Ginger ale and ginger beer are refreshing, summery beverages both on their own and mixed into cocktails. But while they may share a common flavor, you may have noticed that they aren’t quite exactly the same —ginger ale has a lighter, sweeter bounce to it while ginger beer is more moody and robust with a kick. If they’re both based around ginger, fizzy water, and something sweet, then what is it that sets them apart?
The short answer is that ginger ale can be thought of as soda water with ginger syrup added to it, whereas ginger beer is a drink made from ginger and sugar steeped in water that is traditionally allowed to ferment.
To further understand the difference between the two, it helps to understand the history behind each. The earliest recorded mention of ginger beer appears in A Practical Treatise on Brewing, a brewer’s guide published in 1809 in England. The drink was something of a farmhouse and tavern staple around that time, made from fermented ginger, sugar or honey, lemon juice, and starter cultures, and was typically alcoholic. Later in the century, it was cited as an acceptable choice by temperance advocates, suggesting that along the way non-alcoholic versions had gained popularity.
Today, most commercially-available ginger beers are non-alcoholic and get their bubbles not through fermentation but by combining carbonated water with ginger and spices that mimic the zingy punch of the original. There are a handful that still brewed and fermented (like Fentiman’s), or you can make your own true ginger beer with a DIY recipe.
Ginger ale, on the other hand, first emerged in present-day Northern Ireland around the mid-19th century. Belfast ginger ale (also known as golden ginger ale) was a ruddy concoction made by mixing a syrup of ginger, brown sugar, and spices with soda water. But it was a Canadian who introduced the dry version we know today: in 1904, John J. McGlaughlin, the owner of a Toronto carbonation plant, debuted a Canada Dry ginger ale made with white sugar that mimicked the light effervescence of champagne. His recipe was a huge success—Canada Dry is still the most widely-available brand of ginger ale to this day.
Because ginger beer and ginger ale are quite different temperamentally—one delivers a bracing, gingery punch while the other is sweet and mild—they shouldn’t be substituted for one another in drink recipes. A Moscow Mule or Dark ‘n Stormy made with ginger ale will taste like it has something missing. In short, when you want to create a drink that is more complex and zingy, go with ginger beer, while ginger ale is great if you want something light and easy to drink. Here are a few recipes to guide the way:
1. Pimm’s Cup
Pimm’s No. 1 is a gin-based liqueur flavored with fruits, herbs, and spices. It’s kind of bitter and heavy on its own, which is why adding ginger ale is a great way to make it light, bubbly, and breezy. Get our Pimm’s Cup recipe.
2. Cranberry Culprit
This recipe is a step up from your standard amaretto sour: it ditches the cloying sour mix for an uplifting blend of cranberry and ginger ale, then fortifies it with a shot of bourbon. Get our Cranberry Culprit recipe.
3. Basic Highball
Whiskey and ginger is a reliable, go-to bar order when you’re not in the mood for a fussy cocktail, or just want something easy to make on your own. Simply pour the alcohol over ice, then top with ginger ale, sip, and say “ahhhhh.” Get our Basic Highball recipe.
4. Moscow Mule
The most well known of all ginger beer cocktails, the Moscow Mule was borne out of an effort to popularize Smirnoff vodka in the mid-20th century. Nowadays, you’ll also find variations made with gin, rye, or other spirits, although ginger beer and lime are always the base. Get our Moscow Mule recipe.
5. Dark ‘n Stormy
Ginger beer is a perfect match for dark rum—the spicy, deep flavors of each combine to make a drink that is ultimately quenchable yet complex. Dark ‘n stormies are ideal for relaxing with on a hot and sultry summer night. Get our Dark ‘n Stormy recipe.
6. Ginger Shandy
Half lager, half ginger beer, this shandy is a fantastic pick me up that won’t get you too buzzed. Make sure to use high-quality versions of both ingredients for the best flavor and balance. Get our Ginger Shandy recipe.