Vernors Ginger Soda is America’s oldest surviving soft drink. It was created in 1866 by James Vernor, a Detroit pharmacist. According to company legend, prior to the start of the American Civil War, while a clerk at the Higby & Sterns drugstore in Detroit, James Vernor experimented with flavors in an attempt to duplicate a popular ginger ale imported from Ireland.
When Vernor was called off to serve in the war, he stored the syrup base of 19 ingredients, including ginger, vanilla, and other natural flavorings, in an oak cask. Vernor joined the Michigan Cavalry in 1862 as a hospital steward. After returning from battle four years later, he opened the keg and found the drink inside had been changed by the aging process in the wood. It was like nothing else he had ever tasted, and he purportedly declared it ‘Deliciously different,’ which remains the drink’s motto to this day.
Vernor opened a drugstore of his own in 1880 and sold his ginger soda at its soda fountain. In 1896, Vernor closed his drugstore and opened a soda fountain closer to the city center. Initially, Vernors was only sold via soda fountain franchises. James Vernor died in 1927 and was succeeded by his son, James Vernor Jr. Expansion continued throughout Prohibition. In 1962, Vernors introduced Vernors 1-Calorie, now called Diet Vernors. In 1966, the Vernor family sold out to the first of a succession of owners. The company was next acquired by American Consumer Products and then by United Brands before being purchased by A&W Beverages in 1987. A&W was later purchased by Cadbury Schweppes.
Vernors is a sweet ‘golden’ ginger soda that derives its color from caramel and has a robust flavor. The Vernors style was common before Prohibition, when ‘dry’ pale ginger ale (typified by Canada Dry) became popular as a drink mixer. Vernors is highly carbonated. Some people drink it hot as a remedy for stomachache. Ginger is thought to be the active ingredient. LA Metropolitan News Editor Roger Grace describes the original flavor as ‘mellow yet perky with the mellowness attributed to the aging in oak barrels, and the perkiness to the use of more ginger and sugar than ‘dry’ ginger ales.’ Many people believe that the taste of Vernors has changed significantly in recent years. Grace describes the current flavor as an ’emaciated version of a product that once was’ and ‘sweetened carbonated water with ginger flavoring.’ Theories as to the reason for the claimed change in flavor include that the secret formula has been changed to use new products not originally available to Vernor, such as high fructose corn syrup; that it seems to have less carbonation than formerly; and that Vernors is no longer aged four years, but three in oak barrels.
For most of its history, Vernors was a regional product. Initially Vernor sold franchises throughout Michigan and in major regional cities such as Toledo, Cleveland, and Buffalo. Vernors was not mass distributed nationally until the late 1980s, when United Brands, A&W, and Cadbury expanded it over a 10-year period to a 33-state area. Even after expansion, Michigan accounts for 80% of Vernors sales. Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois are the highest-selling states. It is also very popular in Florida, which has large numbers of retired or relocated former Michigan residents. Vernors is also popular in Canada, having been sold at Ontario soda fountains from the 1920s onward, and with bottling facilities, soda fountains and outlets located in Southwestern Ontario.
A Boston Cooler is an Ice cream soda variant typically composed of Vernors and vanilla ice cream blended together similar to a milk shake. The name is a mystery as it appears to have no connection to Boston, Massachusetts, where the drink is unknown.