Celebrations abound for Vernors ginger ale’s 150th anniversary
“Deliciously different” since 1866, America’s oldest ginger ale brand Vernors — a Detroit original — will celebrate its 150th anniversary this month.
The story is that pharmacist James Vernor, who worked at Higby & Sterns drugstore in Detroit, created the drink after returning from serving in the Civil War with the 4th Michigan Calvary. Vernors, which is now owned by the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, entered the market in 1880 and was trademarked in 1911.
Besides having a history as a pioneering pop, Vernors — formerly stylized as Vernor’s — is known for its unique taste. It’s sweeter than other ginger ales, and has a strong ginger bite that can actually make you sneeze if you go at it too fast.
Because it was founded in Detroit and it’s not readily available in all states, Metro Detroiters take an inordinate amount of pride in the beverage. In fact, in the 1980s the soda’s slogan was “It’s What We Drink Around Here.”
The Detroit Historical Society and Museum have teamed up with the Vernor’s Collector’s Club and the Detroit Experience Factory to plan a week’s worth of effervescent programming to celebrate the brand. Starting Tuesday, a Vernors memorabilia exhibition will display artifacts and vintage signage from the brand. The feature runs through June 12 at the Detroit Historical Museum, which is free to visit at 5401 Woodward.
Also throughout the week, look for menu items using Vernors as an ingredient at Detroit restaurants like Cass Cafe, Chartreuse Kitchen and Cocktails, La Feria, Mercury Burger Bar, Parks & Rec and Republic, Top of the Pontch and Mudgie’s. A sold-out Vernors bus tour and ginger beer crawl is set for June 10. (You can call 313-833-0277 to get on the wait list.)
The main event is June 11, with Vernors-related programming all day at the museum, starting at 11 a.m. with a screening of “Detroit Remember When: Made in the Motor City,” a two-hour documentary about Buddy’s Pizza, American Coney Island and other local favorites.
There will be celebrities, too. The Vernors mascot — a gnome named Woody — will sign autographs from noon-5 p.m. Author Keith Wunderlich will sign his book “Vernor’s Ginger Ale” at 2 p.m.
At 4 p.m. the great-great-grandson of James Vernor, James Vernor V, and his son James Vernor VI, will lead a Vernors toast at 4 p.m. This will be followed by an attempt to set a world record for the most people drinking Vernors at once at 4:30 p.m.
Detroit-based artist Eric Millikin is known for his Internet art, paintings, and mixed media creations. He also expresses himself through “artistic drinking projects.” His latest is an attempt to drink 150 cans of Vernors in just over two weeks, in honor of the pop’s big birthday.
“I love Vernors. My dad used to buy it for me when I was a kid, and it was so carbonated that the first drink would practically make you choke,” says Millikin, who is drinking about nine cans a day until June 11. “So, for Vernors 150th birthday I had to create some type of artwork to recapture that love, excitement and carbonated danger.”
In the past, Millikin has challenged himself to a monthlong “Pumpkin Spice Odyssey” (drinking a Starbucks pumpkin spice latte daily), and a Hi-C drink box effort that left him with enough empty boxes to brick up his windows and those of local galleries.
A 12-ounce can of Vernors has 140 calories and 38 grams of sugar. So how is Millikin feeling after days of drinking nine times that per day?
“I feel like I have more syrup in my system than the average maple tree,” he says. “I feel like I am about to reach that point where I have stared into the depths of the Vernors can to the point that the Vernors is about to start staring back at me. Then, hopefully, I will make contact with the Vernors gnome, and he will teach me his secrets, like how he styles that beard.”
It’s that kind of dedication that illustrates the love folks have to this iconic soft drink.