Home Lifestyle COLUMN: A taste of Southern tradition

COLUMN: A taste of Southern tradition

Blenheim Ginger Ale comes in a six-pack with 12-ounce clear bottles. It was developed in Marlboro County.
J.A. Bolton

In 1781, our young country was at war with one of the strongest countries in the world. England was trying its best to keep America under its control.

In 1780, the British won a decisive victory in Charlestown, South Carolina, and thus shifted their war strategy to the southern theater to help win the war.

After the victory, British sympathizers, known as Tories, were up in arms to punish, capture or kill as many Whigs (patriots) as they could. Many a southern homestead, barn, and crops were burned. Some captured Whigs were shot on the spot, some were hung, and others had to run for their lives.

Such was the case in 1781 that a Whig by the name of James Spears was on the run from a band of Tories. The event took place in the swamplands south of Bennettsville, South Carolina, near the little town that would later be called Blenheim.

As Spears was making his way through the nearby swamp, he lost one of his shoes in a water hole. He didn’t worry about retrieving his shoe as the Tories weren’t far behind him.

Soon, Spears eluded his enemies and returned for his shoe. He found it floating in a clear spring of water. After he poured the water out of his shoe, he decided to sample the clear water. Why, the fresh spring water seemed to have a very potent mineral taste but was very refreshing.

Word soon spread about the cold, invigorating water of the spring. The spring was cleaned out and it wasn’t long before folks from all around came to drink from it. They even carried jugs home and shared with their neighbors, bragging about how much better they felt after drinking the water.

As word spread about the spring and its seemingly healthy water, many affluent plantation owners began to build summer cottages around the spring and even a spa was added. Soon, with the rich farming soil in the area, plantations began to spring up and the little town grew.

As the little town, known then as Mineral Springs, grew, its name was changed to Blenheim in honor of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, England. 

In the late 1800s, a local doctor by the name of C.R. May saw that water from the artesian spring seemed to help relieve the stomach pains of some of his patients. Most patients said the water worked but had an iron-like smell and the bad taste of mineral water. 

To solve the taste problem, Dr. May added Jamaican ginger, sugar water, and other secret ingredients to the foul-tasting mineral water. Why, the locals started drinking the doctor’s concoction whether they were sick or not. This, my friends, was the beginning of the now-famous ginger drink called Blenheim Ginger Ale.

In 1903, Dr. May and A.J. Matheson started their first bottling company right there where the first original spring was located. Their first drink was called Original Extra Pale and was just sold locally. Why, at first, the old plant only produced as little as 18 to 20 cases a day.


Time went on and the little bottling plant grew and even had a small museum at the location.

Back in the day, I still remember my granddaddy, when he went to sell his tobacco in Dillon, would bring back a case of what they called Blenheim Hot Ginger Ale. He would pour me a small glass out of the dark brown bottle and wait for my reaction. I would take a small taste and it wasn’t bad, but as soon as I took a big swallow it felt like I had about three fireballs in my mouth at the same time. I was not a big fan of the hot ginger ale. 

Later, in 1993, the business and recipe were sold by the family heirs to the Schafer family, who were the ones that owned the South of the Border complex near Dillon, South Carolina.

Finding that the old plant was too small to produce the volume of drinks that was needed, they built a bigger, more modern plant in the little town of Hamer, which is not far from Dillon. Sales started booming and the bottled ginger ale was shipped all over the states and to some foreign countries. The new owners tried their best to keep the same downhome character and flavor of the old original drink.

Today, the company has three versions of ginger ale for its loyal customers.

First, they have a drink they call Old #3 (hot). It comes in a clear 12-ounce bottle and has a pinkish-red bottle cap. If you like it hot, this is definitely the way to go. Why, it will immediately get the attention of your taste buds. It’s something like having a small firecracker go off in your mouth.

Second, they have a milder version called #5 and it comes with a gold top. It still has a powerful taste of hot ginger but it goes down a little smoother.

Third, there is their diet ginger ale with a white cap. You have the same taste but made with less sugar for the health-conscious folks. 

At one time, they made a healthful refreshing root beer but they are hard to come by in this day and time.

Blenheim Ginger Ale comes in a six-pack with 12-ounce clear bottles. You may be able to find it at a convenience store or even at a hardware store.

So, if’n you have a stomach ailment or just have a craving for a refreshing drink of spicy hot ginger ale, you might just want to pick up a bottle of this downhome Southern tradition called Blenheim Ginger Ale.

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released his new book, “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Contact him at ja@jabolton.com.


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