Soda: I Love Blenheim Ginger Ale

Editor's Note: Please welcome former Serious Eats intern extraordinaire Jed Portman, who'll be chiming in on Tuesdays with musings on soda. Take it away, Jed!


[Photograph: Jed Portman]

There are the local sodas, or the niche sodas, that you drink because they're old and familiar, or new and unusual, and you like that. Then there are the small-time sodas that you drink because you actually like the flavor. And if they were to expand beyond their little production plants and two-state radii to billboards in Times Square, to the shelves of 7-11, to the lips of major celebrities in television ads—if everyone on Earth had a case in the kitchen and your allegiance no longer made any statement except that you were just like everyone else, you'd still drink them.

For me, South Carolina's Blenheim Ginger Ale is one of those sodas.

Unless you live in South Carolina, there's a good chance that you've never seen a bottle of Blenheim. The soda, bottled in the small town of Hamer, is notoriously elusive: until 1993, when it was purchased by the family that owns South of the Border, its makers would cease production to go on vacation.

It's a little bit easier to find now, but not much. Some people speculate that the factory purposefully withholds product to drive demand. The more likely reason for its rarity, though, is that the Blenheim Bottling Company is a genuinely small operation. That only encourages the addicts who will drive for hours and spend fortunes on shipping for just six or a dozen bottles of the golden brew.

Before you go looking, know this: not all Blenheim is created equal. There are three types, identified by the colors of their pry-off caps.

#9, with a white cap, is the diet ginger ale. The less said about it, the better.

#5, also known as "Not as Hot," is the original. The gold-capped soda is the first drink that doctor C. R. May devised from the iron-rich waters of Blenheim Springs, which May prescribed to patients with stomach problems, adding sugar and Jamaican ginger to ease its metallic flavor. He began bottling it in 1903. #5 is spicy for a ginger ale, but it has nothing on Old #3.

#3, with a pink cap, is the "Hot" Blenheim. To drink it is to punish the taste buds in a way that will be familiar to any masochistic chile-eater. It's straight-up fire-water. The heat unfurls in the sinuses as bottle approaches lips, building until it explodes into what I've heard called the "Blenheim sneeze." It stings the back of the throat on the first sip, and again with the next sip, and again, until the throat is raw and the mouth is pulsing with iron and ginger-edged heat.

There is a gentler side to #3, though, that's often overlooked. While iron is the flavor that lingers in a sore throat, even the spiciest member of the Blenheim family has at its foundation a syrupy sweetness that washes over the tongue as the heat fades away. At 41 grams per 12-oz bottle, Old #3 actually has more sugar than Coca-Cola.

What else is in Old #3? I'd love to know. The ingredients printed on the side of the bottle reveal almost nothing, and the recipe is a carefully-guarded secret. I like Charles Kelsey's theory that there could be "cayenne, or some other kind of chile" behind Old #3's kick, unfounded as that theory may be. If you know more, let's talk.

Whatever's in Blenheim, it belongs in booze—I've written about mixers before, and I will again, but I don't believe that any soft drink on earth is better in a cocktail. Fiery ginger ale pairs well with sweet spirits like rum and bourbon, of course, but Blenheim is just as good in a chilly glass of vodka. You can drink #3 (or, if you like it milder, #5) in a simple Dark and Stormy or in a multi-ingredient punch like the School House on the Rock at Charleston's Husk restaurant, which also uses Blenheim as an ingredient in soups and sauces. I've used it as a flavoring in ice cream to great effect—the spice plays on cold cream like brown sugar on bacon—and, with lime and spices, as a marinade for chicken, beef, and fish.

Since I drank my first bottle of Old #3 several years ago, I've been a fiery-tongued Blenheim evangelist. Once you've felt that burn, you see, it's hard to settle for the muddy colas and weak ginger ales that passed for soda before; there are second-bests, and things that you drink because Blenheim can be hard to find, but there's no equivalent.

That's why I'm beginning my residency as a Serious Eats soda writer with this piece, to exorcise my all-time favorite before I move on to the rest. There are lots of good sodas out there, but if you let yourself die without drinking a Blenheim Ginger Ale—and if you don't make the effort, you might!—you're missing something.

About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.