The Venerated Vernors Ginger Soda
Vernors Ginger Soda, formerly Vernor’s Ginger Ale, is a “deliciously different” soft drink found mainly in the Midwest. Invented in Michigan at some point between 1866 and 1880, it has been touted as having a cult following of primarily Michiganders and Midwesterners. The drink is not like other ginger ales on the market, lending to its slogan of “deliciously different”. It has an intense ginger flavor, more closely associated with a ginger beer than ginger ale, and is extremely effervescent. In fact, the carbonation is so powerful, that it has been known to lead to coughing fits if it is breathed in. Regardless of this side effect, people still love it and continue to drink it.
Growing up in Michigan, I am quite familiar with Vernors and the following it has. Everyone is familiar with old wives tales and remedies and, of course, many are regional. During the early days of the soda fountain, soda was considered to have health benefits, although today we do not usually think of soda this way. In Michigan, Vernors was no exception to this and was considered to have many health benefits. Today, Vernors is still considered to be a cure-all, the best medicine for anything from a stomach ache to a hangover, not to mention just an overall tasty pop. So how did this drink become so popular? To examine this, we will briefly look at the history of Vernors.
Vernors was invented by James Vernor in Detroit, Michigan. The story of how Vernors was invented has a few different variations, however. Undoubtedly the most popular story is that James Vernor was experimenting with flavors while at his job at Higby and Stearn’s Drugstore before he left to fight in the Civil War as part of the 4th Michigan Calvary in 1861. When he returned in 1866, he discovered that the elixir he had left to age in a barrel during his time in the war had aged to perfection. He subsequently opened his own pharmacy and Vernor’s Ginger Ale began to be produced. This is most likely the romanticized version of the story. It is more accepted that Vernor, always thinking of different soda concoctions, developed the idea for Vernor’s Ginger Ale while he was fighting in the Civil War and brought the idea to fruition after he returned and opened his own pharmacy. This idea is supported by the original patent for Vernor’s, which states the creation date as 1880, and the fact that a barrel of ginger ale would most likely not have remained untouched at his employers’ business for four years. Regardless, whether the date of its creation was 1866 or 1880, it remains America’s oldest surviving soft drink.
James Vernor was known to have high standards not only in his pharmacy but also in the making of his soft drinks. He used only the finest ingredients – distilling fine Jamaican ginger in the proper proportion to other fruit juices. The water was purified with a special purification system and even the carbonic gas was produced by Vernor so that every step of the way all of his ingredients would meet his high requirements. This special attention surely helped the drink sky rocket to one of Detroit’s favorites and lead to the business needing to be expanded. The business continued to grow and eventually opened up franchises as it became popular throughout the Midwest.
James Vernor was not just a pharmacist but a politician and was held in high esteem by much of the community. It is with his work ethic, that Vernor’s was woven into the very fabric of Detroit and became an extremely popular drink among Michiganders. Although the company had some setbacks, and has changed hands multiple times, it is still an extremely popular drink in Michigan and elsewhere. In the late 1950s, the company underwent a major change. Until this point the company had been private, but due to financial reasons, the decision was made to take the company public. It was at this point that the apostrophe was dropped from the company’s name. At a later point in time, the drink name was changed from Vernors Ginger Ale to Vernors Ginger Soda. After changing hands many times, Vernors was eventually purchased by Cadbury Schweppes in 1993 and was later incorporated into Dr Pepper Snapple Group when it spun off from Cadbury Schweppes in 2008. This move allowed Vernors to expand further from the Midwest and is now available in 33 states. Although it is available in many states, Michigan still accounts for most of its sales.
Although not wildly popular in the United States as a whole like Dr Pepper or Coca-Cola, many Midwesterners have fond memories of the drink. Whether it was a recipe that their parents used when they were sick or their memories of the trademark Vernors gnome, Woody, Midwesterners, especially Michiganders, almost all have a memory of this pop. Aretha Franklin uses Vernors to glaze her holiday ham. Many Michiganders who have retired in Florida still enjoy their Vernors, making it another large market for the drink. My father can still remember the first time he had Vernors when he was around eight. His older sister convinced him to try it, it tingled and made him cough but he loved it, and it has been his favorite pop ever since. Vernors is even featured in the television show “Parks and Rec”, set in Indiana, where it can be seen everywhere from pop machines to the actors enjoying cans of it. Much as Dr Pepper is enjoyed in Texas as a Texas original, Vernors is enjoyed in the Midwest as a Michigan original and one could say that is has been woven in the culture of that state and region in many ways.
The Dr Pepper Museum is located at 300 S. 5th Street in downtown Waco. During the spring and summer, the Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 AM until 5:00 PM and Sunday from Noon until 5:00 PM, last ticket sold at 4:15. During the fall and winter, the museum is closed on Mondays; other days remain the same. For more information, visit us on the web at drpeppermuseum.com. To purchase your own Dr Pepper memorabilia, visit the Museum’s online gift shop.