The Wild, Wooly, and Pretty Wet West by gaz regan
A short article on saloons during the 19th century - what a fascinating time in American history.
“They were the men who forged forward, stretching the boundaries of this great country. They lived rough, they lived tough, and they drank lots of whiskey while they were at it. But don’t think for a second that the men and women who tamed the West did it so that you and I could eventually visit Disneyland, surf at Long Beach, or drink fine California wines. Most of them were just out to make money in gold and silver mines, and many more were running away from trouble in the East. It was a tough life. They needed whiskey for comfort.
In Saloons of the Old West, author Richard Erdoes describes Western bars during the last half of the nineteenth century thus: “The saloon was all things to all men. Besides being a drinking place, it was an eatery, a hotel, a bath and comfort station, a livery stable, gambling den, dance hall, bordello, barbershop, courtroom, church, social club, political center, dueling ground, post office, sports arena, undertaker’s parlor, library, news exchange, theater, opera, city hall, employment agency, museum, trading post, grocery, ice cream parlor, even a forerunner of the movie house in which entranced cowhands cranked the handles of ornate kinetoscopes to watch the jerky movements of alluring cancan dancers.”
Yes, saloons were home to many businesses, and the bars of the West weren’t all glamorous affairs with gilded mirrors and lavish oil paintings that television and movies lead us to believe was the norm. Many joints were merely huts, some with false fronts to make them appear to have a second story, some bars were opened in tents, and still others, known as “Hell on Wheels,” were traveling wagons with a cask or two of whiskey sold by the shot or the jug from the back. One story has it that when asked what he had on his wagon, a traveler claimed to have twenty barrels of whiskey and a sack of flour. “What are you going to do with all that flour?” he was asked.
Whiskey, also known in the Wild West as conversation fluid, tongue oil, and tonsil varnish, wasn’t much like the whiskey we know now. If the good stuff was in short supply, some saloon owners just bought grain alcohol and added “essences and flavorings” until it tasted, well, it probably tasted terrible, but the tough guys in the West were far more into quantity than quality. Real whiskey was usually shipped at very high proof and was then diluted to around 45% abv before being served. So, if a barrel of whiskey at, say, 70-percent abv, was diluted to 45-percent abv, the saloon owner ended up with just over 1 1/2 barrels of whiskey, and in this way, money was saved on shipping for everyone concerned. But don’t think for a second that every saloonkeeper was scrupulously honest about the proof of his whiskey—you can bet your bottom dollar that some whiskey doubled in volume after the water was added.
Whiskey on riverboats was sometimes used to make brandy. Not real brandy, of course, but some concoction that was sold as brandy. Bartenders used burned peach pits, nitric acid, cod-liver oil, and “raw Kentucky whiskey” to make this stuff, and no doubt they sold it at a premium. Some riverboat bartenders were said to be great mixologists, hopefully able to make better cocktails than those served at Tucson’s Cosmopolitan Bar which featured a mixed drink made up of equal parts of mezcal and whiskey. I can’t find a name for this concoction, but Erdoes states that it was advertised as having “… the snakes strained out first.” Manhattans were also served in the West, but not in many places. If you ordered one in The Humboldt in Washington state, you were served a mixture of whiskey, gin, rum, brandy, aquavit, and bitters. The owner poured all this into a beer mug and stirred it with his finger before placing it on the bar.
Some famous outlaws were big whiskey drinkers, and some were also in the saloon business. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holliday all owned saloons, and/or tended bar at one time or another. Wild Bill Hickok, though, didn’t own a joint, but was sometimes found lying in the dirt, dead drunk, in front of a saloon. This happened often enough for him to be called Wild Bill Hiccup by some folk. Not, I imagine, to his face.
But Hickok wasn’t the only drunk in the West by a long chalk. Fred Hewett, owner of the previously mentioned Humboldt bar, boasted that he drank 120 shots of whiskey every day, claiming that consistency was essential in a drinking man. By the time Hewett reached the age of 70, though, he was sipping only 15 to 20 daily drams. In Hell’s Best Friend, author Jan Holden quotes him as saying that this was, “… just enough to keep my system toned up. But I really gave up drinking a long time ago.”
Bartenders in these saloons were often rough and ready characters, but some dressed quite elegantly. Buckskin Frank Leslie, a bartender at the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone, was described by C. L. Sonnichsen, author of Billy King’s Tombstone as ” … a complete dandy. His slender body was erect and shapely, and he loved to adorn it with shiney boots, checked pants, Prince Albert coat, and a stiff shirt with black pearl studs. He had a stovepipe hat for special occasions, too.”
Some bartenders were highly skilled, and could slide a glass of whiskey down the bar with the exact amount of force to cause it to halt in front of the customer who ordered it, but in many bars, if you ordered a shot of red-eye you would be presented with a glass and a bottle, and you could pour as little or as much as you liked for around ten cents. Mind you, it was considered bad manners to fill the glass to the rim, and the barkeep, or perhaps a nearby customer, might just ask you if you were intending to take a bath in the whiskey.
The guys behind the stick were summoned by many names other than bartender: bardog, tapster, hostler, and booze boss were all epithets for men who stood behind the mahogany, and surprisingly enough they were sometimes called Ganymedes, a term that refers to a character in Greek mythology who was “cup-bearer to the gods.” Some folk out West must have had a decent education.
Bartenders were well-respected men among the citizenry of the Wild West. In Roughing It, Mark Twain noted: “The cheapest and easiest way to become an influential man and be looked up to by the community at large, was to stand behind a bar, wear a cluster diamond pin, and sell whiskey … I am not sure but that the saloon keeper held a shade higher rank than any other member of society. His opinion had weight. It was his privilege to say how elections should be run. No great movement could succeed without the countenance and direction of the saloon keeper.”
Quotes from Mark Twain, Greek mythology—who would have thought that these subjects would arise in a piece about guys we think of as cowboys, and the whiskey they drank, but wait, there’s even more culture coming: Oscar Wilde once lectured miners in Leadville, Colorado, on “The Practical Application of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration, with Observations on Dress and Personal Ornament.” And the boys lapped it up. Not necessarily because the subject matter interested them, though—they were paying respect to someone who had bought them all plenty of whiskey on the evening previous to his speech, had kept up with them as they downed shot after shot, and left the bar seeming none the worse for wear.
The Wild West was more or less tamed by the time the twentieth century began, but Westerners retained a taste for whiskey, even through the dry years of Prohibition. Newspaperman H. L. Mencken wrote a wonderful tale about the San Francisco Democratic Convention in 1920, the first year of the Noble Experiment. When the delegates arrived at their hotels they were waited on by “refined and well‑dressed ladies,” and no matter what they ordered, they were served “Bourbon of the very first chop, Bourbon aged in contented barrels of the finest white oak, Bourbon of really ultra and super quality.” The whiskey was provided by Mayor James Rolph, Jr., of San Francisco. God bless him.”
Source: gaz regan