Thursday, October 1, 2015

After 36 Years, Brown-Forman to Part Ways with Southern Comfort

Janis Joplin was a fan.

Although no one at Brown-Forman has confirmed it, neither have they denied the widely-reported story that the company would like to sell Southern Comfort and Chambord, both liqueurs.

I worked on Southern Comfort for several years in the early 1980s.

When Brown-Forman bought Southern Comfort in 1979 it actually bought two companies. One made the proprietary flavoring concentrate and owned the secret recipe for it, the other bought the concentrate (made in Puerto Rico), combined it with sugar, water, and neutral spirit, and bottled it. That took place at a factory in St. Louis.

Southern Comfort had its origins in New Orleans in the 1870s. It was created by Martin Wilkes Heron, a saloon keeper, as a way to make the rough corn whiskey being shipped downriver from Kentucky and other frontier states into something that more closely resembled Cognac. French wood-aged brandy was considered the epitome of fine spirits in the Crescent City.

Heron moved around, ultimately settling in St. Louis, where he made and sold Southern Comfort until Prohibition. He then gave the worthless company to an employee, Grant Peoples, who sold the rights to Francis Fowler. Fowler then largely recreated the recipe in his basement.

Fowler’s product did okay until the late 1960s, when it was adopted by singer Janis Joplin. Sales exploded. Fowler was so pleased he contacted Joplin and asked if she wanted anything. She asked for a fur coat, which he sent immediately.

At 50% ABV, with an amber color, in a clear bottle, Southern Comfort looked a lot like bourbon and surveys showed that more than half of Southern Comfort’s consumers thought it was. No one tried to disabuse them of that notion.

Brown-Forman enters the picture in 1979. I enter it in 1982. Brown-Forman typically manages its major acquisitions from a distance. It doesn’t fix things that aren’t broken. By 1982, they finally had their own brand management team, led by David Higgins, in charge and they were planning to close the factory in St. Louis and move production to Louisville, where Brown-Forman is headquartered.

I was employed by a Louisville sales promotion agency. Brown-Forman was one of our main clients. 

I was assigned to the team that would bring Southern Comfort into the Brown-Forman fold. If three years seems like a long time in which to do something like that, it took Brown-Forman about 30 years to fully integrate Jack Daniel’s into the company and, of course, they kept production where it was.

From the 1950s, Southern Comfort had a tradition of printing small recipe booklets which were given away free at retail and also bound into major magazines. We continued that practice, typically doing four unique books per year. They were about half drink recipes and half food recipes. I developed the themes, helped invent some of the drinks, and wrote all of the copy. All of the design, photography, and food styling was done in-house as well. My legacy is the theme ‘Comfort and Joy’ for Christmas promotions.

The Southern Comfort drinker always skewed young, sometimes problematically so. We joked that most consumers had tried it, had a bad experience, and rejected it before they were old enough to drink it legally.

I left that agency in 1986 and left Louisville for Chicago in 1987. Because of my interest and involvement in the bourbon business after about 1991, I stayed in touch with Brown-Forman and kept my eye on Southern Comfort. It had many good years but has been slipping lately. There’s still a market for sweet ersatz whiskey – look at Fireball – but Southern Comfort has become old news. Maybe a new owner can find a way to revive it.

If any of this makes you want to sample the stuff, get the original (not one of the flavored line extensions) and make either a Scarlett O’Hara or a Dry Manhattan.

Scarlett O’Hara, From Antoine’s, New Orleans.
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
Cranberry juice cocktail.
Wedge of fresh lime.
Pour Southern Comfort over ice cubes, fill glass with cranberry juice cocktail. Squeeze in juice from the lime wedge and add the wedge.

Comfort Dry Manhattan
1 ½ oz. Southern Comfort.
½ oz. dry vermouth.
Dash of Angostura bitters
Pour ingredients over ice in short glass. Add a cherry.

UPDATE: Sazerac did indeed buy Southern Comfort in January, 2016.


Anonymous said...

I worked on Southern Comfort too, a couple times in college, but the papers I wrote just didn't make any sense when I reread them in the morning.

Doctor Tarr said...

I was of legal drinking age when I had my bad Southern Comfort experience, but only because eighteen was the age limit at the time.

Alcohol has never made me sicker, and it was years before I could look at the bottle and not feel queasy. I have not had another drop of it in the thirty-seven years since.

GMS said...

Southern Comfort snooters (filling the cap and snorting it) pretty much ruined this for me. Now I only do that sort of thing with BTAC or 4R OEs.

Crown Point Marc said...

Crikey man. You should talk to someone 'bout that.

Anonymous said...

I learned to drink Southern Comfort from my father while I was still "a bit" underage back in the '60s. I still keep a bottle around for an occasional Friday night Perfect Manhattan (add 1/2 oz sweet vermouth to Chuck's recipe and substitute a twist of lemon for the cherry) but can only find it now at a much lower proof than the 100 proof i grew up with.

Unknown said...

I have a southern comfort riverboat mirror that the mail copyright is in Louisville KY instead of wherever else on the mirror. Would you have any idea how old it might be.

Chuck Cowdery said...

No earlier than 1979.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Re-reading this many years later, I'm reminded of one of my first Southern Comfort business meetings. It was a 'retreat' that took place at a private park near St. Louis that Southern Comfort maintained for its employees. Obviously, when Brown-Forman ended the St. Louis operation, there were no more employees, but I wonder what happened to that park.

Anonymous said...

Great article. I am a big fan and collector of Southern Comfort and promotional advertisements. I have a ridiculous collection, including the pieces that you mentioned creating. My range of pieces is from the 60's to current, including multiple pieces from Australia and the UK. The rare items are even better. If you have any rare pieces you think I might be interested in, reach out. I have a collection of Riverboat Poker boxes that will wow you. I'd be interested in any rare pieces you may have and would be willing to show you my unparalleled collection.

Sincerely, Dave Johnson
Lafayette, La 70508