by Tracey Minkin

Time in a bottle.

2239 Mineral Spring Avenue, Centerdale, North Providence
(401) 231-9290
www.yachtclubbeverages.com

The following article originally appeared in the January 1999 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Bill Sgambato and I are talking seltzers. "What do you buy?" he asks. I fidget. "Well, um, Polar," I confess. "It's what they sell at my market," I murmur, apologetically. He purses his lips.

"What flavor?"

What do we buy? What do we buy?

"Lime," I say.

Twelve-ounce bottles in cases, ready to fly out the door.

Bill walks briskly past the cases of birch beer, sarsaparilla, and pale dry ginger ale to his seltzer shelves. He grabs a Yacht Club Lime Naturally Flavored Seltzer, pops the bottle cap. "Here," he says, with the conviction of a preacher. "Try this."

This lime seltzer, a swig of clarity in a twelve-ounce bottle, with just enough fizz to tickle (not burn), marks my conversion. I'll join the loyal pilgrims who trek out Mineral Spring Avenue to the Route 44 bypass, who cart faded cardboard six-pack cases for refills, who park in back of the whitewashed, innocuous bottling company that makes the best soda pop ever. I'll go to Centerdale for my soda, thank you, and maybe even my spring water too.

Michael Sgambato shows off the bottle washer that dates from the 1940s.

And Bill Sgambato will be waiting. On Mondays he'll be bottling: passing thirty-six glass bottles a minute through his heavy, industrial-age machines that elegantly wash, sterilize, fill, cap, mix, and label the Yacht Club line of sodas, diet sodas, and seltzers. He'll talk mechanics with his eighty-seven-year-old father, John, who began work at Yacht Club in the 1930s, bought the business in the 1960s, and still comes to work every day. And Bill will advise his twenty-nine-year-old son, Michael, who whisks around the factory store with the good fizz of a Yacht Club black cherry soda.

When he's not bottling, Bill tinkers with his machines. He mixes the proprietary Yacht Club syrups the old-fashioned way, with cane sugar instead of corn syrup. He packs dry ice into large metal canisters so that the frozen carbon dioxide can "melt" into the smooth carbonation his soda requires. And he stands guardian over Yacht Club's 170-foot well, sunk deep into a massive vein of bedrock. From this portal into the subterranean world, Bill Sgambato draws water as pure and clear as the day in 1923 that the well was drilled. Ask the health department, he says. They check it every couple of weeks. And every day except Sunday, beginning at 7:30 in the morning, he'll sell a Yacht Club soda out of the Centerdale factory store to anyone who wants one.

This is about the only way to get a perfect lime seltzer these days. A few restaurants in Rhode Island offer Yacht Club, but the Sgambatos can't compete with corporations for supermarket shelf space. At least three-quarters of Yacht Club's business comes across the threshold in the person of a parish priest buying for the Fall Bazaar, a son buying a six-pack of strawberry soda for his house bound mother, or a mother buying a treat for a four-year-old grape soda aficionado. On top of the best water, maybe, in all of Rhode Island, Bill Sgambato stands ready to bring another convert into the fold.

Awards

Providence Phoenix: Best Drink from a Recycled Bottle (2002).

Editor's Notes

John Sgambato died in 2006. As of 2010 his son Bill says he is retired and refers to himself as "owner emeritus," but still works every day. The business is now owned by Bill's sons Michael and John.

Yacht Club's bottling plant, located at the corner of Mineral Spring Avenue and the Centerdale Bypass.

Yacht Club was founded in 1915 by a British immigrant named Harry Sharp, who took the name from a company back in his home country. He originally ran the business out of a barn near the location of the current building, which was built in 1923.

There were seventy-five independent soda bottlers in Rhode Island in 1925. By 1960 there were fifty-seven, but they were a dying breed. Today only two remain. Besides Yacht Club there's Empire Bottling Works in Bristol, which still delivers door-to-door.

Yacht Club makes thirty-two different beverages: nineteen regular sodas, seven diet sodas, and six flavored seltzers. They also sell the clear spring water, for which Mineral Spring Avenue was named, by the gallon.

One of the older paper labels, featuring a graphic of the Edgewood Yacht Club. Before paper the labels were painted directly on the glass of the bottles.

Ginger beer is one of Yacht Club's more recently added flavors. New labels were designed and illustrated by RISD seniors Willem Van Lancker and Livia Veneziano, respectively.

Older labels on Yacht Club bottles featured an image of the Edgewood Yacht Club building in Cranston as it looked before it was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938. More recent labels carry the image of a bearded captain superimposed over a V-shaped emblem. A new label design was introduced in 2010 that included an updated version of the Yacht Club logo, a larger V emblem with an anchor superimposed, and a background image depicting a different local coastal landscape for each flavor. This is also the first label to note that Yacht Club is now, by act of legislation, Rhode Island's official soda.

Some of Yacht Club's antique, but still perfectly serviceable, twenty-four-ounce bottles. Note the painted labels on the bottles in the center.

Yacht Club really knows how to recycle. Their twenty-eight-ounce bottles (some of which date from the 1940s) aren't even made anymore, so to encourage customers to return them they tack on a $5 deposit for a case of twelve. Twelve-ounce bottles aren't so scarce, but you can still get a $4 refund if you bring back a case of twenty-four. Almost all of the twenty-eight-ounce bottles come back, while about half of the twelve-ouncers do. (Deposit/refund amounts are as of 2010).

Tracey Minkin has written about Rhode Island places and people for regional and national magazines for more than twenty years.

Information

Tours: The Sgambatos will give you a quick tour if you ask nicely and they're not too busy.

Cost: Sodas cost money, but if you can wrangle a tour, that's free.

Time required: allow five to fifteen minutes

Hours: Monday and Tuesday, 7:30am-5pm; Wednesday-Friday, 7:30am-6pm; Saturday, 7:30am-3pm; closed Sundays and holidays.

Finding it: from Route 295 take exit 7 east toward North Providence. Go about 1.9 miles and take a left onto Mineral Spring Avenue. Yacht Club Bottling Works is about a block up on the left.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to mountains or rampaging beasts. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited December 2, 2015

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