Welcome to the South
The region known for its hospitality and soul food has developed beverage hits that consumers are increasingly ordering, encouraging a deeper dive for menu inspiration.
Southern beverages and flavors dominated menus in 2014: quick serves latched onto the iced tea craze, incorporating Southern-inspired flavors such as peach, while brands like Red Robin reached for Kentucky’s Jim Beam Maple Bourbon to whip up a boozy shake. As restaurants find success with Southern flavor profiles across the menu, the region’s influence in beverages, from cocktails to coffee, calls for a closer look.
A simple way to offer Southern beverages on the menu is to start with soda staple Cheerwine, which, despite its name, contains no alcohol. Introduced in 1917, Cheerwine is made in Salisbury, North Carolina, and nicknamed “The Nectar of North Carolina.” For a long time it was only available south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but last year the company pledged to be in all 50 states by its 100th anniversary.
Brian Bailey, co-founder of Old Carolina Barbecue Company restaurants in northeast Ohio and Michigan, says he could not imagine having an authentic Southern barbecue restaurant without it. Cheerwine, he notes, is the No. 1 soft drink seller at all 10 of the chain’s locations. He likes the “ramped up effervescence,” and wild cherry hit of flavor—and admits the first time a colleague ordered him a Cheerwine in the Carolinas, he abruptly told the waitress, “no wine for me!”
Blenheim Ginger Ale is another sweetheart of the South. The family-owned and -operated Blenheim Bottling Company churns out several ginger ale flavors, and the cap color specifies which variety a drinker will down. The #5 Gold Cap provides a burst of ginger, but the Old #3 Red Cap “goes down as smoothly as a firecracker exploding in your throat,” the manufacturer cautions—so, actually, not very smoothly at all.
Tyler Alford can attest to that, although he says the firecracker effect is by no means bad. The corporate beverage manager for Tupelo Honey Café, which serves modern Southern cuisine at eight locations in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee, says most of Tupelo’s cocktails mix in Gold Cap unless guests request otherwise, though he personally prefers the “herbaceousness and extra kick” the Red Cap delivers.
The South has a prominent spirited side, and continues to conceive cocktails that earn top-shelf placement on beverage menus nationwide. The Sazerac cocktail, for example, was born in New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1838. A Creole apothecary mixed brandy with absinthe and bitters made from a secret family recipe, according to the Metairie, the Louisiana-based Sazerac Company distillers. The name for the spicy sipper came later from the brandy, Sazerac de Forge et Fils, that was used by the owner of a “coffee house” (as many drinking establishments were called in the mid-1800s) where it was extremely popular.
As the cocktail evolved, herbsaint, an anise-flavored liquor, took the place of the absinthe, and American rye whiskey—another ingredient trending upward, according to industry reports—replaced the brandy. The libation holds the honor of being the country’s first branded cocktail. Buffalo Trace, a distillery located in Frankfort, Kentucky, now sells the Sazerac rye whiskey for the beverage, and even put out a small-batch version of the label a decade ago, a smart investment for operators who want to slowly wean their guests onto the Southern darling.
It’d be remiss to survey beverages of the South without mentioning moonshine. Makers of the fermented alcohol helped the liquor shed its white lightning rep and push it into mainstream cognizance. As the beverage moved beyond brewing in the backwoods, restaurants have discovered that moonshine is customizable. Stillhouse Craft Burgers & Moonshine in Atlanta, for example, substitutes the corn-based spirit with a blend of tequila, rum, gin, and vodka, according to company president Stephen de Haan.
Stillhouse also offers house-made moonshine infusions for straight drinking or mixing in a cocktail. Infusions include watermelon mint, brown sugar roasted apple, and Vidalia onion jalapeno, the latter of which “goes great in a Bloody Mary,” de Haan says. It’s fitting; a Cajun Bloody Mary traditionally has a kick that’s delivered more like a karate chop, thanks to the addition of Cajun spices like cayenne pepper and onion powder.
Beer and Coffee
Given all the pecans grown in the South, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to toss them into a beer. With its Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale, Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in Kiln, Mississippi, has done just that. Very lightly hopped, “the flavor is so true, it’s almost like eating pecans,” says James Hornbuckle, bartender at 200 North Beach restaurant in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi.
Other beer tastes trending in the South include sweet potatoe ales, brews tinted with locally harvested cane syrup, and, of course, local produce. Abita Brewing Company, based in Louisiana, incorporates satsuma, a seedless orange fruit, to proffer the Satsuma Harvest Wit.
Much like beer, coffee in the South takes its cue from what’s cropping up out of the ground. Chicory is a versatile root vegetable that has a bittersweet flavor, and in New Orleans, it is ubiqutous with coffee. The café au lait served at the eight Café du Monde stands throughout the area is a deep, dark-roasted coffee, and what makes it so distinctive is the addition of chicory. The root vegetable softens the bitter edge and imparts a flavor that, when mixed with hot milk, is somewhat reminiscent of chocolate, says company vice president Burt Benrud.