Ginger Ale: A Magical Elixir

Homemade Ginger Ale: Here's to Good Health
It’s no coincidence that the majority of airline passengers request ginger ale as the beverage cart moves down the middle aisle. Ginger ale has long been known for its ability to ease digestive discomfort and relieve motion sickness. But, while this carbonated beverage is relatively new, people have relied on the healing powers of ginger for centuries.

In Greece, it was Hippocrates himself who witnessed the remarkable restorative powers of ginger when administered to sailors so stricken with sea sickness they couldn’t right themselves long enough to board their ships. 

Those who finally got their ‘sea legs’ were likely responsible for transporting ginger from its native South East Asia across the high seas and to the warm, humid Caribbean islands were it quickly took root and flourished.

On land, explorers and adventurers set off to mysterious and foreign locales where they learned new landscapes and traveled makeshift roads in search of ginger. These rhizomes, hidden deep in the earth with their knobby finger-like appendages, were highly coveted for their culinary punch and curative powers.

The Ancient Romans and Greeks—even the Celtics—realized the medicinal properties of ginger. There was no way—or need—for these early healers and medical practitioners to know it, but science has since proven that ginger possesses two properties that make it a virtual wonder drug. The first, gingerol, is a powerful anti-inflammatory not only effective in treating inflammation in the body, but in providing relief from arthritis and even inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. The second, zingibain, is an antibacterial long used to prevent infection and treat wounds.

During the Middle Ages, ginger was stirred into stew pots to enliven even the most insipid of gruels, taken by the spoonful to stimulate a sluggish digestive system and reportedly, even favored by the gentry as a potent aphrodisiac.

Preservation was key in preventing fresh ginger root from rotting. The most popular method was by creating a ‘ginger bug’—mashed or sliced ginger root added to water along with honey. Left alone, the ginger bug would ferment and percolate, morphing into a powerful brew that delivered ginger’s seemingly magical medicinal properties along with the beneficial bacteria from fermentation.
If history stood still, the ‘ginger bug’ may never have evolved. But, along with the Industrial Revolution and an ever increasing and curious population, the notion that there was—somewhere—an elixir capable of restoring the body’s humors while serving as both a remedy and stimulant liberated the humble ginger bug from the confines of the kitchen and put it into the hands of the pharmacist.

Pharmacists were a curious breed. They practiced the art of apothecary while employing both the knowledge of the chemist and the skill of the physician. During the 1800s they were part of the great drug revolution as they opened small storefronts in towns all across America. Their shops served as community centers where people would gather for gossip and news and more importantly, a cure for whatever ailed them.

Competition was stiff, so these drugstore apothecaries took to their brass kettles and concocted secret recipes and sweet syrups by mixing botanicals, herbs, spices—even caffeine and cocaine—not only to make the medicine go down easier, but to keep customers coming back.
The advent of the corner pharmacy coincided with another invention—the ability to instill carbon dioxide into plain water, paving the way for the popularity of the carbonated beverage. It didn’t take long for the soda fountain to become a common fixture in the pharmacy and seemingly, overnight, the pharmacist’s secret recipes and syrups were added to carbonated water to create their own special tonics.

The first known ginger ale originated in Belfast around 1850 and was a ferment of ginger root, lime and black pepper. However, in the United States, ginger ale wasn’t widely available until the 1860s when pharmacist James Vernor mixed up his version—reportedly containing 19 ingredients—and letting it steep in wooden barrels until it was a deep, dark caramel color with a robust and gingery taste.

Interestingly, it was Canadian pharmacist John McLaughlin who created a ginger ale that appealed to American tastes, although not in the way he intended. In 1907, he lighted it up his recipe and marketed it as pale and dry—hence the name, Canada Dry®-- which earned it the reputation as “The Champagne of Ginger Ale.” During Prohibition, it was the favorite mixer to ease the burn of bathtub gin and homemade moonshine.

Today’s commercially available ginger ales are little more than sugar water with added flavors and colors and lack the true beneficial properties of ginger. With relatively few ingredients and a little time, anyone can make their own ginger bug and enjoy a stimulating tonic whenever they’d like—alcohol optional, or course!
Making a Ginger Bug

1 large ginger root with several large knobs, or fingers
Raw sugar

1. Wash and peel a 2 to 3 inch of the ginger root and finely grate it on a box grater or microplane; put the grated ginger into a sterilized quart jar.

2. Add an equal amount of raw sugar and a pinch of yeast.

3. Add 2 cups of filtered water.

4. Cover the jar with a coffee filter, using a rubber band to hold it in place and set the jar in a warm spot on your kitchen counter where it can rest, undisturbed.

5. Each day, add equal parts of sugar and fresh grated ginger, stirring with a wooden spoon.

6. As the mixture ferments, it will begin to bubble and froth on the surface. This could take between 7 and 10 days, depending on the temperature of your room and other factors. Once the mixture is fermented, you can strain and store in your refrigerator. I like to add 2 parts of the ginger bug to equal parts of soda for a refreshing tonic.

7. The ginger bug can also be used as the base for other beverages, including root beer. It's also pretty darn tasty with whiskey.


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