|And if you don't notice the taste, you WILL notice Woody the gnome winking at you from every can.|
Okay, I'm not THAT obsessed with Vernors, but I do like it, so I decided to find out what makes it so much better than other ginger ales. Part of it is a function of where I live. As I mentioned, Vernors began in Detroit, so Michiganders have essentially grown up with the stuff. The story is that, in 1862, a Detroit drug store clerk named James Vernor started experimenting with a new ginger ale. He combined ingredients in an oaken cask, but left to serve in the Civil War before he could taste the results. Vernor returned four years later, remembered his cask, opened it, took a sip, and voila, Vernors ginger ale was born.
Years later, Vernor's son admitted that the Vernors formula was developed after the Civil War, so the story of Vernor's "eureka moment" should probably be taken with a grain of salt. However, from the 1880s on, Vernors became popular throughout Michigan and surrounding states, requiring a succession of bottling plants in Detroit to keep up with consumers' thirsts. (The Vernor family sold the company to outside interests in 1966, and the plants were ultimately abandoned or demolished.) Vernors' market eventually expanded to 33 states by the late 1990s, though 80 percent of its sales occur in Michigan. Vernors also remains popular among residents of other Midwestern states, and has become a sought-after drink in Florida, presumably because retired Michiganders can't bear to be without their hometown ginger ale.
So, that's the story on Vernors. Now here's what makes it different from other ginger ales.
Vernors is a golden ginger ale. It's darker in color, sweeter, and spicier than dry ginger ale, which has a "neutral" flavor. Golden ginger ale was popular before Prohibition, but once alcohol-starved Americans realized the attractiveness of using dry ginger ale as a mixer for drinks, the latter's popularity overtook that of golden ginger ale. Since then, dry ginger ales like Canada Dry and Schweppes have become the standard on supermarket shelves, with only a few golden ginger ales prominent in regional markets.
Luckily for Michiganders, one of those markets is their home state, and one of those ginger ales is Vernors. Although Vernors is no longer made in Detroit, it's a flavor we've all grown up with...and one that doesn't need to be diluted with alcohol to make it a great-tasting drink.
Vernors is perfect all by itself, but the Boston Cooler is a variation that began in Detroit sometime around the 1880s. (No one seems to know why it's called a "Boston" cooler.) Here's the recipe. It sounds like a glorified ice cream float to me, but I'm sure it's tasty.
Boston Cooler recipe
The Vernor's Story: From Gnomes to Now, by Lawrence L. Rouch