Arnold Palmer’s favorite drink finds new fans

05/18/2014 12:00 AM

05/16/2014 4:10 PM

I pull up to a Sonic drive-through in far north Fort Worth on a recent warm afternoon and order a half-lemonade, half unsweetened tea.

“You’d like an Arnold Palmer?” the friendly voice of a woman in her 20s verifies over the speaker.

I confirm that and tell her I’m surprised she knows the drink by that name.

“I know it because I’m old-school,” she quips.

Arnold Palmer, the man for whom the beverage is named, is a legend of professional golf. The Pennsylvania native, now 84 years old, earned 62 PGA tour wins in a five-decade career and remains arguably the most beloved figure in the sport’s history.

The drink that bears his moniker is nothing new — the golfer himself says he began drinking it at home in the 1950s — but it is experiencing a resurgence in sales at retail cash registers. And it is enjoying a growing prominence in popular culture.

A whole new generation of consumers is being refreshed.

Even during festivities for the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial this week in Fort Worth — a place better known as the home of legendary golfer Ben Hogan — folks will order Arnold Palmers at the 19th hole lounge, bartender Thomas White said. A full week of tournament events is already underway, and the competition itself is Thursday through Sunday at Colonial Country Club in west Fort Worth.

(Fort Worth trivia: Palmer won the Colonial tournament in 1962. Hogan, who died in 1997, may not have a mass-produced drink named in his honor, but he had five Colonial victories.)

“Some people call them a half-and-half,” said White, a six-year employee of the course. He said he has never been tempted to brew up a new beverage and name it after Hogan, Byron Nelson or any other North Texas homegrown golf greats.

“We just call them an Arnold Palmer around here,” he said.

Colonial Country Club also will offer patrons a handful of delectable drinks inspired by chef and on-course concessionaire Tim Love, including cucumber jalapeño margaritas and a new drink known as the plaid jacket, which includes Grey Goose L’Orange and pomegranate and cranberry juices.

On store shelves

It’s the supermarket and convenience store shelves where Arnold Palmer’s namesake libation is making the biggest impact. Customers can’t seem to get enough of the 12- and 23-ounce cans — or sometimes 16-ounce bottles — each with variations on the drink.

Sales of ready-to-drink teas, as the market segment is known, increased 5.1 percent in 2012 to $4.3 billion, according to a report in Beverage Industry magazine.

Arizona Beverage Co. has the exclusive right to manufacture and sell a drink that’s actually called an Arnold Palmer on the label. The colorful cans feature Arnie’s image, biography and brief history of the drink. The Arizona version of the drink experienced the highest increase in popularity among all those in the ready-to-drink tea market, with $158 million in sales in 2012, the most recent figures available, according to Beverage Industry.

Other brands are offering their versions of an Arnold Palmer-style beverage, as well. Plano-based Snapple offers both a regular and diet version of Half ’n Half, a combination of lemonade and green and black teas.

Monster Beverage has a line of drinks known as Peace Teas, including a part-tea, part-lemonade variety called Caddy Shack. It’s not a licensed tribute to the similarly named 1980 Harold Ramis movie Caddyshack, but it certainly pays homage to the same flirtatious country club scene — and it tastes much like the Arizona version.

More recently, Arizona has also launched lemonades flavored with add-ins such as strawberry and mango under the brand of Jack Nicklaus lemonade.

But for die-hard Arnold Palmer fans, tea is the key. Lemonade alone won’t do the trick. The bitterness of the tea offsets the typically sour and sweet dimensions of the lemonade. It’s the ideal balance, especially after a round of golf or other outdoor activity on a hot day.

Even many Dallas-Fort Worth restaurants offer their version of an Arnold Palmer. Most bartenders know the drink by the golfer’s name and can even make an alcoholic version with vodka or other spirits. Others less familiar with Palmer’s career and cultural significance may simply refer to the drink as a “half-and-half,” especially in the southern United States.

“It’s just refreshing and it goes good with just about anything, especially spicy food,” said well-known cowboy chef Grady Spears, who offers Arnold Palmers at his Grady’s Line Camp restaurant in Tolar, about 45 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

Spears also featured his recipe for an Arnold Palmer in a cookbook, Cooking the Cowboy Way. Spears said he also offers versions of the drink at Houston’s Reliant Stadium, where he prepares cuisine for events such as Houston Texans professional football games.

“Plus, you can add just about anything to an Arnold Palmer, or a half-and-half,” he said. “You can put different kinds of liquor in it. You can serve it in a glass with sugar on the rim. It’s good with a sprig of mint in there, too. You could probably put boot leather in it and it would taste good.”

Arnie’s story

Palmer and his wife began making the drink at home decades ago in Latrobe, Pa., the golfer explained in a 2012 interview for ESPN television, which produced a 30 for 30 Shorts documentary about the origin of the drink.

Palmer prefers that tea be the dominant ingredient, taking up about two-thirds to three-fourths of the ice-filled glass. Lemonade makes up the remaining one-third to one quarter of the drink.

But in mass production, many manufacturers go with a much sweeter variety — about 50 percent lemonade, with additional sugar, sucralose or other artificial sweeteners.

How the drink made its way into the national consciousness apparently dates to either the 1960 U.S. Open in Denver, or an unidentified time at a golf course under development in Palm Springs, Calif. Regardless of the location, the story is essentially the same. Palmer is at a golf course and visits the clubhouse for lunch.

He orders his favorite drink — and he is overheard by other guests sitting at nearby tables. A few minutes later, a woman at another table tells the server she also would like “that Arnold Palmer drink.”

Today, Arizona Beverage Co., in Maplewood, N.J., produces 600,000 cans of the drink per shift, according to the ESPN documentary.

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

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