Serious Eats: Drinks
Soda: The Dubious History (And Great Flavor) of Vernors Ginger Ale
I've been a fan of Vernors Ginger Ale for a little over a year now since discovering the stuff at Motz's Burger in Detroit. It's popular around those parts, something like the official drink of Detroit, and with good reason. Golden in color and hyper-effervescent, it's only mildly sweet with a mellow ginger flavor coupled with a distinct vanilla aroma. It falls somewhere between a cream soda and a dry-style ginger ale and goes amazingly well with hamburgers and hangovers alike.
But here's a story: The other day I was playing a round of Jeopardy! on my phone when up popped a question about the oldest soft drink in America. Ah, simple, I thought to myself. Everybody knows that Dr. Pepper was first served at the 1885 Louisiana Purchase Exposition a full year before Coca-Cola was introduced to the market, making it the oldest soda still available in the world.
Apparently Alex disagrees with me—it turns out that the answer was Vernors. Surprised, I decided to do a little research. The latter half of the 19th century was perhaps the boomingest time for soft drinks, producing several of the brands and features we're familiar with today. Originally sold mostly as cure-alls and tonics purported to stave off everything from stomachaches to scurvy, sweetened flavored sodas eventually made their way into ice cream parlors, which is where they really came into their own as soda jerks and drugstore owners experimented with their own flavored syrups.
The first cola syrups showed up around 1881, with Coca-Cola entering the market in 1886. A dozen years later, Pepsi made its debut, while the following year, glass bottle manufacturing became standardized and became the container of choice for the next 60 years until aluminum cans were invented. These were heady times indeed for the soft drink lover.
According to company history, it was at one of these drugstores—Higby & Sterns—in Detroit that James Vernor first developed the recipe for his ginger ale, in an attempt to duplicate the flavor of the ginger ales from Ireland, which had been in production since the early 1860s. After coming up with a pretty decent formula, the story goes, he was called off to join the Civil War and his ginger syrup lay dormant in an oak cask for a full four years.
When he returned in 1865 and tasted the product, he found that not only was his syrup still palatable, but it had in fact improved with the aging, mellowing its flavors. Thus was Vernors golden ginger ale born, a unique ginger soda with a sweet, vanilla scent and rich caramel color, just as it has today.
So, 1865—oldest soft drink, case closed, right?
At least, this is what the company—ironically since acquired by Dr. Pepper—would have you believe. There's quite a bit of uncertainty about this, however. According to a great article that Roger Grace wrote for Metropolitan News, up until 1885, James Vernor was actually listed in the Detroit city directory as a "Druggist and Florist," not a soda entrepreneur. Indeed, a trademark for "Vernor's" was not even applied for until 1911, at which time James Vernor claimed that the ginger ale entered commerce in 1880—not 1865.
That said, 1880 is still a good 5 years before Dr. Pepper entered the soft drink market, so Vernors is still secure in its seat as the oldest, right?
Well, yes—that's if the Vernors we know and love today is actually the same Vernors that James trademarked back in 1911. Some would argue that it's not.
Essential to the process of the original Vernors was the four years of aging in oak barrels, just as their company literature states. However, back in 1996, all claims of oak barrel aging were dropped from the cans. These days, when you purchase the soda, the Diet version calims "barrel aged for three years," while the regular version simply says "Barrel Aged Bold Taste," with no mention of a time period. Neither specifies that they use oak barrels. Does this change in packaging represent a change in the process of how the soda is made?
Curious, I called up the company to find out. Apparently, they are about as in the dark as I am, or at least are unwilling to share the information. When I asked about the length of time that the soda is aged, I was placed on hold (for what seemed like at least four years) before finally getting a, "I'm afraid I don't know the answer."
When I elaborated by saying, "well, your website says that originally it was aged for four years in oak barrels. Can you tell me if that's still the case?"
To which she responded, "Oh, I was just searching on our website for that information, where did you find it?"
"Uh, it was right there in the first paragraph on your Vernors product information page." Glad I could be of assistance, I thought to myself.
"Oh yeah, I see it there. Well there's your answer!"
"Well, my question was whether that's still how it's done, since the page only says that's how it was done in 1862."
"Well my guess would be yes."
I'm not the first guy the cops would call in when they want to know if a suspect is fibbing, but my guess is that the nice lady on the phone didn't really know the answer.
Roger Grace met with the same difficulty back in 2005.
Why would they no longer claim that they're aging the stuff for four years if, in fact, they are? Why would they say three years on the diet sodas but no length specified for the regular? My guess is that the regular Vernors is no longer aged as it once was, which effectively means that it is no longer the same soda. Having never tasted it before 1996, I can't comment on how it compares, but according to many old timers, it doesn't even taste like the same soda. Grace calls it "an emaciated version of a product that once was, as its slogan went, 'deliciously different'"
That said, if the product they produce today is the emaciated version, the original must have been a real stunner, because—at least to this soda lover's taste buds—the stuff is still crazy delicious. Delicious enough that I sorely wish it were readily available in my market. Until it is, however, I'll have to be content with chugging cases of it during my annual Michigan hunting trip.
So is Alex Trebek right about Vernors being the oldest? Perhaps, but it's arguable. The other day a friend of mine asked if I'd rather have a magic book that holds an accurate written history of every single thing that's happened in the past, or one that has an accurate written prediction of everything that will happen in the future. Future is the obvious choice, but stories like Vernors' makes me think twice about choosing the past.
About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.