Thursday, October 13, 2005
Wood-Aged Vernor’s Ginger Ale Was ‘Deliciously Different’
By ROGER M. GRACE
Vernor’s Ginger Ale was one of my favorite beverages as a child. Other ginger ales—like Canada Dry and White Rock—just weren’t the same. In fact, the Vernor’s slogan was, aptly, “deliciously different.”
It could be that my partiality for Vernor’s stemmed in part from the affinity children have to sugar. There was more sweetness to Vernor’s than to rival brands.
Too, there was a more pronounced ginger flavor.
What I didn’t know was that Vernor’s was a “golden” ginger ale, as opposed to the “dry” ginger ales which, as noted here last week, came into vogue during Prohibition as mixers.
The main attribute of Vernor’s was its mellowness. The reason for that was no secret. Emblazoned on every bottle were the words, “Flavor Aged 4 Years in Wood.” (Its earlier slogan was “Flavor Mellowed in Wood 4 Years,” as depicted above.)
Dr Pepper/Seven Up, Inc., the American subsidiary of Cadbury Schweppes, a British company, now owns “Vernors”—spelled these days without an apostrophe. The manufacturer provides this history of the product on its website:
Without the Civil War, there would be no Vernors.
Before the conflict began, James Vernor, a Detroit pharmacist, had concocted a new drink. It was a mix of 19 ingredients, including ginger, vanilla and natural flavorings.
When Vernor was called off to war in 1862, he stored the secret mixture in an oak cask in his pharmacy. After returning from battle four years later, he opened his secret keg and found the drink inside had been transformed by the aging process in the wood. It had taken on a zippy, zesty, gingery flavor. It was like nothing else he had ever tasted.
It was Vernors.
That’s close to being accurate. Actually, in 1862, Vernor was not a pharmacist, yet. He was 19. Experimenting with flavors, he endeavored to duplicate a popular ginger ale imported from Dublin. What he found in the keg after the war was not a “drink,” but an extract he could use in preparing a drink.
“Charles F. Clark’s Annual Directory of the Inhabitants, Incorporated Companies Business Firms, Etc. In the City of Detroit for 1862-’3” shows that in 1862, Vernor was a clerk for Higby and Sterns. That was a drug store which Vernor had gone to work for in 1858 as an errand boy.
He enterered the 4th Michigan Cavalry on Aug. 14, 1862 as a hospital steward, became a second lieutenant Sept. 20, 1864, and was honorably discharged on July 1, 1865.
Vernor opened a drug store of his own at 235 Woodward, and sold his ginger ale at the store’s soda fountain. He did not become an instant soda pop entrepeneur. The 1885 city directory for Detroit listed him as “Druggist and Florist.”
His ginger ale entered commerce in 1880, according to a 1911 application for a federal trademark on “Vernor’s” as a name for ginger ale and ginger ale extract. (The application was granted a few months after it was filed.)
City by city, franchises were opened, with operators of those franchises being under strict orders to adhere to the recipe in preparing Vernor’s Ginger Ale.
James Vernor died Oct. 29, 1927 and was succeeded as head of the company by his son, James Vernor Jr. Expansion continued.
For example, on March 3, 1928, Vernor’s Ginger Ale Shoppe opened in Decatur, Ill. An ad announced: “To introduce the famous Detroit Ginger Ale in Decatur, we will give away FREE one regular size glass to adults between the hours of 12 noon to 2. The regular price of this drink is five cents.”
An ad that same year in a Zaneville, Ohio newspaper publicized the opening of a Vernor’s franchise and noted that “[a] special apparatus enables us to serve this peppy, palatable drink, the same as it is served at Vernor’s own establishment in Detroit.”
Commercial strides during Prohibition were based on the popularity of Vernor’s strictly as a soft drink; it’s never been viewed as a mixer.
In 1966, the Vernor family sold out to the first of a succession of owners. Is the “original Vernors” marketed today faithful to the 140-year-old recipe of James Vernor? That’s next week’s topic.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company
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