In the back of my freezer resides a bottle of a chilled bourbon liqueur called “Jeremiah Weed.” Because most of my best friends wear G-suits for a living, I was inculcated pretty early on as to the importance this elixir has in Fighter Pilot Culture. It resides in squadron bars, O-Club freezers, and in the homes of countless aerial warriors across the globe. Even Dos Gringos, a band fronted by two F-16 pilots, have written a song extolling its virtue to the uninitiated.

Many have asked about what makes it special, and, quite honestly, it’s difficult to put into words, as are most traditions in the tactical aviation world. It means different things to different people: sometimes it comes out to celebrate, but other times it comes out to mark the passing of one of our own. That’s the case with my bottle; the level has gone down over the past couple of years at a somewhat alarming rate, to my own bereavement and that of countless others in our fighter “family.”

I’d be happy if it stayed in my freezer for years between pours, instead months or in the case of last fall, weeks.

So what makes it special? It’s certainly not the taste, which hits the palette like a razor blade and finishes with hints of  Drano and kerosene. Like the men and women who fly fighters, it’s not the what that makes it special. It’s the personality–the who. And though JW may be simply a liqueur, there’s definitely some strong personality in every bottle.

So how did Jeremiah Weed get into the world of fighter pilots? Sit back, relax, and enjoy our tale…

As the story goes, there was an incident with aircraft from what is today’s 414 CTS–the parent squadron for the massive Red Flag Large Force Employment exercises at Nellis AFB, Nevada. On 1 December of 1978, two McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms took off to go fly a Defensive BFM sortie approximately seventy miles north of Las Vegas. During the first engagement, a non-recoverable situation developed in one of the aircraft, culminating in a short-lived fireball, shallow crater and–thankfully–two good parachutes. The other Rhino circled until the crew was recovered, then safely returned to base.

A McDonnell Douglas QF-4E taxis back to park after landing at Nellis AFB.
A McDonnell Douglas QF-4E taxis back to park after landing at Nellis AFB.

A year later, both pilots involved in that F-4 mishap at Nellis were cadre at the F-16 Operational Test and Evaluation squadron at Hill AFB in Layton, Utah. On the anniversary of their short-lived BFM engagement, they both were actually airborne and flying back down to Vegas to participate in a Red Flag. After locating the crash site from the air, easy to do given their familiarity with the terrain and incident, the two now-Viper pilots developed a plan to visit the crash site by car.

The day following their arrival, they departed Nellis with a third pilot, intending to follow the maps they’d drawn in the cockpit of their F-16s on the way down and camp out in the crater left behind when the F-4 argued with the ground…and lost. By the time the men arrived at the dirt spur road they believed would lead them to their bullseye, the sun had set, making navigation by dead reckoning significantly more challenging (READ: damn near impossible!). For those of you who have never been driving across the NTTR at night, take a look here for my best recollection of the experience.

Parachute flares light up a village hiding an HVT and his henchmen out on Range 62 in the NTTR.
Parachute flares light up a village hiding an HVT and his henchmen out on Range 62 in the NTTR. Without the flares, this area is as black as a coal mine at midnight, and a dangerous trek if you’re not paying attention.

After a couple solid-but-fruitless tries, they called an abort and cleared themselves off to a roadside watering hole they’d seen to ask for the correct vectors. What they found was an empty establishment with a grizzled, hairy-faced, hard-as-nails (I imagine him as a cranky and hungover Kris Kristofferson) bartender who was more than thrilled to have a trio of fighter jocks in his establishment.

Conversation ensued, RsOE were established, and the drinking games commenced. Not long after the first few setups in a game called “Horses,” and since they were victorious in each merge to that point, reaching the crater fell further and further down the list of mission-essential tasks for the pilots that evening.

One of the men, the pilot of the F-4 that survived the incident in question, asked the bartender if he knew how to do, of all things, an afterburner. Amazingly, the bartender replied that he had not and asked for a data dump. More than happy to oblige, the pilot explained how a shot of a high-proof liquor is ignited so the alcohol on top burns and the drinker downs the shot. If done in optimal fashion, the shot glass returns to the bar with a blue flame still alight in the bottom–and without loss of eyebrows, nose hair, or burning facial tissues.

(Easily offended ears should mute the audio, but here’s an excellent lesson. And please note the presence of JW, as well as proper use of the So To Speak!)

So said begrizzled bartender advised he was Winchester on the normal fuel (brandy) for an afterburner, but managed to locate a bottle of–you guessed it–Jeremiah Weed under the bar.

Three shots poured. Three shots ignited. Three empty shot glasses with blue flames dancing in the bottom. Good kill.

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So it was the bartender’s turn to attempt to down an afterburner. The problem he encountered was while he groomed his mustache and beard out of the way, the afterburner had been lit and was heating up the glass at the top of the vessel. He held it at the base (so to speak) where the more substantial glass layer prevented heat transfer to his fingertips. By the time he tilted his cranium back to do the shot and put the glass to his lips, things went bad.

Apparently there was much sizzling of skin, which was immediately followed by the worst mistake you can ever make while drinking an afterburner: the dreaded flinch. That was the point where the bartender caught his beard and–well, pretty much his entire face–on fire as the burning liqueur became an inferno spreading across his skin.

So the story continues with the pilots tackling the bartender and trying to pat the flames out before things went bad to worse. So with the smell of scorched flesh and burning hair hanging heavy (so to speak), things calmed down significantly. Feeling terrible about the mishap, the three pilots bought another bottle of Weed from the bartender. One of the scorched man’s friends arrived at the bar in time to witness the near-death experience and continued to render aid. In true bro fashion, the newcomer gave the three pilots the correct coordinates for their target area and cleared them off.

The trio found the crater not long after their departure from the bar and spent the rest of the night camping out and consuming the second bottle of Weed. The next morning, they gathered a few pieces of the fallen Rhino as souvenirs, then made a hasty RTB to Nellis. Their first stop was the O-Club bar, where they showed the manager the empty bottle of Jeremiah Weed they’d brought back, requesting she add it to her stock.

So in short, the tradition was born at The Home of the Fighter Pilot, where flyers came through during Red Flags and Weapons School, heard the story and downed a shot of Weed at the conclusion as a sort of homage. Facts became story. Story became legend. And thus, Jeremiah Weed became a part of the brotherhood.