The Boston Cooler Chronicles: Experiencing A Refreshing Detroit Tradition

When it comes to refreshing summer drinks, the Boston Cooler has to rank among the very best. Unknown to lots of people outside of the Midwest, it’s a Detroit staple for many.

But what’s the story behind this beverage, and how exactly does it relate to Detroit, Michigan?

In this article, we’ll delve into the intriguing origins of the Boston Cooler and even provide you with a step-by-step guide on how to craft this Midwest classic at home.

What is a Boston Cooler?

A Boston Cooler is a classic beverage that combines Vernors ginger ale and creamy vanilla ice cream, resulting in a delightful and refreshing treat. Its origins are somewhat disputed, but it’s now closely associated with Detroit, Michigan, where it gained popularity.

Boston Cooler mix

Boston Cooler History 

The origins of the Boston Cooler are a topic of some debate, particularly regarding who first coined the term.

However, one thing seems certain: this beverage has gone through several transformations before settling on the combination of Vernors and vanilla ice cream that we recognize today.

Many individuals attribute the creation of this beverage to an establishment once situated along Boston Boulevard in Detroit or to the Boston–Edison Historic District, which, of course, would provide a logical explanation for its name, the “Boston Cooler.”

However, this connection appears to be more along the lines of a myth, and the term “Boston Cooler” has evolved over time with various interpretations and associations.

It likely started as a cocktail.

Boston Coolers may have been born in Massachusetts in the late 1800s as a cocktail of rum, lime, and soda water.

Around the same era, in 1889, an article on summer cocktails in New York mentioned a Boston Cooler recipe that combined ginger ale and sarsaparilla.

The article, with its tantalizingly long headline, enticed readers by describing the drinks as “Seductive Drinks that Come Like a Breeze from the Arctic—Cocktails that Are ‘Midsummer Poems’—A Recipe for a ‘Liquid Blizzard’ Suited to the Dog Days.”

Also, during the early 1900s when soda fountains were all of the rage, there were advertisements offering a “Boston Cooler,” which was a scoop of ice cream in a half of a melon. Apparently, these treats were extremely popular.

During this time the term Boston Cooler also became associated with various types of ice cream-soda concoctions that one could order at the soda fountains and ice cream shops.

So essentially, the Boston Cooler became the “generic term used in the early 20th century for any drink mixing ice cream and soda.” For instance, Hires, a root beer company, promoted their own version of the Boston Cooler.

Suffice it to say these drinks weren’t specific to Detroit or Michigan by any means.

But how then did they develop the D-town connection that is undeniable today? 

Well, a significant part of the answer lies with Vernors and a gentleman named Fred Sanders.

Fred Sanders was the visionary behind one of Detroit’s pioneering ice cream and confectionery shops. He’s been credited with introducing ice cream sodas to the Detroit scene during the 1800s.

What’s particularly noteworthy is his choice of a key ingredient: Detroit’s very own Vernors, a beverage concocted by local pharmacist James Vernor. To this day, Vernors is renowned for its potential stomach-soothing properties.

One version of history says that at this shop, the modern Boston Cooler’s precursor, the “Vernors Cream,” was invented.

Initially, this concoction would have consisted of a shot or two of sweet cream poured into a glass of Vernors Ginger Ale. Over time, its believed the cream was replaced with vanilla ice cream, giving rise to the creamy and refreshing Boston Cooler we know today.

Then fast forward to 1967. In that year, Vernors trademarked the Boston Cooler when they were introducing a Vernors Boston Cooler flavor ice cream bar, which apparently didn’t do so well.

However, it was likely at that point that the Boston Cooler-Detroit connection began to solidify and eventually outpace its association with other beverages and regions.

What’s in a Boston Cooler?

The beverage is made with two key ingredients: vanilla ice cream and ginger ale. 

To achieve an authentic Boston Cooler, it’s a must to use Vernors Ginger Ale.

Renowned for its mellow ginger profile complemented by a noticeable hint of vanilla, Vernors adds that extra layer of magic, bridging the gap between traditional ginger ale and the creamy goodness of cream soda.

As for the ice cream, some whip these up with generic vanilla or soft serve though some also strive for local ice cream brands like Stroh’s for their vanilla.

The ratio of ice cream to ginger ale may vary but it seems like the standard is something like 3 parts ice cream to one part ginger ale. This could be roughly 2 scoops of vanilla ice cream with one 8 oz Vernors.  

The last crucial step to making a Boston Cooler is to combine the ice cream with the ginger ale, but this isn’t your typical float where you simply plop ice cream scoops into a beverage.

Instead, you’ll want to blend these components into a smooth and creamy consistency that can be sipped through a straw, a distinct departure from the traditional float experience.

Some places make theirs more “shake like” than others but it’s usually different from a normal float even though you can find “Vernors floats” offered at some establishments. 

Boston Cooler

Where can you find Boston Coolers?

You can find Boston Coolers at ice cream shops and restaurants like burger joints around Detroit and other areas of Michigan.

We enjoyed a couple of fabulous Boston coolers from a burger place called Mercury Burgers, where they are served up in glasses and given the respect they deserve. 

But you can also find these at Detroit-area Dairy Queen’s and perhaps even McDonald’s. In fact, local McDonald’s stores once gave out free Boston Coolers on the city’s 315th anniversary in 2016.

Of course, you can also just make yours at home, as we did using Vernors and homemade vanilla ice cream from Kemp’s.

After blending all the ingredients together, we were left with a delightful concoction. The mellow ginger notes from the Vernors Ginger Ale harmoniously mingle with the luscious creaminess of the vanilla ice cream. It’s really the perfect beverage.

However, if your ice cream is straight out of the freezer, you might want to let it thaw for a little bit to ensure it’s wonderfully creamy. Some experts also suggest a special technique: pour about an inch of Vernors into the glass first, which helps create a fluffy foam.

Then, gently place two scoops of vanilla ice cream into the glass and carefully pour in the remaining Vernors. Stir the mixture until it reaches a smooth and harmonious consistency. This method guarantees a top-notch Boston Cooler experience!

Final word

The origin of the Boston Cooler is a complex and multifaceted tale, and its direct connection to Detroit is a matter of debate. However, it has undeniably cemented its status as a beloved Detroit staple over the years.

This delightful beverage, with its unique blend of Vernors Ginger Ale and creamy vanilla ice cream, shines brightest on scorching summer afternoons, offering a refreshing respite from the heat.

However, its appeal extends well beyond the summer months — the Boston Cooler is a versatile treat that can brighten your day year-round.

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