Every day, tankers of ethanol leave the giant factories that make it in the U.S., companies with names like Golden Triangle Energy, Ultra Pure, GPC, and MGP. They head to medical facilities, cleaning supply companies, cosmetics manufacturers, and spirits producers such as Luxco. There, the longtime, St. Louis-based distillery puts the alcohol into bottles with brand names such as Golden Grain, Crystal Clear, and, most famously, Everclear.
“You know 190-proof Everclear by reputation,” is the lead of The New York Times’s recent article on the product, one of the rare stories ever written about the brand in its whirlwind, century-long history.
I wanted to figure out how Everclear became king of such an uninspiring, yet often controversial, category. Even more so than supposedly odorless and flavorless vodka, the 190-proof grain neutral spirit truly lacks character. It is literally pure ethanol, with congeners like esters and tannins not present to add flavor, nor proofing water added to make it more palatable. And, yet, this one brand manages to transcend all others, accounting for over 80 percent of all grain alcohol sales in America, according to data obtained from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association.
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How did Everclear become the brand name synonymous with grain alcohol? Part of it is due to pure consumer ignorance. Like Xerox or Kleenex, in fact, many people believe the category of spirit is simply called “everclear.” Even those who recognize that Everclear is a brand probably can’t name another brand of grain alcohol. Yet there are countless others out there.
Whether labeled “grain alcohol,” “neutral spirit,” or even “rectified spirit,” many of the major liquor players have their own bottling or two, like Sazerac Company, which offers Clear Spring and Diesel. And, yet, none of them have reached any level of ubiquity or notoriety; certainly nowhere close to the fame (or infamy) of Everclear. There’s no pseudo-grunge band named after Clear Spring. No country songs offering paeans to Gem Clear. Celebrities don’t perform impromptu karaoke performances while schnocked on Pure Proof, and Bushwick Bill didn’t shoot his damn eye out while drinking Rocket Fuel.
It’s not like Everclear tastes better. They all taste exactly the same — like pure, fiery ethanol. Usually distilled from corn in America, and potatoes or beets in Europe, grain alcohol offers a lack of smell and taste at an exceedingly high proof and an exceedingly low price — that’s it!
(Although, Ultra Pure actually argues that point, noting on its website that: “Some people say all 190 proof GNS taste the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. With a neutral spirit, the subtle organoleptic flavor profiles [taste and smell] matter. Some of these alcohols have much higher methanol, N-propanol and Acetal compounds than others. The resulting levels of these compounds can affect smoothness, alcohol, ‘bite,’ and mouth feel.” Whatever, dude.)
It’s surely not an economic thing. Most grain alcohols are actually cheaper than Everclear, which goes for an average of $18 a 750-milliliter bottle. Luxco’s own Golden Grain and Crystal Clear — presumably the same, identical liquid, remember — go for $17 and $15, respectively, while Diesel is the lowest I’ve seen at a mere $12. The Polish, cereal grain-based Spirytus Rektyfikowany is likewise a bargain at $14, which is perhaps why bars and restaurants are seemingly more likely to employ that to make their house vermouths, amaros, and bitters.
Yet, among the general public, Everclear gets all the buzz — an integral part of pop culture and college punches. Why?
“I think it’s just distribution,” says Ryan Maloney, the longtime owner of Julio’s Liquors in Westborough, just outside of Boston. He’s quick to note, however, that many states have banned the 190-proof Everclear, making it even more desirable to some people. “It’s just one of those types of things, it doesn’t matter who invents it, it’s who builds the better mousetrap, how do they market it, how do they distribute it,” Maloney says.
I presumed Everclear had this better name recognition and thus better distribution because Everclear must have been the first grain alcohol on the market and thus received the first-mover advantage. But despite Luxco calling Everclear “the original grain alcohol,” that’s not even the case. The Boston-based Graves Grain Alcohol has been on the market, at that same 190 proof, since 1860, at least half a century before Everclear was created, though it has mostly remained a local New England thing.
“It’s been around forever, but I always find it funny, a lot of people come from out of state to Massachusetts for college, and they come in and ask for Everclear — Everclear is the Kleenex,” confirms Maloney. “It gives us the opportunity to talk about the fact that Graves is local and older and that it’s been made the same way by the same company forever.”
Every post on the internet commonly lists Everclear as having been created in 1950 when, yes, its trademark was registered. And, yet, here’s an article from 1936, from the Sausalito News, discussing the American Distilling Company and one of its products, Everclear. American Distilling was founded in 1888 (or 1892, depending on whom you believe), and if Everclear wasn’t a part of its portfolio early on, it was at least available by the time Prohibition came around — here’s a Druggist’s Circular from 1922, offering the product to pharmacists — perhaps a way for the distiller to pivot to a sort of legal, but not-potable distilling.
Luxco refused to speak to me, and that’s not that surprising. (“[H]ow could you responsibly talk about it, knowing the reputation that it has?” former brand manager Ashley Ulkus had asked in a rare media soundbite from 2015.) From its creation until 2014, Everclear has done literally zero marketing, though you can look at newspaper ads to see how it was being positioned by sellers of it. For instance, in 1933, at the tail end of Prohibition, Everclear was still being sold as “rubbing alcohol.” But, by 1936, it was “Everclear Grain Alcohol – 190 proof” and “always reasonably priced” ($1.38 for a pint). Even still, most people hadn’t heard of Everclear by then, nor did they even understand the concept of it just yet.
“The first time I heard of ethanol was during the 1940s in World War II,” Loren Schmit, a Nebraska state senator, admitted in 2008 while debating legislation on it. “The war effort never suffered for want of fuel. I don’t know how they got it done, but they did it. They kept those planes flying.” About 600 million gallons of ethanol was produced during World War II — in a report to company shareholders at the time, “Ever-Clear” was then being employed to also produce “rayon, lacquer, artificial leather.”
It seems American Distilling Company was smart enough to just let Everclear sell for whatever purpose it was going to be used for, all without drawing too much unneeded attention to it. Mainly because any attention was going to generally be negative.
The earliest newspaper article I can find that mentions Everclear as something human beings are drinking is, not surprisingly, a report on a crime: “Paul Quakenbush purchased two one-half pints of Everclear Alcohol from Tom Keegan and passed four counterfeit 50-cent coins to Keegan as payment,” starts a March 23, 1939 article in Kansas’s The Marysville Advocate.
In fact, for the next three decades or so, if Everclear was mentioned in a newspaper article, it was usually surrounding a crime: As the favorite beverage of a murderous gang in Tampa; as one of the scant possessions of an outlaw along with his gun; as part of college fraternity hazing ritual gone awry; this report of a guy drinking Everclear and sniffing paint before accidentally killing his buddy; plenty of people accidentally killing themselves; and far more sexual assaults than I’d ever want to link to.
“Unwholesome, poisonous and unfit for human consumption,” thought the lawyer of a 14-year-old boy who died after consuming half a bottle. You won’t see that outrage ever directed toward other brands of grain alcohol. Everclear is always a fall guy for our nation’s ills.
And yet, Everclear seems to have first started taking hold as an alcohol for (fairly) legitimate imbibers by the early 1950s. By then, Midwestern frat boys were going to “Hairy Buffalo” parties where they enjoyed Purple Passion punch — Everclear, wine, and fruit, mixed up in the bathtub. (In the 1980s, during the wine cooler craze, Everclear briefly released a 12-ounce canned version of the drink.) A 1955 article tells of Alaskans enjoying “Ever-Clear Punch,” a uniquely local beverage composed of one part Champagne and three parts Everclear.
There is one thing I suspect, however, that catapulted Everclear’s lofty status forevermore. In 1968, the “Guinness Book of World Records” began listing Everclear as the world’s “Most Potent Potable,” though it did note it was used primarily as a base for homemade cordials. And though drinking alcohol records were taken out of the book in 1979, the jaw-dropping alcohol levels of Everclear would still be honored until at least 1996’s edition.
Which is funny, because countless grain alcohols are also 190 proof (95 percent ABV), the maximum proof that is scientifically possible since around 4.4 percent of ethanol always evaporates during distillation. (For whatever reason, Spirytus Rektyfikowany claims it is 96 percent ABV, even printing it in large font on the label, but it may just be rounding up, unlike everyone else.) Whatever the case, after it first appeared in the “Guinness Book,” Everclear immediately began appearing in more newspaper articles, its reputation burnished.
By 1969, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner was reporting on laid-over pilots in Alaska stopping in at Nome’s North Star Hotel for Tanglefoot Martinis — a fifth of gin, a fifth of Everclear, a little vermouth, and some water. “[Two] of the drinks are about all any one person can take,” reported the anonymous pilot. By 1970, a Minnesota man had taken a quart container and mixed up a punch containing Everclear, whiskey, orange juice, lemon sour, pre-mixed drink packets, and perhaps a little something else.
“It really tasted strong, so I put some sugar in it,” recalled Kim Dana Boyum, who was on, yes, trial for illegally adding LSD to the punch later that night. By 1973, there was a brief report on an, ahem, “Bloomer Dropper” punch — Scotch, Drambuie, creme de menthe, and Everclear — in Rapid City, S.D. By 1978, punch recipes were regularly calling for Everclear if you wanted more “punch in your punch.”And, by the 1980s, the Des Moines Tribune, in a lengthy article about how to make the perfect party punch, was noting that you should only add Everclear to it if you want to “bring your party to an unseemly end.”
Acquired in 1981 by David Sherman Corp., which would eventually become Luxco in 2006, Everclear was long the company’s second best-selling overall product (after Juarez tequila), despite a complete lack of advertising. That’s because it couldn’t help but cause other people to constantly talk of it. By the mid-1980s, nudniks were trying to get government officials to take it off shelves, leading to countless more articles on Everclear.
To combat cancellation, Everclear changed its labels to read “CAUTION!! EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE. HANDLE WITH CARE. WARNING!! OVERCONSUMPTION MAY ENDANGER YOUR HEALTH.” I don’t need to tell you that, just like a Four Loko or vodka Red Bull, this would just lend the brand more cache among our nation’s most precocious binge drinkers.
In 2018, Luxco moved to class up the product, swapping a cheap label featuring a husk of corn to a more artisanal-looking one befitting a premium spirit, the all-caps warning replaced with more aspirational language that encouraged buyers to use the product to “EXTRACT * INFUSE * FORTIFY.”
Today, during this ongoing pandemic, Everclear has become ubiquitous to a new audience as the base for homemade hand sanitizer, selling out across the nation — the reason The New York Times recently wrote about it in the first place. What Everclear will morph into next is anybody’s guess, but it’s all but a guarantee it will continue to dominate its category, infamous, indomitable, and mostly undrinkable.
“With any alcohol it’s advertising, it’s price, and it’s the attractability of the label,” says Maloney. “But with Everclear it’s just, you can’t get any higher alcohol than that, without basically going to zero [gravity]. But, remember, no one is supposed to drink grain alcohol! It’s simply an alcohol delivery system.”