It’s a mixer, a remedy for upset stomach, and a help for women with morning sickness–ginger ale may not be entirely American made, but James Vernor’s 1866 golden ginger ale is the oldest surviving ginger ale soda sold in the U.S. And were it not for the American Civil War , he may not have developed his soda’s signature formula, a sweet mixture of nearly 20 ingredients, including ginger and vanilla.
Ginger ale has its roots in Ireland. According to food historians, Thomas Joseph Cantrell, an Irish surgeon and apothecary from Belfast, invented the beverage some time during the 1840s. As a young clerk working in Detroit’s Higby and Sterns’ Drug Store, James Vernor enjoyed experimenting with the ginger soda sold there, often adding flavors to create unique mixtures.
According to Vernors company lore, Vernor created a syrup of 19 flavors that he stored in an oak cask. He left the cask behind upon joining the 4th Michigan Cavalry in 1862 as a hospital steward. Vernor served for four years during the Civil War and was promoted to second lieutenant in 1864. After being discharged in 1865, he returned to Detroit where he reclaimed his cask full of syrup, which had changed with the aging process of the oak wood. The company claims that Vernor called his concoction “deliciously different,” which remains Vernors ginger ale’s motto.
Vernor became a pharmacist and opened his own drugstore and soda fountain on the corner of Woodward Ave. and Clifford St. in Detroit. There, he sold his specially formulated ginger ale which became popular with visitors. By 1896, Vernor closed his drugstore and bought a property close to the ferry docks on the Detroit River. He opened up a soda fountain and began to focus exclusively on his ginger ale business. His ginger ale had become popular enough that it allowed Vernor to sell bottling franchises in one city after another. The franchises had to feature Vernor’s recipe with precision, including the aging process.
Although Vernor only sold his ginger ale to soda fountains during the early days of the company, he eventually began to sell the bottles to consumers in general and headed his operation until his death in 1927. His son James Vernor Jr. continued the company’s expansion. During the years of Prohibition, Vernors Ginger Ale, ironically, became a popular mixer, pairing easily with whiskey, vodka, and gin. Before the start of WWII, the company completed a new bottling plant that took up an entire city block near the Detroit River on Woodward Avenue. Vernors remained headquartered there until the city traded property with the company in order to construct Cobo Hall and other riverfront structures.
In 1966, the family sold the business to American Consumer Products. It was then sold to various other manufacturers including Pepsi Cola and later to A&W Beverages. Today, Vernors is operated by Keurig Dr. Pepper and is still primarily bottled in Michigan at the company’s Holland location.
Unlike paler versions of Ginger Ale such as Canada Dry, which was patented in 1904, Vernors features a fuller body and more golden hue. Caramel endows the soft drink with a sweeter taste that has more in common with ginger beers of old than, perhaps, with dry ginger ales such as Canada Dry’s formula or Scheppes’s. The golden style was far more popular before the years of Prohibition than it is today, but there are also few major brands other than Vernor’s making the golden variety on a large commercial scale.
While the majority of Vernor’s sales of ginger ale still take place in Michigan, the beverage is available throughout the U.S. The formula, which hasn’t changed extensively since 1866, still relies on barrel aging; instead of four years in oak, the flavor mixture is aged for three. If you’ve never tasted this golden ginger ale concocted by a Detroit pharmacist, give it a try the next time you shop for soft drinks.