About 15 minutes into my flight, the captain comes on and says, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, we’ve now reached 10,000 feet. You are free to turn on your electronic devices. Today’s flight features beverage service which includes complimentary soft drinks, tea, and coffee. We also have select alcoholic beverages for purchase.” Ah, yes, the in-flight beverage cart. The last shred of decency in the commercial airline game (unless you’re on Southwest Airlines where your bags—two of them, at least—fly free!). I can’t wait for my nice cool beverage, poured over ice, in a tiny plastic cup. I’ll nurse that thing for as long as possible to make it last. Oh, and I hope they leave the can this time! I patiently wait my turn. Finally, the flight attendant, with raised eyebrows and an ever-so-slight turn-up of her nose asks, “What can I get you, sir?” Without hesitation, I reply, “Ginger ale, please.”
Ginger ale. Have you ever noticed how many people on planes drink ginger ale? I have. It’s a lot. A lot more than I’d guess considering most major fast food restaurants don’t serve it, and folks tend to stick to the standard colas, lemon-limes, and orange drinks to stock up at home. But on a plane, ginger ale is super popular. I wonder why that is. Could it be it’s a non-caffeinated option that allows for satiation and shut eye? Maybe. Is it because its carbonation and ginger taste help folks calm their stomachs and avoid air sickness? Perhaps. But I like to think it’s something else. I like to think people on planes are going somewhere special. Whether for work, or (hopefully) for pleasure, folks are breaking routine. So they ask for a drink that’s special. They want something cold and refreshing. Something out of the ordinary. Something juuuuuuust right, and befitting a special occasion. They want the champagne of pop (I’m from Chicago, so it’s not “soda” or “tonic,” and we don’t do the Atlanta thing and call everything “Coke,” it’s pop). They want ginger ale! Wise choice, my friends. Wise choice.
As a kid, I remember playing “grown ups” with my sister. In retrospect, it sometimes involved imitating some pretty unhealthy adult practices. We’d buy candy cigarettes from the store, pretend we were smoking cigars whenever we ate pretzel rods, or imagine we were drinking our after-work cocktail (like many 60s TV dads) using—you guessed it—ginger ale. Put it in a lowball glass and (especially if it were flat) it looked like you were enjoying a cocktail—scotch maybe. Put it in a champagne glass, and it could pass for a bit of the bubbly. Put it in a beer stein and you could even pretend it was beer! There just was something elegant and sophisticated about it—something grown up and adult. The color had something to do with it, but so did the scarcity. You couldn’t get ginger ale just anywhere. We’d go to a restaurant, and they’d say something like, “Sorry, we only have Sprite,” or, “We don’t have any, but we can make it for you.” The masses consumed Coke, or Pepsi. The enlightened preferred ginger ale. Kids think the darndest things, huh?
Now, as an adult, I still enjoy me some ginger ale. If I stock up on pop, I’ll typically skip the lemon-limes entirely and go with a cola and a ginger ale. If I’m hosting, this typically elicits some variation of the following comment: “Oh, wow, ginger ale. I actually forgot how good this was.” And that’s why I get it. Because it’s good. Very good. Great, even! Given all of this, I thought I’d explore this tasty, yet underrated beverage. What is it? Where did it come from? How can others enjoy it? I need to know! I need to spread the word! Too much is at stake (well, maybe not)! To help me figure this out, I looked up a high school classmate, Eric Kang, who tends bar (and practices law!), and boy, am I glad I did. Here’s my interview with Eric, and what I learned about this fantastic non-alcoholic libation.
Hey, Eric! Thanks for doing this. The first couple questions will be about you, to give the readers an intro to who you are and why they should listen to you. So, how long have you been a bartender?
It’s been a little bit over ten years. I don’t remember exactly when I started, actually, but it was at a place called Bar Chicago, in 2004 or 2005.
Where do you tend now?
What keeps you involved in tending bar?
First: Money. For the dollar per hour breakdown, it’s one of the best jobs out there. Second: Networking. I meet an incredibly diverse group of people. Everyone loves alcohol! I also find peace in the repetition, in making cocktails. It’s not work or effort anymore.
Thanks for sharing a little bit about you. Now, onto the drinks! I think ginger ale is a great, underrated drink, and I’m trying to learn more about it. Where did ginger ale come from?
There’s rich history behind ginger ale. It goes way back to the apothecary days. I consider bartenders to be the modern-day apothecary. Anyway, historically, they’d travel around and mix up different remedies, including drinks with ginger in them. Ultimately, that’s how ginger ale got its start. Oh, and I guarantee a huge ginger ale presence during prohibition because people needed to find a way to drink that moonshine from Canada.
[Upon further research, Eric was spot on! A 2016 Atlantic article attributes the first ginger ale to an American apothecary Thomas Cantrell, living in Ireland in the 1850s. Cantrell exported the drink to the United States, and that’s where it got its start. Shortly after, a Detroit pharmacist, James Vernor (of Vernors brand ginger ale), tasted his own homemade ginger infused elixir upon returning from the Civil War. This marked America’s first home-grown ginger ale. Finally, in 1904, Canadian pharmacist, John McLaughlin, mixed up a drier, lighter-colored ginger drink. This marked the first appearance of what we would consider modern-day ginger ale, and became Canada Dry. As for ginger ale during prohibition, that same Atlantic article claims it was the top-selling pop because it was such an ideal mixer. I guess that moonshine was really tough to take on its own!]
Are there different types of ginger ale?
Generally, there are two styles. The original [also called golden or mild], and the modern day, dry version. The original takes grated fresh ginger root, mixes it with soda water, and sweetener. Then, there’s the modern [or dry] style, like Canada Dry. If you make some fresh original-style ginger ale, you won’t recognize it as the same as Canada Dry. And if you try it once, you’ll never go back!
What’s the key distinction in taste?
First [if you make it yourself], the fresh ginger. You’ll immediately tell from that effervescent, nasal clearing smell. You’ll even get that sensation when you drink it! There are very few, if any, sodas that will get you that sensation. [As for the distinction between dry and mild], it makes sense that Canada Dry is named that way because it’s very dry! There’s a dry flavor. The original-style ginger ale doesn’t have that. Try something: Make your own fresh ginger ale. The perfect ginger to soda ratio will tickle the nose. It’s so good! The oils and minerals from the ginger immediately go in your drink, and shortly after, into your mouth. You can’t get that in a pre-packaged or pre-mixed drink. If you want to see the difference between dry and [mild], make your drink first without sweetener. Then, add different amounts of the sweetener and you’ll see the spectrum from dry to [mild]. The sweetener is where you’ll see the difference. The [mild] style will taste sweeter.
What are your preferred ginger ales?
That depends on what bar I’m at. At a volume bar, it all depends on your distributor. I don’t have a choice, so I use what they have, and it comes out of a soda gun because they’re all about getting as many drinks in hand as possible. When you take it a step up, a middle of the road bar, you’ll get bottled ginger ale. I don’t think there’s a difference between that stuff and the gun, but it looks better to the customer—more crafty. The true craft bar will have me make my own ginger ale. I love that because I get to show off my skill, make conversation, and it looks like I’m making the fanciest drink in the world.
What mixed drinks showcase ginger ale?
Whiskey, or bourbon, and ginger is iconic. Because ginger ale is sweet, it makes 100 proof bourbon palatable. Generally, [when it comes to ginger ale as a mixer] I’m making whiskey ginger the most. You’ll also see a lot of specialty cocktails that basically mix up fresh ginger ale, like a Moscow Mule. A very popular one right now involves a splash of pomegranate, or fruit puree, with ginger, liquor, and soda water.
What’s the deal with mixing Sprite and Coke when you don’t have ginger ale?
I totally forgot about that! When bars didn’t have ginger ale, they would do 7Up with a splash of Coke. This typically happens at a volume bar. It’s just about churning out drinks. These bars see if they can get away with it [they usually do] and adjust from there. You’ll see this a lot at college bars. I haven’t done that in about seven years.
I always thought ginger ale was kind of fancy and could pass for different alcoholic beverages to the naked eye.
Totally. If a person is over-intoxicated, I’ve used ginger ale to cut them off without making it awkward.
I don’t know about you, but after talking to Eric, I feel like ginger ale is more sophisticated than ever. Hopefully you learned as much as I did about this underrated drink. Now, my next move is to make some of my own. Remember: Take grated ginger to taste, mix with sweetener to taste, and add soda water. Seems pretty simple, but I bet you could impress a lot of folks mixing up some of this!
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.