For climbers, the ginger drink, Ale-8-One, has always been a place-specific indulgence, something synonymous with climbing in Eastern Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, like Miguel’s Pizza is, or the terms pulling pockets and getting pumped. Often perched on top of a gear-covered picnic table out front of this pizzeria-turned-climber-haunt, Ale-8 (we often drop the “One”) is as crucial an ingredient as flour, water or yeast is to Miguel Ventura’s world-renowned pizza crust. There’s even a route named after it, which the late “Flyin” Brian McCray established in 1995 at the Motherlode. Ale-8-One, 5.12b, became an instant classic.
When Miguel’s opened in the mid-80s, it pulled in the local product of Ale-8, which had been around since the early 1900s gaining its name from an ingenious 14-year-old-girl’s contest-winning slogan (“a late one”) for this new addition to the soda world. Here, just as nearly everything (and everyone) that spends enough time around Miguel’s Pizza, Ale-8 found a home.
By the time I worked at Miguel’s for a season in the early 2000s, Ale-8 was as legendary as Miguel’s rainbow door. We used to stack the drink by the case-full under the shop on the dirt floor of the basement, long before it became its own downstairs dining area equipped with custom-made tables, wireless internet and games. We piled cases into teetering stacks that crested high above my five-foot stature. Moving racks of Ale-8 from basement storage to storefront was always a continual, hourly task that required muscles and brawn, but a self-satisfying mission to ‘feed the people’ fueled the laborious task. The bottles would be sold as quickly as they would come in.
At the time, Miguel’s only sold this citrusy twist on ginger ale in thick-glassed returnable green bottles. Those returnable bottles became a sort of metaphor for good times, friends and the escape that Gorge presented from real life; their remains were always the reminder of a great weekend. Upon entering Miguel’s Pizza, the “empties” would be stacked high in their crates, proudly congregating next to the front counter, glowing like climbers post-send.
Somehow, the Ale-8 from these returnable bottles tasted better than not only other drinks, but also Ale-8 from other containers. Maybe, my fellow climbers and I surmised, it was the cumulative effect of years of Ale-8 in each bottle making it more delicious. Crafted with twice the glass allowing them to stand up to their constant reincarnations, the empty refillables are collected, sanitized, refilled and sent out for another life. Some bottles have been circulating over ten years, and some of the wood crates are decades old, older ever than the Miguel’s employees carrying them.
Regardless, since the town of Slade (and thus Miguel’s) was, and still is, part of a dry county, Ale-8 quickly took the place of a beer (blasphemy!) in the coveted spot of a climber’s chalky hand. Maybe, it’s interesting to think, that very glass bottle has graced that very chalky hand before.
Impressively, Miguel’s has sold over one million cases of Ale-8, and the company took note. “We wanted to get more involved with the climbing community and help the climbing coalition to make sure there’s open access for climbing and other outdoor activities,” says Chris Doyle, Brand Director. Ale-8 has supported local climbing events for years, however this year the company was a major event sponsor of the Red River Gorge Rocktoberfest that took place October 6-8, 2017.
“We were blown away with their enthusiasm and commitment,” says Yasmeen Fowler, President of the Red River Gorge Climbers Coalition (RRGCC). And those returnable bottles? Ale-8 has taken that ethos a step further to become a partner of 1% for the Planet. This partnership means the company will donate one percent of designated product proceeds to a cause of their choice. One of the organizations that will be their beneficiary is the RRGCC.
I finally moved away from Kentucky in 2007, but return almost yearly. On trips back I buy Ale-8 in six packs to bring home, in the hopes of capturing the joy of one of my favorite places to climb. “I don't know of many climbers who drink soda, but I also know every climber who passes through the Red enjoys a bottle of Ale-8,” says professional climber Paige Claassen. It’s so coveted, friends will often submit orders for the cult classic: “Hey Whitney, you’re going to the Red soon? Can you grab me a six pack…”
Soon, that won’t be necessary as Ale-8 expands to other states. However, for me it will always be Kentucky’s drink, and those sexy, thick-glassed bottles will remain a Kentucky-only treat. Looking back, I finally figured out why drinking out of those thick-glassed green bottles tasted so much better. It’s the touch of nostalgia that makes it so sweet.
This story was written as a collaborative effort between Ale-8-One and Climbing Magazine’s Content Specialists.