The Prince of Beverages: You gotta have cart

By Greg W. Prince

Sometimes you read something and all you can do is stare at it blankly. I experienced this non-sensation recently when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this nugget:

“Coca-Cola will start selling a new product-Coca-Cola with Lime-in the United States by March, marking the first line extension of the company’s biggest brand since Vanilla Coke appeared in 2002.”

When I finally blinked and had a chance to swallow this news, I thought of Larry David, star and protagonist of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on HBO, specifically an episode in which his wife dragged him to Starbucks.

LARRY: What’s in this latte?
STARBUCKS EMPLOYEE: Milk and coffee.
LARRY: Oh my god! Milk and coffee! I never would have thought of that! That’s so brilliant!

Milk and coffee. Cola and lime. They’re both so brilliant.

I’m not sure if I’m being sarcastic or not. It’s not a bad idea to have Coca-Cola with Lime. Last year’s Diet Coke with Lime was a wonderful thing to taste and apparently not a bad thing to offer. Coke calls it the top-selling flavored diet cola in the United States, a mouthful of adjectives for a thin field of competitors, to be sure. Why it took almost 20 years to go from Diet Coke to Diet Coke with Lemon and then another two to Lime it up, is a mystery, but let’s not hold a slow past (Coke did a TaB root beer almost three decades ago then all but gave up on non-cherry, flavored diet cola) against the fast-forward Coke is trying to effect.

The Journal-Constitution reported that Coca-Cola with Lime is the first marker laid down in what the world’s largest consumer product marketer is calling a “year of innovation.”

Innovation. Cola and lime. can only close one’s eyes and imagine what the next eleven months will bring in 2005, the year of innovation.

To be fair, we don’t know all else Coke has up its brand development sleeve. Just because they’re big doesn’t mean they don’t deserve the whole calendar to define their year. Since Coca-Cola with Lime leaked, word of another CSD, Blak, a coffee-flavored cola, seeped out. The concept-tried by Pepsi with Pepsi Kona and Starbucks Mazagran plus an indie called Café Cola-has been tried and has failed, but maybe Coke knows a way to do or sell it better this time. Jumpstarting an intriguing if previously unsuccessful flavor combo may not be pure, head-turning innovation, but it probably qualifies as a step in that direction. Keep trying, you never know.

Coca-Cola with Lime, on the other hand, is taking care of business. It should have been out there millions of cases ago.

As ambitious as the Cokes and Pepsis and Cadburys attempt to be, sometimes I wonder if they see what’s right in front of them. Yes, they need to do things that aren’t carbonated, but carbonation will always be their stock-in-trade one way or the other. They really need to sort through their bubbly portfolio and see if stuff they own or could easily produce lights a spark.

Here’s a soft drink to consider: Ginger ale. Cadbury owns three of them, Canada Dry and Schweppes along with the national drink of Michigan, Vernors (more ginger than ale). A couple of years ago, Coke bought the Seagram’s brand as well as a regional gem called Northern Neck and its gourmet sibling Carver’s. Pepsi doesn’t have one; a significant portion of its bottler network traffics Schweppes.

So we know they’re out there, ginger ales. This isn’t counting the brands and variations not owned by behemoths, whether it’s spicy-hot Blenheim (mentioned in a previous column) or Reed’s Ginger Brews, which feature a sharp, proprietary taste. Something else is out there: people who want ginger ale. They’re out there and they’re up there.

You know who I mean. If you’ve been on an airplane, you’ve seen your co-seaters ordering ginger ale in numbers all out of proportion to land-based sales figures. People on planes love ginger ale. They compose a clean, crisp mile-high club. There are no figures, at least that I could find, to confirm this, but everybody (including one reader who inspired me to check into it) has witnessed the phenomenon.

@@img2It’s not a new one. “Next time you get on an airplane, see how many people order a ginger ale,” a Cadbury Schweppes executive told me more than a decade ago. “It’s pretty amazing. The other day, I went to Atlanta and five out of the 10 or 15 people around me ordered ginger ales. That ain’t bad. That’s the kind of thing we’re looking at.”

If the airline beverage cart were to become the primary soft drink delivery system, I figured, Cadbury would have it made. But when people aren’t squeezed into an uncomfortable seat, they don’t seek all that much comfort or refreshment in ginger ale. Or maybe they’re not given the ginger ale option often enough in real life. When I recently asked Cadbury if they had any idea why ginger ale flies so high through the clouds and if there were anything they could think of to make it roll on the ground, a spokesperson looked into it and said they had no information or research on the topic.

There was a time when golden ginger ale ruled the world, regardless of altitude. Vernors is the oldest, surviving soft drink in this country, having bubbled to the surface in 1866. Until 1920, it and other ginger ales overshadowed colas and everything else. But, according to the Harvard Din & Tonics Web site, Prohibition killed golden ginger ale:

“In the 1920s, Americans were visiting illegal speakeasies in droves, and the cocktail was at the height of fashion. Many soft drinks were used as a mix with alcohol, and there was even one specifically made to mix with alcohol. It was called ‘dry’ ginger ale (colorless, almost tasteless, and less sweet than golden ginger ale). During Prohibition, dry ginger ale became immensely popular. However, golden ginger ale quickly fell off in popularity, as all forms of ginger ale would become associated with liquor in the non-drinking public’s mind.”

The ginger ale impulse still resides in the American DNA. There’s a reason people-adults, a demographic not noted as particularly soda-friendly-tell the flight attendant they want a ginger ale. Flying is stressful. Ginger ale is relaxing. It has potential. It ought to be tapped. Figure out why you’re giving away so much of it in the air and maybe you’ll sell more than a little of it on terra firma.

It’s not so brilliant, it’s just there. Take advantage of it.

Greg W. Prince ( has covered the beverage business as a reporter and editor for more than 15 years.