Whistler Soda: "Bring back the soda of the '50s, '60s, and '70s"

Root Beer made the old-fashioned way from Whistler Soda
Root Beer made the old-fashioned way from Whistler Soda
Courtesy Whistler Soda

It's always sort of a novelty when you go to places like Brasa, La Loma, or Gorkha Palace and they have Mexican Coke in a bottle. It's impossible not to order one of these sodas for at least two good reasons: First, pure cane sugar soda tastes way better. Second, there's just something fun and classic about drinking from a glass bottle. 

There's a budding local company that totally understands this nostalgic experience and wants to bring it, and all its eco-friendly qualities, to the Twin Cities. Whistler Soda makes small-batch soda in classic flavors like root beer, grape, and black cherry -- a return to the real, honest-to-goodness flavors of yore.

But what really sets Whistler apart is their plan to bring back the returnable bottle. The Hot Dish chatted with Whistler's owner Jesse Hopkins about how the program works, the Kickstarter campaign they've launched, and when they're aiming to be on the market.

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The Hot Dish: What inspired you to start Whistler soda? 
Jesse Hopkins: We missed soda the way it was when we were kids.  Sometime during the 1970's and 1980's soda recipes changed to accommodate plastic bottles and aluminum cans and soda was never the same.  So, we have set out to bring back the soda of the '50s, '60s, and '70s, using pure cane sugar, filtered water, and premium flavors.  Second, we really missed returnable glass bottles. When we were kids, the heavy glass bottle was a key component of the experience of drinking soda. It kept soda colder longer and soda from a glass bottle just plain tasted better. We're also passionate about sustainable food and sustainable packaging. With unimaginable numbers of plastic bottles filling landfills, we believe that there has never been a better time to bring back a returnable glass bottle program.

HD: Who are the key players in your business? 
JH: Whistler is owned and operated by me. I am an assistant principal at a local middle school and also have a background in public relations and marketing. The rest of the Whistler team is comprised of my wife, Julie Hopkins, who is a local math teacher, Travis Littlefield, a local math teacher with a background in sales and marketing, and an army of friends and family who have helped build Whistler from an idea to a reality.
HD: You use simple ingredients -- water, sugar, no high fructose corn syrup -- but how do you go about creating your different flavors?
JH: We create our different flavors by hand in very small batches.  In our syrup room, we blend pure cane sugar, triple filtered water, and flavor extracts to create each of our syrups. Our initial line of soda will include cherry vanilla cola, root beer, black cherry, cream soda, grape, and fruit punch. Once the syrup is blended, we mix it with more filtered water, carbonate it, and fill it into a custom designed, 8-ounce returnable glass bottle.

HD: The returnable bottle bit seems to be a big part of your business. How does that service work?
JH: The returnable bottle is definitely a huge part of the business. Customers will pay a one-time $4 deposit when they purchase their first 8 pack of Whistler. When the bottles are empty, the customer can return the bottles back to any retailer that sells Whistler. Customers can get their $4 back or they can trade in their bottles and purchase another 8 pack without paying the deposit. Our bottles have been designed to last approximately 40 years, which means that Whistler bottles can be re-filled and re-used thousands of times and could potentially keep an incredible amount of plastic bottles out of landfills.

HD: When will your products be available, and what are your best flavors so far?
JH: We won't be up and running until January, but amongst family, friends, and those who have participated in our taste tests, Whistler root beer, black cherry, and cream soda have been favorites.  The common theme is that Whistler reminds people of the soda they had as kids.
HD: Do you see your soda as sort of analogous to our craft beer culture in any way?
JH: Definitely. We are huge supporters of local craft breweries. Whistler is absolutely craft soda.  Our flavors are inspired by 1950's soda fountain recipes, but we have experimented heavily with accent flavors to develop unique and delicious sodas. Like craft beer, Whistler is hand crafted in small batches in our local factory--and is only distributed in Minnesota.  This is really important to us. We want to be a part of our community and want to represent Minnesota positively by creating a dynamite product that is purely Minnesotan. Our soda making process also mirrors parts of the craft beer making process, using a the same carbonation process and equipment and the same bottling equipment.  

Whistler will be on the market in January and will be available at Minneapolis and St. Paul area grocers, restaurants, cafes, and specialty shops. For more info on Whistler soda, check out their website or Facebook page and look them up on Kickstarter to back their project.

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