Sugar & spice

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Bunnell designed a new bottle to package Venetian ginger ale, the soda his ancestors developed in the late 1800s. (Courtesy photo)

Bunnell designed a new bottle to package Venetian ginger ale, the soda his ancestors developed in the late 1800s. (Courtesy photo)

Justin Bunnell never questioned the significance of a worn wooden sign that hung in his grandparents’ kitchen through his adolescent years. “M. & F. C. Dorn,” it read in painted block letters.

Years later, the Milton resident found himself sorting through belongings in the basement as the family prepared to downsize. Tucked in a box filled with flat metal caps and green glass bottles, he found dozens of old photos.

One depicted the familiar sign from the room just upstairs, this one hanging on an exterior brick wall. “Dorn,” Bunnell had since learned, was his grandmother’s maiden name. Adjacent in the photo, an identically stylized sign read, “Venetian Ginger Ale & Beverage.”

“It’s like this whole thing happened, and nobody remembers it,” Bunnell said. “I guess it just kind of fades away until somebody remembers and brings it back.”

Bunnell’s great-great grandfather, Michael C. Dorn, emigrated from Germany in the late 1800s and set up a small café in Colchester’s Fort Ethan Allen. Among the local World War I soldiers, Bunnell learned, Dorn was known for concocting a great ginger ale.

By 1917, Dorn did away with the restaurant entirely and fully embraced the fizzy beverage business, building the Pine Street Soda Plant in Burlington with his three sons. Unable to settle on a name, they’d looked to their neighbors for inspiration: Burlington Venetian Blinds Company.

Exactly 100 years later, Bunnell is giving the forgotten family business a jumpstart.

“Cooking has always been a part of my family culture,” Bunnell said. “My uncles were cooks, my cousins were cooks and, apparently, Dorns were cooks, too.”

Bunnell used the original Venetian ginger ale recipe card as a guide, tweaking the mixture as he made several batches on the stove in his Milton home. He subbed out the chemical extracts for a fresh ginger puree, hand-squeezed more than a few limes and developed a distinctive spice blend.

“We just started doing taste after taste and experimenting with different flavors,” Bunnell said. “We tried cinnamon, we tried cayenne pepper, we tried anise. Anise was disgusting.”

The final result was an aromatic, cloudy, carbonated liquid with pieces of ginger floating inside. The drink is fruiter than the earthy ale folks might be used to, Bunnell said.

He passed samples around to family and friends, hearing positive results each time. Many encouraged him to take the operation to the next level. Eventually, Bunnell agreed and settled on a slogan: Be someone spicy.

A few years after finding the fateful box, Bunnell launched a successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter. The $27,500 goal, which he achieved, will pay for rent at a commercial kitchen space, a bottling machine and development fees.

Justin Bunnell of Milton is pictured in his Williston studio. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Justin Bunnell of Milton is pictured in his Williston studio. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Bunnell was confident the venture could continue if the fundraiser didn’t succeed. He’s already heard from several interested investors and sold more than 5,000 bottles at $2.50 a piece. Officials in Montpelier have already come calling, Bunnell said, inviting him to come hear about incentives offered to entrepreneurs that keep their operations local.

“My ultimate dream would be to have a bottling plant as they did 100 years ago and make this drink across New England as Venetian originally was,” Bunnell said.

As he flipped through sepia-toned pictures and old newspaper clippings in his office late last week, Bunnell noted with a smile that some ancestors looked strikingly similar to his younger family
members.

Further down the conference table was a scuffed Venetian Ginger Ale bottle, the original label peeling back only slightly, and a shiny example of the new product’s packaging. There are T-shirts, coasters and promotional handouts to boot.

Soda making may be a newly discovered passion, but business is in Bunnell’s blood. He’s the owner of RetroMotion Creative, a digital marketing service now based in Williston. This beverage is the first stand-alone item the company has imagined, but the branding effort combines its oft-employed strategies.

It’s a skill he now believes may have been inherited. Venetian came to prominence during the Prohibition-era, and the Dorns packaged their non-alcoholic product in champagne-like bottles. When the city of Burlington phased out the trolley system and  brought in buses, they christened the new vehicles with the family ginger ale.

But a bit more digging uncovered a slightly less sweet underbelly of the wholesome operation. Bunnell believes his family members may have used their soda trucks to smuggle whisky in from Canada.

Three of Bunnell’s friends have jumped on board as business partners and produced a series of videos for the drink’s website. In one, they interview Steve Conant, owner of Conant Metal and Light, which now operates within the former M. & F. C. Dorn Co. soda plant.

“We knew as we were in this building doing business that there were predecessors who had also worked very hard at entrepreneurial pursuits,” Conant said in the video.

Venetian Ginger Ale, which used to be served at Colchester's Fort Ethan Allen, was brewed in Burlington's former Pine Street Soda Plant. (Courtesy photo)

Venetian Ginger Ale, which used to be served at Colchester’s Fort Ethan Allen, was brewed in Burlington’s former Pine Street Soda Plant. (Courtesy photo)

In another short promo, actors from Green Mountain Cabaret don outfits from the roaring ’20s, clinking and sipping from the new glass soda bottles. The scene was filmed at the Fort in a structure that’s likely “pretty close” to the café in which Michael C. Dorn originally served up the ginger ale.

From flavor to form, Bunnell said he’s worked hard to ensure the new drink maintains the same style his ancestors embodied.

“We did something right, but I really think it’s about the entrepreneurial spirit,” Bunnell said. “I’ve always been surrounded with business people that know how to make things work for themselves. I think that’s how true Vermonters are.”

Read more about Venetian Ginger Ale at http://venetiangingerale.com.