The Drinks of Westerns; or, Wild Western Whiskey

“Gimme a whiskey.”

Straight up. The man’s man manly drink.

Not milk (which got Destry roundly mocked by Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again) or “soda pop” (which got Shane a fistful of trouble in Shane). And my god–no red wine (I got mocked for that in one little town–ever since then I only drink the best the bottom shelf has to offer).

“Gimme a whiskey.” At that command,  the bartender, if he is in 1800s San Francisco and serving Paladin, reverently pours a  shot glass of the malted beverage, which the man sniffs deeply of and then downs it with a genteel murmur of pleasure.

And if Yul Brynner of Westworld asks for a drink, leave the vicinity. Immediately.

If the bartender is in a tough frontier town, he’ll yank a bottle from the shelf and slop some into a shot glass. The cowhand/gunslinger/ranch owner/drifter will knock it back and nudge the glass. “I’ll have another.”  Maybe the bartender will leave the bottle there for some extra change for the man to pour and pour again.

There’s a vast world of difference between the two–a world of fermenting and government regulation and artisanal preciousness. The world of…WHISKEY. (cue stirring western theme!)

A business and lifestyle online mag for executives describes whiskey in fawning terms thusly: “Whiskey is for closers. It’s a game changer that can be used to seal the deal in almost any situation.” It references the cowboys in spaghetti westerns as demanding whiskey when they come into a bar. Already not a fan of executives who need someone telling them one kind of accoutrement to buy to make them powerful, I was doubly outraged at the wrongness of the reference.

“Buckos,” I’d tell these wannabe game changers who are wearing Au Desperate cologne, “You’ve got to understand that the kind of rock’em sock’em whiskey that writer is describing was the most cheapass, rotgut crap you’d ever taste. You want good whiskey back in the 1800s Old West? You’d have to go to a posh city saloon, although maybe, just maybe, you’d find a Scottish immigrant fermenting some choice barley. Better off drinking milk.”

Whiskey back then usually wasn’t aged. Why age it? The only people coming through weren’t interested in the taste of their liquor. They just wanted something to get them off as fast and cheaply as possible: hence moonshine and rotgut. So even movies don’t even get it right, because the rich amber color of a good malt whiskey, bourbon, or rye whiskey comes from being aged in casks.

Whiskey these days is damn good because of regulation. Ouch, executives. Government regulation, with a bit of proprietary interest from the distilleries. While artisanal whiskey and bourbon makers in hipster-centric Brooklyn may rail against Kentucky bourbon’s rules (must be from Kentucky, etc.) the kind of sour-mash stuff the cowboys drank could have killed them, if the person distilling it didn’t care too much what he put in there to make a buck.

So watch what you wish for, execs. Free-range whiskey? Or utterly divine single malt?

As for the rest of us, we get what we pay for. As Blue (Lee Majors) would say from Will Penny (1968) “Sure burns a dollars’ worth.”

Tomorrow I’m toiling in an actual office, so Friday (good timing) the Silver-Screen Western Hero’s Guide to Drinking Whiskey. Now pardon me if I go have another…

4 comments to The Drinks of Westerns; or, Wild Western Whiskey

  • Tim

    Hi Bucko,

    Maybe someone could market a real old-time true-western-style whiskey for the devil may care . . . I wonder what it would taste like? Oh wait . . . I probably know.

    Possibly the equivalent of the ‘cowboy coffee’ we used to drink out in BC logging camps because no one knew or had the time to make real coffee. Dump in coffee grounds (sometimes already used), boil – there you go! Or the skunk beer they used to serve at the end o the winter where I grew up, before a new shipment came in. I don’t know if anyone died from it, but a few came close . . .

    And besides, in my West at least, you didn’t drink for taste or for anything else but to get hammered . .


  • bucko

    Hiya Tim–the shiver that went through me is from being in the virtual presence of a cowboy-up kind a guy! Cowboy coffee, skunk beer: it makes me happy to be on the faux side of the Great Divide. I grew up in a place where you drank less for taste than for effect–that part of the West is universal. Part of the hard-work ethos in logging camps to assembly lines, perhaps? But there is a real old-time 1800s-style whiskey being brewed these days–will reveal tomorrow. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

  • Tim

    Bucko – I’ll read on in a moment – but I know all about ‘less for taste than effect’ – it wasn’t even until my mid-20’s that I realized that there was any other kind of drinking. Basically, where I grew up, a bad hangover was a badge of a good night well spent – in fact you felt ripped off if you didn’t have a hangover.

    And a lifetime of bad hangovers have ensued . . . but yeah, it must be part of the whole physical labour, harsh environment thing. The need to numb oneself, the less romantic side of the West . . .


  • bucko

    The less romantic side is right! Nothing fun about hangovers, unless that is all you can look forward to, perhaps?

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