Route 12, Boonville NY 13309
Web: Mercer's Dairy
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Drinks Ice Cream Wine
"Years ago, the first thing that Vernors evoked was a cough: open a can or bottle and an involuntary sputter was surprisingly likely due to its amazingly strong carbonation."
While loganberry would be at the very top of our list of drinks that are hard to find outside of Western New York, there are a couple of other beverages that readers have become desperate to locate after leaving the area. Like loganberry, Birch Beer and Vernors Ginger Soda weren't invented here, but they've been local favorites for around a century each, and even as they've disappeared elsewhere in the country, they both can still be purchased from Buffalo-area shops. They, and a wine-based ice cream from Mercer's Dairy, are the subjects of our latest Bubbly column.
Despite what one might guess from its name, Birch Beer is typically non-alcoholic - a classic fountain soda that's safe for kids. Novel to this century-plus-year-old drink is its use of distilled birch tree sap as a flavoring, which when mixed with the typical carbonated water, corn syrup, and citric acid produces a beverage that tastes like a lighter, less caramelized root beer; it's otherwise highly similar in flavor, carbonation, and sweetness. Stewart's - now owned by Cadbury Schweppes' Dr. Pepper Snapple Group - produces bottled Birch Beer that's sold for around $1.25 per bottle or under $5 for a four-pack; other companies, such as Jones Soda and IBC, also sell versions. As with loganberry, it's available by request at many local restaurants, though fewer and fewer people know to ask for it these days.
By comparison, Vernors is intriguing in that it's been described a ginger ale, but it's really not: nearly 150 years old, this soft drink originated in Detroit and is billed by its current owner - coincidentally also Dr. Pepper Snapple Group - as "the original ginger soda." Years ago, the first thing that Vernors evoked was a cough: if you opened a can or bottle and took a sip, an involuntary sputter was surprisingly likely due to its amazingly strong carbonation. For better or worse, this has changed. Due to some carbonation and formula tweaks that have rendered it less potent, Vernors is now a weaker shadow of its prior self, notably sweeter than the typical ginger ale, and with less apparent depth of flavor. Still, a light ginger taste is obvious in every sip, and a modest ginger spice is apparent at the start of the drink, sometimes longer. Once aged for four years in oak casks, Vernors is now marketed as being aged three years in barrels. And in another interesting coincidence, it's bottled by Clinton's Ditch Cooperative in Cicero, the same plant responsible for producing the decreasingly available Aunt Rosie's Loganberry. Vernors can be found in 12-packs at Consumer's Beverage Centers, along with 12-packs of Aunt Rosie's and individual bottles of Birch Beer.
Last in this week's Bubbly column is something comparatively new - a three-year old wine product made in Boonville, New York, Northeast of Syracuse. Mercer's Dairy has come up with six different pints of soft, lightly fruity Wine Ice Cream that are sold for $8 each and marketed as being "for the sophisticated palate." When we came across the Mercer's line at Casa Larga Vineyards near Rochester, only Ala Port, Peach White Zinfandel, and Royal White Riesling were available; all start with a "white" creamy base and add up to 5% alcohol for flavor. Three additional flavors - Cherry Merlot, Chocolate Cabernet, and Red Raspberry Chardonnay - are also available, each with additional bits of fruit or chocolate in addition to the alcohol. Because of the alcohol content, this is the rare ice cream that you actually need to be 21 or older to purchase.
Though we weren't sure what to expect from the Ala Port, especially for the steep asking price, we bought a pint and genuinely liked it: as it turns out, the age limit also enabled Mercer's Dairy to exercise the flavoring restraint that it couldn't achieve if it was making an ice cream for younger customers. The taste of wine in the rose-colored ice cream was mild, but not so subtle that it couldn't be easily detected, and fans of port would unquestionably like its red grape body and hints of spicy brandy. Our hope is that Mercer's continues its march West from Rochester, as it's already been picked up by certain Wegmans and Whole Foods locations elsewhere in New York State; we'd surely try the rest of the flavors if it was easy to buy near Buffalo. An hour's drive without a cooler is a bit too long to expect these pints to last.