Over time, a few places became very important metropolitan centers in the West. San Francisco, of course, which exploded after the gold rush that began in 1849. Then there was Salt Lake City, Denver, Dodge City, Kansas City, and a whole bunch of others in Texas and the deep southwest.
And these places were where the wealthy transplants from back east, the new money from frontier entrepreneurs, and the everyday ranch hands and cowpokes would mingle, share news, have a drink or five, and occasionally bathe. Which brings us to our question: what were the rich folks imbibing, and what were the poor folk swilling?
This was the time when saloons came into full swing, some as stand-alone establishments, and some housed in the fancier hotels where people of means were lodged.
In response to the question of what types of drinks were commonly consumed in the old west saloons, Frontier Fare columnist Sherry Monahan says, “While it’s true that wine, beer and whiskey were largely consumed in most Western saloons, many also offered fancy mixed drinks. They were quite popular in the wealthier communities, like San Francisco, Denver and Dodge City, where bars served drinks such as the Gin Sling, Mint Julep and Whiskey Punch.”
And Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble adds:
“Depending on the location and year, a shot of whiskey usually cost around a quarter. Beer was around 10 cents a glass. The mixed drinks went up from that price.”
Working Class Liquor
From what I can gather online, skilled craftsman were generally paid around $2.00/day, and we can assume that other trades spread out from there, with many folks coming into lump-sum payments after finishing cattle drives or fulfilling commercial orders.
The bottom line is: if you weren’t a business owner or a wealthy carpetbagger from back east, chances are you were on the lookout for affordable booze whenever you could find it, and whatever it tasted like.
For a little inspiration, I visited “The Old West Glossary of Strong Drink” online to see what cowpokes were calling their hooch, and I was not disappointed.
Some of the colorful names for the absolute roughest whiskey and illegally fortified or distilled spirits include:
- Bug Juice
- Forty Rod
- Fusel Oil
- Nose Paint
- Red Eye
- Stagger Juice
- Valley Tan
Just to name a few. You can’t help but lapse into a cowboy accent when your read those.
And there are a couple items on this list that you can kind of identify as cost-savers for these thirsty, lower-class frontiersmen.
One is the “fusel oil” that I mentioned above, which kind of served as a “rotating tap” as a manner of speaking. But really it was just any fermented beverage that either a saloon owner or a mobile person on a wagon would offer straight from the barrel for an affordable price. It was the PBR tallboy of the Wild West. And the beauty of fusel oil is that you could use whatever was in season. In the winter, it was probably closer to beer, made using grain or starchy roots, and in the summer, you could use anything from apples, to grapes, to cactus fruit, depending on what nature or your local farmer had to offer.
And another, slightly less honorable practice that was often used by saloon owners was cutting (or fortifying) these spirits with all manner of other ingredients to make the barrel or the bottle last a little longer, and perhaps keep their prices lower than the saloon on the other side of town. You’ll see this practice come back about 80 years later during Prohibition when booze was also hard to come by.
But enough about those crusty gauchos and penniless drifters.
What if you were a well-to-do lady or gentleman who just arrived on the latest train from Chicago? Perhaps you might be more enticed by a so-called “fancy” mixed drink that you’d need to specify by name to avoid some of the questionable concoctions that some of these saloons would serve.
And chances are, you’d have some sort of palatable option. There are a whole swarm of drinks that became popular around this time that all were kind of orbiting and being pulled in the direction of the cocktail, including:
- The Sangaree, which was any beer, wine, or spirit, cut with water, sweetened with sugar, and topped with spice, like nutmeg. Almost like a lazy punch
- Then there’s the Sling, which included 2 oz of a spirit, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 oz of water, and a small lump of ice.
- And of course, as the 19th century drew on, there were the popular juleps and smashes, which included shaved ice, fruit and herb garnishes, and in some cases multiple liquors.
Another benefit of more transportation and improved technology was carbonation, and this is where you see sodas made from citrus and various other flavoring agents (including – lo and behold – sarsaparilla) becoming popular mixers, especially for lighter drinks in warmer climates.