Buffalo Rock is a ginger ale that is defined by superlatives: darker, bubblier, stronger. Compared to today’s intensely sweet sodas, this Alabama favorite packs a sinus-clearing spiciness.
Sidney Lee, a grocer at the Alabama Grocery Company in Birmingham, created Buffalo Rock in 1901. His approach was consistent with the technique of the time: Add bubbles and sugar to a medicinal tonic (originally invented by a local pharmacist), then sell it as soda. The beverage received a boost after the United States enacted Prohibition in 1920. Buffalo Rock was not only a refreshing drink, it also packed a punch reminiscent of alcohol. Those who lived above the law found that using the soda as a mixer made bootlegged hooch much more drinkable.
By 1922, the company’s headquarters had a four-story neon sign that read, “Drink Buffalo Rock.” Lee’s company shifted into ginger ale production exclusively in 1927, and the product survived the Great Depression in the form of five-cent bottles. When sugar rationing struck during World War II, James Lee Sr. (Sidney’s son) went to Mexico City to replenish sugar supplies. In 1966, Buffalo Rock moved to a new, larger bottling plant. Movie star Joan Crawford attended the grand opening celebration.
Though the aggressively spicy brew has since been eclipsed by less intense soda brands, it remains a niche, regional fan favorite. Today, the soda lives on in low supply and high demand. It first debuted outside the Southeast on Amazon in 2015 and sold out in under two days.
Visit Birmingham with Atlas Obscura Trips
Smokestacks and Iron: Night Photography at Alabama's Sloss Furnaces
Join us, August 28–September 1, for a deep dive into composition, exposure, and black and white photography as we explore the imposing industrial remains of the historic Sloss Furnaces after dark, camera in hand.