The Blenheim Ginger Ale Story

By Posted in - Vintage Bottled Soda on October 23rd, 2013 13 Comments

Several times each week, Monte Hamilton squints his eyes and carefully mixes three kinds of Jamaica ginger and a generous dose of capsicum into 50 gallons of fresh spring water.

There’s other stuff in there, too—citric acid, caramel coloring, sucrose—and all of it is blended by a huge, belt-driven propeller inside a 110-gallon mixing basin. But it is the spicy aroma of the ginger that immediately permeates the room and forces Hamilton’s eyes to water.

“Once that propeller is turned on and starts mixing all the material together, it just takes your breath away,” he says.

Mixing the basic ingredients is the first step in a bottling process that, by the end of the day, will yield 1,200 cases of Blenheim Ginger Ale, the famously spicy soft drink prized by devoted fans across South Carolina and around the world.

“We sell all that we can make,” says Blenheim plant manager Kenny Cook Jr. as hundreds of freshly-filled bottles rattle their way down a conveyor belt only a few feet outside his glassed-in office.

The small company, owned by South of the Border’s Schafer family, pumps out maybe 100,000 cases of the stuff each year. That’s not a lot in a world dominated by monster soft drink companies like Coke and Pepsi, but you won’t hear the Blenheim people complaining.

“Our business has steadily picked up, and we’re pretty much at capacity,” says Ryan H. Schafer, president of South of the Border and grandson of legendary entrepreneur Alan Schafer, who purchased the soft drink company in 1993. “It’s profitable, and we try not to mess with it.”

Blenheim, of course, isn’t for everyone. Its zesty, sometimes sneeze-inducing character delivers an adult portion of ginger and spice that makes more traditional ginger ales taste bland in comparison. While it may be an overstatement to say that Blenheim has a “cult” following, there is clearly a faithful clientele who often will go to great lengths to keep bottles of the powerful concoction in their refrigerators. One fellow in Montana, for example, buys Blenheim by the pallet. He happily pays $1,100 for the 60 cases and tacks on another $1,500 to have it shipped to him.

South Carolinians have an easier time getting their Blenheim fix. Sixpacks of the state’s native soft drink can be found on the shelves of every South of the Border gift shop, at select grocery stores, and—if you know where to look—in coolers at farmer’s markets, country stores, barber shops and even bluegrass pickin’ parlors.

Beverly Owens of Marion has been drinking Blenheim since she was a child.

“In those days, that is what Mom would give us if our tummies weren’t feeling good,” she says. “It’s a lot stronger than Canada Dry or other ginger ales. I think that’s what I like about it. It’s just got more of a punch to it.”

The drink got its start back in the late 1800s in the tiny Marlboro County community of Blenheim, home to an iron- and sulphur-charged spring that a local physician—Dr. C.R. May—recommended to patients suffering from stomach disorders.

Patients drank the water but complained loudly enough about the taste that Dr. May figured he’d soften the blow by adding some sugar and ginger. And that, apparently, was just the ticket. Stomach problems or not, people started putting away enough of the beverage that it finally dawned on the good doctor that he had invented a genuine American soft drink.

A bottling plant was built next to the spring in the early years of the 20th century and over the next 90 years or so turned out a product that won the hearts of ginger ale fans far and wide, including one Alan Schafer.

Schafer grew up drinking Blenheim Ginger Ale, and when he became wealthy enough to do pretty much whatever he wanted, he added the famous beverage to his business empire.

The original plant sometimes produced as little as 18 or 20 cases in a day and was in pretty rough shape by the time Schafer came along. Rather than refurbish the building, the new owner figured it would be cheaper to build a new plant on the grounds of South of the Border.

Blenheim comes in three varieties, each identified by a different colored bottle cap—pink for the spiciest blend, gold for the regular and white for the diet version. While the basic recipe for Blenheim hasn’t changed since 1903, the soda being bottled today isn’t as peppery hot as it was when Alan Schafer was alive.

Ryan Schafer figures that maybe his grandfather had lost some of his taste buds in later years and, to compensate, kept dialing up the heat in the Blenheim recipe. Once the old gentleman passed away, however, Ryan Schafer figured the drink was just a bit too spicy.

“I backed the heat out of it a little, slowly over time,” Schafer says. “But it’s still hotter than anything out there.”

By TIM HANSON – South Carolina Living

 

Stop into ANTIQOLOGY if you’d like to give it a try, we carry all 3 varieties (Extra-Hot, Not-So-Hot, and Diet Not-So-Hot). We also have it available on our online soda shop and we’ll ship to your doorstep  at http://antiqology.com/store/index.php?main_page=index&manufacturers_id=24

(13) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Tim First - Reply

    December 12, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    Glad to see you carry Blenheim ginger ale. How much is it? Thanks

  • Jeffrey Furr - Reply

    September 15, 2016 at 8:23 am

    My mother owned and operated Blenheim Ginger Ale up until the late 80’s. The Late Mrs. Brenda Hubbard Furr.

  • Beverly O’Neal - Reply

    September 15, 2016 at 10:47 am

    Love it!!! Even have some of the old bottles when the Dennis boys ran the Blenheim plant! Have a quart bottle with Blenheim Premium written on it!!! Pretty cool!! Oh I am from Blenheim!!!

  • Dawn Cole - Reply

    September 16, 2016 at 4:20 am

    I recently bought a bottle of gold cap after not having had any for a few years. Would you believe after a few swallows I poured it out because I figured something was wrong with that bottle it wasn’t hot enough…now I see you have dialed the heat back, so I guess I will have to go to a pink cap. Btw I have friends on chemo who swear by Blenheim for the nausea that comes with chemo. Thank you for keeping the brew coming…please don’t change it any more…blessings to you!!!

  • Rico Rhoney - Reply

    September 16, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I love this ginger ale. My wife and mother-in-law introduced me to it some years ago. My mother-in-law operated a small convince store in Blenheim SC. This ginger ale has it’s own taste and kick that’s 2nd to none. As long as it’s on the market I will continue to drink it. Thanks.
    P.S. any coupons would be greatly appreciated .

  • Renee millwood - Reply

    September 16, 2016 at 6:27 pm

    I LOVE the pink cap one!!! Can you possible tell me where I can get it in the Greenwood/Laurens area?

  • Joe White - Reply

    September 16, 2016 at 8:06 pm

    “Zesty” is a pretty mild description. It’s potent!

  • Lil Clark - Reply

    September 16, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I love it, the first time I dranked the ginger ale I cough and ii took my breath away, but love, love the taste.

  • Edward Wallace - Reply

    September 17, 2016 at 1:17 am

    I love it when I can find it.

  • Jim - Reply

    September 29, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    I was working in the pressbox/guest suite at Darlington (SC) International Dragway many years ago and the owner of the International Hot Rod Association, Larry Carrier, had a small bar set up in the back for his customers/guests.
    One fellow, obviously a Yankee, picked up a bottle of the “hot,” and asked his host what it was.,
    Carrier said, “It’s a locally brewed ginger ale, and it’s pretty good.”
    The fellow asked, “Is it hot?”
    “Well,” Carrier said, “I”d put a little liquor in it to cut it, if I were you.”

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