by Tom Wilmes
In 1926, George Lee Wainscott, who owned a bottling plant in Winchester, held a contest at the Clark County Fair to name his new soft drink — a carbonated soda spiced with a proprietary blend of fresh ginger and citrus flavors. The winning entry, “A late one,” later adapted as Ale-8-One, reflected the latest thing on the market.
Ninety-five years since the launch of its flagship brand, Ale-8-One Bottling Co. is still innovating as the business furthers its heritage with new brands and business streams.
Fielding Rogers, Wainscott’s great-great nephew, is the fourth generation to lead the company, which is still privately held and family owned. “There’s a photo of me in the office when I was 5 days old,” he says. Rogers worked in the family business summers while in school and graduated from Washington and Lee University with a degree in business management. He became president of Ale-8-One Bottling Co. in 2009 at age 28.
Since then, he’s overseen the development of Ale-8’s first permanent product extension — the introduction Cherry Ale- 8-One in 2018 — along with seasonal flavors and sugar-free versions and has helped grow Ale-8’s distribution footprint beyond Kentucky and throughout the region. He’s also the keeper of Wainscott’s secret recipe. Every few weeks he climbs a spiral staircase in the Winchester plant to a private batching room, where he mixes the proprietary blend used to flavor every batch of Ale-8-One according to his great-great-uncle’s handwritten instructions.
Did you always know that you wanted to be involved in the family business?
I always knew that at some point I would be involved, because it is a family business and it’s truly in my blood. I spent a lot of my childhood here and watched my dad mix up the secret formula on a regular basis — and now that’s my responsibility. It’s also one of the most fun aspects of my job. You walk into a room, you’re the only person there, and you produce something tangible that, at the end of the day, you know a whole lot of people are going to enjoy.
How do you balance Ale-8’s legacy with innovation?
Legacy, to me, means what we’re leaving for future generations. I look at it as I’m a steward of the brand. I’m trying to build a brand that’s even more recognizable, foster a strong company culture and perpetuate a sustainable business model that that will work for the next 10, 20 or even 100 years. We’ll always be a family business. I just want us to be nimble enough to adapt to the new practices of the day and do what we need to do to keep the brand around for more generations.
“Legacy, to me, means what we’re leaving for future generations. I look at it as I’m a steward of the brand.”
A company our size is unusual in our category — we’re very vertically integrated for as small as we are. We’re effectively running three different businesses. One is our IP — formula, trademarks and branding — one is manufacturing, and one is distribution. We do some manufacturing and distribution for different brands that fit well with our retail partners. And we benefit most when we fill our manufacturing and distribution with our own stuff, so that’s a big reason why we are interested in new product development.
What’s the decision-making process when developing new brands?
First, we look at what will fit well with the market and what works well for our company and our systems. We talk with our retail partners and customers to find out what they’re excited about, and then we make a whole bunch of different things and see what we really love. We’re super selective about what we bring out. We put a lot of time and effort into making sure that that one thing is perfect and we’re 100 percent sure about it.
Have you had a lot of requests for Cherry Ale-8 over the years?
I used to drink cherry Ale-8 all the time as a kid — you basically make a Shirley Temple with Ale-8 and maraschino cherry juice. It was a natural fit as the first new flavor we’ve ever come out with. It was also quite a process. There are several hundred varieties of cherry flavoring you can use, for example. I think the one we chose is the one that’s most like I remember drinking a cherry Ale-8 as a kid. And if you haven’t tried Cherry Ale-8 Zero — I’m literally drinking one right now — we love it and it’s exceeded our expectations. In some places it’s outselling the regular cherry version. There’s no sugar, no calories and no aspartame. It took us a while to develop, and we spent a lot of time to get it just right, but that’s one that customers really seem to want.
What’s the strategy when it comes to expanding Ale-8’s distribution footprint?
We are very deliberate in entering into new markets. We want to make sure that there’s going to be strong customer demand. Because Ale-8 has been around for 95 years, we have more brand recognition than a startup. Our job is to find out how to make the right decisions to expand into a new geography where fans already exist, along with finding the right retail partners and distributors to better serve them. We also spend a lot of time on market research and marketing. We try and make sure that our products are going to do well and all our partners are going to be happy.
I feel like I haven’t seen as many Ale-8 commercials on television as I used to but more presence on social media. Is that deliberate?
You can spend an awful lot of money on advertising, but if it’s not done strategically and in the right way, you don’t see a lot of benefit. We’re very careful about making sure we’re getting a good bang for our buck, and we’re big on measuring the results. We have a passionate following on social media, and we’ve also developed a grassroots network of local fans who are product ambassadors and who do a lot of their own generated content, and that has been very effective.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I would call myself very thoughtful. I try to be very analytical and try not to be impulsive. My No. 1 focus is to always consider the long-term when making decisions. A lot of times it’s easier to make a decision that might work out well in the short term, but I think it’s always better to make the harder choice that’s better in the long run. In terms of my leadership style, I like to set goals and set a direction and then hire the right people, get out of their way and let them run with it. We’re very much a team-oriented, family business.
by Tom Wilmes
September 1, 2021