Spicy Facts About Vernors Ginger Ale | Michigan’s Oldest Pop

Whether you call it soda or pop (in Michigan’s it’s “pop”), Vernors Ginger Ale has been a hometown favorite for more than 150 years. Grandmothers and mothers across the state swear by its healing properties, while its distinctive bite and familiar taste leave a lasting impression.

How much do you actually know about this carbonated beverage, though?

Vernors Mural In Flint On Side Of Greater Flint Arts Council
Vernors Mural in Flint | photo via Margaret Clegg

History of Vernors

According to the Detroit Historical Society, Vernors started out as Vernor’s Ginger Ale. Created by James Vernor, the drink was first served to people in 1866, making it the oldest ginger pop in the United States.

Vernor was a highly respected Detroit pharmacist and had a reputation for being meticulous with prescriptions. He started out as an errand boy for Higby & Stearns Drug Store in 1858 and was eventually promoted to junior clerk. He experimented with a tonic of spices and vanilla for medicinal purposes and added ginger to calm stomach aches. In 1862, though, he joined the 4th Michigan Calvary to serve in the Civil War, leaving his experiment behind.

When Vernor returned four years later, he opened the oak barrel containing his experiment. What he found was a surprisingly gingery, sweet, and zesty beverage with wood notes from the aging process. In 1866, he opened his own pharmacy and sold the ginger ale to customers. At the time, it was the only place where people could get the drink. 

Vernor paid just as much attention to the ginger ale as he did the prescriptions. He was vigilant about every ingredient and used the same carbonated water that he sold in his pharmacy.

Photo Of Vernors Creator, James Vernor
James Vernor | photo via Keith Wunderlich

Success and Growth

With growing demand, Vernor decided to sell the pop to other soda fountains. He required the vendors to install special equipment so that they could serve the beverage as intended. The Vernor’s fountains had ornate plaster, ironwork, and lighting with a “V” design.

As word-of-mouth spread, Vernor’s Ginger Ale was sold in other Midwestern states. He opened a factory in Detroit so that he could mass produce the beverage for locals. Alongside the company’s success, the factory expanded. The last plant was located in Midtown and had a glass front where passersby could see the bottling process.

Meanwhile, the City of Detroit grew. There used to be a huge sign along the Detroit River that was illuminated with the Vernor’s logo. There was even a shop on the river that let visitors enjoy the pop while they watched it being made.

Vernors Pharmacy Original Location On Woodward
Vernors pharmacy original location on Woodward Ave. | photo via Kevin Wunderlich

Changes & Shutdowns

In 1896, Vernor’s son James Vernor II was made president of the company, but Vernor didn’t pass away until October 1927. The family jokingly commented that he didn’t retire until a few hours before he died. His son succeeded him, and the company flourished throughout Prohibition. In 1959, the apostrophe was dropped from the name, making it simply Vernors.

Also in the 1950s, the Vernors headquarters and bottling plant was moved after Detroit proposed building Cobo Hall and other projects on the riverfront. The new plant had many of the beloved elements as before, and tours were a major attraction for locals and visitors alike. In 1962, Vernors 1-Calorie pop was introduced. Now, it’s called Diet Vernors.

The business remained family operated until 1966, when it was sold to an investment group. Since then, the brand has changed hands many times. It went to American Consumer Products next and then to United Brands, which shut down the flagship bottling plant in Detroit in 1985 and granted bottling rights to Pepsi-Cola. The Midtown bottling plant was demolished as well.

In 1987, A&W Beverages bought the brand. Then, Cadbury-Schweppes purchased it in 1993. When Dr Pepper Snapple Group separated from Cadbury-Schweppes in 2008, the Vernors brand went with it. In 2018, Keurig Green Mountain purchased Dr Pepper Snapple Group, so now Vernors is part of the Keurig Dr Pepper conglomerate.

Vernors-Ginger Ale
Vernors | photo via redhots1921

An Alternate Story

A couple details regarding the history of Vernors are up for debate.

(1) Vernor’s son says that his father didn’t create the formula for the ginger ale until after he returned from the Civil War. An Interview with former company president James Vernor Davis in 1962 confirmed this story.

(2) A 1911 trademark application for Vernor’s states that the ginger ale was first sold to the public in 1880 rather than 1866. Still, it’s the oldest pop in the nation.

No matter how it was made, Vernors is a delicious pop that Michiganders grow up with and look back on fondly. Other ginger ales just can’t imitate the intense ginger flavor.

Vernors | photo via Brent Moore

Vernors Flavor Profile & Formula

Vernors ginger ale has a golden color, which comes from caramel, and the robust flavor is similar to ginger beer. It was common to mix Vernors with other drinks before Prohibition. Since then, dry pale ginger ale (like Canada Dry) has become more popular for mixing drinks.

The Vernors version is very fizzy with carbonated water as the first ingredient. The original flavor was mellow but perky, which has been connected to the oak barrel aging and use of ginger and sugar. With changes in available ingredients over the years, though, many people have noticed a flavor change. For instance, high fructose corn syrup wasn’t an original ingredient, but it is now and tastes different from sugar.

Elderly consumers say that the beverage isn’t as carbonated as it used to be. Another difference could be the amount of ginger used. Vernor used real ginger in his original recipe, but the ingredients list on the current drink only includes natural flavors. On top of that, Vernors is aged in oak barrels for three years instead of four.

Vernors | photo via @vernorsclub

5 Fun Facts About Vernors

#1: Vernors has used several slogans since its public debut. In the early 1900s, it used “Detroit’s Drink.” In 1921, it changed the slogan to “Deliciously Different.” For a while in the mid-1980s, “It’s what we drink around here” was the slogan used in advertisements.

The company changed the “Aged 4 years in wood” on the label to “Flavor aged in oak barrels” at some point. Then, in 1996, it changed the label again to “Barrel Aged, Bold Taste.” The label has also read “Barrel Aged 3 years • Bold Taste” and “Authentic • Bold Taste.”

#2: Vernors has a gnome mascot named Woody. The company had a contest in the 1970s, allowing customers to name the gnome. Jerome was the chosen name, but it was eventually changed to Woody. It’s believed that the change was made to reflect the ginger ale being aged in wood barrels.

A&W Beverages dropped the mascot during its ownership of the brand. Woody has since returned to the packaging.

#3: In the 1970s, Ronald Bialecki made personal, live-action appearances as the Vernors mascot in the “gnome mobile.” He and his wife created the costume and vehicle for public enjoyment after ad executives at Doner Company (where he worked) and Vernors representatives agreed that he should.

#4: Vernors was once available in kegs. Manufacturing of the beverages was eventually moved from its original home to a large plant where Detroiters could drive up and get kegs for parties and other gatherings.

#5: Along with using Vernors to mix drinks, you can use it for cooking to add spice and sweetness to dishes.

  • The most popular Vernors drink mix is a milkshake with vanilla ice cream, creating a Boston Cooler — the name for which Vernors copyrighted in 1967, also known as a Vernors Float. You can put one or two scoops in a glass with Vernors, or blend the mixture.
  • Cafe d’Mongo’s Speakeasy in downtown Detroit, you can order the Detroit Brown. This drink combines Vernors, bitters, and Crown Royal.
  • When it comes to cooking, Aretha Franklin famously glazes her Christmas ham with Vernors.
  • You can also use the ginger ale to glaze salmon or add it to the batter of onion rings.
  • Alternatively, you can bake with Vernors, adding it into a boxed cake mix to make Whoopie Pies.
Vernors Float
Vernors Float | photo via Margaret Clegg

Vernors Cures Upset Stomach — Myth or Fact?

If you’re a Michigan native, your mother or grandmother probably told you to drink Vernors ginger ale when you felt nauseous or had a stomach ache. Some Michiganders like to drink it hot with lemon juice to alleviate sore throat and cough.

But, does the drink actually cure an upset stomach? That was the intended purpose behind Vernor’s original formula — to soothe digestive issues and gastric discomfort. Because of its ginger content, it worked for that purpose too.

With formula changes, though, science says that there isn’t enough ginger in most current pops to have anti-inflammatory or soothing properties for gastric problems, Vernors included. Additionally, it loads you down with sugar and doesn’t offer much hydration.

Vernors | photo via @crj2day

Where to Buy Vernors Ginger Ale

When Dr. Pepper Snapple Group separated from Cadbury-Schweppes in 2008 and took Vernors with it, the brand was able to expand beyond the Midwest.

Currently, it’s available in grocery stores, convenience shops, and restaurants across 33 states. You can even find Vernors in Ontario. However, Michigan is still the brand’s largest market. Illinois and Ohio are large markets for the ginger ale as well.

Vernors Mural In Detroit
Vernors Mural in Detroit | photo via @skibruh

Vernors Collectibles & Memorabilia

Love for Vernors among Michiganders is so strong that some of them are obsessed with collecting memorabilia. The Vernor’s Ginger Ale Collector’s Club has about 70 members, and founder Keith Wunderlich spent 35 years creating a Vernors museum in his basement with more than 1,000 items.

You can join the club and search Etsy for Vernors collectibles and memorabilia. Sellers on the e-commerce website have a range of collectibles, such as:

  • Vintage recipe books
  • Vintage 100th-anniversary glass mugs
  • Antique green glass 10-ounce bottles
  • Original serving trays

What are your fond memories of drinking Vernors? Have you experimented with using this ginger ale in recipes? Do you have Vernors collectibles and memorabilia? Share your Vernors enthusiasm in the comments below!

Floradora Cocktail Detroit French Connection Edition
Floradora Cocktail Detroit French Connection Edition | photo via @burgundybardetroit