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Taste Test: Ginger Ale
#3: Thomas Kemper Purely Natural
No bones about it—we were pretty excited for the ginger ale taste test. Ginger soda was briefly touched upon on Serious Eats in the Ginger Beer Taste Test back in 2009, but this time we wanted to go all-out with as many ginger ales as we could get our mitts on.
Some find the earthy flavor and slow-burn heat of ginger ale a bit harder to appreciate than, say, cola. Some ginger ales are definitely more intense than others, with brewers pushing the ginger-tolerance envelope to the limit. But the good ones balance vanilla and caramel notes with the spicy flavor of ginger, and lighten it with hints of citrus. There are some pretty serious ginger ale fanatics in the tasting crew, so trying a few brands that aren't available locally sent shivers of anticipation through us.
An apothecary named Thomas Cantrell claimed to have invented the modern version of ginger ale in Ireland in the mid-1800s, but sources also trace its roots back to ginger beer, which was available for centuries in Europe. It was extremely popular in America beginning in the 1860s.
For our blind taste test, we found 13 nationally and locally available ginger ales, compared and contrasted, debated and argued, and then ranked them. If we didn't taste your favorite ginger ale, be sure to tell us what we missed and why you love it in the comments section!
Each soda was sampled in a blind taste test and judged on the following criteria:
- Carbonation: No one likes flat soda, but too much fizz can sting the mouth and mask flavors. In addition to the levels of initial carbonation, we also looked at how quickly these sodas lost their bubbly effervescence once emancipated from their respective bottles.
- Sweetness: This is soda, so there should be some sweetness, but it shouldn't be so sugary as to become undrinkable. Does the sweetness taste natural, leaving your mouth feeling crisp and clean, or does it feel syrupy, coating your tongue? We rated them on a scale from "dry" to "sugar rush," and the best fell somewhere in between. Ginger has a natural sweetness, so gobs of extra sugar aren't really necessary here.
- Overall ginger flavor: Unlike the strawberry, grape, or cherry sodas we've drunk in the past, we actually expect these sodas to taste like their namesake flavor: real ginger. If one tasted particularly artificial and chemical-laden, we deducted points.
13 sodas later, the scores were tallied. Overall we seemed to gravitate more toward the sweeter ginger ales than the sharper ones. A few entries left our tasting party divided, but most had pretty consistent scores across the board.
Every taster scored each soda on a scale of 1 to 10. These numbers were then averaged for the final scores.
#1. Vernor's (8.3/10)
This ginger ale was invented by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor in 1866 as a duplicate of the ones imported from Dublin, and it's a killer example of the style.
The Vernor's recipe has changed over the years, with high-fructose corn syrup replacing the original cane sugar, and it's now aged for three (not four) years in oak barrels. Despite the alterations, we haven't tasted a better ginger ale. It boasts strong vanilla and caramel notes on top of the mellow ginger flavors, a good sweetness, and fizzy carbonation. Nearly everyone in the tasting group said it reminded them of cream soda, but with a ginger warmth.
Vernor's is most popular in the Midwest and Florida, but if you're dying to try it and can't find it where you live, we suggest ordering it from Galco.
#2. Americana (7.8/10)
It's a shame that Americana isn't as easy to find nationwide as some of the better-known brands, because they consistently put out some of the best soda in the country. Their ginger ale is no exception, winning us over with its assertive sweetness and hints of citrus under the ginger thanks to the addition of some lime extracts.
Those lime aspects had some of our tasters likening this soda to 7-Up. Others called it "straight-up yummy" and said it "sticks in the back of your throat—in a good way."
#3. Thomas Kemper Purely Natural (7.7/10)
Thomas Kemper had two horses in this race, and while both finished well, the brand's newer "Purely Natural" incarnation of its ginger ale announced itself as the superior soda.
The first thing that hits you is the aroma: It's fragrant and full of ginger and cloves, priming your senses for the first sip. It's one of the sweetest ginger ales in the lineup, which a couple tasters found a bit overpowering, but the rest loved. As with all Thomas Kemper sodas, there's a kiss of honey hiding under the most prominent flavors, giving every swallow a pleasant finish.
#4. Canada Dry (7.6/10)
What ginger ale fan hasn't had Canada Dry? The ubiquitous supermarket beverage has been around since 1904, and three years later it was appointed to the Royal Household of the Governor General of Canada. Swanky! Its inventor, John J. McLaughlin, gave it the "Dry" distinction because, at the time, it was much less sugary than other ginger ales available.
It's still not as sweet as many other ginger ales today, and it's supremely balanced. Light and dry, it gives off overtones of lemon-lime, almost like a Sprite or 7-Up. The ginger notes are somewhat muted, so if you're drinking ginger ale for the ginger experience, you should probably go with a different brand. For those who are just looking for an easy-drinking ginger ale, look no further (or, rather, look one position down on this list).
#5. Seagram's (7.55/10)
With nearly identical scores and a similar flavor profile, it's tough to distinguish the Seagram's ginger ale from its closest competitor, Canada Dry. Though they're probably better known for their booze, Seagram's makes a very mild, inoffensive ginger ale that's hard to dislike, even if the ginger aspect is minor.
Like Canada Dry, this is a good mixer ginger ale. Expect strong citrus notes, mild sweetness, and no ginger heat whatsoever.
#6. Thomas Kemper (7.5/10)
You might think Thomas Kemper's regular ginger ale and its Purely Natural version would taste just like each other, but this taste test proved otherwise.
So what's the difference? Well, the honey is more prominent in this version, which may or may not affect your opinion of this soda, depending on how much you like honey. It's also slightly less sweet than the Purely Natural, which allows the ginger to have more of a voice. While most of our tasters really like this one, one absolutely did not, stating that there was "something dirty about it."
#7. Natural Brew (6.8/10)
One of the most polarizing sodas in the taste test. The flavor here comes from brewed ginger root tea that leaves the soda thick and cloudy and less carbonated. The intense sweetness comes from evaporated cane juice, making it almost candy-like. One taster even likened it to "ginger candy in liquid form."
This ginger ale split the tasting group. Those who loved it really loved it, and those who didn't really didn't. It's fairly widely available, so we recommend picking up a bottle to see if you fall in love with it or not.
#8. Boylan (6.5/10)
After some of the more robust sodas in this tasting, Boylan's came across especially mild, almost a "ginger ale lite." It starts out sweet, and then the citrus oils start to kick in, and then it finishes with gentle ginger notes.
This was a totally drinkable ginger ale, but to be honest, it didn't really leave much of an impression on us, either good or bad. As an adequate soda, it's more than acceptable on any occasion where it's not being compared to the seriously great ginger ales mentioned above.
#9. Dr. Brown's (5.8/10)
Dr. Brown's probably best known for its unique Cel-Ray soda, which has been around since 1869, but the company has a whole line of sodas, including ginger ale.
This soda was mild and light, though some tasters detected a slight bitterness that detracted from the whole. We weren't wowed, but we'd drink it again.
#10. Blenheim's Not As Hot (5.3/10)
Blenheim's had two sodas in the running here, and our tasters preferred the Not As Hot.
Despite the "Not As Hot" moniker, this ginger ale still managed to burn our throats more than almost any other soda in the taste test. "Feels like my nose and mouth are on fire!" said one taster. "Ginger's off the scale," noted another. So if you love ginger and think Canada Dry's for wimps, this one's for you.
#11. Blenheim's Hot (4.8/10)
How extreme do you have to be to down a whole bottle of this? Pretty darn extreme, if our tasting group's reaction to a single sip of this stuff is any indication.
Boasting a deep amber color and a bright red bottle cap—dual warnings, now that we think about it—the Blenheim's Hot is a throat-scorcher. "Fire! More fire!" scribbled a taster just before reaching for a glass of water. The description on Blenheim's website says it perfectly: this soda "goes down as smoothly as a firecracker exploding in your throat." Extreme ginger overtones dominate the soda— this is for the hardcore only, there's nothing subtle here.
#12. Reed's (3.8/10)
A lot goes into a bottle of Reed's Original Ginger Brew, including ginger root, lemon, lime, honey, pineapple, and other herbs and spices.
Perhaps it's too complicated an ingredient list; this soda just didn't work for us. The flavors were incongruous, oddly biscuity and murky, though those who prefer ginger beer might like it. We found the sweetness overpowering, though we did appreciate this soda's excellent carbonation.
#13. Sprecher (3.5/10)
Sprecher makes a very fine cream soda, but we weren't as wild about the ginger ale, which had a strange plastic aroma, even though it came in a glass bottle.
We found this soda lacking the gingery bite that the label promised, and it was just too intensely sweet for our taste. Not recommended.
Have you tried any of the bottles we tasted? Do you have another favorite ginger ale? Let us know in the comments below.