In the late 1800s, South Carolina Dr. C.R. May came up with a cure for stomach ailments that was fairly simple: Mix the local spring water with a good dose of Jamaican ginger (to mask the strong mineral taste of the water). The fiery concoction, called Blenheim Ginger Ale because of the location of the mineral spring (more on that in a minute), has helped generations of South Carolinians with digestive ailments.
It is now bottled-with a little sugar or sugar substitute and carbon dioxide mixed in-by the family that turned a Carolina state-line gas station into the tourist destination known as South of the Border.
Make no mistake: Blenheim Ginger Ale is not for the faint of heart (or taste buds). Some versions pack as much heat as any jalapeno dish. But for flavor, you won't find anything like it anywhere else. There are three different brews, all distinguished by numbers and the color on the cap. Old No. 3, with its red cap, is fiery. No. 5's gold cap is called "Not as Hot." And if you are watching your calories, check out the No. 9 Diet, under the white cap.
The bottling dates back to 1903 when demand grew for Dr. May's cure. The original plant was right next door to the Blenheim spring. It stayed there for more than 90 years, even after the Schafer family, who owned South of the Border, bought the Blenheim Bottling Co in 1993. Family members have said continuing the tradition of producing and bottling the traditional product is a "labor of love."
However, it became clear soon after buying the company that the small, dated plant next to the spring could never meet demand for the drink that was growing, thanks to a cult following and its use in "foodie" cocktails. One Southern food scholar has compared the taste to "a slap in the face from a spurned lover." It's now brewed at South of the Border in nearby Hamer.
Now, about that mineral spring. Legend has it that James Spears happened upon the spring as he was eluding Tory troops in 1781 and stepped in a water hole and lost his shoe. When he went back to get his shoe, he sipped some spring water and realized its strong mineral content. Folks came from the surrounding countryside to taste the naturally cold water and enjoy its healthful benefits. Plantation owners even built summer homes around the spring to take advantage of the steady supply of cool drinking water. You can stop by the spring, which is easily found in the Marlboro County town of Blenheim, off S.C. 381. The remains of the old bottling plant are next door and the spot is general quiet, offering visitors a respite from their travelers.
The South of the Border complex is the best place to buy the stuff as you are passing through South Carolina. Most major grocery stores here carry it too, or you can order it online from the company itself. You also can find it featured on bar and restaurant menus in New York City, San Francisco and watering holes in-between.
Enjoy it over ice, mixed with your favorite spirit or over ice cream or sherbet, which helps ease the heat a bit. It is sold only in 12-ounce glass bottles.
Here are a few of our favorite ways to enjoy Blenheim Ginger Ale:
2 oz. Irish whisky
2 oz. Blenheim Ginger Ale
½ oz. peach schnapps
Splash of orange juice
Pour Irish whisky, peach schnapps and orange juice into a tall glass with ice. Finish with Blenheim Ginger Ale and garnish with a "wheel" of lime.
The El Diablo
Half a lime
2 oz. reposado* tequila
1/2 oz. creme de cassis
Good Ole Blenheim Ginger Ale - Your favorite flavor
Squeeze half lime into a highball glass and then drop the spent half into the glass. Pack with cracked ice and then add the tequila and crème de cassis. Stir gently. Top with Blenheim ginger ale and enjoy responsibly.
*Reposado tequila has been aged in oak barrels for up to a year. Since it doesn't have the kick of white tequila, you can turn up the heat on your ginger ale and go with the Old No. 3 Hot with the Red Cap.
Having trouble finding ginger beer and want a Moscow Mule?
1-1/4 oz. Smirnoff vodka
3 oz. Blenheim Ginger Ale (Old No. 3 works best here)
1 tsp. sugar syrup (equal parts water and sugar melted together)
1/4 oz. lime juice
1 sprig mint
1 lime wedge
In a cocktail glass, pour vodka over crushed ice. Add sugar syrup and lime juice. Top with your favorite Blenheim Ginger Ale and stir. Garnish with mint sprig and lime wedge.
Forget Fred and Ginger and try the Jim and Ginger
1.5 oz. Jim Beam whisky
Squeeze of an orange wedge
Blenheim Ginger Ale
Mix the whisky and orange juice, top with your favorite flavor of Blenheim Ginger Ale, perhaps the No. 9 Diet under the white cap, light with a bite.
Try this variation on the classic Dark and Stormy cocktail, the Light and Stormy
1½ oz. rum
Juice from 1 lime (about 1.5 oz.)
6-8 oz. Blenheim Old #3 in the Red Cap
Fill a highball glass 3/4 with ice. Combine all ingredients and stir. Garnish with a lime wedge.
For the kids
Half glass of Blenheim Ginger Ale, try No. 5 Not as Hot in the Gold Cap
Add scoop of vanilla ice cream
Top off with ginger ale.
Ginger lime sherbet punch
2 quarts lime sherbet
6 bottles Blenheim #5 Not as Hot Ginger Ale
46 oz. pineapple juice
In a punch bowl, add 2 quarts of lime sherbet. Then add the Blenheim Ginger Ale and pineapple juice. Decorate with the lemon and lime slices, and then top with the cherries.