Kentucky's other favorite drink

By Sally M. Snell

Ale-8-One, a ginger-flavored soda, is ‘on the cutting edge of obsolescent technology,’ says the company president, whose great-uncle invented the beverage in 1926.

Ale-8-One, a ginger-flavored soda, has developed a small but devoted following over the more than 80 years since its invention. Although its core distribution is confined to 25 counties in central Kentucky, Ale-8-One Bottling Company ships an average of 150 to 200 cases a month to customers around the world, including troops serving in the Middle East.

“My father said, ‘The only thing that improves Ale-8 is a shot of bourbon,’” recalls company president Frank Rogers III, 60. The family has been in the soft-drink business since 1902, when Rogers’ great-uncle G.L. Wainscott started bottling soda water, eventually adding different flavors. The company’s ginger-flavored namesake was developed in 1926. It was named Ale-8-One (or “A Late One”) because it was the latest entry in the soft-drink market.

Its name may be wordplay, but its customer loyalty is nothing to laugh at. Rogers recalls seeing a man load bottles of Ale-8 into the trunk of a car with an Alaska license plate. Some parents establish charge accounts to have the product shipped to children atending out-of-state college, Rogers adds.

The industry has changed considerably over the last century. Rogers has seen returnable bottles drop to 14% of Ale-8’s business, “but we still are in them,” he says. Many customers prefer the long-necked returnables, but keeping the old bottle-washing equipment operating has its own challenges. “We’re on the cutting edge of obsolescent technology,” says Rogers with a laugh.

Founder Wainscott’s wife, Jane, willed her interest in the company to her brother, Frank A. Rogers Sr., who purchased the remaining stock from Ale-8’s employees. The company has been in the Rogers family ever since.

“When my father [Frank Rogers Jr.] took over, he said the company had one foot in the grave and another on a banana peel, so to speak,” Frank III says. “He started with $1,400 in the bank account and three old trucks, the newest of which was a ’56 model.” That was in ’62.

Rogers has expanded the business considerably since then, but not at the expense of quality. He postponed adding a diet soda until 2003, when he finally found an acceptable sugar substitute. The company is increasing brand recognition through a joint marketing venture with Kentucky Proud, which promotes the state’s agricultural products. Selections include salsa, apple butter and hard candy made with the soda. “They are just a sideline,” Rogers says, “but they serve well to put the brand name out in a different context.”

In fact, he says, for years the Rogers family has added Ale-8 to their own recipes—“scrambled eggs or pancakes, waffles or French toast.” He notes that the soda creates a lighter, fluffier end product “if you don’t beat it too heavily.”

Rogers is in the process of turning control over to his 26-year-old son, Fielding. “I’ve put in 33 years,” Frank Rogers says. “Fielding is very bright and very capable of running it. It’s a good thing for older generations to part with the control, particularly when the younger generation wants to become immersed in it. I’m scrupulously trying to avoid the family battles that multigenerational companies have.”

Fielding currently serves as executive vice president. His younger brother and sister are also shareholders, and help to mix batches of Ale-8-One’s secret formula during breaks from university studies.

Fielding is overseeing expansion through distribution agreements with other bottlers, producers and distributors. “We’re a little company —a tiny company by comparison [to bottling giants Coke and Pepsi]. But we have a very stable market here,” Frank Rogers says.

“It is the taste and flavor of our products that carry us,” Fielding adds.

Sally M. Snell is a writer based in Topeka, Kan.

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Summer 2008