The Real Real Thing

by Jonah Begone

For some reason I can't adequately explain, reenactors often supplement their usual event weekend supply of cheap beer with little corked bottles of faggy aperitifs; you know, stuff like peppermint schnapps, creme de menthe, apricot brandy, that sort of thing. However, having performed an exhaustive photographic study and from my own personal observation, it appears the hands-down favorite beverage of the reenacting set is Coca-Cola; specifically Coke "Classic." (I can't remember when I've last seen "New Coke"; did the company finally kill it off and put it out of its misery?) This isn't surprising in light of that fact that Coke is very popular - fueled by a perpetually hyperactive ad campaign - among the general population from which the hobby obtains its recruits. However, if the reenactors who do a Federal impression were really serious about their political beliefs they'd drink something different: Vernors. An explanation follows.

It's fairly common knowledge that Atlanta ex-Confederate-turned pharmacist John Styth Pemberton invented Coca-Cola in 1886. The gooey syrup started out as a pirated version of a popular drink of the time called "Vin Mariani," supposedly a favorite of U.S. Grant according to promotional literature. Well, one of the oldest - if not the oldest - continually-produced beverages in America is Vernors. If you've never had it it's a vaguely ginger ale-tasting stuff with a trademark little woodsman guy on the can. (Or at least he used to be on the can - it appears he's gone the way of new Coke and been replaced by a drab logo.) The first batch of Vernors was prepared in 1865, a significant year for us living historians.

James Vernor flavored his drink with the contents of a wooden keg of secret ingredients he had left stewing in Detroit before joining the Union army. He enlisted in the 4th Michigan Cavalry in August 1862 as a hospital steward. He was promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in September 1864 and mustered out in July 1865. (Members of the 4th Michigan Cavalry captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis in May 1865. While Vernor was on the expedition he wasn't part of detail present at the capture.) When he returned from the war, he sampled his drink and realized he had a hit. Believe it or not the technique and formula remains: Vernors is still aged for years in 47-gallon oak barrels. (Perhaps if McClellan had destroyed Lee's army at Antietam the company could get away with aging it for only two years and save some money, but no. This must remain as one of the great "what if's" in history.)

The exact ingredients are a closely-held corporate secret. It's safe to assume there's ginger or ginger flavoring in there and perhaps also cinnamon. It's probably not safe to assume there's anything that Vernor ingested while in the Federal army, like salt pork or bacon grease.

In this era of single-issue politics, social responsibility and market consciousness it is practical and acceptable to make a statement in your choice of soft drinks. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm swearing off Coke. I'm for Union, Old Glory, Honest Abe and Vernors, the Real Real Thing. You Confederates can continue to drink the stuff in the red can.

Postscript: Since I wrote this article for the CCG I stumbled across an article entitled "Rules to be a Man." (I won't provide a link to it since this is a family web page. It seems to be all over the Internet, though - look in Yahoo if you're really interested.) While I don't agree with all of this article, I do note rule number 7, "Drink Vernors." Also, at another Internet site, I find this from "How to tell if you're a real Michiganer": A sip of Vernor's doesn't give you a coughing fit. - Jonah