American history. Sure, there’s that stuff they teach us in school. Y’know, the whole “yeah, we massacred the Native Americans, dropped atom bombs on Japan, and shipped millions of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic, but we’re still the best country in the world EVER!!!” bit they start drilling in our heads around the first or second grade.
But that’s bull. Somewhere deep within the hollow recesses of your embittered, wounded soul, you know I’m right. So what’s the real story? What was life really like for our parents, or our parent’s parents, or even their parents, fresh off the boat from the old country? Where can we still get a true taste of their story and our history?
Brand name products are a good start. Think about it. Bayer Aspirin has been the cure for the collective headache for 113 years. Coca Cola has quenched our collective thirst since 1886. And thanks to Colgate toothpaste, our collective teeth were sparkling as early as 1873.
By using those products, we share an experience that transcends our own lives.
By examining how those products have changed over the years, we get a closer glimpse at how the world itself has changed.
Luckily for us, there’s a made in Detroit ginger ale known as Vernors that’s even older than Coca Cola, dating back to 1866. It’s a unique mixture of citrus, vanilla and ginger, a golden, effervescent tongue-twister, impossible to describe coherently. The first bite is… I don’t know… citrusy? Almost vanilla? The ginger doesn’t reveal itself until later, like a geisha lowering her fan from her face for a brief moment, only to immediately obscure herself again. It’s a tease, a hundred dollar bill blowing down a crowded back alley.
Of course, the old-timers say Vernors wasn’t always like that. Legend has it that the ginger used to punch you in the face and then pummel your taste buds on the way down. It could soothe an upset stomach in seconds flat. The very spirit of Woody the Gnome, the drink’s bearded munchkin mascot, was alive and kicking in each sip.
Back then, Vernors was aged for 4 years in oak barrels, and it was sweetened with sugar and stevia, not high fructose corn syrup. The vanilla was visceral. It was mellow yet full of life, and was so good that for decades Vernors was able to run a soda shop on Detroit’s legendary Woodward Avenue that only sold the the company’s ginger ale. It was a happening drink for a happening city.
Now, Vernors is aged for only 3 years, and probably in oak, although no one seems to be 100% sure. The drink lost its way when the Vernor family sold it off in 1966, the magic – the flavors – gradually diluted by each new owner until little was left. The Frankensteinish Dr Pepper Snapple Group are the current trademark holders, selling Vernors with a wink and a nod alongside Canada Dry and Schweppes – two other products in its portfolio. All feature corn syrup and light ginger notes, with a few tweaks here and there.
It reminds me of a George Carlin rant, one he made right before he died:
“The things that matter in this country have been reduced in choice. There are two political parties. There are a handful of insurance companies. There are about six or seven information [sources]. But if you want a bagel there are 23 flavors, because you have the illusion… you have the illusion of choice.”
Is Vernors still good? Yes. But is that good enough?