That one time in Michigan: When an iconic ginger ale was born

(Photo courtesy of Mike Fritcher on Flickr)

By Karel Vega

May 2, 2024

A short history of Vernors ginger ale.

When it comes to Michigan-made food and drinks, few products are as iconic in the Great Lakes State as Vernors ginger ale.

And there’s a good reason for that, given its versatility as a refreshing pop to enjoy on a hot summer day to a cure-all for everything from a sour stomach to a hangover.

How exactly did this barrel-aged ginger ale, with its mildly spicy kick and distinct vanilla taste come to embody such a large piece of Michigan’s identity?

The birth of something ‘deliciously different’

That one time in Michigan: When an iconic ginger ale was born

An early 20th century postcard showing the home of Vernor’s Ginger Ale at 33 Woodward Avenue in Detroit. (Photo courtesy of Detroit Historical Society)

There’s a widely circulated—and now debunked—company legend about the origins of Vernors. As the story goes, in the early 1860s, Detroiter James Vernor was experimenting with flavors to duplicate an Irish-imported ginger ale when he was called to serve in the American Civil War.

Just before setting off to the war, Vernor placed ingredients—including ginger, vanilla, and some other herbs—in an oak barrel. Years later, after returning, Vernor was surprised when this aging process completely altered the flavor profile. He’d go on to declare the beverage “deliciously different.”

Decades later, Vernor’s son—and company successor—James Vernor Jr. would dispute that legend.

What is true is that Vernor indeed fought in the Civil War, where he served as a second lieutenant in the 4th Michigan Cavalry. According to research from columnist Roger Grace, after the war, Vernor began serving his ginger ale concoction out of his pharmacy on Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, sometime in 1866.

For a time, the drink could only be found at Vernor’s pharmacy, but as demand grew, its availability expanded to local pop fountain franchises.

After selling ginger ale at his pharmacy for three decades, Vernor devoted his business to his beverage. In 1896, he closed his pharmacy and, along with his son, opened a soda fountain. A few years later, they began bottling and selling Vernor’s Ginger Ale.

Vernor Sr. also served on the Detroit City Council for more than two decades, and is credited with helping to improve the city’s sewer system.

After Vernor’s death in 1927 at age 84, his son, James Vernor Jr., took over the business. As the decades passed, the business continued to expand. In the 1940s, a new bottling plant and headquarters—taking up a whole city block on Woodward Avenue—were constructed. The company would move again the following decade, with both the new and old plants being major tourist attractions. In 1959, Vernor’s dropped the apostrophe from its name, becoming the product we all know and love today.

That one time in Michigan: When an iconic ginger ale was born

The Vernor’s Ginger Ale plant at 4501 Woodward Avenue, picture in 1955. (Photo courtesy of Detroit Historical Society)

In 1966, the Vernor family sold the company, though Vernors ginger ale would remain a regional product for many years. Less than 20 years later, in 1985, the flagship Detroit Vernors plant would be closed down for good.

Vernors has gone through a number of slogans through its life. Early on in the 20th century, it was known as ‘Detroit’s drink.” The famous “Deliciously Different” slogan started being used in 1921.

Most recently, beginning in the early 2010’s Vernors labels include an image of the gnome mascot, Woody, along with the phrase “A Michigan Original Since 1866.” To the likely chagrin of some Michiganders, the label also refers to Vernors as “The Original Ginger Soda.”

A prominent aspect of Vernors marketing, its barrel aging process, has also been dialed down over the years. Originally reading “Aged 4 years in wood,” it’s gone on through the years to say “Flavor aged in oak barrels,” “Barrel Aged, Bold Taste,” and, most recently, the barrel emblem now reads “Authentic, Bold Taste.”

The Boston Cooler

That one time in Michigan: When an iconic ginger ale was born

A homemade Boston Cooler. (Photo via Canva)

Another famous Michigan treat is strongly tied to Vernors—the Boston Cooler.

In the late 1880s, Detroit legend Fred Sanders (of Sanders Candy fame) began serving a drink blending vanilla ice cream with Vernors at his candy store. The drink would immediately become a local hit, synonymous with Detroit and eventually Michigan.

While many people believe the drink’s name originated from being invented on Detroit’s Boston Boulevard, the street hadn’t yet been built. The name actually derives from an early 20th-century term for any drink that mixed ice cream and pop.

In 1967, Vernors trademarked “Boston Cooler” for their own (now discontinued) ice cream bar.

More than 100 years later, Boston Coolers can now be found at restaurants and ice cream shops all across the state.

That one time in Michigan: When an iconic ginger ale was born

The packaging for Vernors’ Boston Cooler bars. (Photo courtesy of Atlas Obscura)

A lasting legacy

Since being sold off in the 60s, the Vernors brand and bottling rights have been acquired by multiple companies, including Pepsi-Cola, A&W Beverages, and Cadbury Schweppes. Its most recent and current owner is Keurig Dr Pepper, whose flagship bottling plant is in Holland, Michigan.

Although the drink is still strongly associated with Michigan, Vernors has been mass-distributed to 33 states since 1997. But don’t be fooled by that figure. According to previous owner Dr Pepper Snapple, Vernors sales in 2015 only accounted for 1% of its total sales. It’s still very much a Michigan experience.

The Mitten still accounts for about 80% of Vernors purchases—with Ohio and Illinois being the next highest-selling states.

In 2016, Vernors celebrated its 150th anniversary. The Detroit Historical Society teamed up with The Detroit Historical Museum for a celebration and museum exhibit highlighting the drink’s history that summer.

Most recently, in 2022, Vernors launched its first new flavor in more than 50 years—Black Cherry Ginger Soda. While the flavor was polarizing, it returned the following year.

That one time in Michigan: When an iconic ginger ale was born

Vernors’ Black Cherry Ginger Soda. (Photo courtesy of Keurig Dr Pepper)

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

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