Double Cola

I’m pretty sure – although I can’t swear to it specifically – that it was my dad who mentioned Double Cola to me. It’s the sort of drink where, if you didn’t know it was a really old beverage, dating back to the 1920s, you’d walk right past it in the convenience store, thinking it just another cheap knockoff. But my dad sold it to me as something really neat, and said, incorrectly, that you could only get it in its hometown of Chattanooga.

Well, at the time, Randy was dating my good friend Brooke, who lives in Nashville, and probably taking her to all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets, and once in a blue moon I would ride up there with him. I had suggested we stop in Chattanooga and try to find some of this Double Cola that my dad spoke of. So we got off I-24 at exit 181, Fourth Avenue, and drove to a convenience store whose clerks suggested we try the one down the street. We did, and that second store told us that we could definitely get it at the Gas-n-Go around the corner and down a bit.

Oh, you should have seen this place. You might can if it’s still there. Half the fluorescent lights were out and the bars on the windows had turned as brown as the weather-beaten sheet of paper that read “ONLY 1 TEENAGER AT A TIME” stuck in the window. I haven’t stopped laughing about it for eight years now. Nobody with a lick of sense would stop here for anything, and here we idiots were, carrying twenty ounce plastic bottles of some damn fool soda out of the place.

For the next four years, this crime scene-in-waiting was a regular destination – one wouldn’t call it a pit stop – on the road to either Knoxville or Nashville for me to stock up on cans and bottles of Double Cola, which proved to be an incredibly tasty soda indeed, and much preferable to either Coke or Pepsi. I think the best was when I convinced my buddy Ric in Columbus that he needed to ride up to Knoxville to do some record shopping with me one Friday when I had business in town, and my parents lent me their beautiful, big gray Cadillac for the drive. No car that fancy had ever pulled into that Gas-n-Go.

Eventually, however, the amusement of pulling into the worst gas station in the South lost its charm, particularly since I was stopping at the Tennessee welcome center anyway for a proper pit stop in a clean restroom. It struck me that there must have been some way to arrange only a single stop in the Chattanooga area. Because I’m something of a dingbat and do things the hard way, it first occurred to me to just get the welcome center to throw out that Coke machine in the vending area and put a Double Cola machine in its place. Now you must agree, that’s a sensible idea. The state of Tennessee should be every bit as proud of their Double Cola as Georgia is Coke. In a perfect world, you would have Buffalo Rock machines at Alabama welcome centers, and Ale-8-1 machines at Kentucky welcome centers, and so on. So I sent a letter to the state Department of Tourism. They didn’t get back to me. I thought that was rude.

Eventually, that final bolt clicked into place and I realized that if I stopped at a proper grocery store, not only could I use a clean restroom and buy this soda, but I’d probably save a good deal of money picking it up in fridge packs. So I went to Double Cola’s unbelievably ugly web site, dropped them a line to ask where it was carried, and heard back from them almost instantly. Depending on which direction I’m going and where I’m stopping to eat along the way, I’ve been swinging by various Bi-Lo stores in the city for years now.

The really weird thing is that the Bi-Lo at Lee Highway and Shallowford has a cleaner restroom than the welcome center. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The Tennessee Department of Tourism can’t even answer their mail; we shouldn’t expect much.

Now, there used to be a Bi-Lo that was quite conveniently located if you were taking I-24 up to Nashville. It was at the intersection of Browns Ferry Road and Cummings Highway, coincidentally in the same dying strip mall where you’ll find a not-at-all bad barbecue joint called Hillbilly Willy’s. There was one occasion where Marie and I were taking the children up to Louisville, stopped in for my Double Cola, and were surprised to see that the grocery store had shut down.

I scowled, decided that we’d get some Double Cola on our way back through town and started driving on when, purely by chance, I noticed an old Double Cola sign in the window of a convenience store that faced Cummings Highway. It turned out that the truck was late and the gentleman could sell me only a single can, but he made up for it with a remarkable anecdote about having to keep the men’s room locked on account of teenagers smuggling Budweiser under their shirts, stepping into the gents, chugging them and hiding the bottles in the ceiling tiles. This had evidently gone on for years until he noticed a telltale stain, moved the tile and was clobbered by an avalanche of empty brown bottles.

Frankly, if you’re not getting stories like these from your convenience store owners, you’re spending your money in the wrong places.

Anyway, Bi-Lo stores in Chattanooga are, thus far, the only places I know to reliably find Double Cola with every visit. Once in a while, the soda turns up in other places. It’s said to be easy to find in Evansville, Indiana, where the company sponsors a local soccer field. According to various message board rumblings, it evidently turns up from time to time in other cities in the southeast, from convenience stores to truck stops. Double Cola’s been spotted in Columbus, Georgia and in Cussetta, Alabama, but if you’d like to make sure you find the real thing, you’ll need to stop in Chattanooga.

You might even swing by that Gas-n-Go I was telling you about, and wonder how I got my dad’s Cadillac out of there with all four hubcaps.

(Update, 8/26/11: I also found Double Cola in a Piggly Wiggly in Collinsville, Alabama. It’s the first time I’ve personally seen it outside of Chattanooga.)

(Update, 12/8/11: SPECTACULARLY IMPORTANT PRODUCT ADVISORY: You no longer need drive to Chattanooga – or Collinsville – to purchase Double Cola from dirty Bi-Los and scary gas stations! It’s now sold in glass bottles, and **made with cane sugar**, in the Old Country Store at every Cracker Barrel. They have a selection of “vintage” glass-bottled sodas, most of ’em sugared and not with HFCS, including Stewart’s, Sioux City, Bubble Up, Cheerwine and NuGrape, for $1.29 each.

I can confirm that sugared Double Cola is, in point of fact, the best cola in the world.)