The Cheesesteak of Beverages

Why nothing is more Philly than Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda

Say the word “Wishniak” to 90 percent of the world, and they’ll offer you a tissue and say “God Bless you.”

But, if the word forces a reflex smile and a sweet memory, you are either a Russian or you are over 40 and grew up in the Philadelphia area. [SIGNUP]

Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak soda was one of the best things about growing up within a 50-mile radius of Billy Penn’s statue. And I know that I am not the only one who feels that way because a while back I wrote about the uniquely Philly libation on my blog, The Mendte Report, and it still get hits from transplants around the world desperately seeking Wishniak.

It is pronounced Wish-NEE-ack.  I used to call it Black Cherry Wish-nick, until the late, great Richie Ashburn set me straight during the Phillies’ broadcast.

If you don’t remember the drink, you certainly remember the slogan, “Is it Frank’s? Thanks.”  And you must remember the commercial with Patty Smyth and the group Scandal. They had the 80’s hit, “Goodbye to You.”  Patty became an instant MTV fantasy girl for teenage boys across America. But in Philly, we saw her first in a Frank’s Soda ad.

Frank’s Beverages was the official name of the company founded by Jacob Frank in 1885. Jacob was a Russian immigrant who made lemon soda from freshly squeezed lemons on the streets of Philadelphia.  Frank’s headquarters used to be in the Juniata section of the city with the bottling plant at G and Luzerne.

Frank’s also had a great cream soda and a pretty famous birch beer, but the Black Cherry Wishniak was the stuff of legends.  It is the only brand that has lived on to this day.

Many people have asked, “What the hell is a Wishniak?”  It is a cordial made in Russia and Eastern Europe with sugar, cherries and vodka.  They were taste testing some new flavors at the Frank’s Beverage Company in the 1950’s when Mulford Frank, the president of the company, tried the new soda made from Bing cherries.  He said, “This reminds me of a Wishniak.”  And the name stuck.

In 1990, Frank’s was bought out by C & C Cola.  They kept the brand and its famous bottles on the shelves for awhile.  But it didn’t make financial sense to make a soda just for one city, and Frank’s couldn’t even get shelve space on supermarkets outside the city.

Frank’s is back now.  Or at least Frank’s Black Cherry Wishniak is back.  It is made by the Honickman Group, a local company that bottles and distributes Pepsi, Canada Dry, Evian, Snapple and a long list of famous brands.  Frank’s is bottled and distributed from a plant in Baltimore.  It is sent across the country and served with Tastykakes, soft pretzels, hoagies and cheesesteaks at restaurants and sandwich shops catering to transplanted Philadelphian.  In fact, it is arguably easier to get a Frank’s soda in the Los Angeles area than in the Philadelphia area, thanks to a chain of restaurant’s called Philly’s Best that are very popular in Southern California.

They don’t make the bottles anymore, just cans.  A case will cost you 70 dollars.  The rich and those drunk with nostalgia will pay that much for a taste of their childhood.  (Although I have received reports of cases popping up for less at beer distributors in the area.)

But here is a tip.  Hank’s and Stewart’s both now make bottled Black Cherry Wishniak sodas.  I know, I know, it’s not Frank’s.  But Stewart’s is bottled and distributed at the same plant.  And Hank’s has a Philadelphia history.  Most importantly, both are easier to find.

Here’s what you do.  Buy a Hank’s or a Stewart’s, put your hand firmly around the middle covering the label, close your eyes and pretend its Frank’s.  The memories will be the same.  Unless, of course, you’re Russian, in which case, you’ll be asking, “Where the hell is the vodka?”

LARRY MENDTE writes for The Philly Post on Mondays and Thursdays. Watch his video commentaries at WPIX.com.

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