One can't live in New Orleans without, at some point, discussing alcohol. While I love a good, hearty beer, or a nice cold High Life after a hot day of working in the yard, my evenings are best ended with a nice cocktail. The only thing that can beat a good cocktail is a well crafted liqueur.
Back in the day I used to consider myself a connoisseur of vodkas. I stayed away from tequila, figured rums were only meant for some sort of punch, and generally believed the harshness of bourbon or whiskey to be barbaric. My tastes have certainly changed over the years: dark rums, with heavy molasses notes and aged nicely; a good bourbon, neat; a smooth tequila, without the frivolity of lemons and salt. As a fan of science, the act of fermentation and distillation completely fascinates me. After spending some time studying the process and learning about what actually happens in an oak barrel, one picks up a certain appreciation for the art of distilled spirits.
The grain makes a huge difference. The source of sugars, such as molasses for rum or agave for tequila or mezcal, and the method in which it was distilled has a really unique effect on the final product. I found my favor of vodka declining. What I thought to be barbaric became beautiful, and the vodka that I once thought to be elegant became ... simple and boring. Don't get me wrong now, I do love a good vodka now and again. But ... so much flavor in a whiskey!
It was during my "studies" that I found myself more frequently drinking something -- a cocktail, a liquor, a liqueur -- and considering, "How is it made?" While I haven't had Southern Comfort in some years, I figured that was an applicable question to a liqueur that is rooted in the spirit history of New Orleans. It didn't take much searching before I came across the original recipe for Southern Comfort, which was developed by Martin Wilkes Heron right here in New Orleans at McCauley's Tavern. Heron was known as a "rectifier", or someone who would add other ingredients to liquor to make a bit more palatable. I've read that he developed this drink, originally called "Cuffs and Buttons" to compete with another popular liqueur of the time called "White Tie and Tails". ;(I'm still on the search for a recipe for that, so if you find it please let me know!)
Chris Morris, the master distiller for the Brown-Forman Corporation (which produces Southern Comfort) and spirit historian, explained on The Thirsty Traveler the original recipe that Heron used.
I love finding original recipes. For the Gâteau de Boeuf Royale, I dug up an 1800s recipe for a lard-based pastry dough that was used in the White House. For an upcoming borscht post I have another 19th century recipe that I found on a pretty amazing site: The Food Timeline. We have a way of mass producing goods today that really takes away from the small batch intricacy that made some of the products we consume so popular so long ago. After reviewing the recipe and thinking back to my Southern Comfort experiences, I couldn't quite grasp how that ridiculously sweet and almost cough syrup-flavored liqueur could possibly have had its roots in something so simple.
Morris stated that Heron would start with a good quality bourbon, then add "an inch of vanilla bean, about a quarter of a lemon, half of a cinnamon stick, four cloves, a few cherries, and an orange bit or two. He would let this soak for days. And right when he was ready to finish, he would add his sweetener: he liked to use honey." Fruit, spices, and honey, added to some good bourbon. That's it!
Look around some more on the internet and you'll find a number of places where Southern Comfort is described as a "peach liqueur". While their recipe may be a secret the original recipe is not, and there's no peach to be found in this list of ingredients. You'll notice I've made some changes to the original listed recipe. After following the original recipe I found it to have too much of a citrus and cinnamon flavor, which overshadowed the cherry and vanilla.
So, let's give this a try:
- 1 inch of vanilla bean, split
- 1 inch of cinnamon stick
- 4 cloves
- 12 dried cherries
- a quarter of a lemon
- 3 small pieces of orange
- 1 bottle of good whiskey or bourbon
- honey (at the end, see below)
You'll notice all of those ingredients won't fit into a full bottle, so you might as well pour yourself a measure to make some room. You may need to cut the citrus into smaller pieces so they will not only fit but can be removed easily, as well. Another option is to get yourself a big jar that can fit at least a liter and macerate in there. If doing this in a large jar you can put the ingredients in a mesh bag for ease in removing, but I would still recommend straining. Everything in, capped, and let it sit for a few days.
I encourage you to take a sniff and a small taste each day. You'll be amazed at how the flavor progresses. Even after 12 hours it took on that characteristic Southern Comfort odor, but it tasted ... fresh. Check the taste and if the cinnamon flavor is too strong, remove it after a few days. Filter the contents of the bottle using a fine mesh sieve, then run it through a damp paper towel to remove any smaller particles.
Heat a cup of good honey. We have plenty of sources of local honey and I can almost guarantee you that no matter where you are you can find some locally produced honey as well. For the extra dollar or two you spend, it's well worth it. Stir until the honey is less viscous (no need to boil), then add small amounts to the bottle until it tastes right for you. Southern Comfort is typically bottled at 35% ABV. To get this from a 40% ABV bourbon or whiskey you would need to add about 100mL of liquid to 750mL of whiskey or bourbon. You can cut the honey with water, if you want the lower percentage without over sweetening it.
At this point, you can sit and enjoy. Try some neat, then try some over rocks, then try some with a measure of water before you go adding lime juice or some other mixer. I like to squeeze a little slice of lime into some, as pictured above, and think about Mr. Heron making this 137 years ago right here in New Orleans, and imagine myself being in that old pub and taking a swig of his spiced alternative to straight bourbon. Cheers to you, Mr. Heron!