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Spice World

Notes on the South’s deadliest ginger ale

Blenheim Ginger Ale

In the fall of 1999, I was a sophomore at a small Baptist college in Jackson, Tennessee, at that time a town of sixty thousand people, big enough to support two movie theaters but far too small to sustain an alternative food culture worth its artisanal salt. Chain restaurants were everywhere, out-shouting one another on television and testing the limits of civic courtesy with their towering, imploring billboards. Rumors were heard of a Wild Oats in Nashville, two hours to the east, but few in my crowd had the means, or the worldliness, to verify its existence. We lived on dorm-cooked pasta, Krystal burgers, the charity of girlfriends. We drank original Coke—on ice, if we could get it.

Into that vacuum stepped Tim, my friend and mentor in a new faith—in chicken fried on the wrong side of town, dive joint barbecue, and, most enticingly, exotic soft drinks. Several years my senior, Tim was the Obi-Wan to my Luke Skywalker, the Apostle Philip to my Ethiopian eunuch. He knew about and could get his hands on Vernors, Ale-8-One, Dr. Enuf. He drank Cheerwine like water, while I had barely heard of Mr. Pibb.

But I was game. Boy, was I. What had begun my freshman year as a mere seed—a nagging sense of something absent from the palate—was swiftly blooming into obsession. In grocery stores, gas stations, convenience marts, I checked the drink aisle first, in search of something new, something handmade, preferably in small batches. I lingered in the Goya section at Walmart, roamed the floor at Big Lots looking for closeout Clearly Canadians. By the time Tim hosted his soft drink tasting party near the end of the term, I was an utter stranger to the campus soda machines with their six paltry options. I was a man without a beverage. And I was damn thirsty.

Reader, picture a dry campus in the semi-rural South. Then imagine the Holy Dove descending upon the quad, a purity ring in its beak. Only now can you begin to understand the excitement caused by this party. Walking across campus to Tim’s apartment on the appointed evening, I found myself taking long strides, a fizz in my step. The location was part of the thrill: married-student housing, where Tim lived with his wife, Joy, was a redoubt of relative comfort and lawlessness on our starched and Bibled campus. Unlike the rest of us, married students had no curfew, no gates or walls. Their university-issued furniture, while still essentially Soviet in quality, was nevertheless a step above everyone else’s: premier- rather than apparatchik-grade. Most importantly, married students enjoyed sanctioned, fully accredited sex. That Tim, a religion major and future divinity student, had entered into so heavenly an estate only increased the party’s draw. For any number of reasons, I wanted whatever this guy was drinking.

And he was drinking well. Looking back, I can still see the bottles that greeted guests as they arrived, the miniature plastic cups arranged like a massive, inverted shell game—samples of Vernors and Ale-8-Ones, yes, but also Boylans, Thomas Kempers, Skis, Stewarts. Though root beers and fruit sodas were represented, ginger ales predominated, and we lined them up and tasted them like fine wines. Vernors was sweet, perhaps excessively carbonated. Boylan was pale and, consumed alongside its cousins, largely flavorless. Stewart’s ginger beer, now sadly discontinued, was redolent of brine and pepper. And at the end of the line—in memory, the crowd falls silent as I make my way to it—there stood an altogether different class of bottle: clear, discreetly labeled, its contents the color of Bronze Age fossils. This was Blenheim, a new discovery. Fearless, I poured a shot and tossed it back. It was a good thirty seconds before I managed to stop coughing.

The Blenheim Ginger Ale Company has been bottling since 1903, the third year of Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency. Blenheim is older than the SOS signal, the Trans-Siberian railway, Pablo Neruda. Its creation predates by nearly two decades the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Americans working on the Panama Canal probably didn’t drink it, but they could have.

For its first ninety years, Blenheim was made and sold in Marlboro County, South Carolina, a jagged puzzle piece on the state’s northern border. Named for the town where it was born—itself named for Blenheim Palace, built by the 1st Duke of Marlborough and, eight generations later, the birthplace of Winston Churchill—Blenheim was the result of a Carolina doctor’s scheme to veil the taste of the mineral water he prescribed for stomach cramps. Though the bottling operation moved a county over in the mid-’90s (landing at the South of the Border Tourist Complex in Hamer, Dillon County), the ingredients used today are ostensibly the same as in 1903: sugar, water, and a healthy dose of secrets. Among its many charms—including a video tour of the manufacturing plant that feels, in both its production values and soundtrack, strikingly like porn—the Blenheim website makes opaque references to the “fiery soul” of ginger. Beyond that, we’re left to guess.

Not that it really matters. At its spiciest (both “hot” and “not as hot” versions are available; Tim’s party featured hot), Blenheim is the kind of existential culinary experience that leaves no room for questions. To drink it in less than ideal circumstances—after a poor night’s sleep, for example, or in an imperfect state of concentration—is to invite an aggressive physical reaction, and not just coughing. The sinuses buzz and start. The eyes pour water. The urge to sit is palpable. Taken correctly, on the other hand—with bread and a deep breath—Blenheim feels at times like a religious experience: ginger ale as transubstantiation, ginger ale as social justice. If that first swallow was rough going, well, of course it was.

More than a decade since my first sip, Blenheim has become something of an emotional lodestone for me, a reminder of the happy past. Like a well-tuned piano, it makes much out of disparate elements: spice, naturally, but a separate acidity, too, accompanied by the barest hint of tartness. Even the bottle feels exactly right: thick and weighty, substantial—as if to protect the contents, or the drinker. I still choke up sometimes when I sip it, but mostly now on purpose.

A few years after the tasting party, I was a graduate student at New York University, a Southern boy lost in almost every sense of the word. Pining for home, or some piece of it, I tracked down a Blenheim distributor in Chelsea, determined to buy as many bottles as they would sell me. An hour later, hauling my purchase onto the subway, I caught the eye of a fellow passenger, a homeless man with a gentle, almost childish face. His eyes were wide with disapproval as he told me, “Boy, you shouldn’t nearly drink so much.”

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