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April 19, 2015

Last week I learned something from my students at the University of South Carolina Upstate. Students and teachers often have a bottled drink in the classroom. I try to always have water, especially during allergy seasons.

Last Monday before my New Testament class I asked, “What is the difference between Diet Coca-Cola and Coke Zero?”

None of us knew the answer.

Here’s what I discovered later on the internet. The only real difference between the two drinks is in the proportions of the ingredients, which actually give different flavor profiles. The reason for two different products is a marketing decision. The Coca-Cola Company believes that men are more reluctant to buy Diet Coke because the word diet is associated with women. Coke Zero has been produced to appeal to men.

As a boy Coca-Cola was my favorite soft drink. Other than cold water, Coke was the only cold soft drink available at the lumberyard. I remember sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck swilling a bottle of ice cold Coke. A favorite pastime was to look on the bottom of the glass bottle to see where the drink originated. The person with the bottle mark that was furthest away was the winner. The reward might just be a free Coke next time.

My grandmother Hudson, Granny to me, kept cold Pepsi-Colas in her refrigerator for me. I would walk to her home after school at Jenkins Junior High, sit on her front porch, and sip a Pepsi.

Southern Living magazine featured an article on soft drinks in the South in June 2002. “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.”

A number of carbonated soft drinks were developed in the South. Coca-Cola originated in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. Pepper hails from Waco, Texas. Pepsi-Cola is the drink from New Bern, North Carolina. Some of the South’s finest fizzy drinks 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 venues below the Mason-Dixon Line.

My mother loved Coca-Colas more than any person I ever knew, unless she was pregnant, which was often. I remember Mama 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 days of early 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 bubbly drink is a home remedy to relieve upset stomachs and to soothe coughs and sore throats. And, according to Mama, it was the treatment of choice for morning sickness.

Ginger beer, a strongly flavored fermented product appeared in the British Isles in the 1700s. Ginger ale is a refinement of ginger beer and 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 bootlegged 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 into military service 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. It was golden ginger ale. Vernor declared it “Deliciously different,” which remains the drink’s motto to this day. Along with Hires Root Beer, Vernors ginger ale shares the title of America’s oldest surviving soft drink.

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 his 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 bottling works is housed today in a building that 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. If you’re looking for a fizzy non-alcoholic drink that will warm your soul, look no further than Blenheim Ginger Ale. The fiery elixir is bottled only in glass, 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 your vision, and remove tattoos. The spicy ginger ale is used by some small Southern town jails to sober up the town drunks.

Whenever I pop the top off a #9 Diet Bleheim, Clare begins sneezing. Pour this golden drink over ice and swill or sip 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 folks 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.

It’s definitely not your mama’s ginger ale.

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