Saloons in the Wild West


‘Sometimes too much drink is barely enough’
Mark Twain

THE INFAMOUS LONGBRANCH SALOON ON THE LEFTSaloon 1

There just ain’t no talkin’ about the Old West, without mentioning the dozens, no hundreds – er, thousands of saloons of the American West. The very term “saloon” itself, conjures up a picture within our minds of an Old West icon, complete with a wooden false front, a wide boardwalk flanking the dusty street, a couple of hitchin’ posts, and the always present swinging doors brushing against the cowboy as he made his way to the long polished bar in search of a whiskey to wet his parched throat.

When America began its movement into the vast West, the saloon was right behind, or more likely, ever present. Though places like Taos and Santa Fe, New Mexico already held a few Mexican cantinas, they were far and few between until the many saloons of the West began to sprout up wherever the pioneers established a settlement or where trails crossed.

The first place that was actually called a “saloon” was at Brown’s Hole near the Wyoming- -Utah border. Established in 1822, Brown’s Saloon catered to the many trappers during the heavy fur trading days.

Saloons were ever popular in a place filled with soldiers, which included one of the West’s first saloons at Bent’s Fort, Colorado in the late 1820s; or with cowboys, such as Dodge City, Kansas; and wherever miners scrabbled along rocks or canyons in search of their fortunes. When gold was discovered near Santa Barbara, California in 1848, the settlement had but one cantina. However, just a few short years later, the town boasted more than thirty saloons. In 1883, Livingston, Montana, though it had only 3,000 residents had 33 saloons.

The first western saloons really didn’t fit our classic idea of what a saloon looks like, but rather, were hastily thrown together tents or lean-to’s where a lonesome traveler might strike up a conversation, where a cowman might make a deal, or a miner or a soldier might while away their off hours. However, as the settlement became more populated, the saloon would inevitably prosper, taking on the traditional trimmings of the Old West.
Saloon 2
In those hard scrabble days, the whiskey served in many of the saloons was some pretty wicked stuff made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar and a little chewing tobacco. No wonder it took on such names as Tanglefoot, Forty-Rod, Tarantula Juice, Taos Lightning, Red Eye, and Coffin Varnish.

Also popular was Cactus Wine, made from a mix of tequila and peyote tea, and Mule Skinner, made with whiskey and blackberry liquor. The house rotgut was often 100 proof, though it was sometimes cut by the barkeep with turpentine, ammonia, gun powder or cayenne.

The most popular term for the libation served in saloons was Firewater, which originated when early traders were selling whiskey to the Indians. To convince the Indians of the high alcohol content, the peddlers would pour some of the liquor on the fire, as the Indians watched the fire begin to blaze.

But the majority of western saloon regulars drank straight liquor — rye or bourbon. If a man ordered a “fancy” cocktail or “sipped” at his drink, he was often ridiculed unless he was “known” or already had a proven reputation as a “tough guy.” Unknowns, especially foreigners who often nursed their drinks, were sometimes forced to swallow a fifth of 100 proof at gunpoint “for his own good.”