Janis a mixed blessing for Southern Comfort

“… two movie stubs, a pack of cigarettes, an antique cigarette holder, several motel and hotel room keys, a box of Kleenex, a compact and various makeup cases (in addition to a bunch of eyebrow pencils held together with a rubber band), an address book, dozens of bits of paper, business cards, match box covers with phone numbers written in near-legible barroom scrawls, guitar picks, a bottle of Southern Comfort (empty), a hip flask, an opened package of complementary macadamia nuts from American Airlines, cassettes of Johnny Cash and Otis Redding, gum, sunglasses, credit cards, aspirin, assorted pens and writing pad, a corkscrew, an alarm clock, a copy of Time, and two hefty books - Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.”

  • the contents of Janis Joplin’s purse in the summer of 1970, reported by David Dalton in his 1972 book Piece of My Heart

“I tell all the performers I meet to drink Southern Comfort because it preserves their voices. It’s just an excuse for my own drinking.”

  • Janis Joplin to journalist Mike Jahn, 1968

It seems odd that there is no mention of Janis Joplin in the historical time that Southern Comfort presents on its website, though the legend is that the singer just about single-handedly saved the company from going under in the late 1960s.

The story goes that Southern Comfort was so thrilled by the blues singer’s unsolicited endorsements - Joplin was photographed dozens of times with the company’s product in her hand, and she alluded it to it in countless interviews - that they gifted her with a Russian Lynx coat that cost $5,000 in 1969 dollars.

The truth - or at least Joplin’s version - is a little different.

“I had the chick in my manager’s office photostat every g * * * * * n clipping that ever had me mentioning Southern Comfort, and I sent them to the company, and they sent me a whole lotta money,” Joplin’s sister Laura Joplin quoted her as saying in Love, Janis. “How could anybody in their right mind want me for their image? Oh, man, that was the best hustle I ever pulled - can you imagine getting paid for passing out for two years?”

The company also arranged for Janis to visit a furrier’s warehouse in New York, where she pawed through the stock and selected the coat.

But still, even if Joplin did the asking, you might think the Southern Comfort people would appreciate the association. But then, think again: It wasn’t long after she picked out that coat that Joplin died, on Oct. 4, 1970. While the official cause of death was heroin overdose, Joplin had been drinking the day she injected that fatal dose. It’s said she’d been smack-free for about six months before scoring what may have been an unusually potent dose of the drug. The story is that her Los Angeles dealer, who normally relied on a professional chemist to cut his drug, bungled this batch himself, selling Joplin and seven or eight other customers heroin that was nearly 80 percent pure. (There were a lot of O.D.s in Los Angeles that week.)

Maybe Southern Comfort still feels uncomfortable, 43 years later, about the way Joplin met her demise. Maybe that’s why their timeline doesn’t reflect that anything significant happened in company history between 1958 and 1973 - when “Australian fans took Southern Comfort to #1 … (Thanks Aussies).” Maybe they feel just a little weird that one of their biggest supporters met such a sad end. Corporations are immortal, but not invulnerable. They’ve nothing to do with the blues or with unauthorized legends.

The authorized legend is that Southern Comfort liqueur was born in New Orleans in 1874 at McCauley’s Tavern, which allegedly sat at “the corner of St. Peter and Richard streets” in the French Quarter, an intersection that never existed. The mixologist and writer Phil Greene has persuasively argued that McCauley’s was located at South Peters and Richard streets in what is now a warehouse district near the Irish Channel. So Southern Comfort may not have been born in the French Quarter after all.

The concoction was allegedly created by an itinerant bartender named Martin Wilkes Heron, who, while working at McCauley’s, added vanilla, lemon, cinnamon, cloves, cherries, some orange, honey and probably other stuff to civilize the raw bourbon the saloon was serving. This drink became known first as Cuffs and Buttons. It became Southern Comfort sometime before the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair, where the drink was named “The Grand Old Drink of the South.”

Heron moved to Memphis in 1889, taking his “secret” recipe with him. Operating out of his own Beale Street bar, he patented the drink and, by 1900, he was marketing it with the advisory “None genuine but mine.” Soon the production and sales of Southern Comfort became more important than barkeeping, so Heron moved to St. Louis in time for the 1904 World’s Fair, where the St. Louis Cocktail was born. (Basically two parts SoCo and two parts brandy to one part peach syrup.)

Heron died in 1920, three months to the day after Prohibition went into effect. Before he died, he passed his secret recipe to a colleague. When Prohibition ended, Southern Comfort staged a strong comeback. The liqueur’s popularity may have peaked in 1939 when the Scarlett O’Hara cocktail ( SoCo, cranberry juice, club soda and lime) enjoyed a vogue.

Recent years have seen a revision of the iconic label - “The fine detailing on the label that we had been using … didn’t translate well into the 64 x 64 pixel image needed for social media like Facebook and Twitter,” Mike Isaac, the brand’s assistant vice president and global marketing director, explained to industrytoday.com - and a major change in Heron’s formula. Today’s Southern Comfort doesn’t contain bourbon or whiskey; it has neutral spirits and whiskey flavoring. (Southern Comfort Special Reserve, a premium, 80 proof version sold mostly in duty-free shops, which is based on 6-year-old bourbon, is probably close to what Joplin drank in the ’60s.) There’s also a 100 proof version that’s probably the closest thing to what Heron cooked up in the 19th century and the standard 70 proof version. There’s more: a black cherry variant, lemonade and Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, co-branded by Tabasco. (They might have discontinued this one, though you can still find it in local liquor shops.)

For my own particular jaded tastes, Southern Comfort is a trifle sweet, though it’s not added sugar that makes it so. I can find plenty of uses for it. I’ve used the black cherry to flavor Manhattans and it’s not bad, but you shouldn’t make the common mistake of thinking Southern Comfort is just easy drinking whiskey. It’s an entirely different beast, a little floral with a medium body and a sweet finish.

And, like Janis said, it’s good for your throat.


Pour one part Southern Comfort, one part amaretto and one part sloe gin into a highball glass filled with ice. Top with orange juice. Sip. Roll Tide.

E-mail: pmartin@arkansasonline.com

Style, Pages 45 on 07/07/2013

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