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September 15, 2008



I remember my mother having morning sickness. As the oldest of eight children, I was sometimes the person who tended to Mama when she was expecting another of my younger siblings.  Enduring those early days of pregnancy with an unsettled stomach called for frequent sips of something soothing. Mama’s preference was Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

Ginger ale occupies a unique niche in the soft drink market. While vending machines and soda fountains rarely contain ginger ale, the drink is a staple on supermarket shelves and on airplanes. Ginger ale is a standard tonic to prevent or alleviate motion sickness. The fizzy drink is a home remedy to relieve upset stomachs and to soothe coughs and sore throats.

Ginger beer, a strongly flavored fermented product appeared in the British Isles in the 1700’s. Ginger ale is a refinement of ginger beer.

Ginger ale comes in two varieties. – dry and golden. Golden ginger ale retains the strong flavor of ginger beer. Dry ginger ale was developed during Prohibition when ginger ale was used as a mixer for alcoholic beverages. Dry ginger ale quickly surpassed golden ginger ale in popularity. Canada Dry, Schweppes, and Seagram’s are major brands of dry ginger ale.

Golden ginger ale is less common. Originating in 1866, Vernors Ginger Ale was designed to resemble imported Irish ginger beers. Vernors Ginger Ale shares the title of America’s oldest soft drink with Hires Root Beer.

 In 1862, James Vernor, a Detroit pharmacist, was called to serve in the Civil War. The story goes that he left a mixture of ginger, vanilla, and spices in an oak cask in his pharmacy. After returning from the war four years later, he opened the keg and found the aging process in the oak wood had changed the drink inside. It was like nothing else he had ever tasted. He declared it “Deliciously different,” which remains the drink’s motto to this day.

In South Carolina, we have our own golden ginger ale. Blenheim Ginger Ale is an amber delight that has been around for more than 100 years.  It is manufactured in Hamer, South Carolina, in the oldest, smallest, and maybe the best, independent bottling company in America. Located next to the Blenheim Artesian Mineral Springs, the bottling plant remains today much as it was when it began production in 1903.

James Spears, a patriot who was trying to escape Tory troops, discovered the mineral springs in 1781 when he lost a shoe in a water hole. He returned to retrieve his shoe, tasted the water, and noticed its strong mineral content. Word of the spring spread and soon people were coming to taste the cool refreshing water. Several wealthy plantation owners built summer homes in the vicinity of the springs.

In the late 1800s Dr. C. R. May advised his patients with stomach problems to drink the mineral water. When these patients complained about the strong taste of the water, Dr. May added ginger to it.

In 1903, Dr. May and A. J. Matheson opened the Blenheim Bottling Company. The building which houses the bottling works today was constructed in 1920.

In the Carolinas, Blenheim ginger ale has attained legendary status, partly because it is hard to find. You won’t see a Blenheim machine standing next to those of other soft drinks.

            Southern Living magazine, June 2002, featured an article on soft drinks in the South.  “Southerners love fizz. What France is to wine, the South is to soft drinks. Like our personalities, our drinks are sweet, bubbly, and explosive if shaken up…. In most of the South, Coke is the word used when referring to anything cold and fizzy.”

            Coca-Cola originated in Columbus, Georgia. Dr Pepper hails from Waco, Texas. Pepsi-Cola is the drink from New Bern, North Carolina.

Some of the South’s finest have a distinctly local flavor. Sun-drop, an intense lemonade, is made in McMinnville, Tennessee. In the Volunteer State, it outsells Coca-cola five to one.

In Salisbury, North Carolina, if you ask which wine goes best with a barbeque sandwich, the answer will surely be Cheerwine.

Royal Crown Cola originated in Columbus, Georgia, a product of the Nehi Corporation. Affectionately known as RC, it is still being coupled with Moon Pies all over Dixie.

NuGrape and Grapette continue to wash down hot dogs in many places below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Bleheim Ginger Ale is bottled only in glass bottles, never in cans, assuring that it never has a metallic taste. It comes in four varieties: Old #3 Hot, #5 Not as Hot, #9 Diet, and #11 Ginger Beer.

Many health claims have been made for this ginger ale. In addition to the original prescription for stomach problems, some say it will cure sinus problems, clear vision, or remove tattoos. The spicy ginger ale is used by some small Southern town jails to sober up drunks.

Whenever I pop the top off a #9 Diet Bleheim, Clare sneezes. Pour this golden elixir over ice and swill slowly. You, too, will probably experience the most refreshing sneeze you have had in a long time.

The Old #3 is so hot and spicy that many gag and cough at the first sip. One fellow described it as being like a cold drink of kerosene or turpentine.

“The taste is hotter than the hinges of hell,” exclaimed another.

Admittedly, it is an acquired taste.

Definitely, it is not your mama’s ginger ale.


© Kirk H. Neely

September 2008


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