Saturday, April 13, 2013

What Is Southern Comfort, Anyway?

Southern Comfort, 'SoCo' to many, traces its origins to New Orleans in 1874. My personal history with the product, like most people, began when I was shy of legal drinking age and it ended badly.

In adulthood, Southern Comfort became part of my job. Brown-Forman bought Southern Comfort (the whole company, not just the brand) in 1979. I was working for a Brown-Forman marketing agency and was part of the team that brought the brand into the Brown-Forman fold. I worked on it for the next six years. Among other things, I wrote all of the Southern Comfort Recipe Books during that period. They distributed about 10 million of them four times a year, so that's probably the most widely circulated work of mine.

Part of the strategy Brown-Forman inherited from the previous owner was to position Southern Comfort as if it were a whiskey, even though it was clearly labeled as a liqueur. It was the right color and proof (50% ABV then), and maybe tasted a little like bourbon, if you only vaguely knew what bourbon tasted like.

Sales people were encouraged to place it in the whiskey section of liquor stores and with other whiskeys on back bars. Many of the cocktail recipes we repeated from recipe book to recipe book were whiskey recipes, in which Southern Comfort was substituted for whiskey. We always said you could substitute it for any whiskey, but it most closely resembled bourbon.

One of the best cocktails was the Comfort Dry Manhattan, not that any drink made with Southern Comfort can truly be considered dry. It consists of 1 jigger (1½ oz.) of Southern Comfort and ½ oz. dry vermouth. Pour the ingredients over ice in a short glass; stir, and add olive(s) or a twist of lemon. That's how they published it but olives, I can tell you, are terrible in it. Cherries are okay. The lemon twist also good.

So what is Southern Comfort? When Brown-Forman acquired the company in 1979, it was a 100% grain neutral spirit (GNS) base, i.e., vodka. A few years after my tenure, they reformulated it to contain a little bit of bourbon, I guess so they could call it a whiskey liqueur, rather than just a liqueur.

Apparently, although no one will give me the details, they reverted back to 100% GNS a few years after that and that's what it is now.

The ingredients are mixed together and bottled at Brown-Forman in Louisville. The GNS comes from some GNS supplier like MGP or ADM, the fruit concentrate (mostly apricot) is made at a Brown-Forman facility in Puerto Rico, and the final ingredient is sugar.

I remember being in the room one time when they were bottling it. It goes through a filtration system and after a while, the filter module looks like a honey comb, with sugar syrup oozing out of it at every opportunity. SoCo is very sweet.

I didn't come up with the 'SoCo' nickname. That was after my time. My most noteworthy accomplishment was being the first to use "Comfort and Joy" as a Christmas-theme headline for the brand.

If you know your American whiskey history, compound or 'fake' whiskeys were a big problem pre-Prohibition. You might want to consider Southern Comfort as history's most successful compound or 'fake' whiskey. They didn't call it whiskey, of course. They called it "The Grand Old Drink of the South." They (we) just implied that it was whiskey.

Another funny thing about Southern Comfort, it never sold that well in the South. When I was working on the brand, its #1 state was New Jersey.


Anonymous said...

Richnimrod says;
Like you, Chuck my first experience with SoCo was way back in my early youth (pre-1965)... and also ended VERY badly. A cousin who somehow obtained a fifth suggested we go out in the weeds and drink it. (My first taste of strong drink.) We did. BAD idea. It was many, many years before I again tasted it. So very sweet! Makes a decent cocktail, if one likes a sweet/fruity cocktail.

Doctor Tarr said...

I was just barely of legal drinking age (eighteen), but it did end very badly. Just seeing a bottle of it made me queasy for years.

Anonymous said...

Same here - drank most of a fifth by myself one night (it was a long night - probably over the course of 6 hours) mixed with Mt. Dew - and sorely regretted it not too long after. Was years before I could even smell the stuff without feeling nauseous.

Nice write up on the history and what it is, because honestly - never really knew!

Anonymous said...

Mix with Southern Comfort with Cheerwine (a Carolina-region cherry soda) for a real sugar coma!

Dale Bronstein said...

Did Sothern Comfort really begin in New Orleans or was that just a marketing idea to make the brand more interesting, since it spent most of its life being produced in Saint Louis?

The brand was a goldmine during the WWII era, because of rationing and price controls. Ceiling prices on bourbon only allowed a 12% markup, but there was no limit on the margins on liqueurs.

The brand also had some major competition in the 30's with Publicker's Plantation brand heavily advertized aand with a lot of immitations from rectifiers then and later.

Inerestingly, it always commanded a premium price and sold for more that 8 year old bonded whiskey in the 50s and 60s.

Not much was said about the actual makeup of the product at that time, but we were told that its base was peach brandy. Was that ever the case?

Chuck Cowdery said...

The origin story is true as far as I've been able to determine. It never contained peach brandy, but the main fruit used in the flavoring concentrate is apricot. Thanks for adding to the story, Dale.

Anonymous said...

When ifirst moved to St Louis I was told that Southern Comfort was, at one time, bottled in St louis but can find no confirmation of this. Is it trueand

Chuck Cowdery said...

Southern Comfort was made in St. Louis until it was acquired by Brown-Forman in 1979.

Anonymous said...

Although many think of SoCo as a cheap or starter drink of youth and denigrate it, my late orthodox Jewish grandfather used to drink a single shot as a nightcap before going to bed, well into his 90's. Apparently it was popular among elderly Jews of the time (1930-40 or thereabouts) from Eastern Europe who lived in lower Manhattan, and who took it very much in moderation. I, myself am 82 and occasionally follow the tradition of my Zayda. I can see where the sweetness can be complicating in excess, but a single shot is actually very pleasant.

Unknown said...

Soco and cherry coke for me as a nite cap I luv the stuff lol I know I don't know alotta history on it but slowly trying to learn but I do luv all the great info I've learned on it thru here hell I thought the flavor profile was oranges and cherry tell u truth didn't know the main flavor was apricot

Anonymous said...

First tried it in Mint Juleps. Someone told me it was too sweet for a julep, but I thought it tasted fine. Later had it in a Long Island Iced Tea, too much of it, got sick, and went 30 years without a drop of alcohol because of it.

Anonymous said...

I am definitely not one for political correctness, so here goes: My first encounter with Southern Comfort was back in 1977 when I was about 13 years old and it was my first encounter with alcohol ever. I figured if it was good enough for Janis Joplin and Pigpen of the Grateful Dead as well, well then why not? I polished off a pint of the good ol' 100 proof libation and got pleasantly soused, to put it mildly, although the ensuing hangover the next day was nothing short of horrific. Never again, until the next time, of course. I always remember it being touted as peach flavored bourbon, but at the same time I always doubted that claim because why would it be caramel colored if that were true? Anyway, I am a 52 year old man now and to be quite honest I am still fond of it for what it is because I have always had a sweet tooth and I appreciate it as a classic American liqueur and feel that it should be marketed as such, without the ridiculously extortionate top shelf price and the corny modern day bottle design which I absolutely detest. They seriously need to bring back the old bottle design and The Grand Old Drink Of The South slogan, not to mention offer a choice between 86 or 100 proof, because the 70 proof permutation is way too syrupy and the 100 proof version these days is borderline over the top expensive as though it is in the same league as Drambuie or B&B or something of that particular class and although it really isn't I am always going to enjoy it just the same or my name ain't Tony Greco from New Jersey, no less. So much for anonymity I guess, folks... Cheers!

Chuck Cowdery said...

You're not alone, Tony. When I worked on the brand, New Jersey was their #1 market in terms of per capita sales.

Anonymous said...

In the late sixties, we used to buy a quart bottle of Raineer ale, which was very bitter, take one slug and fill the bottle back up with SoCo. We called it "Green Death". It did get us very drunk, but I never got sick on it.

Anonymous said...

That is so funny that NJ is where it was most popular! That’s where I grew up in the early 70’s and it was indeed the kids in our neighborhood’s fave. Always thought it was whiskey til today LOL. No wonder why I could still drink that after having my first experience with alcohol of downing half a bottle of Seagram’s at age 15.. talk about a near death experience- never touched it again for life, but Southern Comfort was just fine. Those were the days my friend!
Thanks for the article. 🙂

Anonymous said...

I have been enjoying SoCo since I was 14 (back in the early 80s). It's been a stable amongst my closest friends and has always been present at our gatherings.
In fact, we are all now sad to see it's recipe change and have all decided to move on to something else. Now that it's taste is closer to a whiskey, it has lost it's appeal for us. If we wanted to drink Jack Daniels, why would we drink SoCo instead? The new flavor more closely resembles a smokey tasting whiskey.
Why would someone buy a company for over $500 million, and then change the reciepe? Didn't anyone learn anything from Coke changing their formula?
So sad really.... None Genuine But Mine? Not anymore.