When it comes to Northern Neck Ginger Ale, Stephanie Johnson’s devotion is unshakeable.
“I grew up with it and it has always been a part of my life,” said the 35-year-old from King George County. “When you were eating crabs, when you got together with family for the holidays and even when you were sick at home as a child, there was always Northern Neck Ginger Ale.”
But not anymore. Coca-Cola stopped production of the soft drink in July. Still, Johnson is working to bring back the ginger ale of her memories, and she’s not the only one with fond memories of of the drink created in 1926 by the Northern Neck Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in Montross.
She’s created a public group on Facebook called “Save Northern Neck Ginger Ale” where she and others are doing what they can to get it manufactured again.
One comment shared frequently on the page comes from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who after hearing about Coke’s decision to permanently sideline the drink had this to say on Twitter: “Not so fast—I grew up with Northern Neck Ginger Ale and am among the many fans who would hate to see it fizzle out. We have reached out to @CocaCola and are doing everything we can to keep this popular Virginia staple on our shelves. Stay tuned...”
The group is also trying to get people to sign on to one of several change.org petitions calling for Coca-Cola to begin making it again. There are also references to the failed effort last year of Westmoreland County state legislator Margaret Ransone to get it designed as the state’s official soft drink.
While the drink was made for decades at the bottling plant in Montross, in Westmoreland County. It’s become one of the many “zombie brands” being discontinued by Coca-Cola that has been bottled at a plant in Sandston.
Coca-Cola called the brand purge a global portfolio refresh, prioritizing category-leading brands with the greatest potential for growth. Also discontinued in that move: Zico coconut water, Coca-Cola Life, Diet Coke Feisty Cherry and Delaware Punch.
It’s made Johnson downright aggravated.
“I don’t think Coca-Cola understands how important this drink is for so many of us,” said Johnson, who’s down to one case and plans to only pop the last few cans for very special occasions. “Every time I have one, I feel calm. Its taste is phenomenal, and it’s fizzy to the point where nothing else compares.”
She knows that folks who haven’t tried the soft drink might think she’s a bit over the top about all this.
“But other long-time lovers of Northern Neck Ginger Ale, which includes everyone in my family, they get it,” she said. “We always thought they should have taken the drink national instead of just offering it mainly in Virginia.”
On the Facebook page, there are many offering as much praise as Johnson, like Carole Dervin, who said she was born and grew up in the Northern Neck and now lives in Louisiana.
“When there is any travel … cases of Northern Neck Ginger Ale are transported!” said Dervin, noting that three hometown favorites were always asked to be brought back by people visiting the area: “Country ham, Duke’s Mayonnaise and Northern Neck Ginger Ale.”
Reacting to news that the brand was being discontinued, Nancy Wilson, formerly of Warsaw, said “This is terrible news. It’s the best ginger ale ever!”
Johnson said she and others who follow the site—one post has gotten some 15,000 responses—enjoy sharing how much the soft drink has been a pivotal part of their lives.
But she knows it will take more than just nostalgia and feel-good family stories to convince Coca-Cola or any other company to bring back the drink.
“I’m putting together a package that shows people’s interest and desire to buy it again that I want to give to Coca-Cola,” said Johnson.
She may also try to get it to Gov. Northam, who might have better access to the corporate giant.
“He might well have a better chance of getting their attention,” she said.
Johnson started her Save Northern Neck Ginger Ale page well before Coca-Cola made it known they were thinking of ceasing the soft drink’s production.
“I actually started the group in 2018,” she said, “because even then we were seeing shortages of the ginger ale. People were having trouble sometimes finding it in stores. I have relatives who live over across the bridge in Maryland who would drive over here to buy it, taking home 10 or 15 cases.”
Back when the Facebook group started, Johnson said it was mostly her relatives who posted things on it, often about where it was hard to find the ginger ale or spots that had plenty.
She said she’s enough of a realist to know that getting the drink back might not be easy, and that it might take new and different types of approaches to getting it made again.
“We’ve had people asking some of the small breweries in our area questions about whether they could possibly make and bottle it,” she said, acknowledging that such an approach might require Coca-Cola to turn over the recipe.
“But gosh, if Coca-Cola’s not going to make it, let someone else do it,” she said. “Anything to give us a way to get this drink we love. There’s a real demand for it. I took a survey in my family alone and found in 20 or so people the desire to prepay for 100 cases or more.”
Johnson remains determined.
“I’m not going to give up, because it means so much to me and my family,” she said. “One way or another, we’ll find a way to have Northern Neck Ginger Ale again.”
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415