History: Vito Gerasole’s accent is thick, unmistakable. He’s an Italian with a love for the family business, big opinions, and lots to say. He’s the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Soda.” But in talking to him on the phone, you realize he’s not just another loud Italian dude. There’s a thoughtfulness there, a sincere caring for his craft. Perhaps then it’s no surprise when he mentions, “I’m a very nostalgic person.” In 2010 when an angel investor offered Gerasole a chance to breath life into a dying soda company, it was his love of nostalgia that made the opportunity too much to pass up. The business in question was Natrona Bottling Company, a small hand-made soda bottler in Natrona, Pennsylvania just outside of Pittsburgh. The company began back in 1904, but the fizz had almost left the bottle, so to speak, for Natrona. Gerasole recalls the company having just $4,000 in its bank account at the time of his arrival. He remembers a customer telling him, “I heard about you guys, but you never have anything.” Despite not having much money, the company luckily had little outside debt. Natrona just needed a new game plan and Gerasole was their ace in the hole.
After a successful marketing push, Natrona Bottling was back on its feet and able to get back to making soda the way it had been made there for over 100 years. Gerasole also added several new flavors to the company’s portfolio: vanilla cream, almond cream, birch beer, and minted ginger ale. But the company’s flagship product, the one it was founded on, is its Red Ribbon Cherry. When asked about its flavor, Gerasole peps up, “It smells like cherries. It tastes like maraschino cherries!” Like many mom and pop craft soda companies, Natrona uses only pure cane sugar in their sodas and bottles each one of them by hand. They also use vintage machinery. But what sets Natrona Bottling Company apart from other soda bottlers is its method of carbonation.”I believe we are the last soda producer that uses a style of carbonation called ‘pinpoint carbonation.’” To achieve this particular fizz, dry ice pellets are dropped into pressurized tanks that create, smaller and smoother bubbles. Gerasole says the pinpoint carbonation gives Natrona sodas an “effervescence.” In the coming years, he hopes to introduce another original idea: chocolate soda made with milk. We’ll let him figure out the science behind getting that one right. Just give us the cherry soda.
Where to get: Natrona Bottling Company soda is sold in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. You can also purchase Natrona soda online from several different outlets, including the Natrona Bottling store, Pennsylvania Macaroni Co., and Galco’s Soda Pop Stop.
Nose: Strong candy cherry that evokes memories of childhood. So much nostalgia. Anyone who’s over 18 undoubtedly knows that cherry smell. Another good comparison would be a bowl full of Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops, which also had a bold candy cherry scent.
Taste: Maraschino cherry; cherry popsicle; Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops; soft carbonation. A couple things jump out from the beginning. First, there’s big cherry flavor in Red Ribbon Cherry. A candied maraschino cherry/cherry popsicle juice hybrid with just the slightest, slightest touch of acidity for variation. Second, the carbonation. You can taste that it’s different than other sodas. Very soft in the mouth, almost fluffy. The bubbles feel small. They provide a unique texture that carbonation in sodas do not. Back to the cherry taste. It’s strong and sweet but not overpowering or sugary. Very much a candy cherry taste rather than black or Bing cherries. Initially, it’s like drinking carbonated cherry popsicle juice. It quickly morphs into a slightly tart candy cherry flavor, much like having a mouthful of Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops (which are delicious). Notes of maraschino cherry linger around the end of each sip.
Finish: Maraschino cherry juice that fades back into mild cherry popsicle with lighter carbonation than in the soda’s body.
Rating: Natrona Bottling’s Red Ribbon Cherry has all the components of a home-run soda. Great flavor. Perfect mouth feel. And not overly complicated. This is a soda that gets even better as you drink it. The carbonation-flavor combo is exquisite. I may not understand the science behind the pinpoint carbonation method that Natrona Bottling uses, but I’ll be damned if you can’t taste it. The bubbles are light and frothy. One of the best uses of carbonation I’ve ever tasted in any beverage. The candy cherry taste is flawlessly executed. There’s layers to the flavor, each one just slightly different than the other. You taste cherry popsicle off the bat, a great childhood memory. Before it gets too sweet, the cherry becomes slightly more sour and acidic. It finishes off sweet again, but slightly less so than the initial taste. What I like most about this soda is that I don’t have to over think when tasting it. I just like drinking it. It’s enjoyable, and you can’t ask for more than that in a soda no matter what arbitrary ranking it receives on the Internet. This is one I’d probably put in your regular rotation. At times it’s a little sweet, perhaps a touch rich for some people’s taste. But I think that’s just Red Ribbon Cherry showing its gourmet side. It’s like when the hot girl in school dresses up for classes. The other girls might hate it and think it’s overkill, but sometimes even the finer things in life enjoy showing off their finer things. And if you ladies are reading this, I would settle for any of you texting me back. After tasting it, there’s clearly a reason Red Ribbon Cherry is Natrona Bottling Company’s flagship product. The taste, the carbonation, the subtleties; it all works. This isn’t one you should try just to check it off a list. This is a beverage that should stay stocked in your craft soda arsenal.