Drinking the Bottom Shelf

Will Gordon drinks his way through the bottom shelf of the liquor store...so you don’t have to.

Drinking the Bottom Shelf: Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper

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Last night I caught myself absentmindedly adding turmeric to a perfectly good pot of chickpea stew. I immediately regretted having done so, for this stew was already seasoned with salt and pepper and another kind of pepper and gin and cumin and all that. There was no need for turmeric. I have nothing against turmeric: I add it to recipes when called for, I appreciate it giving a good home to the spare "r" that belongs in "sherbet," and I don't even begrudge its role as my favorite condiment's primary pant-staining agent.

I'm not looking to cut back on my turmeric consumption, per se. In fact, I plan to be first in line for the Serious Eats spice columnist's inevitable Campari and turmeric gelato tasting. But I'm trying to rein in my overall use of spices, sauces, herbs, garnishes, condiments, and all of the other aftermarket flavor additives that have been gumming up too much of my cooking lately.

This resolution had been creeping up on me over the past couple of years, and things finally came to a head last week when I realized that switching to instant oatmeal doesn't really speed up breakfast prep if you spend 10 minutes peeling garlic and chopping onions because you reflexively peel garlic every time you enter the kitchen and you need the onions because of course you put honey in your oatmeal and "honey-onion oatmeal" is a fun thing to say first thing in the morning.

In addition to saving me time and money (no man's finances should be so dependent upon the vagaries of the international cilantro trade), my new spice-reduction policy also allows me to bow out of the hot sauce arguments that occupy an inordinate amount of my Internetting. Man, do you people get finicky about your pepper juice. I'm a hot sauce lover myself, but in a much more inclusive way than the more opinionated among you. I use a lot of Frank's and a little bit of Sriracha and as much green Tabasco and Cholula as I can get my hands on, but I'll gladly go for Crystal or Texas Pete's or Goya Salsa Picante if that's what's in handiest reaching range of a naked egg or an underwhelming apple.

I try to stay on the silent, innocent side of most hot sauce fights, but I will pipe up from time to time to defend the honor of standard (not green) Tabasco, which is far from my favorite pepper sauce but certainly isn't as awful as suggested by an investigative Googling of "Tabasco sucks." I'm not sure why so many food-focused people are so vehemently opposed to America's most famous hot sauce, but I suspect it's for the same reason we reflexively discredit Budweiser and Jack Daniel's (I'm the guiltiest one at the party in regards to the latter): None of these things are good enough to justify their enormous popularity, so we feral blog monsters feel obliged to mock them and their ubiquity. I understand that your uncle who doesn't believe in dinosaurs or sleeves does believe in Tabasco, but no one's wrong about everything. Try to divorce Tabasco's merits from its cultural context and you'll find it's a fine old pepper sauce.

Now onto today's booze topic: Does this fine old pepper sauce have any place in Southern Comfort? The guy in charge of such things certainly thinks so, which is why we now have 70-proof Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper, which augments the classic New Orleans liqueur with another famous Louisianan liquid, original recipe Tabasco. I've never been a Southern Comfort fan, because I find it to be too sweet, and these days it's not even whiskey-based anymore, instead relying on "whiskey flavor" to punch up the plain grain base. But maybe a dose of hot sauce will roughen the edges enough to turn this kid stuff into a credible shot of booze.

The smell is fascinating, with waves of real Tabasco and fake orange taking turns to alternately inflate and deflate my expectations. The taste, however, is more of a straight disappointment.

The most common Tabasco complaint is that it provides more pucker than flavor, and that is the case here. Southern Comfort Fiery Pepper is by no means too spicy to drink, but all the Tabasco does is provide a hot vinegar cover for the lackluster underlying alcohol. I don't like Southern Comfort and I do like Tabasco, so I figured I had a 50-50 shot of enjoying their marriage, but it turns out that the Tabasco makes for too flimsy a band-aid to cover up the bad booze.

About the author: Will Gordon loves life and hates mayonnaise. You can eat and drink with him in Boston or follow him on twitter @WillGordonAgain.

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