Butler’s Barber Shop was a Saturday morning hotspot in 1970s Laurel, Miss. I got my first haircut there from a man named Sheryl Clark. I remember like it was yesterday. The remnants of the day’s take scattered about the floor, the combs in the blue solution, cables and tubes that hung from the ceiling suspending trimmers with vacuum hoses that tickled a bit, and hunting magazines strewn about the chairs in the waiting area. That was quite a lot for a young man to take in once every couple of months.
Men were there to talk and smoke cigarettes as much as they were there for a haircut and a shave, and I listened to many a wild hunting story. I even made some up just to fit in. Stories about a bear in my back yard soon became legendary and grew with each passing visit.
This social gathering place was welcoming to outdoorsmen who love to rattle on about whatever animal they killed depending on season. But there was an allure for the younger bucks yet to trophy their mantles, and it wasn’t just the penny-apiece gum. Nestled in the far back corner just on the other side of Burl Butler was the ultimate Coke machine.
Be a good kid, don’t squirm or cry and you’d receive a handful of change for the best soda pop spat out by this loud, clanging, divine contraption. I recall barely being able to pull the bottle out of the machine and the cap hurt my hand and the opener on the front. And I remember falling in love with the ceremony of it all. I was hooked.
In those days it was either Barq’s Root Beer or its orange soda counterpart. But that was my first introduction to soda pop. My zeal has not waned over the years. I am crazy about the pop and felt it would make a great discussion for what are the greatest sodas.
You can’t write a piece like this without mentioning Coca-Cola or simply “Cocola” for those with a hint of a drawl. Coke is still king. From mixed drinks in bars to taco stands, Coke has secured its rightful place at the head of the chain. I still grab a bag of peanuts to put in the bottle. Thankfully there has been a rise in popularity of Mexican Cokes with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup.
We’ve heard about an RC Cola and a moon pie. Certainly that’s a heavenly marriage. But the Royal Crown product I was most fond of was Nehi. Peach is the way to go. My friend Cliff and I once ordered two cases of longnecks and had them overnight delivered to our doorstep in California. It cost a fortune, but that’s a craving only a Nehi lover would understand. Amazing by themselves, another way to enjoy them is gently poured over vanilla ice cream.
Stewart’s came out with a peach soda that is almost as good in 1999. They’d been doing root beer since the 1920s, but evolved into premium producer of innovative flavors. Their grape is the best version ever. My favorite, though, is the Key Lime. This soda is amazing. Do not neglect this pop should you ever see it.
Another root beer gone wild is the Virgil’s brand. Outstanding root beer, but I must say as a cream soda fan this brand may be my favorite. If you have your hands on a Philly cheese steak try a bottle of their black cherry flavor.
San Pellegrino Aranciata Rossa might be the most refreshing drink on the market. I was introduced to these a few months back and was blown away. It’s a blood orange-flavored sparkling beverage great for the sunnier days by the pool. Perfect with a salad, this could also hold up to smoky grilled veggies.
I couldn’t pass on mentioning Abita root beer. If you find this one on tap it’s unbeatable in a frosty mug. There is a good amount of vanilla taste that smoothes out the bite making it sweeter than most, but in a good way. Use a pint of this to wash down a chili cheese dog. That’s pretty high cotton whoever you are.
The list goes on and on for amazing soda pop from corporate concoctions to smaller boutique sodas that eventually get purchased by big time distributors. But the soda pop I have come to call my favorite, my “desert island” soda, is a much simpler flavor than any of the above mentioned. I choose it because of its simplicity and versatility. Take all of your fancy pants this and snooty little that and drink to your heart’s content because I don’t need them.
The one soda pop I consider perfect for any occasion is Bubble Up. Ice cold Bubble Up in a bottle is what every soda pop tries to outdo. This is an understated masterpiece. It isn’t overly sweet. The carbonation doesn’t sting your nose. The finish is crisp and short-but-powerful. There is no occasion for soda pop that Bubble Up wouldn’t fit right in.
I limit myself to one per week. OK, I TRY to limit myself to one per week. When I am behaving I can make a four pack last over a month, but there is only one person I know who loves Bubble Up more than I do, and his name is Lucas. Coming up on 10 years old, he is the sole soul I would deem worthy of splitting my last bottle. We celebrate straight A’s and with this stuff and it can go fast. It’s become a father and son bond. Don’t worry, Nehi. You’re our second favorite.
I wish there were more room. I’m interested in hearing your favorites. With all the new giant grocery chains and specialty shops like Virginias and Food Pak there are plenty to choose from, but I wonder if they could ever taste as good as that first one from Butler’s.