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“The first swallow brings on a four-sneeze fit. The second one clears out the sinuses and leaves the tongue and throat throbbing with prickly heat. John T. Edge, a food scholar with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, has compared it to ”a slap in the face from a spurned lover.” So wrote William Grimes of the New York Times of Blenheim Ginger Ale.

Blenheim Ginger Ale has been described as “the sweet-hot pride of South Carolina’ – a drink that “pulls no punches…with a feisty approach (that) has propelled it from modest regional fame to cult status”.

I first came across Blenheim back in the 1970’s courtesy of a Charles Kuralt “On the Road” segmnent.

At the time the soda was made in Blenheim by a staff of three in a building that didn’t have a telephone. The bottling equipment dated back to World War II.

It has been described as “the earliest, smallest and many say finest, independent soda bottling company in the United States of America”.

The beverage was created in the 1890’s by a doctor named May in Blenheim, S.C., who added Jamaica ginger and sugar to the local spring water and dispensed it as a tonic for dyspepsia. In 1903, Dr. May and a partner created the Blenheim Bottling Company.

And there it remained in Blenheim chugging along until 1993, when it was acquired by the company that owns the South of the Border amusement complex. The bottling plant left town and headed to the amusement park,  and the new owners developed a milder formula, known as No. 5, which is a shade lighter than the original and has a brass-colored bottle cap rather than a raspberry one.

Blenheim  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.

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.”

Today It is a bit easier to find Blenheim locally.  Sixpacks of the state’s native soft drink can, of course,  be found at South of the Border gift shop, but they are also available at select grocery stores, and at farmer’s markets, country stores, barber shops and even bluegrass pickin’ parlors.

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