Blenheim Ginger Ale
Schafer's company pumps out maybe 100,000 cases of ginger ale each year.
Photo by Tim Hanson
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.”