Why Restaurants Are Obsessing Over This 91-Year-Old Kentucky Soda
Ale-8-One, a gingery Prohibition-era soft drink, is making a strange comeback: in sauces, braises and even deviled eggs
If you don't live in the South, chances are Ale-8-One (pronounced "a late one"), a craft soda hailing from Winchester, Kentucky, may be news to you. Developed during prohibition in 1926, the gingery, citrusy soda has become a staple in the South, going way beyond a refreshing drink of choice. Chefs throughout Kentucky are now using the beverage to cook. "I've been drinking Ale-8-One for 46 years and I love it because it combines two of my favorite flavors: citrus and ginger," says Kentucky chef Ouita Michel, of Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants.
So, what's all the hype? It's like ginger ale but with a citrus kick, containing a little less carbonation and fewer calories than typical soda. "I love the unapologetic, slight burn of ginger that Ale-8-One starts and finishes with on the palate," says chef Jeremy Ashby, AZUR Restaurant. "Its effervescent qualities are thirst quenching but not too dry or sweet. The flavor balance on the palate mirrors my style of cooking."
The company, run by fourth-generation family owner, Fielding Rogers, still uses the original handwritten, secret recipe. Plus, if you've ever tasted a Moscow Mule with Ale-8-One, you know it's a solid cocktail mixer that can be used in place of ginger beer. "I like its soft spiciness and tang, making it especially good with your favorite bourbon—down here we call that a Kentucky Gentleman," says Michel.
"My favorite thing about Ale-8-One is the how deeply rooted it is in the life of all Kentuckians," says chef Sara Bradley of Freight House in Paducah, Kentucky. "It is nostalgia at its best. When you crack open that glass bottle, it makes you feel like a kid again." Point in case, this cult-favorite soda is all the rage in the South.
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Ouita Michel Family of Restaurants, chef Ouita Michel
Michel takes the tangy soda to Christmas dinner by using it as a glaze alongside pineapple. "The sweet, ginger and hints of lemon and lime work perfectly with country ham," he says. Michel also uses it as his secret ingredient for creating a "sweet tomato tang" in foods and sauces like sloppy joes, chili and BBQ sauce. To dress up a cranberry salad, he says "it is a perfect sweet spice to add to the sour and bitter notes of the cranberry."
AZUR Restaurant, chef Jeremy Ashby
At AZUR Restaurant, the chicken wings are a highlight. "We not only simmer the mushroom-stuffed chicken wings in this craft soda, but once the wings cook and become tender, the simmering liquid continues to slowly get reduced into a pungent gingery glaze that matches the Asian-inspired filling perfectly," Ashby says.
Freight House, chef Sara Bradley
The secret to Bradley's pickled eggs with roasted beets? Ale-8-One. "The sweetness of the soda is a perfect match for the earthy flavor of the beets and acid of the red wine vinegar," she says. Bradley also uses it to sweeten potato salad dressing because of its viscosity. "We use it in place of honey or maple syrup, which is our usual sweetener for a vinaigrette. It allows the dressing to remain thin and absorb easily into the potatoes—plus, it adds a depth of flavor with the added ginger kick."
The Fat Lamb, chef Dallas McGarity
"My favorite thing about Ale-8-One is that it has a nice bit of spice to it," says McGarity, who uses the soda in a divine braised lamb shank dish. "I like that the ginger flavor comes through very strongly and makes what you are using it in very distinctive. I like to incorporate really strong flavors with lamb because on its own it can be so overwhelming and with Ale-8 in the braise, it just adds an amazing amount of flavor to such a boldly flavored meat."