Boston Coolers are an iconic Michigan dessert. Yes. I am aware it’s called a Boston cooler but its origins and popularity have nothing whatsoever to do with Boston, Massachusetts. This perfect combination of Vernor’s Ginger Ale and vanilla ice cream hails from the Boston Boulevard area of Detroit, Michigan; another Michigan icon. And since that glorious elixer Vernor’s, the oldest surviving commercial ginger ale in the United States, was also conceived in Detroit, I guess that makes the Boston Cooler ‘Pure Michigan’. (Wink wink. Hey Michigan Tourism Bureau. Take note. I am willing to work for Vernor’s. Thank you.)
This brings me to a very important point; why is Vernor’s so special? Leave aside for a moment that it’s aged in oak barrels (let’s see Canada Dry and Schweppe’s try that shall we?) as well as the fact that it was created before the American Civil War and has been sold continuously since. Vernor’s just plain tastes better than any other ginger ale on the market. It has kick in more ways than one; it tastes more like a ginger beer than what we think of as ginger ales these days and it is seriously carbonated. When we were kids, we learned to be very careful with those first few sips of Vernor’s from the bottle or out of a cup. If you even thought about breathing when your mouth was near the open container of Vernor’s you would collapse in spasmodic coughing fits. And that was actually part of the appeal. Who doesn’t love a dangerous drink?
As a Michigander-in-exile, it’s tougher for me to find Vernor’s. Each time we go to visit family in The Great Lakes State, I pack light so we can cram the trunk of the van with enough Vernor’s so that I can drink it until I get sick of it for a while. When friends are going to, driving past or passing near The Mitten State I beg them to pick up a twelve pack or two for me. I wave cash at them. I promise babysitting favors. And to sweeten the pot, I offer to make them a Boston Cooler.
So what is a Boston Cooler? In its simplest form (also my favorite form) it is vanilla ice cream floating in icy cold Vernor’s. When something so simple is so good, why mess with it? Now some people are going to try to convince you that a proper Boston Cooler needs to be prepared in a blender. Sure, that yields a smooth MILKSHAKE, but a Boston Cooler it is not. Blending it gets rid of all that beautiful fizz that is part of why Vernor’s is so beloved by folks from Michigan. And it ruins that incomparable magic moment that comes from plunging your spoon into the glass and fishing out a big dollop of creamy vanilla ice cream that has frozen Vernor’s crystals formed all around it. The crunch of those gingery icy crystals and then the smooth, sweet vanilla ice cream is half (at least) of the fun. In short, sticking a Boston Cooler in a blender is pretty close to sinful.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Boston Coolers aren’t just all fizzy, frozen, creamy, foamy, ginger-y goodness; they also represent my youth. I still eat them exactly the same way I did when I was six years old. I slurp about half the Vernor’s from the glass and then attack the ice cream with my spoon. Every time I have one of these I feel like a kid again. So there you have it and you heard it here first. Boston Coolers are the Fountain of Youth. Take THAT, Ponce de Leon. He was off galavanting the globe and investigating Florida and The Fountain of Youth was in Detroit all along. Boy was HE wrong.
For a printer friendly, photo-free version of this recipe, click here!
- Vernor’s Ginger Ale (I suppose in a pinch you could use something else. But don’t tell my Michigan peeps I said so.)
- Vanilla Ice Cream
Add three small to medium sized scoops of vanilla ice cream to a tall glass. And don’t worry about perfect scoops here. Irregular scoops of ice cream yield more of those delicious, craggy, icy Vernor’s crystals.
Tilt the glass slightly and slowly pour Vernor’s into the glass against the side to reduce foaming. My picture doesn’t show this very well. I needed at least one hand to take a picture.
When within 2 inches of the top, pour the Vernor’s directly into the center of the glass. The ensures that you get a good amount of ginger ale in the glass before the foam forms at the top.
You can top off the glass with a little more Vernor’s if the foamy head dies back a little. Or if you happen to accidentally slurp some foam off the top.
Straws are optional. Spoons are not. Dig in.
June Browning says
The second-greatest thing I miss about Michigan – #1 – my wonderful Michigan friends!
Thank you, June!
Yes I remember Boston Coolers, my mother used to make them for me or she bought them for me at another Detroit original “Saunders” ice cream parlors. I’ll take Saunders ice cream over Stroh’s, it’s a higher quality ice cream I think, but the guy has it right with the French vanilla.
That is such a fun memory, Thomas. 🙂 Now I really want a Boston Cooler!
Richard Hornick says
I remember getting a Boston cooler at the Vernor’s plant at the foot of Woodward Avenue by the BobLo dock 70+ years ago. BUT I seem to remember the it was made with cream (or half and half). At home we used vanilla ice cream.
Bruce Smelser says
Rebecca – You did a great job describing the experience of drinking Vernors for the first time. You failed to mention the best Vernors comes out of bottles, then cans, then the sad 2 litre bottle. Vernors is an acquired taste. A lot of people don’t like it, but Schweppes and Canada Dry taste like water compared to Vernors. I married a girl from Georgia. She’d never heard of Vernors. She tried it and now she LOVES it.
Just an F.Y.I. Vernors is now owned by
Canada Dry/Motts. (So is Shwepps) So I guess
I did see the do that after all.
My husband just finished a Boston Cooler. We picked up a bottle of Vernor’s when we were downtown (Belle Isle) this afternoon, and he couldn’t wait to inhale his BC. Did he share? Nope! Not one sip! It’s not like he can’t have one every day! Some people!
I would’ve tackled him for some of that BC!
Vernors is no longer aged in oak barrels–it hasn’t been since it stopped being made at the Vernors factory on Woodward Ave. Also, the original Vernors with the MASSIVE fizz stayed fizzy when it was blended. The “new style” Vernors doesn’t work as well at that, but the way it was made at the Vernors store and the Vernors plant was blended, and since they invented it, that is the “TRUE” Boston Cooler. Strohs Ice Cream still exists–there are still a few parlours in Michigan and you can buy hand-packed ice cream there.
I married a Michigan man, and every time we go visit his family, we get these! Our ‘Publix’ here in Charleston, SC just started selling ‘Vernor’s’ in a can, so we make them at home for a quick fix :).
Nothing better then opening a can, pouring it in your glass, smelling it, then sneezing or coughing! Sounds weird, but it’s the best!
I remember growing up in Warren during the 60’s and 70’s with Boston Cooler’s (made with Vernors and Vanilla Ice Cream), A&W Rootbeer Floats, Purple Cows (made with Grape Crush and Vanilla Ice Cream), and our own variety of creamcicles (made with Orange Crush and Vanilla Ice Cream). Blending them super thick and then adding more pop at the last moment did the trick – super cold and an instant brain freeze if you drank or spooned it in too quickly. Ok, time to go out and re-create some history…
A friend of mine brews his own, slightly-alcoholic, ginger beer. I think I’m going to have to convince him to get some vanilla ice cream and try making adult versions of this. Thanks for cluing me in!
I’ve lived in Michigan all my life and never heard of these – thanks for “learnin'” me 🙂 I will be trying these coolers very soon!
‘Nother take on the blended–not enough fizz? Just add more Vernor’s to the final product once blending is done…creamy AND fizzy. (Sorry, I really like the milkshake-y version of these! I know, I know–“A pox upon me!”)
Da Poppa says
Can’t enjoy these as I once did because now I have to serve them with a side of insulin and I don’t want to wear out the “lots more” button on my insulin pump.
Da Poppa says
For me the absolute best ice cream for this dreamy concoction was Stroh’s French Vanilla. I’m told Strohs got in to the ice cream business to stay afloat (pun intended) during the prohibition days. I’m wondering. Is there still a Strohs brand ice cream?
For me, I like it either way. A float as described by Beccy or slightly stirred or, hold on to your keyboard Beccy, blended. The key of course is the word “slightly”.
Connie Woods says
Speaking of youth….I had a job as a car-hop at Vernors plant & store when I was 16 yrs. old. That would be 1941. Boston coolers are great, but at that time Cream Ales (chocolate) were my favorites. Gingerale, a shot of cream & a couple shots of flavoring. (Choc., strawberry, vanilla,etc.) As an employee we got $.05 off of a $.15 flavored cream ale,$.05 off a $.10 plain cream ale & all the gingerale we could drink! After that job I couldn’t drink gingerale for a while, but it’s been back on my list for many years! Thanks for the memories Rebecca!
love it Bec. Too bad I read the Vernors label last time. I might make it with Reeds Jamaican Ginger beer, or dad’s hooch, and see how it compares. THanks for the origin of the name!