July 20, 2020

Emily Becker

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Pop Culture

Detroit's favorite ginger ale may be the nation's oldest soft drink

Detroit native Keith Wunderlich doesn’t remember the first time he tried Vernors ginger ale.

As is the case for many Detroiters, the pop—in Michigan, there’s no “soda” —was ubiquitous in his family’s house when he was growing up. When it was hot outside and you wanted something fizzy, you drank Vernors. When it was cold, you drank Vernors. If your stomach was upset, you drank Vernors. Just Vernors.

“I can’t really remember having any other kind of pop in the house,” Wunderlich says. “It would have been very odd to find a bottle of Coke in our refrigerator.”

The ultra-fizzy ginger ale has been at the foundation of Detroit culture for over 150 years. According to local legend, pharmacist James Vernor first began experimenting with ginger ale recipes before the Civil War. His recipe sat in wooden casks for four years while Vernor was on the front lines, and when he returned, it tasted rich and mellow. Vernor began serving it to customers at his drug store’s soda fountain as early as 1866, which puts it in the running for the title of oldest soft drink in America. The company dropped the apostrophe—going from Vernor’s to Vernors—in the 1950s.

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“It’s a huge reason for driving and not flying,” she says. “You could save ten hours and fly, but you can’t bring back four cases of Vernors.”

The pop’s most successful advertising these days may be word of mouth. Wunderlich, founder of the Vernor’s Collector’s Club, believes that he has introduced Vernors to hundreds of people directly and thousands indirectly. Outside of Detroit, he jokes, you’re most likely to find Vernors anywhere Detroiters have settled.

Every time Carla Licavoli, a Detroit native who now lives in Brooklyn, returns from visiting her family, she has Vernors in her trunk. Back home, she keeps cans above her fridge, where she rations them, doling out the precious pop only for certain occasions—for example, if one of her sons is feeling sick (she requires a seven on a one-through-ten scale) or if she’s hosting a friend who’s never tried one of her favorite tastes of Michigan. “It’s a huge reason for driving and not flying,” she says. “You could save ten hours and fly, but you can’t bring back four cases of Vernors.”

For Detroiters, Vernors is so much more than a bubbly drink. Wunderlich remembers going on family trips to the soda fountain where his parents sipped Vernor’s when they were dating. Licavoli drank Vernors floats (a.k.a. Boston Coolers), at the mall. Detroiters reminisce about getting a Vernors on the way to the now-closed Boblo Island Amusement Park.

“There are very few native Detroiters who don’t have a Vernors story,” Wunderlich says. “I think it’s something that’s really special to a certain time in American history, and it’s much tougher to find now. Because we’re just so franchised, it’s tough to find that unique thing that’s really special to a certain place.”


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