Bourbon by Dane Huckelbridge

Bourbon by Dane Huckelbridge

Author:Dane Huckelbridge
Language: eng
Format: epub
ISBN: 9780062241412
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: 2014-02-25T16:00:00+00:00

According to some sources, Mark Twain was as fond of Old Crow as he was of tall tales.

(Old Crow)

How solemn and beautiful, indeed. While the passage is certainly pat, and definitely marked by Twain’s signature hyperbole, his statement captures the essence of bourbon. And while the foreigner Twain mentions may have confused the anecdotal whiskey jug for a proverbial star, we are far more concerned, at least in this chapter, with “the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman” that Twain mentions just before. So let us begin. . . .

Whiskey and the West have been on intimate terms since our nation’s first teetering baby steps in cowboy boots. When Lewis and Clark embarked in 1804 to explore the latter, they carried along with them ample portions of the former—six whole kegs, in fact—and even that proved inadequate. They ran out of the hard stuff at the Great Falls, and the journey that followed proved challenging without it. When the Yellowstone expedition ventured some fifteen years later into unexplored lands west of the Missouri, they were greeted by a Pawnee warrior who motioned toward his throat and playfully begged for “Whiskey, whiskey!” And we know that by 1818, the distiller Harrison Hall was labeling corn-based whiskeys produced west of the Appalachians—i.e., bourbon—“Western” whiskeys. Any fur trapper, prospector, or horse trader who alighted upon lands wild and unknown was almost certain to have some whiskey on his person, for the dual purposes of consumption and commerce. These very early encounters with the hard stuff, on the raw edge of the frontier, are what account for the amusing although not entirely accurate notion that the Western whiskey of the miners and cowboys that followed shortly thereafter was equally suitable as high-proof varnish remover. With stagecoaches and railroads still in the offing, the first whiskey to hit the frontier was more often than not rotgut, and, supply-chain issues aside, it was of such poor quality for a pretty good reason—neither the mountain men nor the Native Americans for whom it was intended were in a very good position to negotiate its quality, or demand otherwise.

The initial wave of hardscrabble and hirsute white settlers came to the West searching for beaver, buffalo, gold, and timber. And once these were procured, they immediately sought out something to drink—which brings us to the whiskey peddler, the progenitor of the legendary Western saloon. As soon as a trading post or mining camp was hacked out of the wild, a crude whiskey hall of some sort would generally accompany it. Such early saloons varied from upturned wagons to tents to simple dugouts cut into the sod. One settler described the following makeshift frontier saloon in Kansas:

It consisted of crotched stakes . . . which supported a ridge-pole, across which some old sailcloth was drawn . . . forming a cabin some six by eight feet, and perhaps from three to five and a half feet high—large enough to contain two whiskey barrels, two decanters, several glasses, three or four cans of pickled oysters and two or three boxes of sardines but nothing of the bread kind whatever.


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