cherry

Natrona Bottling Company: Red Ribbon Cherry

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.

Five Stars

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Norka Beverage: Cherry-Strawberry

History: You’ve probably heard of Akron, Ohio… because that’s the hometown of LeBron James. But it’s also the home of Norka Beverage, a soda brand of which the city was proud. Note the past tense. Norka dates all the way back to 1924 and operated up until 1962 when it was liquidated. So how did we get here? Enter Michael Considine, a proud Akron resident with a history in the beverage industry. One day while at lunch with his father, Considine noticed an old bottle with its original label. He enjoyed his current job, but started thinking… what if. With the popularity of craft soda on the rise, the appeal of bringing an old classic back into the modern age was too much to turn down. “I had no idea Akron had its own soft drink,” he said. “It was a cool opportunity to bring something back in the beverage industry.” Considine started researching. He eventually tracked down the old ingredients lists and updated them for the current consumer market. Norka Beverage made its return to the world of glass-bottled soda in early 2015 with Considine as its new founder and president. The company uses only natural flavors and cane sugar while prohibiting caffeine and gluten from their sodas. Norka brought back four of the company’s original flavors: root beer, orange soda, ginger ale, and cherry-strawberry. And it’s the latter flavor that the company was founded on, the one we review today. According to Considine, Norka worked tirelessly to get it as close to the original as possible. They even conducted focus groups with people 70+ years-old who still remembered the original taste. And beyond all the details, no one really makes a cherry-strawberry soda hybrid. We couldn’t pass that up. Norka’s tagline is “Tastes better.” We’re about to find out how true that is.

Where to get: Norka Beverage sodas are sold throughout the Akron regional area and sporadically on the west coast in addition to high-volume craft soda retailers like Antiqology and Pop’s Soda Ranch. You can get your fix online via the Norka website or Amazon.

Nose: Absolute dead-ringer for Kool-Aid Bursts Tropical Punch. We used to call them “squeeze-its.” 90’s me is freaking out right now. Also a faint strawberry scent at the very end.

Taste: Cherry popsicles; mild tartness; cherry snow cone; Luden’s Wild Cherry Cough Drops (don’t tell me you didn’t love those as a kid. If you didn’t, I’ll fight you). This is more cherry than strawberry, for the better I’d say. The cherry flavor is very old fashioned, reminiscent of sucking out the cherry juice from a popsicle or a snow cone. It’s also a little tart and acidic, just enough to where the bite is enjoyable. This has a distinctive crispness, both in flavor and carbonation. Very drinkable. There is a mild strawberry flavor to this soda that floats about the flavor profile, but it mostly hangs in the background. One flavor that is very distinctive to me is the Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops I previously mentioned. That might seem like a weird reference, but I mean it in the best way. I ate those even when I wasn’t sick. If I had some, I would right now. Actually, is Walgreen’s still open?

Finish: Sweet candy cherry with a note of mild strawberry that’s very delayed. You won’t get it unless you wait about 10-15 seconds until the next sip.

Rating: This is straight-up delicious. One of the driving forces behind craft soda is nostalgia. It’s a term that gets thrown around often, usually referencing the glass bottle the liquid comes in or a retro label. But this is a soda that tastes old fashioned. This tastes like soda you used to drink as a kid, that your parents used to drink as kids. There’s a rich, old school candy cherry soda flavor with a little bit of acidity. That tartness is critical to the soda’s nostalgic flavor and gives it not only a really pleasing taste, but also a fun mouth feel. It also imparts a refreshing crispness to the soda that adds to its drinkability. This is a soda with which you’d have no problem rampaging through. Kind of like when my wife gets a hold of my credit card. The only knock on this, and it’s a minor one, is the strawberry. It doesn’t really come through that much. Personally, I like it that way, but consumers may be expecting a balance of the two flavors, and this is heavily on the cherry side. However, you could argue the strawberry flavor is part of the reason for the soda’s mild tartness. This is one of the more drinkable sodas we’ve come across in some time. Light, refreshing, crisp and full of old school cherry flavor. Norka Beverage is a blast from the past repackaged into the present, and what’s most important: they’ve preserved the authenticity of the brand’s flavors. You can taste it. This is one in which you should invest.

Saranac: Shirley Temple

History: Saranac Brewery has been around a long, long time. And it’s stayed in the family, now in its fourth generation of brewers. Dating all the way back to 1888, F.X. Matt started the brewery with 4,000 barrels of beer a year under the name West End Brewing Co. How about that name? Seriously. F.X. Matt? How ominous does that sound? Brb while I go pitch ideas for super villains to Marvel and DC. Maybe we should start going by F.S. Soda. God, this review is already spiraling out of control. As with many long-lived breweries, prohibition hit this one hard. According to Saranac Assistant Brand Manager, Martha O’Leary, West End had just begun brewing root beer before prohibition hit and it’s essentially what kept them alive throughout those years. In 1985, the company produced its first craft beer called “Saranac.” The brewery later took this on as its name to honor of the anniversary of the Saranac Railroad’s inaugural trip from to Saranac to Utica, New York. Saranac began making craft sodas in the 1990’s. Currently they boast six different flavors, including today’s review, Shirley Temple. “It’s been with us for such a long time, and we continue to build on that,” says O’Leary. One thing we need to give you soda connoisseurs a heads up on is the fact that Saranac uses high fructose corn syrup in their sodas as a sweetener. When asked why, O’Leary was honest, “I think it’s because we maintain the same recipe” from the 90’s. She also added that there have been discussions to make the switch to cane sugar. But Saranac does have a strong reputation in the world of gourmet soda. Their root beer won gold in the 2014 U.S. Beer Open competition. But Shirley Temple was too fun to resist.

Where to get: Saranac is sold throughout the greater New York region as well as online at Amazon and ShopRite.

Nose: Grenadine syrup. Smells very sweet.

Taste: Cherry syrup; shirley temple; light bubblegum. So there’s two things that go into making a Shirley Temple. Grenadine/cherry syrup and lemon-lime soda. And I gotta hand it to Saranac… this tastes exactly like a Shirley Temple. Well, almost exactly. There’s a definitive hit of sweet cherry-flavored soda with a light bite. The carbonation in this is much lighter than if you mixed your own cherry syrup with something like Sprite. But the biggest difference is that this tastes much sweeter than a normal Shirley Temple. Much sweeter. And the classic citrus notes have been replaced with sweeter ones, reminiscent of bubble gum candy. The closest thing I can think of is those bubblegum cigars you got as a kid. This has a sweet cherry syrup taste with an added bubblegum flavor and a hint of citrus.

Finish: Just the tiniest bit of citrus. Maybe lime. Followed by a more mellow grenadine flavor.

Rating: If you like sweeter sodas, you’ve hit the jackpot here. If I drank of six-pack of these, I’d be Wilford Brimley before it was all over. That said, if you’re looking for a bottled Shirley Temple soda, you can’t go wrong with Saranac. I’d like to have seen some more citrus or some kind of bite to this to cut back the sweetness a little bit, but this stuff is good. You can really taste that classic Grenadine flavor present in all Shirley Temples and there’s a little bit of a mild bubblegum flavor as well. Kids will love this for its fun color, packaging and candy-like flavor. Adults will enjoy its nostalgia-inducing taste that jettisons you back in time to when all you wanted was mom to put the cherry syrup in your soda to make it taste better. I’d recommend putting this on some ice cubes and sipping it. And if you want to have some real fun, try a spiked Saranac Shirley Temple by adding vodka and a couple squeezes of fresh lime. This accomplishes what it set out to do and, despite the sugar rush, will please a lot of soda enthusiasts. Approved.

Ski Cherry

History: Ski is one of the most well-known names in the retro soda business. It’s been the flagship citrus beverage of Chattanooga, Tennessee’s Double Cola Company since 1956. But unlike most citrus sodas, this one is lemon and orange instead of lime. The company actually uses real lemon and orange juice in each soda, something fairly uncommon for larger brands. It was 1996 when Ski Cherry made its debut. Unlike most craft sodas, this one does contain caffeine. Now here’s an important distinction to make: Double Cola markets a majority of Ski in cans and plastic bottles with more modern labels. That version of Ski is made with high fructose corn syrup. However, their “nostalgic packages” in glass bottles are made with pure cane sugar. Ski Cherry (the bottle we’re reviewing) is made with pure cane sugar. The high fructose version of Ski Cherry is actually called Ski InfraRed. Confused yet? Think of it this way: Ski Cherry is your cute neighbor who is au naturale. Ski InfraRed is your new, cute neighbor who’s nice to look at because she’s full of silicone… err, corn syrup. Get it? If you don’t, you could just get drunk because according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Ski has a reputation has a hangover cure.

Where to get: Ski Cherry can be found at many Rocketfizz retailers across the nation. You can also purchase it online at Soda Emporium.

Nose: Like when you were a kid and poured every soda in your fridge into a cup. In my day we called them suicides. This is like that: swampy smelling. There’s definitely a cleaning fluid smell to this. Hopefully it’s deceiving.

Taste: It wasn’t deceiving. Bitter; pungent; old citrus. Ski soda is known for its mixture of lemon and orange, but this really tastes more like lime than anything else with some cherry flavoring added. Tastes very artificial. Usually cane sugar sodas are sweeter. This could use some sweetness. It could use anything, really. This is supposed to be an alternative to Mountain Dew. The two don’t taste all that similar. Whereas Mountain Dew has a crisp citrus taste, this is more of a dull citrus flavor with a pinch of cherry at the end. The cherry isn’t too bad, but isn’t prominent enough to stand out on its own. Ski Cherry shocks the taste buds not with a tangy burst, but with a lack of refreshing flavor so often found in citrus drinks. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, be warned, this is a soda that contains a caffeine punch. Most craft sodas do not contain caffeine. This one gave us a headache.

Finish: Lingering lime with a hint of orange. Not as harsh as the body of the soda. Probably this bottle’s only redeeming quality.

Rating: Ski’s tagline is “Real lemon. Real Orange. Real Good.” Coulda’ fooled me. Nothing about this tastes authentic in the slightest, nor do I taste any lemon in this soda. It’s more like a dull lime taste with faint artificial cherry and orange. It smells like chemicals and tastes only slightly better. Listen, I’m not trying to blatantly trash this. There are people out there who like it. Thirsty Dudes gave this four bottles out of five. They must’ve been really thirsty. It does have a decent finish and the cherry flavor near the end of each sip is fine. Citrus soda drinkers, yeah, go ahead and give it a shot if you wish. Maybe you’ll find its redeeming qualities. Maybe we got a bad bottle. But more likely, this just isn’t our thing. If you don’t like citrus, you can skip Ski Cherry and it’s fake brother Ski InfraRed. The name doesn’t exactly have me volunteering to put it inside my body. “Sir, would you like to drink this infrared liquid?” “Why yes! I’ve been wanting to go to the hospital!” I think this would be a wonderfully-scented toilet cleaner, but it comes up short as a soda.