The Twisted History of Jungle Juice

Jungle juice has many names, but only one common language: extreme intoxication. Kenzi Wilbur digs into the crooked oral tradition that has led America's firewater from the jungles of the Southwest Pacific during WWII to college trashcans around the country.

solo cup jungle juice parking lot

Certain cocktails are inherently American—the drinks that define our parties, our happy hours, us as drinkers. They’re a common alcoholic language: We sip juleps on Derby Day; we drink Manhattans at steakhouses to stand up to our N.Y. Strips; we carry our Tom Collins across manicured lawns as accessories to temperate June weather, wide-brimmed hats and croquet.

These cocktails are, in essence, our collection of Americanisms in booze. In this agreeable canon there is, however, one outlier—a drink that’s been around almost as long as our beloved juleps that’s just as much a part of our folkloric drinking tradition: jungle juice.

Most commonly it’s defined as an astute blend of grain alcohol and fruit juice, dispensed from a trashcan or an empty cooler, plastic storage bin, plugged sink and, in an innovative move much before its time—pre-mixed and bottled in whatever was lidded and empty in a recycling bin. It asks that you drink plenty and remember little. It’s swill, but it’s a familiar, time-honored swill—a stronghold in the legacy of early, formative drinking. And, unbeknownst to many, it’s got roots.

In the October 20th, 1945 issue of the New Yorker, aptly wedged between an ad for premium beer and the world’s finest aged rum, Malcolm E. Anderson defines jungle juice as “a name loosely applied to any of the spirituous beverages that were concocted by American soldiers in the Southwest Pacific.”

Depending on where you hail—and where you party—what you’re sipping could be called a dozen or more names. But everywhere, each blend is its own brand of heirloom recipe, handed down much like your grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, but a lot less delicate. (Jungle juice deals in 30 racks and everclear, not short crust and chiffon.) Recipes aren’t written, but rather taught by a neighbor, a frat brother, an older sibling—all well-meaning missionaries passing on the good will of grain alcohol in trash cans.

Back then, the U.S. Army, unconcerned with whether or not its soldiers partook in their evening cocktail, didn’t provide anything in the way of one. And military regulations—at least for those stationed in the literal jungle—forbade soldiers from importing liquor from nearby countries. With no other options save for “chlorinated water, G.I. coffee, and lemonade,” soldiers were on a mission to escape a thirsty, sober fate. The only reasonable solution was to go DIY.

They turned to fermenting anything they could with sugar in everything from coconuts to gasoline drums to homemade, patchwork stills. Depending on the “distiller,” the resulting beverage ranged from a fermented brew tinted golden-green from swamp water to a pale, 100-proof distillate. In any iteration, it was a ferociously potent liquid that, though less classy, was not unlike the punches of our lawn parties. It was a mixture vastly greater than the sum of its parts, consumed in quantity, drunk down quickly and with purpose. In what Anderson declares one of “the American service man’s greatest contributions,” jungle juice was born.

Today, the drink is likewise slack with its rules: No grain alcohol? Gin works. No gin? Use vodka. Underage license forbids you from buying vodka? The contents of your parents’ liquor cabinet will, in fact, work. The last thing jungle juice wants is to disappoint you. It tastes like turpentine shot through with sugar, but it exists, like the jungle juice of the 1940s, to serve you. Step on up, it says, drag a solo cup through me. Drink me. Be merry.

Anderson describes the mind-bending drunk from O.G. jungle juice as “varied as the characters of the men who drank it.” Some soldiers became “exhilarated”; others felt as though they were lighter than air, floating into some grain alcohol-induced lightness—a heaven before the inevitable hell the next morning. These 20th-century glimpses of debauchery were something like early ragers, and though jungle juice has graduated from empty gasoline drums to igloo coolers, the ragers of yore aren’t all that different from a present day, run-of-the-mill frat party. Be it during junior year rush or a Japanese air raid, jungle juice has always gotten its drinkers completely, utterly shitfaced.

Now that we have the modern conveniences of powdered Kool-Aid, current recipes are as sporadic and numerous as the kinds of alcohol they purport to include. Recipes range from simpler, no-frills concoctions of fruit punch and grain alcohol to the New Jersey Turnpikes of big-batch punch: Everclear, gin, vodka, rum, tequila, triple sec, lemonade, raspberry lemonade, lemonade concentrate, Sprite, Kool-Aid. Want it to go down easier? Top with Mountain Dew.

Depending on where you hail—and where you party—what you’re sipping could be called a dozen or more names. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you could be drinking spodie; cross state lines to the Midwest and it’ll turn to wop, harry buffalo or wapatoola. In the South, jungle juice goes by hooch, trash can punch, purple jesus (or PJ, if you’re two deep and don’t have mental wherewithal for full-length words). Anywhere else, and it could be hunch punch, yukaflux, blackout juice or death—of which there are specific kinds: red death, purple death, and just plain, colorless death. New Englanders, true to their straight-shooting, Puritanical ways, call it grain punch.

But everywhere, each blend is its own brand of heirloom recipe, handed down much like your grandmother’s lemon meringue pie, but a lot less delicate. (Jungle juice deals in 30 racks and everclear, not short crust and chiffon.) Recipes aren’t written, but rather taught by a neighbor, a frat brother, an older sibling—all well-meaning missionaries passing on the good will of grain alcohol in trash cans.

This is part of its legacy, and almost all of its charm. By some kind of crooked oral tradition, jungle juice exists in backyards instead of bars, in memories instead of on recipe cards. It’s a blank slate of a drink, a balls-to-the-wall, cocktail equivalent of an alcoholic dumping ground. It’s what it was always meant to be, and it’s just as Anderson predicted it would be: “for as long as Americans are forced to live in uncivilized lands” he wrote, “the making of jungle juice will flourish.”

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