Southern Comfort Veers North

Southern Comfort, the sweet, brightly-flavoured drink famously favoured by Janis Joplin in the 1960s, has been re-invented. I just bought the one sold in Canada for a try-out.

SoCo belongs to the arcana of drinks in that its original composition and current formulations are rather misty. As best I can tell, it was originally a compound of young whiskey (maybe bourbon), fruit, sugar, spices. At some point neutral spirits substituted for the whiskey.

When the bourbon renaissance gathered pace in the early 2000s the domestic (U.S., Canada) product was neutral spirits and the fruit, sugar, spice. Yet a version that included bourbon, stated on the label as such, was sold in some export markets.

I bought it a few times in the Caribbean. It was somewhat deeper in flavour than regular Southern Comfort but not that different.

Finally, the brand was sold to Sazerac Brands, of Buffalo Trace bourbon fame and more.

Its version seems to use whiskey since the term is all over the website. I think SoCo is probably not 100% whiskey, at least for the 35% ABV product, since whiskey must be bottled at 40% ABV. The labels too don’t call it whiskey as such.

Some SoCo is 100 proof or 80 proof, but I’d think all are made broadly the same way. The 80 proof is badged “Black” for a “bolder” taste, perhaps it uses more whiskey. In Ontario we only get the 35% ABV version. It is termed on the label in small print “liqueur” but the back label states it has the “flavor of whiskey”.

So it’s a whiskey-flavoured liqueur, presumably in the U.S. too. The fruity element is probably from a concentrate with sugar added, peach- and apricot-based judging by the taste and some published reports.

The reason for the current insistence on whiskey is that some dissed the brand in the past for not being a whiskey while still conveying the image. So that’s changed now, the website and labels makes clear the formulation involves whiskey of some kind.

The whiskey might be distilled at a higher proof and therefore fairly neutral, unlike bourbon that is, but I’d think some bourbon probably enters the composition. Could the spirit used be grain neutral spirits given some barrel aging?

This is possible but I’d incline against as the website uses the term “whiskey” repeatedly and this term means in U.S. law something distilled under 190 proof (95% ABV), so not quite neutral that is.

The Manitoba liquor authority describes the drink this way:

Southern Comfort is a New Orleans Liqueur made from neutral spirits with fruit, spice and whisky flavorings. It is a full bodied, full proof spirit with light citrus and stone fruit notes, touch of warm spice, cinnamon and herbal notes, with hints of caramel.

The taste of the current product, as sold in Canada, isn’t radically different from the circa-2000 one but it isn’t quite the same either. It seems less sweet and has a faint tannic/woody finish, showing the whiskey element.

I wonder if the whiskey, at least in Canada, is actually a non-spirit food flavouring, given too the term above “whisky flavorings”. The wording of the U.S. website seems to suggest real whiskey though; unless the product differs in Canada it should be the same here.

Still, it’s interesting that the Canadian rear label states SoCo is “blended and bottled in Canada”, maybe that means the formulation differs here.

It’s all delphic but this matters little except to a tiny coterie. The market will just want to drink it, or not, and I hope they do because it’s good stuff, a classic old taste.

I’d advise to blend it with bourbon, something not too old and woody. A standard Canadian whisky would work well too, or vodka for a yet lighter taste.

The brand was clearly in for a new look as sales were declining from the halcyon 60s. It’s been 50 years since Janis Joplin brandished that bottle in publicity shots. Sazerac Brands is good at what they do and I have a feeling SoCo may be in for a revival.

It’s a famous old drink, dating from the time a frankly sweet drink was admired. It retains its place in the world drinks pantheon. Grander days may yet await.