the official drink of the Harvard Din & Tonics
Our Nations oldest soda is Vernors Ginger Ale, and it was created over 130 years ago. Many of todays soft drinks take an understandable pride in their histories, but they all must bow to Vernors.
In 1858, a 15-year old boy, named James Vernor, started working at Higby and Sterns' Drug Store as an errand boy. He was obviously a pretty sharp young man as he quickly worked his way up to Junior Clerk, and would eventually go on to help pass the state's first pharmacy law and would also sit on the State Board of Pharmacy for eight years.
A golden colored ginger ale was being imported from Belfast, Ireland and was becoming quite popular throughout the United States (ginger ale would be the nations most popular soft drink for about seventy years). A nineteen-year-old James Vernor began experimenting with his own ginger ale recipe. However, like many young men his age, during 1862 in Detroit, he put his plans on hold and enlisted as a Union soldier with the Fourth Michigan Cavalry. Before leaving for war though, James placed his experimental ginger ale extract into an old oak cask. At the end of the Civil War, James would return home and open a drug store of his own at 235 Woodward. Another thing that James opened was that old oak cask. To his surprise, the four years of aging blended a select group of secret ingredients to perfection.
Mr. Vernor would offer his ginger ale to his drug stores soda fountain patrons for the next thirty years (all good drug stores had a soda fountain). However, Vernors Ginger Ale was not an overnight success (at least not on a large scale). In fact, it would not be until 1896 that enough business was being generated from the sale of ginger ale that Mr. Vernor was able to close his drug store. Mr. Vernor opened a small plant at the foot of Woodward Avenue just a few doors down from his old drug store. It was here that Mr. Vernor, along with his nineteen-year-old son, James Vernor II, (the companies only employee) blended, aged, bottled, and distributed Vernors Ginger Ale. You may have noticed that I said "aged" that is because Vernors Ginger Ale extract was still aged in oak cask for four years before it was ever used to produce the soft drink. This process of aging in oak would continue until at least the 1980s, and for all I know the current bottlers may still be aging the extract.
Over the next few decades Vernors Ginger Ale would grow by leaps and bounds. It would become the ginger ale that all other ginger ales were judged. Most bottlers had some type of specialty product that differentiated them from their competitors (like Cherry Nip, or Dr. Flints Julep), but they all went head to head with their ginger ales. For Vernors to dominate the market the way that he did was a huge (and I mean HUGE) deal. James Vernor became synonymous with ginger ale, and in fact, a publisher of a soda fountain formulary guide even included a ginger ale formula in his guide that used Mr. Vernor's extract. Until a little after 1920 ginger ale had been our nations most popular style of soda. What happened? How did ginger ale lose its popularity?
Prohibition killed golden ginger ale. In the 1920s Americans were visiting illegal speakeasies in droves, and the cocktail was at the height of fashion. Many soft drinks were used as a mix with alcohol, and there was even one specifically made to mix with alcohol. It was called "dry" ginger ale (colorless, almost tasteless, and less sweet than golden ginger ale). During prohibition, dry ginger ale became immensely popular. However, golden ginger ale quickly fell off in popularity, as all forms of ginger ale would become associated with liquor in the non-drinking publics mind.
Vernor's was one of the few golden ginger ales to survive. While other golden ginger ales where losing sales in dramatic numbers, Vernors was growing by leaps and bounds and even started selling their extract to other bottlers. In 1929 the eldest Vernor would pass away at the age of 84. His son would then run the company until 1952 when he retired, at which point Mr. Vernors nephew, J. Vernor Davis, was appointed president. (James Vernor II did have a son, James Vernor III, and even a grandson named James Vernor, and I dont know why they were passed over for the presidency Vernor III was made vice president.) James Vernor II died shortly after he retired.
J. Vernor Davis did an excellent job in running the company, bringing in huge sales. Enough to attract a group of investors who in 1966 purchased Vernors. However, without family running the company, it did not fair as well. Vernors was sold to American Consumer Products in 1971, then to United Brands in 1979 who ended bottling operations at the Detroit plant in 1985. In 1987 they would sell Vernors to A & W Brands. A & W itself was bought by Dr Pepper/Cadbury in 1993, and in 1996, Dr Pepper merged with 7Up. If you want to taste Ginger Ale the way it was meant to taste then do whatever you can to locate an sample Vernor's Ginger Ale (distribution is only in limited areas).
Information on Ginger Ale courtesy of www.sodafountain.com
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