Created as a dyspepsia remedy about 100 years ago, Blenheim ginger ale now thrives as a highly addictive, hard-to-find beverage with an impressive cult following (see blenheimshrine.com). Born in an era rife with flimflam tinctures, liniments, tonics, and elixirs, Blenheim’s purported medicinal qualities were attributed to its water source, an artesian mineral spring in Blenheim, South Carolina. Story goes the ginger and sugar masked the unpleasant taste of the water’s healthful minerals.
The object of desire these days is Blenheim’s “Old #3 Hot”, the company’s most piquant pop. (They also make a diet version, a ginger beer, and “#5 Not as Hot,” but get #3, the one with the red bottle cap.) Each sip of the brassy liquid provides a quick, flavorful ride fueled by unapologetic spiciness, mild sweetness, tight bubbles, and pleasant gingery goodness. The mini endorphin rush from the spice is a nice bonus too.
Most intriguing, though, is Old Hot’s heat, which doesn’t seem to come from the ginger, like it does in a strong ginger beer. Judging by the way the spice hits the back of your throat, Blenheim’s secret ingredient might very well be cayenne, or some other kind of chile. What, precisely, it is, we’ll never know: The recipe is a well-guarded secret. Whatever the source, it’s an agreeable heat, but one warning: When you bring the soda close to your mouth for a taste, do not breathe in. Its searing aroma can easily throw you into a coughing fit and make you sneeze.
Also, beware of becoming dependent, especially when you start using it in cocktails. Old Hot with bourbon, on the rocks with a twist, is downright habit-forming. And the worst thing about being hooked on Old Hot is its limited availability. While some say it’s hard to get simply because it’s a regional drink that comes off a small bottling line, true blenheads think that the company’s owners—the Schafer family (of South of the Border fame)—slow-drip production to keep people thirsty for more.
A former editor at Cook’s Illustrated, Charles Kelsey is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, Mass.