The Saratoga Sun -

Getting in the spirit


I have been immersing myself in the world of spirits lately. Not the Halloween ghostie spirit type, but the culture of alcohol.

A project I am working on has me coming across bits of info I have found interesting on the consumption of spirits.

A lot of what I have come across, is mostly historical and not so relevant to modern times.

Still, more than once when looking through my books—I have over 200 books on bartending, spirits and recipes published before 1930’s and another 500 or so from the decades after—I find myself saying to myself, “that was pretty cool”.

Sometimes I would read things that were just funny.

Alcoholica Esoterica by Ian Lender cracked me up with some of it’s quotes.

For instance:

“The Church is near but the road is icy. The bar is far away but I will walk carefully”

—Russian proverb

“One Tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.”

—George Carlin

“Vodka is tasteless going down, but it is memorable coming up.”

—Garrison Keillor

“In victory we deserve it, in defeat we need it”

—Winston Churchill

(on Champagne)

Go West, Young Man

My project has me searching hard for bits on Old West drinking culture.

Before I started this endeavor, I learned at a Jim Beam Distillery seminar that bourbon that left the distilleries for the west did not stay the same across the journey. The whiskey often got cut with industrial alcohol flavored with tobacco, pepper, prune juice or soap.

Alcoholic prune juice? Not something I want to try—and I consider myself adventurous.

At the Beam lecture, I learned Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr., a distiller in Kentucky, lobbied Congress in 1897 to pass the Bottled-in-Bond Act. The government guaranteed the whiskey’s quality by how it was bottled, packaged and the warehouses the government certified.

This was actually the first federal consumer protection in the United States.

Bourbon has always enjoyed a special status with the House of Representatives, as the spirit was made the official drink of the United States Congress. This history led Congress in 1964 to declare bourbon a distinctive product of the United States.

Whiskey drank in the West in this time period was called “rotgut, coffin varnish and tanglefoot” to name a few labels to what was sold. The names don’t surprise me if tobacco was being used for flavor. Nor was I bowled over when I found the first business interest in Dodge City, a town many think of as the epitome of a Wild West town, was a tent that sold whiskey. In 1876, the population was 1,200 and there were 19 whiskey saloons.

Beer didn’t arrive until 1879. What I didn’t know was that it was not only considered polite to drink with your gun hand, it was smart, because having it in use, demonstrated friendly intentions. Hmmm…

As drinking became more “cultured” out west, turn-of-the-century saloons became more refined and the nicer ones had parlors off to the side for refined womenfolk of the town.

The drinks might have been alcoholic punches, but these areas were more of a social club with elegant decanters and crystal glasses. Nothing rough and tumble about these rooms.

The Bon Vivant’s Companion, a bartending book published in 1862 and one of the authoritative resources for the country until prohibition, notes these punches would sometimes be chilled to such a point they became jelly. The book warns that “if taken in so plentifully, it could make a person unfit for waltzing or quadrilling after supper.”

What I find hilarious is that upper crust society created the precursor to the jello-shot.

Some Crazy laws that were on the books

I came across some laws that made me laugh out loud even though most didn’t come from the West.

There was a law, since repealed, making it illegal to give a moose alcohol in Fairbanks, Alaska. Apparently a bar owner had a pet moose that would come to the bar, and patrons would give the moose beer. The mayor took a dim view of a drunken moose wandering the streets so he got the council to pass the law.

It is illegal to get a fish drunk in Ohio. Far as I can tell, the law is still in effect.

There is a law prohibiting agricultural runoff from poisoning fish in Ohio waterways. Sometimes the runoff has alcohol in it from grain silos which might be fermenting.

Possibly the poisoned fish are intoxicated before they die. That law's purpose is to prevent animals in the area from eating the poisoned fish.

You can’t sit on a curb in St. Louis and drink beer from a bucket. That one is still good as of 2015 according the website

According to the same website and some other books I read that talked about stupid liquor laws was that in Nebraska, it is illegal for a bar to sell beer unless it is simultaneously brewing a kettle of soup.

Grapes of ….

I don’t usually concern myself with wine info, though I worked for a wine company from New Zealand a couple years back ... so I am not ignorant of vino.

According to legend, white wine was first produced in Europe because emperor Charlemange was persuaded to plant white wine grapes throughout his kingdom by his wife, Luitgard. She didn’t like the way red wine stained his white beard. I guess that is one way to get red wine stains out.

Another discovery was the practice of stomping grapes with bare feet was a dangerous job. Fermentation releases alcohol and carbon dioxide, so standing in a large tub of fermenting grapes meant standing in a rising column of carbon dioxide which sometimes led to suffocation and death.

I wonder if they dumped that wine out?

Winding down

the spirits trail

There is so much information about how the world of alcohol has shaped our culture. I was surprised to learn colonial children got tastes of rum each morning because parents believed it warded off diseases.

The pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock because the Mayflower sailors were tired of sharing their beer and decided it was time the settlers got off.

In 1809, President James Madison attempted to establish a national brewery. He also wanted to appoint a new position to his cabinet—the secretary of beer. Obviously, that didn’t happen.

During my research, one proverb, saying or whatever you call it, I came across recently reminded me of my days in college. I believe is still said today: “Liquor before beer, never fear, Beer before liquor, never sicker”

True or not, I hope moderation is always the goal when partaking because research I have been doing lately is on hangover cures ... and some are crazy.

One that stands out comes from the Wild West lore: Brew plenty of well-dried jack rabbit droppings in a tea.

I think the actual cure would come after drinking that ... it would make a person never want to get a hangover again.


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