Sunday, September 28, 2014

Detroit's Liquid Gold - Vernor's Ginger Ale


One of Detroit's most beloved hometown products was Vernor's Ginger Ale, reputed to be the world's first soft-drink. The folklore about the formula was part of the product's trademark advertising, "Aged four years in wood." When the Vernor's family sold the business and trademark in 1966, the company motto underwent a subtle but telling change. It became "Aged for years in wood." Rather than the original four-year formulation, it was cut down to three years. Now, the Dr. Pepper & Snapple Group owns the Vernor's trademark and bottling rights.

The pure cane sugar of the original formula gave way to high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Caramel, vanilla, and extract of ginger root are no longer listed as ingredients, just "artificial flavorings." So people who remember the original Vernor's loved the golden sweetness, the effervescent carbonation, and the ginger root extract taste of the original.

That said, Vernor's is still the tastiest ginger ale drink on the market today. It puts Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale to shame. Vernor's is a soft-drink, and Canada Dry is a mixer for liquor. The two should never be confused.

Vernor's is the oldest surviving ginger ale brand in the United States. Legend has it that just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, a drugstore clerk, James Vernor tried to duplicate the taste of a popular Irish ginger ale. He was called off to war, so he stored his syrup made from a formula of nineteen ingredients in an oak cask. When he returned from the war in 1865, he opened the keg and found his formula had mellowed from the aging process. Four years to be exact. James was said to have exclaimed, "It's deliciously different," which became the drink's trademark motto. He called his soda fountain creation a "soft drink" because it contained no alcohol or narcotic ingredients. It is said to be the first soft drink. Soon, the company added the motto, "Aged Four Years in Wood."

James Vernor died in Grosse Ile, Michigan on October 29th, 1927 at the age of eighty-four from pneumonia and influenza. He handed his business down to his son James Vernor, Jr. When James was interviewed in 1936, he admitted that his father created the formula after the Civil War. Former company president James Vernor Davis and grandson of the originator confirmed the story in a 1962 interview. According to their trademark application, Vernor's ginger ale first entered commerce records in 1880 and not 1866 as the company's marketing still states.

1870s

Originally, Vernor's ginger ale was sold only as a soda fountain drink in his own pharmacy on 235 Woodward Ave on the corner of Clifford St. In 1896, James Vernor sold the drugstore and went full-time into the soda franchising business throughout the Midwest states.

When James Sr. died, his son James Jr. took over the business and expanded it into a 230,000 sq, ft. bottling plant and headquarters on Woodward Ave., one block from the Detroit River. Vernor's was ready for mass production and the home consumption market. His father had limited the franchises to selling the Vernor's syrup to drugstore soda fountains. Now the business took off and became a regional sensation.


Vernor's agreed to move their headquarters and bottling plant in the late 1950s. The city of Detroit needed the land for Cobo Hall and other riverfront projects. There was a property swap. The city traded the Vernor family, the old civic exhibition hall at 4501 Woodward Ave for their prime real estate. That is the Vernor's location the Baby Boomer generation knows best.

The term Detroiters use for soft drinks is "pop." It is said to have originated from the sound that the new capped, highly carbonated Vernor's bottles made when opened. The newer canned product makes more of a swish sound when the tab is pulled.

The Vernor family sold their business in 1966 to United Brands, Inc. They operated for another nineteen years, but they shut down the Detroit bottling plant in 1985 and sold out to Pepsi. Pepsi was itself soon bought by the British company Cadbury/Schweppes. Today, the Vernor's brand name and bottling rights belong to Dr. Pepper & Snapple Group.


The familiar Vernor's gnome mascot trademark, Woody, was a creation of graphic artist Noble Fellows. It has been used since the beginning of the twentieth century but dropped in 1987. Woody fans will be happy to know that he was returned to packaging in the 2000s. 

So much of Detroit's not so distant history has vanished. Just last week, the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia was unceremoniously towed from its moorings in Ecorse, never to ply the Detroit River again. 

But a small part of Vernor's history was recovered recently when a building being torn down on Joy and Inkster roads in Westland, Michigan revealed a 1950s era billboard sign found intact, painted on the side of the building next to the demolished building. This image really reminds me of growing up in the Detroit area.

Joy and Inkster roads in Westland, Michigan

Many Detroiters wonder if the eye-popping Vernor's neon sign still exists and if it will ever be on display anywhere. It lit up Woodward Ave at night and is a piece of Detroit's history. Let's bring the gnome home!