Southern Comfort Birthplace, Exposed?

By Phil Greene

I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic, a myth-buster. When I get a forwarded email from a “friend,” warning me about rat droppings on soda pop cans, or evil bandits who slash ankles at gas stations, or HIV-infected needles left on movie theatre seats, I’m going straight to Snopes.com or some other such site, and after figuring out the truth, I’ll set the sender (and recipients) straight.

Alas, it’s the same in the cocktail world, where there are as many myths as truths, as many stories on the origins of the Martini or the Sidecar as there are levels of liqueurs on a Nick Castrogiovani Pousse Café. So, a few years back, when I discovered that my own ancestor, my own ancestor, probably did not coin the term “cocktail” when he made the drink that became the Sazerac, even then I was compelled to come forward with the truth. I’ll never forget the words of the great, great New Orleans tour guide, my friend Joe Gendusa, upon meeting me for the first time. Speaking on behalf of all French Quarter guides, who adore the story of Antoine Peychaud and the coquetier, he said, “You have no idea how frightened of you we all are!”

Well, here’s another one for you, Joe……

Southern Comfort, that delicious peach-flavored bourbon (or is it a bourbon flavored peach liqueur? Whatever.) has long celebrated its New Orleans roots, and rightfully so. Legend has it that bartender Martin Wilkes Heron created Southern Comfort at McCauley’s Tavern in New Orleans. But what has been repeated time and again is a more specific rendering of this story, and that’s where you lose me, the part where they say that Southern Comfort was created at McCauley’s Tavern in the French Quarter.

It is often said that McCauley’s sat at the corner of St. Peter and Richard streets in the French Quarter. I’m a long-time New Orleans history buff, I’ve read the classic John Chase book, Frenchmen, Desire, Goodchildren a couple of times, I’ve pored over the Vieux Carré Survey many times, looking for the residences of my ancestors, I’ve worked with the Historic New Orleans Collection on reconciling 19th century Quarter street addresses with their current numbers, I know the nice and the mean streets of New Orleans, and I know I’ve never heard of a Richard Street in the Quarter! So, the first time I heard that tale, I got suspicious.

I knew that there was a Richard Street farther up the Mississippi River in New Orleans, in Uptown. If you go to that great local dive, The Half Moon Café, going out Magazine Street where it goes from one way to two, you’ll cross Richard. But Richard runs perpendicular to the River, as does St. Peter Street in the Quarter (which is home to Pat O’Brien’s, the Gumbo Shop, and Preservation Hall). How the hell could they intersect? I had a theory.

There is another street in the Quarter that plays a role. Back in the early 19th Century, you had a street that ran along the River in the Quarter, and because it ran along the levee, it was called, you guessed it, Levee. Levee is now known as Decatur, home to the French Market, Café du Monde, and Jax Brewery. But there was also a spur off of Levee called New Levee Street (hey, they can’t all have romantic names like Desire and Craps and Calliope). New Levee Street had its name changed over the years, and now goes by the name Peters. We’re getting close.

Like many streets in New Orleans (Claiborne comes to mind), depending on what part of town y’at, you’re either on North Peters, or South Peters. The part of Peters that begins in the Quarter, and follows the River out to Uptown, is South Peters, frequently abbreviated as “S. Peters.”

Folks, this isn’t The Da Vinci Code, you’ve figured it out already, right? McCauley’s Tavern had to be at the corner of South Peters and Richard. To confirm this, I made a visit to the Library of Congress, perusing the City Directories for New Orleans. The 1881 City Directory contains the following listing:

McCauley, Arthur, saloon, Richard, se cor S Peters

This is corroborated by the 1885 City Directory:

McCauley, Arthur, saloon, Peters, se cor Richard

In the parlance of the City Directories, it is telling us that the saloon sat at the southeast corner of South Peters and Richard. This would place McCauley’s Tavern roughly (very roughly) in the Lower Garden District/Irish Channel neck of the woods, actually a bit down river from those more familiar neighborhoods. Anyone pining for a pilgrimage to whatever rustic tavern now occupies that corner, alas, Google Earth suggests it’s an industrial zone now, perhaps no building sits at that corner, looks to be a factory or warehouse farther back on that parcel. Oh, well.

 

So, folks, although we can proudly proclaim that Southern Comfort was in fact born in The City That Care Forgot, New Orleans (or at least I have no reason to believe otherwise), it was not born in the French Quarter. And now the tour guides are gonna hate me even more.

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