Celebrating 150 years: Three cheers for Vernors!

We had never heard of Vernors before we moved to Detroit in 1976. To me, “ginger ale” meant Frank’s Pale Dry Ginger Ale, a Philadelphia brand and a staple at the home of my grandparents. As a teen I also got to know Canada Dry, another ginger ale of the “pale dry” variety.

Detroiters are inordinately proud of Vernors, a locally born company that made nothing but ginger ale. The brand is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.

Company lore says James Vernor, a clerk at a Detroit drugstore in the mid-1800s, experimented with flavors to duplicate a popular ginger beer imported from Ireland. When he was drafted to serve in the Civil War, he stored his syrup base in an oak barrel. When Vernor returned after years of service, he opened the keg and and discovered that aging in wood had changed the flavor of the syrup. He declared it to be “deliciously different,” which became the company’s slogan.

It’s a lovely legend, but the founder’s son, James Vernor, Jr., admitted that the formula wasn’t actually developed until later. A trademark application from 1911 says it was first sold in 1880.

That doesn’t  stop the company from declaring this to be its 150th anniversary, and who’s to quibble? Even 136 years is a long time to be making and selling the same food product.

Vernor opened a drugstore of his own on Detroit’s main drag, Woodward Avenue, and sold his ginger ale at the store’s soda fountain. Soon he started selling bottling franchises, with franchisees required to adhere strictly to the recipe. In 1896 he closed the drugstore to concentrate on the soda.

A Detroit staple

The company expanded during the Prohibition era, and James Vernor, Jr., who succeeded his father, built a large bottling plant and headquarters that took up a whole block of Woodward Avenue. The plant moved a few miles north in 1954 to a site that many of my Detroit friends remember touring as children.

Originally called Vernor’s, the soda lost its apostrophe in 1959. The Vernor family sold it in to an investment group in 1966. Subsequently owned by American Consumer Products, United Brands, A&W Beverages and Cadbury Schweppes, Vernors is now part of the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group. The flagship Detroit bottling plant was closed in 1985.

Is Vernors still aged for four years in oak casks? It’s doubtful, and Vernors has stopped making that claim, changing “barrel aged bold taste” for “authentic bold taste.” Purists says it’s not as good as the old stuff.

While Vernors is distributed nationally, Michigan accounts for 80 percent of sales.

Vernors is somewhat more strongly flavored than the pale dry type of ginger ale, and a little sweeter. Some of my friends remember being given warm Vernors to treat an upset stomach.

Woody the gnome

For many years starting in the early 1900s, Vernors had  a mascot: a gnome nicknamed Woody.  The gnome was dropped in 1987 but returned in 2002.

We actually have a tandem bicycle, bought via Craig’s List, that was produced as a marketing gimmick for Vernors; the green-and-gold painted frame includes a picture of Woody.

Vernors can be used in recipes, especially as an ingredient in glazes for meat, chicken or fish. You can use it in any cake recipe that calls for ginger ale.

A popular Detroit treat is the Boston cooler, made from Vernors blended with vanilla ice cream. No one knows why it’s called a Boston cooler. Some say it was invented on Boston Boulevard, a Detroit residential street. Others say the drink was around before Boston Boulevard was developed.

I just learned that some Detroit McDonald’s franchises are selling Boston coolers. Here’s the lowdown from Susan Selasky, the Detroit Free Press’s food writer.

Here’s a recipe I found online that sounds good; I haven’t had a chance to make it yet. It’s from a blog called My North. The photo is by Steve Wertz, via Flickr Creative Commons.