might have only two cases [for sale].”
In its quest to create new jobs, Commissioner Comer said state government officials often fail to recognize the employment by existing companies such as Ale-8-One. He said that’s one reason he likes to visit Kentucky Proud companies around the state just to say “thank you” and ask if there’s anything the Kentucky Department of Agriculture can do to help them grow, enabling them to create more jobs.
“We believe in this company, and we want to help it and other Kentucky small businesses,” Commissioner Comer said. “Sometimes we [state officials] try so hard to get new businesses to come into a community and don’t appreciate the ones that have been here.”
Top left: Ale-8-One President Fielding Rogers tells Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and Kentucky Proud director Jennifer Mueller about his company. (Photo by Chris Aldridge)
Bottom right: DeAnne Elmore, marketing and public relations director for Ale-8-One, makes a point to Commissioner Comer. (Photo by Chris Aldridge)