Today we’re mixing up the Kentucky Colonel cocktail because it’s the birthday of the fried chicken titan Colonel Sanders. That’s good cause for a celebratory drink, so as you might expect we’ve got a solid bourbon cocktail lined up. Whether or not you go out and grab a bucket of Colonel Sanders fried chicken to accompany it is up to you.
Harland Sanders aka Colonel Sanders
Our protagonist Harland Sanders was born on September 9, 1890, in a small house just east of Henryville, Indiana. He was the oldest of three children, his father died when he was five and his mother was a strict woman. She warned her children of “the evils of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and whistling on Sundays.” Lot of fun she was.
Sanders left home at 16, became a streetcar conductor, did a stint in the US Army and passed through a variety of jobs that ended in failure. He studied law by correspondence through La Salle Extension University and began to practice. But that ended after a reputation-destroying courtroom brawl with his own client. As his biographer Ed Pearce wrote, he “had encountered repeated failure largely through bullheadedness, a lack of self-control, impatience and a self-righteous lack of diplomacy.”
By the late 1930s Sanders owned a gas station in Corbin, Kentucky. But the diner there became so well known for fried chicken that he converted the whole operation into a motel and restaurant. By July 1940 he finalized his “Secret Recipe” for frying chicken in a pressure fryer.
When the U.S. entered World War II in late 1941 gas was rationed and tourist business dried up. So he closed the place and ran a cafeteria for the government. He then divorced his wife, married his mistress and in 1950 was “re-commissioned” as a Kentucky Colonel by his friend, Governor Lawrence Wetherby.
Sanders franchised his secret recipe “Kentucky Fried Chicken” for the first time in 1952, receiving $0.04 per chicken. At that point, getting well into his 60s, he had only some savings and $105 per month from Social Security. So he began franchising in earnest and the rest is history.
So what is it about Kentucky Colonels?
A Kentucky Colonel isn’t a military thing. Rather, it’s the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. The governor grants it and the recipient gets a certificate. Those who receive it are considered goodwill ambassadors for Kentucky and get to use the title “Honorable” in front of their name.
The title is awarded for “noteworthy accomplishments, contributions to civil society, remarkable deeds, or outstanding service to the community, state, or a nation.” We see a good fried chicken recipe as a solid contribution to civil society, but sometimes we wonder about Colonels. As we reported for the Mint Julep on Kentucky Derby Day, Hunter S. Thompson wrote about those Colonels in his essay The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved:
“Steadman wanted to see some Kentucky Colonels, but he wasn’t sure what they looked like. I told him to go back to the clubhouse men’s rooms and look for men in white linen suits vomiting in the urinals. “They’ll usually have large brown whiskey stains on the fronts of their suits,” I said. “But watch the shoes, that’s the tip-off. Most of them manage to avoid vomiting on their own clothes, but they never miss their shoes.”
The Kentucky Colonel Cocktail
The Kentucky Colonel cocktail is a clear and easy choice for Colonel Sanders’ birthday. The recipe was first published in Joshua Straub’s 1913 work Straub’s Manual of Mixed Drinks. Being named a Kentucky thing, the whiskey choice is, of course, bourbon.
The Kentucky Colonel cocktail is a simple drink – bourbon, Benedictine, bitters – and really amounts to being a variation on the Old Fashioned. Benedictine is sweet and takes the place of the sugar cube used in the classic Old Fashioned. It brings an herbal quality to the drink that would not otherwise be present. It also reminds us of the Improved Whiskey cocktail. Benedictine, of course, is used in a variety of whiskey cocktails. Swap the bourbon in this recipe for rye and you’ve got a Monte Carlo. There’s also the Bobby Burns, the Mr. Burns or even the Doctor’s Orders if you’re feeling under the weather or are looking for more ways to use Benedictine.
Kentucky Colonel Cocktail
- Add bourbon, Benedictine and bitters to your trusty mixing glass.
- Add ice and stir to chill.
- Strain into Old Fashioned glass over ice, preferably a single, large cube.
- Express twist over drink and add to glass.
- Pour in the direction of your liver.