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First fizzy ginger ale

Cantrell Ginger Ale advert circa 1901

First things first, don’t confuse ginger ale with ginger beer. They’re completely different drinks. Yes, they’re both flavoured with ginger – but one is sparkling and clear (ale) whereas one is fermented and flat (beer).


Ginger beer was invented in Yorkshire, England, in the mid-18th century while ginger ale, as you’ll hear, was invented in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the mid-19th century.

"Sparkling and clear as the choicest Champagne, as having a most agreeable odour, perfectly free from any intoxicating quality, and yet eminently warming and invigorating, pleasant to the taste and pleasant to look at.”

So said Thomas Joseph Cantrell, an Irish doctor, who is universally acknowledged to have invented the world’s first golden ginger ale in the early 1850s.


Not too much is known about Cantrell’s early life. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1827, and went on to train as a doctor at Apothecaries’ Hall. Shortly after graduating, he went to work as a chemist for a company called Grattan & Co, based in Belfast, Northern Ireland.   


Sited in an iconic building called Medical Hall, 10-12 Corn Market, Grattan & Co supplied medicines and medical appliances to hospitals, doctors and the general public, and also became well known for making their own ‘curative’ drugs. This naturally led to them creating a range of ‘aerated mineral waters’, mostly soda water and seltzers, cashing in on the craze of health-giving mineral waters. Cantrell’s role as Principal Assistant, the position directly under owner John Grattan, was to look for exciting new ways to treat ailments of mind and body. So it was here that he’s credited with inventing the first ginger ale – deep golden in colour, sweet, fizzy but with a distinct ginger spice flavour that was thought to have powerful therapeutic effects.


It’s no real surprise that Cantrell started using ginger in his pharmaceutical experiments – around the mid-1800s, importers of Jamaican ginger extract were advertising it as a remedy for all sorts of things, from cholera and fever to rheumatism and digestive issues. 


Early newspaper advert for Cantrell's ginger ale

A natural entrepreneur and marketer, Grattan immediately embossed the slogan “The Original Makers of Ginger Ale” onto all his glass bottles!


Ginger ale was an instant hit and became a surprisingly sought-after drink in the Victorian era, spawning a whole slew of competitors. Flavour enthusiasts of the day would happily argue over the merits of pale dry versus golden or the right ginger heat versus aromatic complexity.

One thing was certain, it was hard to make well, with the perfect crispness, clarity and intensity.


Cantrell crafted it in what was to become known as the Belfast style, which was golden with a deep aroma thanks to flavourings that included real ginger root, orange peel, cinnamon and nutmeg.


As with most things that are successful, it became a much-copied style. But the problem was, ginger was a relatively expensive ingredient, so competitors found ingenious (and not so ingenious) ways around it, with varying levels of success. There were some later American makers who used to add red chilli pepper to get an authentic ‘bite’ of ginger – with one English competition judge called J.T. Norman denouncing such practices in 1896: “...ginger ales should not be hot lemonades heavily doused with capsicum [chilli pepper]; the chief palate characteristic should be a clean pure ginger flavour, not attained with capsicum. In competition, beverages which erred on the side of fiery flavour were relegated to their proper position, near the bottom.” 


But back to Belfast…


In 1852, at the age of 25, Cantrell left Grattan & Co to set up his own chemist and mineral water business, in partnership with James Dyas. They were based at 22 Castle Place, known as the Ulster Medical Hall, in Belfast, where they made ginger ale, lemonade, soda water and even sarsaparilla, a fizzy drink made with the sarsaparilla root, which tastes a bit like herbal root beer and is said to purify the blood.


When Cantrell married Mary Hanlon, the daughter of a Belfast merchant, on 5th September 1855, his business was going from strength to strength. He expanded and advertised rapidly, and now had depots in Dublin, Liverpool and Glasgow by the mid-1860s. In 1868, Cantrell looked across the Atlantic to the US market – he wanted to crack America! But by this point Dyas had left the partnership, so he was looking for further funding to achieve his dream – and in walked Henry Cochrane with a sizeable investment of £2,000. The company Cantrell & Cochrane, or C&C as it became known, was born.

Cantrell ginger ale warehouse 1877

The money enabled Cantrell to sink an artesian well at Cromac Spring in Belfast (‘artesian’ means water that reaches the surface using natural pressure without needing to be pumped). Suddenly, production could increase to meet the expected demand, with the new spring supplying 17,820 gallons of the purest water daily.


It was perfect timing as the expansion coincided with the Temperance Movement, which saw the soft drinks trade flourish. They’d also secured contracts with several high-profile shipping lines, like Cunard, Inman, Oceanio, Montreal and the Pacific Steamship Company, which brought their aerated waters to an ever-wider audience. These early seafaring bottles were stunning. Called ‘ballast bottles’ they were made with heavy glass and had rounded bottoms so they couldn’t stand up – the idea was that they had to be stored on their side, to keep the cork constantly wet to stop it shrinking and leaking.

Ballast bottle

These ballast bottles were common on Victorian-era steamship voyages to the USA, to add weight and stability to the ship!

They now had two production sites – in Belfast and Dublin – and were filling around 432,000 bottles of soft drinks a week in 1876 (their bottling machine filled 48 bottles a minute).


They had become so famous, The Lancet, the world’s oldest medical journal, mentioned Cantrell & Cochrane’s ginger ale in their report on all the food and drinks served at the Paris Exposition Universelle on 5th October 1878.

“The Ginger-ale is a comparatively new beverage, which is apparently coming much into use, especially in winter and on board ship, in consequence, mainly, of its containing a much larger quantity of ginger than "ginger-beer", and hence acting more strongly as a cordial. Messrs. Cantrell and Cochrane, of Belfast, are also well known manufacturers of aerated and mineral waters…..the aromatic ginger-ale is evidently a specialty of the firm. They state that it is not analogous to ginger-beer, which is a fermented drink, and contains, therefore, a small quantity of alcohol, but that the ginger-ale is unfermented, and consequently non-alcoholic. They describe it as "sparkling and clear as the choicest Champagne, as having a most agreeable odour, perfectly free from any intoxicating quality, and yet eminently warming and invigorating, pleasant to the taste and pleasant to look at.""

According to The Belfast Morning News, Ireland’s first one penny newspaper, Cantrell & Cochrane was the “largest soft drink manufacturer in the world” in 1884, employing over 500 people. Their success continued when they started winning a hatful of awards from World Fairs, which were in vogue at the time. In 1879, they won a gold medal at the Sydney World Fair, followed by 27 medals (four of them gold) at the New Orleans World Fair in 1884. Then further success came at the prestigious Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 (where the Eiffel Tower was unveiled). In 1901, they even received a royal warrant from the new king, Edward VII.


In 1883, Cantrell had to leave the business due to ill health (he died in September 1909 in Hampshire, England, aged 82) but the business continued to fly in his absence – his Belfast Ginger Ale was by far the most popular soda in America at the time. Its astronomical success was partly due to Prohibition – as it was a) considered the perfect alternative to alcohol, and b) the ideal mixer for illicit spirits. It is said that customers would pay 35 cents for a 12-ounce bottle when other carbonated beverages fetched a nickel (5 cents). Greta Garbo’s first spoken line in the 1930 film Anna Christie, was an order for whiskey with ginger ale on the side (“And don’t be stingy, baby!” she ordered.)


The 20th century saw the business bought and sold frequently. It was acquired by Guinness in 1950 and then several mergers later became known as C&C, owned by Allied Breweries (later Allied Domecq) in 1968. It was then sold to BC Partners in 1999 and eventually found a home with Britvic in 2007, still based in Ireland.


Cantrell & Cochrane Ginger Ales were a bit of a cultural phenomenon in Ireland, and elsewhere in the world. Part of their history also includes being mentioned in James Joyce’s epic novel Ulysses. In the fifth chapter, called Lotus-Eaters, Bloom (the hero) sees a poster advertising "Cantrell and Cochrane’s Ginger Ale” talking of it as a “temperance beverage”.


As much as I’ve tried, I can’t find an image of Thomas Joseph Cantrell, the brains behind ginger ale. Yet he was a true visionary. As a medical man, he brought his aerated mineral water into the world to cure people of their ailments. Instead, he started a worldwide phenomenon, a soft drink that has become one of the most popular flavours in the world. And all from an unassuming neighbourhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Cantrell ginger ale bottle label close-up




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