Southern Comfort is the spirit of lazy tailgating parties, warm nights, and—with some statistical likelihood—memories of an unfortunate high-school episode or two. Indeed, this easy-drinking, inexpensive apricot-and-spice whiskey liqueur has for generations served as a bridge between youth and adulthood, between fruit juice and ardent spirits. But that wasn’t always the case.
Southern Comfort arose in 1874 in New Orleans, when a bartender named Martin Wilkes Heron had his chocolate-and-peanut-butter eureka moment: Ripe apricots were good. Whiskey was good. A hasty marriage was arranged. It turned out to be a happy and enduring pairing. Heron began bottling the concoction in 1889, selling it for $2.50 a quart—a steep price tag at a time when you could get a quart of six-year-old whiskey for seventy cents. By 1898, SoCo was advertised as the “finest cocktail prepared and bottled in the South.”
Then came the decline. Southern Comfort resurfaced after Prohibition, but smaller in stature, and in the 1940s, the liqueur was advertised to the thrift-minded as “the one-bottle bar,” able to make most every drink. Then, in 1979, Brown-Forman—makers of Jack Daniel’s—bought the brand. Somewhere along the line, cost-cutters eliminated the whiskey, making SoCo into, essentially, an apricot-inflected, whiskey-flavored vodka.
Last year, Southern Comfort was acquired by the New Orleans–based Sazerac Co., parent company of the bourbon maker Buffalo Trace. This was one of a series of the company’s purchases and launchings of spirits with ties to New Orleans—including Peychaud’s Aperitivo and Ojen, a locally popular anise-flavored liqueur. Sazerac Co. also bought two vast nineteenth-century buildings on Canal Street, into which they’re putting nearly $50 million to restore and open as a museum devoted to the history of whiskey and other spirits. “New Orleans was an integral part of Southern Comfort’s positioning for decades,” says Kevin Richards, Sazerac’s senior marketing director. “We’re excited to reinforce that connection.”
Part of bringing the liqueur home also meant restoring what went in the bottle. This summer, Sazerac rolled out its reformulated Southern Comfort—including a new 80 proof version, which joins the existing 70 and 100 proof bottlings—with actual whiskey now back in the blend.
Heron originally named his bottled cocktail “Cuffs & Buttons,” presumably to appeal to swells. Message to swells: It might be time to circle back and revisit an old friend.