If things had turned out differently, we might be celebrating the 155th anniversary of a hand cream. Or a hair dye. Or a liniment.
But luckily, none of these products panned out, and it was a ginger syrup aged in oak barrels with which James Vernor struck gold. The ambitious Detroit pharmacist with an entrepreneurial bent noodled around with all kinds of prospective inventions, carefully recording them in a thick notebook now archived by the Detroit Historical Society. Practically every pharmacy had a soda fountain back then, and the timing was right for the sweet, intensely ginger flavored and highly carbonated soft drink that came to be known as Vernor’s Ginger Ale. It created a sensation (not to mention a lot of sneezing when a glass of it was lifted to the lips).
“Vernor was a tea totaler — he created his ginger ale to be enjoyed on its own, says Troy-based Vernors historian, Keith Wunderlich.
To this day, Vernors (styled sans apostrophe since 1959) is counted among Motown’s greatest hits and is the oldest continually produced soft drink in the U.S. Distribution is limited, but Vernors has loyal fans in Florida, Ohio, Buffalo and Ontario. (It’s no longer produced in this state, but there is a Vernors bottling facility in Holland, Michigan.)
A bit of backstory on Detroit’s drink
Vernors’ origin story is part local history, part pop culture legend.
For decades the story went that Vernor had stashed his ginger syrup in an oak barrel for safekeeping while he served in the Michigan Calvary during the Civil War; then, when he returned —voila! — deliciousness. Likely fact: The returning veteran had contemplated his concoction while at war, then perfected his secret mix of ginger, vanilla, spices and sugar and stashed it in an oak barrel at his employer’s pharmacy on Woodward. Oak-barrel aging provided the “deliciously different” taste.
Fast forward to the 1990s: The barrel-age claim was dropped. Over many years, many things — the formula, logo, marketing strategy and even brand ownership — changed several times. Vernors is now owned by the Texas-based Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP) group. What’s unchanged? Vernors’ popularity.
A gnome town hero
Vernors flows through the memories of those who grew up here. Kegs of it were served before major holidays at Detroit’s James Vernor Elementary School. Stop at the Vernors shop on Woodward for a Boston Cooler before or after boarding the Bob-Lo Boat? Natch. Vernors’ wallop of ginger tamed tummies and soothed sore throats. There’s a Vernor’s Club fan site on Facebook. In recent years, 7-Eleven’s Vernors Slurpee and Vernors’ star turn on “Parks and Recreation” created new memories for a broader audience.
Some fans go all out demonstrating their love for Vernors. Consider:
–The customer who had a birthday cake crafted and decorated in the form of a Vernors can.
–The Vernors collector who grew a beard, dyed it and his hair to match “Woody,” the Vernors gnome that’s the brand’s mascot and sewed himself a gnome costume.
–Vernors tattoos — gnome heads, logo, etc. — put skin in the game for some.
A deliciously different ingredient
Wunderlich says he has perhaps 20 Vernors recipe books. Produced over many years, the recipes are tiny time capsules that show Vernors staying in step with tastes of the times. That punch of ginger makes it a versatile ingredient for to both sweet and savory applications.
· — Ham glaze
· — Poaching liquid for Brats
· — Marinades and sauces
· =- Flavoring for cakes, cupcakes and frostings
· — Milk shakes and floats
· — Cocktail mixers
Other ginger ales and regional sodas have fizzled out, but being a Detroit icon has helped Vernors endure.
“There’s always been this feeling that we have to defend everything Detroit,” Wunderlich says. “Vernors is a truly great thing that was born in Detroit and grew in Detroit. “It’s been a great thing for generations.”
To learn more
· “The Vernor’s Story: From Gnomes to Now,” by Lawrence L. Rouch
· “Vernor’s Ginger Ale,” by Keith Wunderlich
Vernors fans have strong feelings about how this hometown favorite — named for a street, not a city — is prepared. Go old school and stir it by hand or blend it into a blender with a bit of ice. For a “grown up” Boston Cooler, add bourbon, rum or vodka.
2 to 3 scoops vanilla ice cream, slightly softened
1 cup Vernors Ginger Ale, chilled
Place the ice cream in a chilled glass. Add the Vernors and stir until blended.
Recipe from Vernors.
Vernors Braised Brats
3 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
5 whole garlic cloves, peeled
2 liters Vernors, plus more if needed
8 ounces sauerkraut or kimchi with liquid
6 whole black peppercorns
8 fresh bratwurst sausages (not beer brats)
Place the onions, garlic, Vernors, sauerkraut or kimchi with liquid, and peppercorns in a large skillet. Bring to a boil and cook for about 10 minutes. Add the bratwurst. Make sure they’re fully immersed in the liquid — if not, add a bit more Vernors. Simmer until the sausages are cooked through, about 15 minutes. Drain. If desired, grill or pop under the broiler briefly to brown the exterior. Serve with the braised sauerkraut or kimchi.
Recipe adapted from multiple sources.
Aretha Franklin’s Vernors Glazed Picnic Ham
5 cups light brown sugar
5 tablespoons French’s or other yellow mustard
1 cup Vernors Ginger Ale
1 cup pineapple juice
6 to 8 pound uncured, smoked picnic ham*
To taste whole cloves (optional)
Small can pineapple rings
Small jar maraschino cherries
To taste shredded coconut (optional)
For the glaze:
Combine the brown sugar, mustard, Vernors and pineapple juice in medium saucepan. Whisk to blend well. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat, then simmer until reduced by ½ to 2/3. Keep an eye on the mixture and adjust the temperature as needed as it can easily foam up and boil over. Remove from heat and set aside or prepare a couple of days before you want to glaze the ham, cover and refrigerate.
For the picnic ham:
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Remove the picnic ham from the refrigerator. Place it on the rack of a roasting pan and let it rest, fat-side up at room temperature for an hour. Using a paring knife, score the fat layer in a diamond pattern, cutting 1 inch down, taking care not to cut into the meat layer. If using cloves, insert them in between the scored sections. Cover the ham with foil and sweat it in the oven for 1 hour. Remove the picnic ham from the oven. Remove the foil and discard.
Reheat the glaze if necessary (note: it tends to set up when it’s cooled). Brush it all over the ham, pressing with the brush to get it down into the scored parts. Return the ham to the oven. Roast for about 2 hours, basting every 20 minutes or until the ham reaches an internal temperature of 145 degrees. If the ham is super tough you may want to roast it a bit longer to tenderize it.
Remove the picnic ham from the oven and arrange the pineapple slices and maraschino cherries over the surface of the ham. Scatter the grated coconut over the top over all, if using.
Vernor’s Chocolate Frosting
2 ½ cups confectioners’ sugar
¼ cup unsweetened cocoa
⅛ teaspoon salt
⅓ cup unsalted butter
Vernor’s Ginger Ale, heated
Cream the butter. Sift the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa and salt together and stir into the butter. Blend in enough hot Vernor’s Ginger Ale until the desired consistency is reached.
Adapted from “Vernor’s Recipes” (Vernor’s, circa 1950s). University of Michigan Library (Special Collections Research Center, Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive).
Vernors Asian Meatballs
2 to 2 1/2 pounds frozen, fully cooked meatballs (mini or full-size)
2 cups Vernors Ginger Ale
2 cups hoisin sauce
1 teaspoon fresh garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon Chinese 5-spice powder
Coat the inside of the slow cooker with pan spray. Place the frozen meatballs into the slow cooker. Don’t break them apart if they’re frozen together in a big clump (they will separate later in the cooking process).
In a bowl, combine the Vernors, hoisin sauce, garlic and Chinese 5-spice powder and stir to blend well. Pour the mixture over the meatballs. Cover and cook on high heat for 4-6 hours. Mini-meatballs may be done at the earlier time. Check and remove before they fall apart.
De-fat the sauce and serve over hot, cooked rice.
Adapted from multiple recipes.
Our special thanks to:detroitnews.com