How the Boston Cooler Became a Classic Detroit Ice Cream Treat

The Boston Cooler may not be known to many outside of Michigan, but it should be. This gingery creamy treat is one of the best ice cream concoctions out there.

Homemade Ginger Beer Boston Cooler
Photo: bhofack2/Getty Images

If you live outside of Michigan, there is a good chance you've never heard of or tried one of the ultimate summer drinks, the Boston Cooler.

If you aren't from that area, you may also be wondering how a Detroit iconic treat has the name Boston in it. Many Detroiters still have that same question.

A Boston Cooler in its present day is a drink made from Vernors Ginger Ale (yes, specifically Vernors) and vanilla ice cream. Most tried and true experts will tell you that a real Boston cooler is made into a milkshake-like consistency, but there are a few that will drink it float style with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in the ginger ale. That, I would say, is more of a Vernors float.

But how this summer delight came to be is a complicated story, and the answer depends on who you ask.

The History of the Boston Cooler

According to Vernors historian and author, Keith Wunderlich, the majority of what you read on the Internet on the history of the Boston Cooler may not all be entirely true.

Many say that the name Boston Cooler originated from Boston Boulevard in Detroit, but that isn't exactly true. In fact, the term Boston Cooler meant a bunch of things before it became the gingery ice cream treat.

In the 1900s, some drink companies and bartenders advertised a "Boston Cooler" as a mix of Sarsaparilla and ginger ale. In the 1910s when soda fountains became popular, there were advertisements offering a "Boston Cooler," a scoop of ice cream in a half of a melon.

Eventually, a "'Boston Cooler' could refer to any number of soda-ice cream concoctions popular at the soda fountains and ice cream shops of the late 19th and early 20th centuries," says Detroit drinks historian Mickey Lyons.

"They weren't unique to Detroit, either. Over time, though, they became more associated with Vernor's than any of the other soda concoctions," Lyons adds.

The Detroit Connection

So how did this general term for a soda-ice cream drink become a Detroit icon?

The answer seems to lie in both Fred Sanders and a trademark by Vernors. Another Detroit legend, Fred Sanders (who developed the bumpy cake, too), who had one of Detroit's first ice cream and confections shop, is likely the one who introduced ice cream sodas to Detroit in the 1800s. It was only natural to use a Detroit-made product, Vernors, which was made by Detroit pharmacist James Vernor.

The ginger forward drink was originally made in oak barrels and was used to cure stomach aches. The current version of Vernors no longer uses the barrels, but some people still use it for stomach aches.

It wasn't until 1967 that Vernors trademarked the Boston Cooler when they were going to market with a Vernors Boston Cooler flavor ice cream bar. That's likely what started the Detroit connection we know today.

Sanders and Big Boy (the Elias brothers branches) both served them, and you can also get a Boston cooler at Detroit-area Dairy Queens (amongst many other local restaurants). Once the drink became super popular in Michigan, the story evolved to include even more Detroit lore— even if some of it was an exaggeration.

How to Make a Boston Cooler

Want to make your own Boston Cooler? It's easy. You need just two ingredients and a blender.

The proper ratio for the best version is 3:1, ice cream to Vernors, to get a nice thick milkshake consistency. Of course, adjust to your own liking. Vernors is still bottled in Michigan, but it's now easy to find nationwide.

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