Holding a bottle of his Hoodoo Legba’s Reserve Chicory Liqueur, Phillip Ladner, the distiller at Mississippi’s Cathead Distillery, gets inspired to start talking about local blues legend Robert Johnson.
“Robert Johnson wouldn’t have sold his soul to the devil,” he explains. “He’d have met Papa Legba.”
In Voodoo, Legba is the figure at the crossroads. If you make an appeal to the spirit world, it is Legba who decides whether or not that appeal will be heard.
In his short life, Johnson recorded 29 immensely influential songs, and left behind inspiration for at least 129 stories about his Faustian bargain for musical genius.
But most of what people say about him is just conjecture. (Did he really practice guitar in a graveyard?) We don’t even know which crossroads were the site of the supposed deal. And there’s a good chance that the whole legend is the result of an offhand comment made by the blues player Son House. He said in a 1966 interview that Johnson must have sold his soul to get that good that quickly. The record isn’t even 100 percent on how Johnson died at 27: Some say poison, others syphilis.
This much is certain: The Mississippi Delta has adopted his myth as one of the main cornerstones of its culture. If you stand outside of Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, you can photograph a big sign with crossed pale blue electric guitars proclaiming that here is the crossroads, the birth of the blues.
Certainly, blues music was born on these highways, which roll from Vicksburg to Tunica. The land is fertile—among the best in the world—though it hasn’t brought wealth to the people who work it. Huge industrial farm fields of rice, soybeans, and corn stretch out from the highway. The towns are small and down-at-the-heels. The Delta is considered “the most southern place on earth” but there really isn’t much to do there. Any celebration of place in the Delta is willful, it’s done on purpose, and that’s to the credit of those who see something to celebrate.
I bring this up because I was tempted, upon first tasting Cathead’s Hoodoo Liqueur, to say that what I was drinking was an expression of terroir (the land).
On ice, Hoodoo has hints of U-bet chocolate syrup, complemented by thick vanilla and background notes of dirty spices. It’s as decadent of a spirit as I can think of, and works perfectly dropped into coffee drinks, drizzled over ice cream, or splashed in a tall tonic highball with rye whiskey.
The alcohol is infused with roasted chicory, and put in whiskey barrels at midnight on Friday the 13th under a full moon. It rests for 110 days (because 49 plus 61, the highway numbers at the crossroads, total 110). It is then sweetened with a bit of Louisiana cane sugar and, naturally, bottled at 66.6 proof.
It is brimming, in other words, with vibe and superstition.
Terroir, which has been a popular term ever since we figured out how to pronounce it, is an expression of place that is reflected in the products produced there. It has its roots in, of course, the wine world.
At its simplest, terroir can be a reflection of the weather. In warmer growing regions, the grapes have more sugar, so the wine has more alcohol. A more refined example would be that one is (perhaps) able to taste the pink granite in the soil of Beaujolais in a bottle of local Fleurie wine.
This is not that. Hoodoo is a purposeful conjuring of a place. This is a craftsman’s evocation of regional flavor.
Ladner’s choice of chicory wasn’t arbitrary. It was never a luxurious flavor and was used as a coffee substitute during wars, hard times, and in prisons. I’m sure that many cups of chicory coffee were sloshed out at Parchman, the penitentiary that sits in the middle of the Delta and shows up in blues songs.
Down the Mississippi River in New Orleans, where locals have always been crazy for coffee, chicory stretched supplies during the Civil War when the Union blockaded the harbor.
Hoodoo has none of that desperation. It’s bittersweet, satin smooth, a playful nod with no more real devilry than a cup of rich and creamy chicory café au lait at the French Quarter’s famous Café Du Monde.