March 13th is National Ginger Ale Day! In honor of this special occasion, we've explored the origin story of ginger and ginger ale throughout world history - and their journey to the local form we all adore today.
Ginger is known for its flavorful taste and pungent aroma. Its underground stem (or “rhizome”) has many uses including medicine, food, flavoring and spice in a number of delicious recipes. Historians believe that ginger is native to southeastern Asia. The generic name for ginger is Zingiber. This word is derived most recently from the Greek word zingiberis, which itself stems from the Sanskrit name singabera for the spice.
Ginger has been used in India and China since ancient times. By the first century C.E., traders had transported ginger into the Mediterranean region. It became well-known in England by the eleventh century. The Spaniards brought ginger to Mexico and the West Indies, and by 1547 it was exported to Spain from Santiago.
Ginger’s leafy stems grow up to three feet high. The plant contains roughly two percent essential oil – with the primary component zingiberine. Ginger’s oil is distilled from rhizomes and used in a variety of perfumes and foods.
Ginger ale was originally made from fermentation, though modern varieties are typically made with the use of carbon dioxide gas. To craft the highest quality of ginger ale flavor that we know and love today, manufacturers use a wide range of materials. Ingredients of modern ginger ale blends include spices, fruit juices, citruses, peppery materials and foam-producing substances.
Two types of ginger ale dominate the modern market – pale, dry ginger ales and golden ginger ales. Pale varieties tend to be lighter, less sweet, and higher in acidity and carbonation than alternatives. Golden varieties are generally more pungent, sweeter, and darker.
In 1922, the term “ginger ale” moved beyond colloquial use to a term officially recognized by the Joint Committee of Definitions and Standards. This committee runs under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They officially defined ginger ale as a carbonated beverage which is prepared from sugar syrup, potable water, harmless organic acid, caramel coloring and ginger ale flavor. Ginger ale flavor was similarly defined by the committee as “the flavoring product in which ginger is the primary ingredient,” with or without the inclusion of other additives to enhance the scent and flavor like citrus oils, fruit juices and more.
To make ginger ale, syrup is typically concocted from a blend of water, sugar, ginger ale flavoring, citric or tartaric acid, and caramel coloring. Foam essence is occasionally added, depending on the recipe. From there, this syrup is put through the same process of carbonation innate to the creation of sparkling soda and other soft drink varieties.
Ginger ale and ginger beer are often mistaken as interchangeable terms. While the beverages are similar, there are a few important distinctions setting the two apart from one another. Ginger beer gained prominence in the markets of the United Kingdom. The drink is generally made through the fermentation of ginger, cream of tartar, sugar, water, and yeast. In some types, citric acid or lemon juice are used. Ginger beer is then bottled and fermented. Unlike ginger ale, ginger beer is generally slightly alcoholic.
James Vernor of Detroit, Michigan made American history with his innovative creation of Vernor’s Ginger Ale. As the story goes, Vernor was a prominent pharmacist who left his practice to fight in the American civil war. When he left for battle, he left an oak keg behind in his pharmacy containing ginger, vanilla, and various spices. Vernor was away at battle for four long years, and for that time, his keg remained untouched. When he returned to his home safely, he was delighted to discover that a delicious beverage had been formed. While ginger ale had become a staple of Irish culture fifteen years prior, Vernor’s variety was the first home-brewed version of ginger ale in the United States. Ginger ale also holds the title of the first soft drink in American history.
Vernor went on to sell his tasty beverage to his pharmacy’s customers for more than three decades. The beverage was a huge success, earning notoriety far and wide as his customer’s favorite treat. Because of his creation’s popularity, Vernor ultimately opened a factory to mass-produce ginger ale for widespread distribution.
In the late summer of 1928, a Scottish woman was drinking ginger beer when, to her horror, she found a snail in the bottom of her bottle. She quickly became sick and sued the ginger beer distributer - ultimately winning the landmark case against the manufacturer, and laying the groundwork for basics of food and drink production standards to prevent harm to Scottish consumers. We're lucky to live in an era with Food and Drug Safety standards across the United States, so you always know exactly what's in our favorite foods and beverages. Due to the stigma associated with ginger beer throughout this Scottish scandal, the non-alcoholic alternative of ginger ale skyrocketed in Scotland and across Europe. To date, ginger ale remains a popular choice of carbonated beverage to sparkling soda lovers everywhere.
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