The Wild West

Drinking In The West:
Primitive Alcohol in Primitive Western Saloons

Quality and flavor among saloon whiskies throughout the 1800s varied due mainly to how few were regulations about producing alcohol. Additionally, trademark and copyright rules were lax, meaning there was little oversight to prevent someone from calling a product “Pure Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 10 Years.”



Once a town was first founded, the initial saloons propped up as modest tents or shacks that served homemade whiskey which included such ingredients as "raw alcohol, burnt sugar and chewing tobacco.” To stretch their profits as their businesses scaled, saloon owners would cut good whiskey with turpentine, ammonia, gunpowder or cayenne. Their custom product was called by names like "Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish."

Cactus Wine, made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea was popular as was the Mule Skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor. Rye or bourbon were also popular drinks. Beer was also common, but was served at room temperature since refrigeration was mostly unavailable until Adolphus Busch introduced refrigeration and pasteurization to the brewing process in 1880 with his Budweiser brand. Some saloons kept the beer in kegs stored on racks inside the saloon, while others made their own beer.


In the decades after the Civil War, distillers making what we today would generally recognize as bourbon only supplied about 10 percent of the whiskey market. The rest of the whiskey was made by giant distilleries churning out what were basically grain neutral spirits: a product distilled at such a high proof that it lacked much flavor and was almost identical from one distillery to the next.

These spirits were then sold to rectifiers who would “improve” them by re-distilling and mixing them with other flavorings and colors so they resembled whiskey. The results were sold to wholesalers, who bought spirits in bulk and created their own whiskey brands by mixing together whatever was at hand. These wholesalers were probably responsible for any aging that was done.

Some of the whiskey going west might have started out as bourbon, but somewhere along the journey to the saloon it was often mixed with additional water, grain and neutral spirits, and other ingredients to expand the supply and increase profits. Some products labeled as bourbon were actually distilled from a low-grade variety of molasses, and additives could include burnt sugar, glycerin, prune juice, and sulfuric acid.



The whiskey industry was riddled with this sort of crooked behavior, and it took years of opposition from reformers both within and outside the industry to introduce quality standards. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt's Pure Food and Drug Act added regulations for whiskey in addition to many foodstuffs. Within the whiskey industry were distillers like Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. and George Garvin Brown, who pushed for quality standards that eventually helped lead to the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897, which made the U.S. Government the quality guarantor of a Bottled-in-Bond whiskey. This required that the alcohol was all made at one place and that the label correctly identified the maker