Dive Deep Into Detroit’s Boston Cooler

By: Karen Dybis | March 1, 2019
Preparing a Boston Cooler against rustic wood background.

Blend bubbly, ginger-flavored pop with creamy vanilla ice cream and what do you have? Depending on who you ask, it’s a Boston Cooler.

Debate rages as to where the name came from, what it means and how to make it. Thankfully, it’s a tasty conversation highlighting one of Michigan’s favorite beverages, Vernors ginger ale.

If you want to know the origins of the Boston Cooler, there’s one man to ask. Keith D. Wunderlich is the world’s most knowledgeable expert on Vernors Ginger Ale – after all, he wrote the book on it. Seriously, he published a book with The History Press on his favorite pop in 2008.

“It’s one of those Detroit arguments that never dies,” said Wunderlich, who has been a collector of Vernors Ginger Ale history, advertising and ephemera for more than 30 years.

unhooking boat from silverado

Unleash the power of adventure with the Chevy Silverado's impressive towing capacity.

Wunderlich also is the founder of the Vernors Ginger Ale Collectors’ Club and writes a newsletter about Vernors. He dedicated an entire edition in 2010 to discussing where the Boston Cooler name came from and his research on the topic.

First, what about the name? Most Vernors recipe booklets from the oldest to the newest do not include a Boston Cooler, Wunderlich notes. That makes this a unique puzzle to solve. Some say the Boston Cooler got its name from Detroit’s Boston Boulevard. But that’s a theory that he rebukes, partly because James Vernor did not have a connection with the road in question.

There is some speculation that the name came from Sebastian S. Kresge, founder of Kresge stores and Kmart. Kresge did live on Boston Boulevard, and his stores did have soda fountains where Boston Coolers were served. Another theory says it came from Sanders Confectionary, where it served the ginger drink mixed with ice cream.

The best explanation, Wunderlich says, is that any pop mixed with ice cream into a milkshake-like concoction is known as a Boston Cooler. You could add root beer. You could add cola. You could add Vernors.

To end arguments or just because, the Vernors company patented the Boston Cooler name in 1970. That made sure any reference to that name had to mean Vernors blended with ice cream. End of story.

Or is it? Why isn’t there a record somewhere of the drink’s origins? Likely because no one from the company “had any idea anyone would ever care about that,” Wunderlich says.

The second issue is how you make a Boston Cooler. Wunderlich is partial to the idea that you have to blend the Vernors pop and the ice cream “into one delightful consistency,” he says. If you simply add ice cream, he considers that an ice-cream float.

Finally, if you were wondering where Vernors itself came from, Wunderlich says it started on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. As the story goes, James Vernor opened a pharmacy there when he returned from the Civil War in 1866. It is said he also opened a barrel of ginger ale extract he had created before the war. He discovered aging had mellowed the taste to perfection.

A new “deliciously different” flavor had been created, and Vernors Ginger Ale was born. At more than 150 years old, Vernors is said to be America’s oldest continuously produced soft drink.

If you’re looking for a good Boston Cooler, here are three places to try:

  • National Coney Island: This Metro Detroit coney-island style restaurant promises its Boston Cooler is “different than a Vernors float” and blends the ginger ale and ice cream.
  • Mercury Burger Bar: Grab a burger, side of tater tots and a Boston Cooler, which is a mainstay on the menu of this popular Detroit eatery.
  • Sanders: You may have to ask for it to be mixed for you, but having a Boston cooler at one of the original Sanders confectionaries is as Detroit as it gets.