The world lost one of the greatest folk singer-songwriters of our lifetime this month as the deadly Coronavirus took the life of John Prine at the age of 73. Prine who was born October 10, 1946 and died April 7, 2020 is known the world over for his raspy voice, simple guitar strumming and his heartfelt, cutting yet often hilarious lyrics. After a 13 year gap, Prine released what turned out to be his final album “The Tree of Forgiveness” in April 2018.
What does this have to do with distilled spirits? Well, the last song on his final album is titled “When I Get to Heaven” which includes the lyrics “I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale”. Here’s an excerpt of those lyrics.
When I Go to Heaven by John PrineWhen I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand
Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand
Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock-n-roll band
Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?
And then I’m gonna get a cocktail: vodka and ginger ale
Yeah, I’m gonna smoke a cigarette that’s nine miles long
I’m gonna kiss that pretty girl on the tilt-a-whirl
‘Cause this old man is goin’ to town
That line about the cocktail turns out to be John’s favorite cocktail. A special cocktail that he made up and dubbed the Handsome Johnny. It’s a pretty simple drink just two ingredients and a fruit garnish. The song was written a few years back when Prine was having some health struggles, a time in his life when his lyrics brought a heavy dose of levity to a dark period in his life. It was back in 2013 that Prine revealed an operable form of cancer had been found on his lung. Fortunately an operation proved successful. The diagnosis followed a 1998 surgery for neck cancer, which made him give up smoking for good. You’ll find references to his heavenly aspirations to once again smoke cigarettes in the song as well.
“That was 20 years ago and I still miss cigarettes,” Prine admitted at the time. “If somebody lights up, I’ll go stand next to them after they’re up so I can get that initial blast. So I’d written this chorus about having my favorite cocktail and having a cigarette that’s nine miles long. I kept thinking, ‘Where the hell can I do that?’ The only place I can get away with that it is in Heaven because there’s no cancer there. So, the chorus dictated the setting of the song. I made up the verses around that.”
“I kept saying when I was doing this album, it’s going to be my last one,” Prine admitted with a grin. “But if things go really good with it, I can’t see why I wouldn’t do something else.”
How to Make John Prine’s Signature Cocktail – The Handsome Johnny
“I turned everybody on to my favorite cocktail it’s called a Handsome Johnny. I named it kind of after myself but I thought Handsome Johnny sounded like a Rob Roy or a Manhattan,” explained Prine in a SiriusXM Outlaw Country interview. “Now every bar you go to has a cocktail list but 20 years ago when I started drinking Handsome Johnny’s people wouldn’t make you a Rob Roy or a Manhattan they said that was old school. Now they’ve come back around again.”
“There’s actually a couple bars in Nashville that have Handsome Johnny’s that’ll be on your receipt. It’s Smirnoff Vodka, red Smirnoff not blue. If you get too good vodka it kills the bubbles in your ginger ale. I use diet ginger ale because the other kind is too sweet after a while, you don’t want to get diabetes from drinking it. And in the winter time I drop a lime in it, don’t squeeze it just drop it in from about six inches above. And in the summer time a lemon.”
- 1 to 2 ozs. – Vodka. John recommend Red Smirnoff (not Blue)
- Ginger Ale – Enough to top off the glass. John recommends diet ginger ale, not regular. You don’t want it too sweet.
- Lemon – In the Summertime
- Lime – In the Wintertime
- Fill a cocktail glass with ice
- Pour in Vodka
- Pour in Diet Ginger Ale
- Stir and drop the lemon or lime in from approximately 6″ above. Do not squeeze it.
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The Bard Distillery Founders Share the Tale of Their John Prine Tattoos
And since we cover craft spirits through and through here are a cool couple of photos from one of the newest distillers in the state of Kentucky. The Bard Distillery opened in December of 2019 in Graham, Kentucky which is home to Mulenberg County. Yes, that same Mulenberg County that is hauntingly immortalized in John Prine’s song Paradise which you can watch below along with many other classic John Prine songs.
The Bard Distillery though not in Bardstown is still connected to Bardstown, Kentucky. Thomas Bard and his wife Kim are the Co-Founders of The Bard Distillery. Tom’s fourth great-grandfather is William Bard, one of the founders of Bardstown, the Bourbon Capital of the World.
Not only are the two fans of Prine but they both sport a hand-signed John Prine tattoo on their arms. Yes, for real, John Prine signed their arms.
“Here is a shot of one of the bottles we sent John and Fiona just before they left on what was to be his final tour in Europe,” said Kim Bard. “We also had the absolute pleasure in being the title sponsor for his last concert in Muhlenberg County this past year.”
“I came to know Fiona through Thistle Farms, a non-profit that she and John support regularly and we hope to be able to join her in supporting very soon. The tattoo’s on our arms was a spur of the moment thing after meeting John and Fiona in Nashville. We asked him to sign our arms and we were heading right over to have it tattooed!”
“He got a huge kick out of that! He said ‘If you guys do that, I swear, that’s the only ticket you will need to see me!’ And so we did. Our hearts go out to the Oh Boy Records family, because they truly are Family.”
Pay it Forward – Donate to Causes John and Fiona Prine Support
In a message from John’s wife Fiona Whelan Prine she asks that in lieu of flowers or gifts that a donation be made to one of the following non profits in John’s memory.
Thistle Farms – Our mission is to provide effective, lifelong support to women survivors. See how you can support women survivors of trafficking, prostitution, and addiction. Social Enterprise. Helping Women Survivors. Handcrafted with Love.
Room in the Inn – To provide programs that emphasize human development and recovery through education, self-help and work, centered in community and long term support for those who call the streets of Nashville home. In 1995, we opened our downtown Campus, which offers emergency services, transitional programs, and long-term solutions to help people rebuild their lives.
Nashville Rescue Mission – The mission is a Christ-centered community committed to helping the hungry, homeless, and hurting by providing programs and services that focus on a person’s entire life—physical, mental, spiritual, emotional, and social.
And with that, keep sipping your Handsome Johnny and enjoy these classic John Prine videos. Cheers!
A Few of John Prine’s Classic Songs
Hear John describe in his own words how to make his signature Handsome Johnny cocktail.
John Prine & Friends perform Paradise on New Year’s Eve 2019 at the Grand Ole Opry.
John and guitarist John Burns talk about the origins of the song Paradise.
John Prine performs Paradise with Marty Stuart in 2019.
Bonnie Raitt & John Prine perform Angel From Montgomery live at Farm Aid in 1986.
Bonnie Raitt & John Prine perform Angel From Montgomery 33 years later in 2019.
John Prine performs on the NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert in March 2018.
John Prine performs the classic My Old Kentucky Home May 2019.
And finally, circling back to that cocktail song here’s one of John’s earliest songs that ties it altogether.
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You from 1972.
Will see you again when I get to heaven. In the meantime, rest in peace, enjoy your nine mile long cigarette and your Handsome Johnny.