Why do people always order ginger ale when they fly? I almost always do, and many of my fellow travelers seem to do the same. It’s not a conscious thing for me, but rather reflexive. I don’t know what it is about being strapped into a cramped coach seat, browsing SkyMall, that makes me think: Canada Dry. When I’m on the ground, I rarely find myself saying, “Gee, you know what’d be great right now? Ginger ale.”
A few years back, the food website Chow posed the question to flight attendants, who confirmed that in-flight ginger ale consumption is high. Their explanations included the obvious (people don’t want caffeine or alcohol, which can dehydrate them on long flights), the even more obvious (people hear the person in front of them order it, so they do, too) and the extremely specific (“Mormons don’t drink caffeine, so they have a tendency to drink ginger ale,” one attendant said). But the most popular theory is that the soft drink relieves motion sickness and settles the stomach. Ginger ale, it seems, has the power to calm and comfort, which is why your mother might have served it to you when you stayed home sick from school.
That idea of comfort might be why ginger ale – along with its more robust cousin, ginger beer – is such a popular mixer with liquor. Especially in the classic highball, it has always made spirits more accessible, taming their high-proof edges.
There has always been much debate over whether “dry” (or “pale”) ginger ale or more robust “golden” ginger ale works better in cocktails. The opinionated (and crotchety) David Embury, in his 1948 classic The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, preferred the dry and pale (Canada Dry in particular) and declared that “old-time heavy” ginger ale “has no place in drink mixing.” I respectfully disagree with Mr. Embury on that point. Further, he deplored most ginger ales on the market, saying they “fall below any reasonably high standard for carbonated beverages.” With that, I do agree. In fact, I’ve been amused that Canada Dry now advertises that it is “Made With Real Ginger.” I mean, really? Why is that not a given?
To be clear, I’ve been looking beyond the basic Canada Dry and Schweppes, both of which would be classified as “dry” ginger ales. I’m more interested in “golden,” which is richer and has more of a kick. Two favorites have been Fever-Tree and the extra-spicy Blenheim, especially Old #3 Hot, with the red cap. I’m also a fan of Barritt’s ginger beer from Bermuda and Reed’s from Jamaica. Another option is to make your own (Meg Favreau has a great recipe here).
Ginger beer has a long tradition in the islands, as evidenced by the classic Dark n’ Stormy (rum, ginger beer, a squeeze of lime), one of my go-to summer drinks. Ginger beer is also a much better mixer with vodka, something I’m always trying to suggest to committed vodka-tonic drinkers. Ginger beer is essential in the Moscow Mule (equal parts vodka and lime juice to three parts ginger beer).
In my comfort-drink quest, I’ve been searching for more variations off the classic Dark n’ Stormy. You’ll see two of these below. The first, the Añejo Highball, adds a little Cointreau and bitters to the mix, which also adds some complexity to the drink.
The second, the Stormy Weather, adds the element of red wine. I actually got this recipe from a mixologist named Trudy Thomas, beverage director for the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Ariz., who at the time was consulting for Yellow Tail, developing cocktails using the company’s wines. Normally, I deplore Yellow Tail, but for reasons I have yet to wrap my head around, I found this cocktail to be inventive and tasty. Thomas clearly deserves some sort of special Mixology Achievement Medal, perhaps from the James Beard Foundation.
Pushing a bit further, I found an interesting recipe in Cocktails: How To Mix Them, a book written by a London bartender named Robert Vermeire and published in 1922. The drink calls for sloe gin, that British favorite made with the sloe berry, a tart cousin of the plum harvested from the hedgerows. Plymouth, Hayman’s and Gordon’s make true sloe gin, with Plymouth is the most widely available here. Avoid most sloe gin made in the United States; it is almost always artificially flavored.
In any case, I find the mix of ginger ale, sloe gin and lime juice — a low-proof variation on a rickey — to be the perfect, mellow summer afternoon sipper. The name of the drink even suggests the perfect setting for ginger ale: the Cloudy Sky.
Dark n’ Stormy
This is the semi-official cocktail of Bermuda, and it usually calls for Gosling’s Black Seal Rum. Be sure to use ginger beer (and not ginger ale) for a bold kick.
1 to 2 coin-size slices peeled ginger root (optional)
2 ounces dark rum, preferably Gosling’s Black Seal
3 ounces chilled ginger beer
2 thin lime wedges, for garnish
Fill an old-fashioned glass with ice and add the ginger. Add the rum and stir. Top with the ginger beer. Squeeze the lime wedges over the drink and drop them in.
Adapted from Mittie Hellmich’s “Mini Bar” series of books (Chronicle, 2007)
Created by cocktail legend Dale DeGroff, this twist on the classic Dark & Stormy calls for the addition of an orange liqueur, such as Cointreau. As the name suggests, you’ll want to use an aged rum, such as Flor de Cana Gran Reserva, Chairman’s Reserve or Appleton V/X.
1½ ounces aged rum
½ ounce orange liqueur, preferably Cointreau
¼ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Lime wheel, for garnish
Combine the rum, orange liqueur, lime juice and bitters in a highball glass. Add ice, then top with ginger beer and stir to incorporate.
Garnish with the lime and orange wheels.
This is a wine variation on the classic Dark ‘n’ Stormy. We found that the cocktail worked well with most brands of affordable Australian shiraz or California syrah, or blends with those grapes. It also calls for a dark rum such as Gosling’s; we recommend an aged rum such as Zacapa, Pampero Anniversario or Flor de Cana 7-year. The bitters add a nice structure to the drink, but it’s also nice without them.
1½ ounces dark or aged rum
1½ ounces shiraz or cabernet shiraz blend
½ ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ ounce agave nectar
1 dash Angostura bitters (optional)
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the rum, shiraz or cabernet shiraz blend, lime juice, agave nectar and bitters, if desired. Shake well, then strain into an ice-filled Collins glass. Top off with ginger beer.
Adapted from mixologist Trudy Thomas of the Camelback Inn in Scottsdale, Arizona
This is a variation on a sloe gin rickey that calls for ginger ale or ginger beer instead of soda water. Use good-quality ingredients, such as Fever-Tree or Blenheim ginger ale, and Barritts or Reed’s ginger beer, and a real sloe gin, such as Plymouth; most sloe gins made in the United States contain artificial flavoring.
2 ounces sloe gin, preferably Plymouth
1 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
2 ounces ginger ale or ginger beer, chilled
Lime wheel, for garnish
Fill a rocks or old-fashioned glass filled with ice cubes. Add the sloe gin and lime juice, then top with ginger ale or ginger beer. Garnish with the lime wheel.
Adapted from “Cocktails: How to Mix Them,” by Robert Vermeire
Photos by Rachel Wisniewski