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Searching for the Last Bottles of a Cult-Classic Dr Pepper

Is Dublin Dr Pepper truly gone?

The last case of Dublin Dr Pepper ever to come off the line. (Photo: Spittin’ Image Films)

Of all the major sodas, Dr Pepper is the oldest. It was first served in 1885, a year before Coke, and for the past five years, it’s been the fifth most popular soda in America. No one can agree on what, exactly, it tastes like—it’s neither cherry-flavored, nor root-beer flavored, nor a mixture of the two, but its own particular thing.

Plenty of people think it’s gross. But the people who do like it like it a lot, and among this “loyal consumer following,” as Dr Pepper Snapple Group puts it, for many years, there was one version of Dr Pepper that was said to be the best.

This was Dublin Dr Pepper, made since 1891 in Dublin, Texas. Although Dr Pepper began using high-fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in the early 1980s, the batches that came from Dublin Dr Pepper still had pure cane sugar in them. (The situation was analogous to “Mexican Coke.”) To true connoisseurs, Dublin Dr Pepper tasted better. The drink’s 23 flavor components came through clearer, they said. The drink had “bite” to it. People would drive to Dublin just to buy cases of Dublin Dr Pepper. It became a pilgrimage.

There was even a shirt for Dublin Dr Pepper “bootleggers.” (Photo: Barry Marshall)

About five years ago, though, Dr Pepper Snapple Group sued the Dublin bottler that made the drink, and as a part of settlement, all production of Dublin Dr Pepper stopped early in 2012. After 120 years, suddenly it was no longer possible to buy Dublin Dr Pepper.

When a cult classic like this disappears, fans’ hoarding instincts take over. One member of a documentary film crew in Dublin that day bought 10 to 12 cases of the last run. Months after Dublin Bottling Works stopped making the drink, a family showed up with cases to sell at the company’s birthday celebration. As recently as 2014, a fan reported buying a genuine bottle of Dublin Dr Pepper at Pops 66, a soda shop in Oklahoma.

Could it be possible that four years after Dublin stopped making Dr Pepper, bottles of this coveted drink are out there? Is there still a chance to get a taste of a real Dublin Dr Pepper?

The Dublin Dr Pepper label. (Photo: Frank Heinz/CC BY 2.0)

Dublin Dr Pepper opened its doors just six years after Dr Pepper was invented by a soda jerk in Waco, Texas. According to Bottled Up, a documentary about the last days of Dublin Dr Pepper, the drink was meant to taste “the way the soda fountain smelled.”

Dr Pepper’s claim to fame is its “signature blend” of 23 flavors, which are believed to include amaretto, juniper, blackberry, cinnamon and vanilla; similarly to Coke, the actual recipe for Dr Pepper is a secret. The company claims that an old recipe for “D Peppers Pepsin Bitters,” found in a recipe book from the drugstore where Dr Pepper was invented, has nothing in common with the recipe used today.

Dr Pepper has always been most popular in the American South: in a 2010 report, the company reported proudly that Dr Pepper was available at every single franchise of southern chains Jack in the Box, Arby’s, Chick-fil-A and Whataburger.

When the Dublin company first contracted to bottle the drink, it took as its distribution territory a 44-mile radius outside of Dublin—the distance a horse and carriage could travel in a day. For decades, the business thrived, and after Bill Kloster, who began working at the plant in 1933, at age 14, took over as manager, he became known as an unusually enthusiastic Dr Pepper booster. He drank a few bottles every day and was known to go out with a set of cold drinks and hand them out to anyone who wanted one.

Kloster also had a collection of Dr Pepper memorabilia unlike any in the country: it began with Dr Pepper calendars his wife saved him during World War II and grew to fill multiple basements and warehouses, with vintage bottles, every piece of advertising material Dr Pepper had put out, metal signs, clocks, thermometers, and old bottling equipment. He kept it all.

What made Dublin Dr Pepper truly famous, though, was a decision Kloster made in the 1980s. At the time, soda companies were switching their sweeteners from pure cane sugar to cheaper high fructose corn syrup. But Kloster stuck with the old formulation. “I’ve been in the Dr Pepper business since 1933,” he said, at the time. “I’ve always enjoyed a good Dr Pepper…We don’t believe it’ll break us by staying with pure cane sugar.”

That was the beginning of the Dublin Dr Pepper cult. By the time the Dublin bottler stopped making the drink, the company was selling pure-cane sugar Dr Pepper by mail order, and some restaurants had figured out how to get a regular supply. Though Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the owner of the brand, tolerated—and even tacitly endorsed—Dublin Dr Pepper for years, in 2011, the corporation sued the Dublin bottler for using an out-of-date logo on its bottles and for selling outside of its designated territory.

Kloster’s son (also named Bill) told the Bottled Up crew that Dr Pepper wanted to buy his whole operation, including a soda shop, a museum, and his father’s entire collection of memorabilia. But he wouldn’t sell. Instead, the two companies reached a settlement, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group bought out Dublin’s franchise and distribution rights. In January 2012, the last ever bottles of Dublin Dr Pepper came off the line.

At the Dublin Dr Pepper plant. (Photo: Nicolas Henderson/CC BY 2.0)

Naturally, not everyone was ready to let go of Dublin Dr Pepper. Fans protested and boycotted Dr Pepper; some bought up what they could of Dublin Dr Pepper’s last run. Eventually, the new reality set in: Dublin Dr Pepper was no more. I began to wonder, though: was it truly gone? Or could the black market that once ferried soda from Dublin all over the country still provide a taste?

The first place to look for a bottle of Dublin Dr Pepper was the last place I knew it had been spotted—at Pops 66, in Oklahoma. Pops is a “soda ranch” in Arcadia, just off Route 66, that boasts a collection of 700 different types of soda, and in 2014 a Redditor reported that Pops still had the “real discontinued Dublin Dr Pepper.” There was even a photo.

Arcadia is about 300 miles north of Dublin, which in Texas terms, is relatively close, so it made sense that the shop might have bought up enough of the soda to last awhile. The bottle bought in 2014 had a Dublin Dr Pepper label and a 2012 expiration date. It seemed like the real deal. By 2016, though, Pops no longer carried the cult-classic. “They don’t make that anymore,” an employee says.

The next place to turn, naturally, was the internet, where, it turns out, plenty of unscrupulous characters are willing to take advantage of Dublin Dr Pepper lovers.

One eBay seller advertises “Dr Pepper Imperial Pure Cane Sugar Glass Bottles 10-2-4 logo from Dublin.” Bargain price: $29.99 for a six pack. But look closely. That’s not Dublin Dr Pepper: it uses the old logo, but it doesn’t include the word Dublin.

On Amazon, someone is selling “Dublin Original Dr. Pepper Made With Cane Sugar.” It’ll set you back $269. This one has the right label, and the price suggests it’s truly something special. But I’m pretty sure it’s a trap. “These bottles are knock-offs not made by the Dublin bottling co.,” one dissatisfied customer reports.

The next online seller I turned to has an ad up on eBay listing Dublin Dr Pepper at an astounding $9,999 for a six pack. That price, though, is meant to be a placeholder: the entry notes that Dublin Dr Pepper is “temporarily unavailable, hence the ridiculously high price. Please check back.”

This eBay entry belongs to Barry Marshall, who once had a side business as a reseller of Dublin Dr Pepper. “I didn’t make a killing or anything,” he says. But at one point he was sending Dublin Dr Pepper to fans all over the country, in loads as large as 10 cases at a time. He stopped the day before Dublin Dr Pepper went out of business.

I ask if he has any of it left. He kept some of the soda for awhile, he says, but eventually he and his son drank it.

“I’ve got empty cans, and that’s all I have left,” he says.

He kept the ad up, though, in case one day circumstances changed. There’s been a rumor, among fans of Dublin Dr Pepper, that there was a non-compete provision in the company’s settlement with Dr Pepper Snapple Group that would expire after a few years. Maybe, Marshall was thinking, Dublin Dr Pepper would stage a comeback.

Dublin Dr Pepper is no longer, but Old Doc’s Soda Shop is still around. Photo: Spittin’ Image Films)

Most likely, that’s just wishful thinking. I called up Dublin Bottling Works and talked to Kenny Horton, head soda jerk, about the possibility. Yes, he said, there was a clause in the agreement that opened up the possibility that after five years, the Dublin company might be able to make Dr Pepper again. But, he says, “That doesn’t mean that we would make Dr Pepper after that.”

Even if corporate Dr Pepper would allow the revival of Dublin Dr Pepper, the company has since moved on to other projects. Dublin Bottling Works now makes 13 of its own flavors of soda—all unique to them.

“We don’t have a drink the emulates Dr Pepper in any way,” says Horton. They do have a flavor called Dublin Original Black Cherry soda, their most popular flavor. (And if some customers think it tastes just a little like Dr Pepper, that’s their opinion.)

However, there is another option for fans that crave the old Dublin Dr Pepper. After the settlement, Dr Pepper started making its own cane sugar version of the soda.

“I’m pretty sure it’s the same formula Dublin was using,” says Marshall. “It does taste about the same.” His son, also a fan, concurs. Other taste testers have agreed, too: “I regrettably admit that Dr Pepper with Imperial Sugar is a very good replacement” for Dublin Dr Pepper, one wrote in 2013.

The Pops 66 store employee I talked to originally said they did have Dublin Dr Pepper but “it’s called something different now.” She went to check and came back with Dr Pepper Imperial Cane Sugar soda. “Everyone says it’s the same thing,” she said.

Not Dublin Dr Pepper (Photo: Mike Mozart/CC BY 2.0)

There are people who still have stores of Dublin Dr Pepper. Don Merritt, the producer of Bottled Up, bartered away most of the soda he bought in 2012 for work on the film. “I was able to get a couple of lenses that we wanted,” he said. He also traded a couple of cases for some time with a slow-motion camera. He still has two cases left, though. “I wouldn’t be shocked if a couple of other guys who worked on the film have some, too,” he said. “We’re probably all saving our last one.” Kenny Horton, the Dublin Bottling Works soda jerk, said he had a six-pack saved at home.

I did find one online seller, on Etsy, who seemed to have the real thing. The ad notes that the bottles were produced during the last run in January 2012, with a “best-by” date of October 2012. “This is the real Dublin Dr Pepper,” the ad promises, asserting that “Dublin” is printed on all the bottles.

When I got in touch, the store owner, Paul Baker, responded immediately. “Are you referring to the liquid gold aka sweet nectar?” he asked. He said he collects vintage soda bottles, and is only a 15-minute drive from Dublin, so collecting the bottles was “a given.”

Baker has a six-pack listed for $59.95, which actually seems like a reasonable price, considering that Dublin Dr Pepper may be more of a collectible than a drink at this point. The glass bottles have a limited shelf life, and the last run passed its “best-by” date years ago.

For the true fan, though, buying a few bottles might still be worth it.

“The most recent time I had a Dublin Dr Pepper was probably about six months ago,” says Horton. “I had an extra one here at work, and I tried it to see if it still had the same flavor.” The verdict? A little flat, but still good.

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