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  • Writer's pictureDave Rodgers

Bottoms Up! Cocktails and Spirits in the Old West...

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

But Wait! I thought Frontiersmen Ate Nail-heads and Gun Powder When They Were Not Quenching Their Thirst With Benzine and Snake Venom! Here's More Insight on How Our Frontier Forebears did Enjoy a Stiff Drink, but They Also Appreciated Flavor Too.

Article by Erik Schultz & Intro by Dave Rodgers

Jerry Thomas, author of The Bartenders Guide or the Bon Vivant’s Companion (1862)


I have had many people ask that I at least mention something about the alcohol consumed in the days of the Old West. So much can be written but I'll stick to the western states & territories west of the Rockies at the time of the California Gold Rush for now. During the 1850s east of the Rockies, an intricate system of wagon and river transportation kept the settlements well supplied. West of the Rockies, most of the cargo was flowing in through the port of San Francisco. There were southern routes west in addition to smaller ports such as San Diego, San Pedro, and Monterrey but San Francisco really was the hub. According to the Annals of San Francisco for the year of 1853, one conclusion can be reasonably drawn. Per capita...they drank a lot.

Yes, there were teetotalers who never imbibed but for an estimated population of about 400,000 souls between the Sierras and the coast, a remarkable amount of booze was imported in just 1853.

For example:

  • Whiskey - 20.000 Barrels (about 650,000 gallons)

  • Rum - 400 Barrels (about 13.000 gallons), there hadn't been many pirates in California since 1818...or 19th century Americans simply lost their taste for the stuff.

  • Brandy - 9,000 Casks, Hogsheads, & Pipes - 13,000 Barrels - 2,600 Kegs - 6,000 Cases. (conservatively, 1.035 million gallons)

  • Champagne - 34,000 baskets (a basket is about 3 gallons so about 102,000 gallons)

Beer & Wine

Beer - was produced as a household recipe or in small local drinking establishments but would not really be produced in large California breweries until later on in the century. That said over 2-million gallons of beer were imported through the port according to the San Francisco Port Registry in the year 1853.

Horace Bell wrote of his early days in Southern California during the 1850-70s. Here is an observation he made of life in 1853 Los Angeles at Roy Bean's 'Headquarters' a popular saloon at the San Gabriel Mission, when everyone went out for a drink on Sunday.

" Old Jackson," the village pettifogger, stood behind the bar dealing out whisky to the American, aguardiente to the Mexican and Indian, angelica to the feminine angels therein congregated..."

-Reminiscences of a Ranger, Horace Bell (1881)

Wines were very common in California. The very first California winery was established at Mission San Juan Capistrano (1783). By 1853, there were numerous private wineries producing wine, aguardiente, and angelica. In addition to that, San Francisco port registries reported about 1.056-million gallons of wine imported in 1853 alone.

  • Aguardiente is a strong alcohol distilled from grapes and is common in California and throughout Spanish-speaking North America. It is similar to grappa, & tastes similar to sambuca.

  • Angelica is a sweet dessert wine made from mission grapes. It remains a favorite at various wineries.

I deferred this one to a lifelong friend and historian who has really covered the proverbial bases on the various spirits served through America's past. In this case, Erik sheds some clarity on what people were drinking in the early days of the far west.



Bottoms Up!

By Erik Schultz

The saloon was a ubiquitous feature of every western movie. The town watering hole was a gambling hall, bordello, meeting hall and/ or theater. In most movies the cowboy is looking to cut the dust with the cry of Whiskey or Beer. But while that is what we see in the movies, was that the limits of what they drank? Of course that would depend on what was available, and ever whiskey and beer might not be what the house would serve. And even then it might not be the straight shot that that the movies like to show.

When we talk whiskey, we assume it is bourbon and we would be wrong. The most common whiskey prior to the 1880’s is rye. In his book “Imbibe” (2015) David Wondrich explores the history of the American cocktail through Jerry Thomas’s masterpiece “The Bartenders Guide or the Bon Vivant’s Companion” published in 1862. The was the first tome on how to mix drinks. Before you say the cocktail is a modern creation, the term first appears in print in the United States in the Farmers Cabinet in 1803.

Old Monongahela Rye

Before you dismiss the idea that no one on the frontier would order such a concoction, let’s go back to the Bar Tenders Guide and Christian Schultz’s recipe for Old Monongahela Rye.

  • Take three gallons of Old Monongahela and mix it with 7 gallons of grain spirit (like Everclear) and dilute with water back down to 80 to 100 proof.

If that does not sound all that appealing, then just as in the days of prohibition when you wanted to offset the bathtub gin, you might just order a cocktail.

Old Fashion

A cocktail was originally defined as a "mix of one or more strong spirits, sugar or sweet liquor and bitters". What we think of as an 'old fashion' was the original cocktail, but a little less dressed up than it is today.

  • Into a small bar glass, add a lump of sugar, 2 or three dashes of bitters, middle and add 2 ounces of what passes for rye whiskey. Serve with a spoon to stir the sugars.

You can also make a cocktail with brandy or gin. Into a small bar glass add a lump of sugar ( cube or ½ teaspoon) and a couple of dashes ) but with a couple of dashes of bitters and a couple of dashes of curaçoa (or curaçao, an orange liquor) and two ounces of either brandy or gin.

Rethink the Word 'Cocktail'

We now use the term cocktail as a generic for all kinds of drinks such as toddys, sours, fixes, juleps, smashes and eggnogs. Each of these are actually unique from the original use of the word 'cocktail'. Per the 1859 definition below:

  • Cocktail: A stimulating beverage, made of brandy or gin, mixed with sugar and a very little water. In the American's Apostrophe to Bon Gaultier, addressed to Dickens, after his visit to the United States, he says: "Did we spare our brandy cocktails, stint thee of our whiskey-grogs? Half the juleps that we gave thee would have floored a Newman Noggs. Book of Ballads."

-Dictionary of Americanisms 2nd Edition, John R. Bartlett (1859)

Brandy, Whiskey, and Watered-Down Drinks

Brandy is much unchanged and many available today will have a similar profile to those available back in the 19th century. While the standard American whiskey was rye; bourbon, scotch and Irish whiskeys were also available in the 19th century US. But all of these would likely have been diluted by the proprietor as a keg of 95% grain spirit can be mixed to stretch out a few gallons of the good stuff while still having the desired effect if not the flavor.


Our favorite London dry gins are not common until 1890. The gin of choice is Old Tom Gin and Holland gin called which has a different flavor profile. The gin of choice is Old Tom Gin and Holland gin called Genever ( pronounce as Jennifer). Both have a maltier flavor and the juniper does not dominate the flavor. Both are available today.

What is a Toddy?

Less complicated than the cocktail is a toddy. The toddy omits the bitters and uses water to dissolve the sugar.

  • Add a teaspoon of sugar and an ounce of water with 2 ounces of spirit. The toddy can be served with ice or hot by using boiling water. Note the lack of any fruit juice like lemon. If you are John Townsend, you can order a sling which is a toddy with grated nutmeg on top.

Fixes and Sours

The Fix and sour like the toddy and sling are pretty much the same thing except for presentation. Interesting that Thomas’s 1862 guide has only a gin and brandy sour.

  • To make a sour start with a teaspoon of sugar, and ounce of water, the juice of a quarter of a lemon and 2 ounces of spirit. This should be served over crushed ice. The fix is the same only top with fruits in season. The guide does say that rum can be substituted for the brandy.

The Julep

The quintessential American drink was the julep. This predated the Kentucky Derby and was not made exclusively with whiskey the original recipe is for cognac brandy.

  • 1 table spoon of white pulverized sugar (confectioners) two tablespoons of water, three or four sprigs of fresh mint. Press the mint to release the flavor (do not smash the mint, just press), add half a wine glass of cognac and fill the glass with ice. Draw the mint leaves out and place stem down into the ice. Dash with Jamaican rum and sprinkle the top with sugar. Top with fruits and berries. The guide says you can substitute brandy, gin or whiskey but you should omit all fruits and berries.

Egg Nogg

Egg Nogg (spelling from the guide) is a drink of American origin. This recipe from the Bartenders guide does not taste at all like the stuff sold today.

  • One tablespoon of fine sugar (modern white sugar), one tablespoon of water, one whole egg, two ounces cognac, one ounce Santa Cruz rum ( not sure why the specify, thinking a good aged rum) 1/3 tumbler full of milk. The 1/3 tumbler is one measurement that the book imbibe does not detail but on using other sources this should be four ounces. Because modern milk separates out the crème, I use half and half. Place all of the above in an tin shaker with cracked ice and shake like mad. Strain into a glass. I use a fork or bar spoon to break up the egg before shaking.

The last thing I want is a drink with runny egg bits so whip it first before shaking with ice. Yes, Mr. Townsend, if you're reading this, you may grate some nutmeg on top.


Erik Schultz is a historian and living history interpreter. He is a 35 year member of various historic societies across North America and Europe who has written considerably on military history and historic anthropology. As a connoisseur of fine drinks, I felt he was the best choice to get this discussion started. For more historic recipes, check out his social media page, Bottom Shelf Booze.

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Mar 02, 2021

Thank you, great article.


Arizona Ghostriders
Arizona Ghostriders
Mar 02, 2021

I love it! Excellent info. Great photos, as well.

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