Whether you call it soda or pop, Illinois boasts a number of unique soft drinks. The most popular of those brands include Green River, RC Cola, Ski and Dog n Suds root beer. Soft drink production dates back to over a century ago in Illinois. These signature soft drinks have been produced in the Chicago, Champaign, and in the southern Illinois community of Breese in Clinton County.
The Excel Bottling Company, now being run by a third generation of the Meier family, produces Ski and other popular brands at its facility in Breese. It remains one of the few independent family bottlers in the nation and is the only returnable bottling line in Illinois. In 1936, Edward ‘Lefty’ Meier received reward money for catching a bank robber, and he used it to purchase a used bottling machine. Edward and his wife, Catherine Bruegge Meier, set up the bottling plant in Catherine’s grandmother’s house where she had previously operated a general store. The facility has since expanded into a soda bottling and craft brewery plant.
Excel produces a variety of flavored sodas, and its most popular, Ski, was added in 1961. Ski is a citrus-flavored soda with lemon and orange flavorings. Other pure cane sugar sodas that come from Excel include Lucky Club Cola, Sparkling Lite, Frostie Root Beer, R-Pep, Rummy, and other drinks flavored with black cream, orange pineapple, ginger ale, orange, grape, strawberry, blueberry, cherry and strawberry. Soda – Pure Cane Sugar – Excel Bottling Tours are offered at the plant, and bottles can be returned on site. Locals cite the distinguished taste of the sodas in thick glass bottles that remain to this day. Distribution has expanded throughout Illinois and across the country.
“The Breese community and all of southern Illinois is proud of Excel and all of its wonderful products,” stated Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville). “This is an old school small family business that continues to thrive and grow in our modern world of mega-companies. Visiting Excel and tasting soft drinks from those thick glass bottles takes you back in time and reminds you of simpler ways of life. When the House is in Session I keep my fridge at the capitol stocked with Ski to welcome our visitors and keep them happy.”
Chicago was once home to Green River Soda. Green River was first introduced in 1919 in Davenport, Iowa, before it was soon sold to Schoenhofen Edelweiss Brewing Company in Chicago at the start of Prohibition. The Brewery was located in the Pilsen Neighborhood, and two of the remaining original 17 buildings can still be found there. The lime-based soda with a hint of lemon was poured into old beer bottles and sold in the market. Edelweiss closed its doors in 1950, and several different manufacturers have taken over the recipe through the years. Though Green River is now brewed in Wisconsin by Sprecher Brewing, it remains a staple in the Chicagoland area. Green River can be bought online and is also available at selected locations and restaurants in Chicagoland.
Green River’s popularity took off during Prohibition, and its green color helped tie it in with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations. By the end of Prohibition, only Coca-Cola was a more popular soft drink. Green River is also the name of a song by legendary rock band Creedence Clearwater Revival. Green River could also be the reason why soda is referred to as ‘pop’ in the Windy City and surrounding areas in Illinois, as bottles used to be sealed with marbles. Opening the bottle created a ‘pop’ sound when the marble fell out.
Dog n Suds root beer came from humble beginnings in 1953 in Champaign when two music teachers from the University of Illinois opened a hot dog and root beer stand. Dog n Suds experienced rapid success and owners Dan Hamacher and Jim Griggs got into the fast food franchising business full time. The classic drive-in restaurant chain still sells its famous root beer, described as the world’s creamiest, at 20 restaurant locations around the country. Dog n Suds root beer is also available at selected locations through a network of distributors. There are four Dog n Suds restaurant locations in Illinois currently, including Grayslake, Ingleside, Richmond, and Robinson.
The Royal Crown Company was started in 1905 by Claude Hatcher, a pharmacist and wholesale grocery shop owner. After starting with Royal Crown Ginger Ale, the company entered the cola industry with Chero Cola in 1907. It grew to be as popular as Coca-Cola, with 700 distribution franchises. The company became known as the Chero Cola Company in 1912, Nehi Corporation in 1928 and later the Royal Crown Cola Company in 1959. Diet Rite, the world’s first commercially produced calorie-free soda, was launched in 1962. However, a few years later the government banned the use of cyclamate as an ingredient in cola, and Diet Rite was discontinued.
The popularity of RC Cola products declined in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2012, the Chicago-based RC Cola Bottling Firm filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. RC Cola International is based in Georgia and there are 10 brands in the portfolio.