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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 courtesy of 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
Photo courtesy of 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 | photo courtesy of 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.

cans of vernors - michigans oldest pop

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 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 wall mural
photo courtesy of @skibruh

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. 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 Boston Cooler
Vernors has became synonymous with the Boston Cooler | photo courtesy of 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 wall mural in detroit
photo courtesy of @detroitcitylimits313

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 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.

Michigan vernors sticker Spicy Facts About Vernors Ginger Ale | Michigan's Oldest Pop
Vernors Michigan sticker from SmittenWithMichigan on Etsy.com

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!

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30 Comments

  1. I attended high school in Detroit in the mid-1960s. Often after school, I would meet my father at the church where he was minister at the corner of Woodward and Forest, right across from the Vernors plant. I would go over to the soda fountain in the plant for a Boston cooler, hot Vernors, or Vernors and chocolate milk…one of my favorites. And, my mother would give us Vernors when we were sick, which, unfortunately, often has a Pavlovian response on me.

    1. Are you of the mind that a Boston Cooler must be blended, or do you prefer yours more like a float? I still haven’t tried Vernors and chocolate milk yet!

    2. I’ve never tried Vernors and chocolate milk I will have to some day. Does Vernors and Chocolate Ice Cream taste similar?

  2. Travel to Michigan twice a year to see family and restock Vernors in individual bottles. They sell it here in the south in 2 liter bottles only. My grandkids are addicted now and only Michigan Vernors will do.

  3. Vernor’s had a bottling plant in Tampa, FL. In front of the plant it had the largest moveable billboard in the South.

  4. I grew up in PA with Canada Dry ginger ale and never really liked the taste of Vernors. My Dad was a big fan however and I would always take him Vernors when we went home in the Summer. In 1993 I had open heart surgery at ST. Joes in A2. The first drink I had after surgery, cup held by the nurse, tasted SOOO good. I remember saying, “What Is That?”
    “Vernor’s”, said the nurse!!

  5. Since I now live in Iowa, trips to Michigan revolve around my depleting Vernors stash which I just checked after reading this article. Looks like another road trip is not to far off. I really don’t know what I would do without it.

  6. After moving to Alaska in 2011, we were thrilled to find a couple of stores selling Vernors on the Kenai Peninsula!! What a special Treat!!

  7. Being from Michigan, I loved Vernors. After moving to Texas in 2004, am still surprised that they bottle it in Plano, Texas but cannot find it in any of the stores around the Houston area! Sad.

    1. How odd. I imagine that you can find Dr. Pepper there pretty readily. Which is one of my other favorite beverage. 🙂

      1. We just had a brand new Kroger Market Place open in my neighborhood recently and they DO stock Vernors! I am so glad.

    2. Another reason the Covid sucks, I used to be able to buy Vernors here in vermont but now neither walmart or Tops is carrying it any longer. When I go to my nephew’s graduation party this summer I’m bringing back three cases.

  8. I am a southern gal and had never heard of Vernors until I moved to Michigan in 1978. When I came down with a stomach bug , I was given Vernors to drink. I told my friend to bring me some “real ginger ale”. I had to get use to the taste as it is so different from what I was accustomed to . It didn’t take long for me to love the flavor of Vernors and when I moved back south I was sad that I couldn’t find any . After a few years of living back in South Carolina , I came upon some Vernors in one of our grocers. It may not be easy to find down here, but it’s still my preferred brand of ginger ale .

  9. We were born and raised in Michigan.We came to Alaska in May , 1974. We were disappointed that we couldn’t get Vernors here. However, we can now. Wonderful drink !!! LOVE, that Vernors !

    1. It sure is a Michigan favorite! Glad that distribution has grown so you can get it in AK!

  10. Back from our annual Michigan trip. What a great state Michigan is with so much to offer any visitor. Fire works at Arbutus Beach, lake Otsego. My first pasty at the Traverse City Pie Company, Soo good. And the pie was worth every cent. Turkey dinners at the Gobbler in Gaylord, and my first jet ski ride on lake Columbia in Brooklyn. After hours drinks at Metzger’s in Ann Arbor, N. Zeeb road. Talk about a great Manhattan, whew. And of course the resupply of my 240 cans of Vernors stock. Yea !

  11. Interesting tidbits about Dr. Vernor – some I knew; some I did not know! I always wondered why today’s Vernors doesn’t taste like it used to when I was a kid — no longer aged in barrels. That is truly sad. I wonder if we all did a write-in campaign to Dr. Pepper if they’d go back to the ORIGINAL way of making Vernors?!!

  12. In my opinion I don’t think it is the same. It’s not made in Oak barrels anymore, which is probably due to cost, and it’s not made in michigan anymore. I remember when you we old open a bottle and the first sip would make you cough a little. Not a true ginger ale soda.

  13. I remembe4 being a young child, my uncle used to come in once a year for a few weeks from Cincinnati each year to stay with us to visit Michigan relatives. We would go to the Detroit train station to pick him up and our first stop was the Vernors plant to get a refreshment. Uncle Joe always insisted on paying the tab, and we got to choose anything to drink that we wanted.. This treat was always a wonderful thing, pop wasn t a household item. Vernor s on the other hand was usually in the house in case someone got sick, never as a pop, but used for upset tummy s.

  14. I attended Vernor Elementary School on Pembroke in Detroit. Vernors was served at every school function. I remember there was a portrait of Dr. Vernor that hung in the stairwell. Thankfully, I can buy Vernors in OK!

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