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The man was a pharmacist with a small store and an only-slightly-larger idea for a new beverage. Detroiters loved their “pop.” Surely there was room for another flavor, and the pharmacist set out to create it.
To do so, the pharmacist mixed ingredients like ginger and vanilla and more than a dozen others in an oak cask, and in his small pharmacy on Woodward Aveneue in the heart of Detroit, the pharmacist stored it. Whatever his plans were for that oak cask, they changed in 1862. The Civil War happened. The pharmacist was called to battle.
The oak cask sat.
It sat for four years before the pharmacist returned from the battlefields. The War was over.
And for James Vernor, the pharmacist from Detroit who had aspired to create a new beverage, a whole new life was just beginning.
Quite by accident, Vernor had created a beverage that people throughout the Motor City, even 150 years later, still consider “Detroit’s drink.”
Vernor’s Ginger Ale was born in 1866 when Vernor returned from the War, opened the oak cask and found a beverage that had been transformed by years of aging. Vernor loved the gingery flavor, unlike any he’d ever tasted.
Soon, the entire city of Detroit did too.
In an age when creating soft drink flavors – or virtually anything else in the business world – involves focus groups and secret “X” formulas, it’s remarkable to imagine that one of Detroit’s most famous beverages was the result of circumstance, but according to company legend, it was.
In the decades that followed the Civil War, Vernor’s Ginger Ale soared to enormous popularity throughout the Motor City, and then Michigan, and eventually the Midwest. Vernor remained vigilant about the process of making and serving his popular beverage, acknowledging that there was no rushing the four-year aging process required to consistently replicate the unique Vernor’s taste.
As Detroit roared to worldwide acclaim through the mid-20th Century, Vernor’s remained at the heart of the growth. A bottling operation on the riverfront became a Detroit landmark, and the soda fountain within remained a popular gathering spot for residents for years.
Like many businesses in Detroit, Vernor’s eventually was sold and faded from the Detroit business scene. It’s currently owned by Texas-based Dr. Pepper/Seven Up, Inc.
But the taste that made the company famous, the gingery fizz that once flowed from soda fountains up and down Woodward, remains a hometown favorite, still served in the city alongside a coney dog and chili fries.
The man was a pharmacist with an idea.
What a great idea it turned out to be.
Ken Welsch is a Detroit-based writer who thinks the only thing better than a can of Vernor’s on a hot Michigan summer night is a cold can of Faygo Rock ‘N Rye. He keeps his vending machines stocked at www.gumball.com.