Carolina Elixir

August 2015
Written By: 
Hastings Hensel
Photographs by: 
Scott Smallin
The history and resurgence of locally brewed Blenheim Ginger Ale

Before the craze of energy drinks, vitamin waters, kombucha teas, coconut waters, raw beet juices, chia seed drinks and protein shakes, there was ginger ale. For folks seeking a liquid cure to their most common ailments—seasonal colds, stomach aches, hangovers—nothing beats the combination of spice, sweetness and carbonation that is ginger ale.  
And for South Carolinians, for the past century, that ginger ale has been Blenheim Ginger Ale—hot, regular or diet—always to be found in clear glass bottles, usually in filling stations on the kinds of back roads that lead to the Grand Strand. You may have even seen the signs yourself—the starred signs that read, in old Germanic font, “We Sell Blenheim Ginger Ale.” And you may have even tried a bottle, wondering why it didn’t taste much like Schweppes or Canada Dry.  

“In my opinion, it’s the only ginger ale that tastes like ginger ale,” says Kenny Cook, the Blenheim Ginger Ale plant manager. “Ours is more like an elixir than a drink.”

Such was the same feeling James Spears had over two centuries ago when in 1781—while running from Tory troops in the Revolutionary War—he lost his shoe in a watering hole. Upon retrieval of the footwear, Mr. Spears sampled the water, noting a strong mineral content, and from there the town of Blenheim, well, sprang.

But the Blenheim Bottling Company didn’t exist until 1903, when a local doctor, Dr. C.R. May, tossed in a little Jamaican Ginger to suppress the strong mineral flavor for his stomach-ailing patients.
Ninety years later, with the company falling on hard times, in stepped Mr. Alan Schafer, the mastermind of the I-95 tourist attraction South of the Border.

“He took over a company that had a very strong heritage in our neighborhood and our area, and he just ran with it,” says Cook. “He already owned a distributing company, and it was a dream of his to own a bottling plant someday. He was a very smart man. He wasn’t going to jump into anything without knowing it would make it.”

Indeed, despite the fact that the bottle’s labeling suggests an authentic, down-home, rural brewing process, all Blenheim Ginger Ale gets brewed, bottled and shipped out of a warehouse plant in South of the Border, behind Porky’s Truck Stop and across the street from The Peddler Steakhouse and Fort Pedro.

There’s something oddly beautiful about that fact to me. When I find myself, after visiting the plant, browsing the cheap kitsch in Mexico Shop East (backscratchers, shot glasses, toys from the 1980s I didn’t know still existed) and getting suckered into buying a T-shirt, it dawns on me that this is the modern South—a mix of the new and the old, of the transient and the lasting.

“We are still one of the oldest bottling companies in America that has been consistently bottling since 1903,” Cook says. “And we’re independent. But we still produce really small—1,500–1,600 cases a day—whereas a high-speed bottling plant can produce two or three million cases a shift.”

In a long rectangular room behind his sparsely decorated office (a few bottles of ginger ale, a few plaques of local baseball teams), Cook shows me the bottling machinery and how it all works. The process is no different than it was done throughout the 20th century, only now with machines providing the power rather than hand-cranking men. The empty bottles get picked up from the conveyor belt by the case lifter, sanitized by the rinser, filled and pressurized by the filler, crowned with caps, coded, cased and finally—by humans at this stage—packaged and distributed.

In a side room stands the blend tank, which can hold up to 2,200 gallons of Blenheim Ginger Ale at a time—a mix of two types of ginger extract, pepper spice, pure sugar, citric acids, sodium benzoate, and other ingredients.

“We use only the best ingredients, only the best sugar,” says Cook. “So it’s very pricey to make our product. By the time you work the machines, by the time you pay for ingredients, by the time you pay employees, there’s not much of a gap for profit in there. So it’s not economically wise to build a $6 million plant.”

He goes on: “We try to pay top dollar for our ingredients so our product can compete with bigger companies. You can have scientists help you build a good ginger ale, but your heritage takes you the rest of the way.”

Much of that heritage is in the most important ingredient, and what to some may seem like the simplest—the water.

At South of the Border, Schafer and his team drilled down 385 feet to hit an artisanal spring, from which today they triple-filter the water.

“They actually still own the original spring, too,” Cook tells me. “It’s just that the building burned down and the water got nasty.”

This information, however, does not deter me. Like many people these days, I’ve noticed a resurgence in Blenheim Ginger Ale, especially in the cocktail world. I’ve found it’s even better than ginger beer to mix in a Moscow Mule (with vodka) or a Dark n’ Stormy (with rum). So I wanted to taste the original spring water for myself, seeking as much authenticity as possible.

I drive the half-hour from South of the Border to Blenheim, where it isn’t hard to find the spring. No one is around. I step out of the car and into the heat, where it is nearly silent, save for the trickling water. The burned-out building, riddled with climbing vines, stands above the spring like some great monument to times past. I reach down, like James Spears did 234 years ago, and cup my hands, thinking of a line by Robert Frost: “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.”

But the water tastes like mercury. I spit it out. It needs a little ginger. It needs over a century of tinkering and perfecting for it to taste as good as the cold bottle I buy in the gas station on the ride home.