FLEMING ISLAND – Johnny Van Zant fondly recalled a story about getting ready to go on stage early in his career. His father, Lacy, offered him a shot of whiskey to smooth his vocal cords and calm …
FLEMING ISLAND – Johnny Van Zant fondly recalled a story about getting ready to go on stage early in his career. His father, Lacy, offered him a shot of whiskey to smooth his vocal cords and calm his nerves.
“It was a shot of courage,” Johnny said.
So when the lead singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd heard a proposal to put the band’s name – more importantly, the mothership of the band’s creation – on a bottle of whiskey, it seemed like a natural fit.
Fans of the iconic Southern rock band will get their first taste of Hell House Whiskey when it’s launched during a three-hour event on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at another familiar stomping ground for the band – Whitey’s Fish Camp.
Van Zant and guitarist Rickie Medlocke will sign bottles of the hootch from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. The event also coincides with the 50-year anniversary of the band, which set its roots in a tiny rental shack south of Green Cove Springs. The house got its name because it was small, lacked air conditioning and had a tin roof. Despite its oppressive conditions, it’s where the band wrote many of their legendary songs like “Free Bird,” “Simple Man,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”
Bottles of Hell House Whiskey feature a drawing of the house on the label.
“We’ve got it in 35 out of 50 states,” Van Zant said Tuesday by telephone from Brazil. “It’s quite a process to get it approved in every state. Eventually, we’ll have it in all 50 states, and then it will go worldwide.”
According to Bespoken, which distills the whiskey in California, it has aromas of honeydew, sorbet, butterscotch and allspice. The palate reveals cotton candy sweetness and floral hints of rose and lavender. Its oak-driven finish leaves a sweet and spicy lingering allure.
It has 45% alcohol by Volume and is 90 proof.
The debut also comes ahead of the band’s two-night appearance at the St. Augustine Amphitheater on Oct. 5 and 6.
It was easy to pick Whitey’s as the place to launch the whiskey in Florida. The restaurant, which will celebrate its 60th anniversary on Oct. 7, has been the unofficial home to Southern Rock music for generations. It’s also where the original singer and band founder Ronnie Van Zant, was a regular. Signed guitars and posters from bands like Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, The Allman Brothers Band and Curt Towne Band adorn the bar area.
“They got involved with a company to make Hell House Whiskey. Their manager called and said they’d like to make the (Florida) debut here,” said Whitey’s owner Elaine Cassala. “Sure, we’d love to have them. We’d love for the launch to be at Whitey’s. This is like a second home to them, anyway.”
Fans will be able to buy the whiskey and have their bottles signed. Since so many fans are expected, they won’t be able to sign any other merchandise, Cassala said.
“Lynyrd Skynyrd has been around here for a long time,” Cassala said. “I can’t tell you how many people who come up here just to see the Lynyrd Skynyrd stuff.”
The band moved into Hell House off Russell Road in 1970 and played there until they recorded their first two albums. Shortly after they moved into a recording studio, the shack burned down. The lot sat empty until it was sold to a developer. There currently are 157 homes in the Edgewater Landing subdivision and one empty lot – the land where Hell House once stood.
The whiskey assures where Lynyrd Skynyrd built its musical legacy will never be erased.
“We should have our own liquor,” Van Zant said. “This came to fruition, and it was a good fit. We’ll see where it goes, but it’s been fun so far.”