Saturday, April 13, 2013
What Is Southern Comfort, Anyway?
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.