The Story of Listerine Bourbon


April 22, 2022

Note: This is a new feature series, “The Story,” that will highlight a personal story or one from an historical bourbon figure or contemporary industry person.

Mail call. It’s the most glorious moment in a deployed soldier’s life. 

 After hours of patrols, sweating mortars and enduring the stench of burnt trash, on one day in Iraq in 2004, I was really homesick and missed my friends. Opening a letter made me feel like I was back on the mean streets of downtown Milwaukee or throwing a pledge into Duck Pond at Oklahoma State. Ah, the good ole days.

The letter was on thick paper with torn edges with cursive handwriting asking: “Is there anything I can send you?” 

Care packages usually included some homemade cookies, baby wipes, a keepsake or two and touching thoughts. All brought heartfelt joy. I pondered my friend’s question and knew exactly what I wanted her to send–bourbon. There’s just one problem: Alcohol was against our general orders. With that said, there were actual bars on bases, hidden yet accessible, and they had a ton of bourbon.

I couldn’t wait to send her my request. And fortunately, I had access to email, so I wrote: “Do you think you could sneak me some Jim Beam or Jack Daniel’s?”

“Yes,” she wrote back, “but how?”

Regular Listerine’s color was similar to whiskey, I thought: “Pour out the mouthwash and replace with bourbon.” I’m not sure if I had heard of that being done before or if it was my idea, but MPs and the U.S. Postal Service were known for opening packages and looking for contraband. This was my best bet.

When the package arrived, the bottle was wrapped in a wax paper and peanut packing shells fell all over my bunk. I hoisted the shimmering Listerine bottle into the air, without even reading her note, and yelled to my battle buddy–”whiskey.” 

I met my fellow NCOs in NCO Alley, the alley between our living quarters, gave each sergeant a healthy pour in styrofoam cups. Another sergeant passed out cigars. We sat down on flimsy red plastic chairs, smoked and joked, washing it all down with Jack Daniel’s and looked up at stars so big that it felt like you could reach out and touch one. It was one of the few silent nights in Iraq. No gunfire. No car bombs, mortars or rockets. We were meant to have this night.

The next day, my body armor fit a little more snug than normal, and I went back out on patrols with the infantry. As an Army photojournalist, I documented the worst of war–beheading chambers, car bombs, firefights, mortars, rockets and dead bodies–and positive efforts, such as rebuilt schools. On patrols, I always felt the mission was just to walk around until somebody shot at us, which they usually did. But this day was different. I couldn’t stop thinking about how wonderful it was to feel normal again, to have whiskey in a cup and just relax.

Whiskey gave me a taste of home.

My life’s changed so much since then. But when I close my eyes and think about the wonderful pours I’ve enjoyed–the Old Crow Chessman, 1920s Laphroaig, 1800s-era Cognac and countless rums and bourbons straight from the barrel–few tastes can beat how the Listerine bourbon made me feel.

Jack Daniel’s never tasted so good.

Fred Minnick served in Iraq in 2004-2005. His book, Camera Boy: An Army Journalist’s War in Iraq, became a Wall Street Journal-bestselling ebook.