MONTROSS, Va. -- Hemmed in by the waterways of eastern Virginia, the Northern Neck has been able to keep the outside world at bay for decades. Fishermen cast nets for oily menhaden, farmers harvest grain -- and nary a movie theater has sprung up as the rest of the region multiplies and paves.
Among the most beloved traditions on this isolated patch is the making of Northern Neck Ginger Ale, a fiery drink invented in 1926 by a local banker and made in the little town of Montross with well water, cane sugar and loads of ginger. In an area with few local products, this one became a badge of regional pride.
"It's like wine," said Virginia Clapp, 82. "People here are very picky about their ginger ale and won't drink anything else."
Then things started to change. Fishing nets were automated, killing jobs. Grain prices plummeted, killing more. The last straw was when Northern Neck Ginger Ale mysteriously started to taste different.
"People say it sort of tastes like wheat now," said Kim Veney, head of the grocery department at the Wal-Mart in Tappahannock. Customers were so dissatisfied, she said, that since last year, the store's display of the ginger ale, which once filled the shelves floor to ceiling, has been reduced to about a dozen bottles.
What caused the taste shift was a confluence of new ownership, new technology and a new plan for a very old-fashioned product. The subsequent stir reflected the pangs of unwanted change on this 740-square-mile spit of land, which has no highways to speak of, no rail and no desire to be forced into altering its ways.
"It's so isolated that the community has developed its own tastes, traditions, expectations," said Sharon Cavileer, author of the book "Virginia Curiosities." "Anything from the outside is viewed with suspicion."
The root of the change came in 2001, when the Carver family company, which also was the local bottler for Coca-Cola Co., was sold to Chicago-based investors who sensed a broader market for the ginger ale and moved some of its bottling operations to a Coke plant near Richmond, Va.
People noticed the taste change immediately, and theories flew: Was it the absence of Montross' much-loved well water? Or the difference between the sugar-based sucrose used here and the corn syrup-based fructose used in the new plant?
Regardless, they were having none of it.
"I think people just felt like, 'This is one little thing we had that was ours,' " Veney said.
Some local economic officials say quietly that it's this lack of willingness to accept change that has hurt the Northern Neck. They point to empty retail stores and a 50,000-square-foot industrial park that sat vacant for eight years.
But executives with Arbor Investment Co., Northern Neck Ginger Ale's new owners, say the area's isolation works in their favor and they plan to tap it in their national sales effort.
"To me, the Northern Neck identifies a lifestyle that's pretty removed from how most people live" and is appealing for that reason, said John Adams, an Arbor partner and former Coca-Cola executive.
It could go the other way, however. Although Adams says Arbor has no plans to abandon the red brick schoolhouse-like headquarters here, he acknowledges being frustrated by the area's lack of economic growth, which could effect the company's expansion plans.
Arbor partner Terry Porter, a former professional basketball player and now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings, said the quality of the ginger ale will have to speak for itself, because "no one will know what the Northern Neck is."
Bordered by the Rappahannock River to the south, the Potomac to the north and the Chesapeake Bay to the east, the peninsula resembles a coastal version of the Midwest. Two-lane roads meander across flat farmland, while water birds and a moistness in the air hint at what lies beyond.
As the Washington landscape has spread ever farther in recent years, waterfront property here -- an hour or two's drive from Washington -- has been snapped up, in some cases for weekend or summer retreats. Little fishing villages sell blue-crab cakes and antiques to tourists when the warm weather comes, but in the winter, much of the thinly distributed population of 40,000 seems to vanish.
The real estate rush has brought little noticeable economic growth, however -- all the more reason officials were elated last month when a Georgia company that makes trailers rented space in the long-vacant Westmoreland County Industrial Park and said it planned to hire about 75 residents.
Bryan Oliff, 38, who grew up here and runs Angelo's restaurant, and Bob Warren, who runs the golf course in nearby Mount Holly, ticked off the pluses to living here: Good, clean living, abundant wildlife and delicious drinking water, not like that "swimming pool water" people drink in cities, said Warren, 52.
It's the well water here that many say is key to the ginger ale's taste. Others say the reason it's different is because the new owners changed sweeteners.
Paul Breslin, who researches oral sensation, taste and flavor for the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says there could be impurities in one of the plants.
Time will tell how well the beverage does in a wider marketplace. But for now, one thing is clear: It's back to the old taste that Arthur Carver concocted in the 1920s. Arbor agreed recently to move all operations back to Montross.