The cowboy and his drink have a history as rough and rugged as the Wild West
The truth about cowboys of the old West is they had a lot of psychological problems about drinking.
Oh, they did it all right. Plenty. But they seem to have had a love-hate relationship with it.
Case in point: They mostly all drank whiskey. But did they just call it whiskey?
It went by names like tonsil paint, busthead, tarantula juice, snake “pizen,” coffin varnish, rot gut, red eye, firewater and even sheep dip.
Those aren’t nicknames fondly given to a significant other, as in “How’s my little Snake Pizen this morning?”
The most endearing thing it was called was “American wine.”
Oh, and what did they call a first drink after a long abstinence? It was affectionately known as “falling off the wagon.” The reference was to water wagons, and meant someone was drinking water rather than the offerings in a nearby saloon.
And there were plenty of nearby saloons.
From the backside of non-water wagons and behind the flaps of leaky tents, to scrappy lean-tos and processed-lumber buildings, saloons practically outnumbered every other business and homestead around.
In 1836, just after the war for Texas independence ended, one of the most popular spots in Galveston was a place called the Gem Saloon. It notably warned people landing at the port about the very grave deprivations they were about to face on the Western frontier by advertising the alcohol within as “Your First and Last Chance.”
In just two years, the sign was obsolete. By 1838, Houston had 47 established saloons. Between 1838 and 1846, more licenses were issued for the sale of wines and liquors in Fort Bend County than for all other businesses combined. By 1880, Galveston, then the largest city in Texas, had 530 registered businesses, of which notably, 147 were saloons.
The very word “saloon” is an Anglicized version of the French salon, meaning a public or private gathering hall. By 1840, Americans had pretty well boiled it down to mean a bar. In the West, it was also affectionately called a doggery, hog ranch, snake pit and bucket of blood, the last reserved for places known for regular outbreaks of violence.
It is reasonable to say that some early cowboys had good reason for their less-than-endearing descriptions of their alcoholic libations and the places that served them, especially the farther they got into Texas and farther from the coast.
When and if they could find a saloon in the far frontier, the businesses were often nothing more than tents or shacks usually created to service the nearest Army fort (and alcohol was not the only service they offered, nor the oldest). What got poured at the bar didn’t exactly stimulate debate about whether it should be shaken or stirred, but something more along the lines of: would it kill you?
It was more often than not homemade whiskey, never aged, and combined with anything from burnt sugar to chewing tobacco to give it color. This was often called bumblebee whiskey because of the sting. Depending on the honesty of the proprietor, what was poured could well have been diluted with turpentine or ammonia to increase profits.
According to some early records, cocktails at the time included cactus wine, a concoction made with Tequila and peyote tea — not your usual margarita. With warm beer often in plentiful supply, many a shot or two of bad whiskey got mixed in both to kill the taste and hasten the tipsy reward. Another recorded drink, less hallucinogenic, was called a Mule Skinner, made with the rot gut whiskey and sweetened with liquor made from seasonal fruit found nearby, this being anything from blackberries, chokecherries or cactus apples.
Fortunately, civilization came early to the Texas Coast and stayed. A German author and scientist, Ferdinand von Roemer, visited the area in the early 1840s and described a Houston saloon in glowing terms.
“Upon passing through large folding doors, one stepped into a spacious room in which stood long rows of crystal bottles on a beautifully decorated bar. These were filled with diverse kinds of firewater. Here also stood an experienced barkeeper in white-shirt sleeves, alert to serve to the patrons the various plain as well as mixed drinks.”
Rather than making moonshine out back, an 1850s Galveston shopper could purchase (from a respectable store) bottles of cognac, Champagne, brandy, gin, varieties of rum, Irish, Scotch and rye whiskey, claret, port, Burgundy, sherry and more.
One British adventurer explored Galveston in the 1840s and noted the city’s finer hotels had a huge array of cocktails. These, he said, had names like “Tip and Ty, I.O.U., Moral Suasion, Pig and Whistle, Silver Top, Poor Man’s Punch, Jewett’s Fancy, Deacon, Stone Wall, Siphon, Smasher, Floater, Negus and mulled wines.”
Juleps, slings, toddys and flips were also easily found. For anyone wanting something besides cheap whiskey, rye or rum, he simply asked for a menu of “fancy drinks.”
This is not to say Southeast Texas’ cowboys didn’t have dives and dumps to drink in that kind of fit the Old West persona. It’s also safe to say these saloons had more than their fair share of brawls and shootings, although one historian pointed out that the person most likely to be holding the smoking gun was the bartender himself. They policed their establishments, protecting them from thieves, cheats, destructive drunks and, in one recorded case, from a cowboy determined to ride his horse up the stairs to the second floor.
What these cowboy saloons did not have were places for socially acceptable women to drink, ice cubes nor any liability for those who wrecked their horses after a long night.
Interestingly, the origin of the Moral Suasion cocktail mentioned in the Galveston visitor’s writings is based on an effort to stop the drinking of alcohol.
The East Coast temperance movement at the time used ‘moral suasion’ to convince people to quit drinking, rather than axing the drinking premises, which came later. When a Boston bar owner was criticized in an 1842 temperance publication for being a supplier of evil drink, the bar man fought back by creating and widely promoting a drink “so seductive” he claimed it would convince the crusaders to drink. To the great irritation of his critics, he called it Moral Suasion.
That a Galveston bar had this on the menu such a short time after it originated half the country away and sans Facebook is pretty amazing.
Equally amazing, the Moral Suasion has lasted through the centuries (as a drink rather than a persuader) and is still served in many bars across the country, including around here. Cullen’s American Grille & Whisk(e)y Bar, 11500 Space Center Blvd. in the Clear Lake area, is one of them.
This is not surprising considering the bar at Cullen’s stocks more than 300 American whiskeys from 11 states and more than 150 international brands from Scotland, Ireland, France, Tasmania, India and Japan. The cowboy who saunters into this place and says, “Gimme a whiskey,” is likely to be greeted with confused silence.
Cullen’s take on Moral Suasion has a few modern twists, but the heart of the drink remains with peach and citrus, cognac and whiskey. This particular recipe adds an ingenious touch of a flamed citrus peel garnish, which kind of literally makes this a drink with firewater.
Of course, anyone who learned what they know about cowboys and the Old West from Hollywood has never seen a John Wayne, Kirk Douglas or Randolph Scott strut up to any saloon keeper and demand a Moral Suasion, much less a Pig and Whistle.
“Gimme a whiskey” was the most popular drink order in decades of Western movie making. Note, however, Gimme a Whiskey is not a known cocktail.
Hollywood, fixated on those swinging bar doors at the saloon entrance, fails to acknowledge that at the height of the cowboy era, say between the 1870s and the turn of the century, all but the most rudimentary saloon served up several kinds of cocktails. Some were punch mixtures, some were whiskey sweetened with fruit juice or mulled fruit and others were brought to life with tonic and seltzer waters. A respectable cowboy could demand a whiskey and then quietly ask for a sarsaparilla as a mixer, sarsaparilla being a common medicinal drink tasting something like today’s root beer.
When newfangled soda pops came to town, there was barely a moment’s delay before someone decided adding an alcoholic boost to it was a good idea. Bourbon and coke? Coca-Cola came out in 1886. The first recorded mention of bourbon and coke followed just a few years later.
So yes, the cowboy and his drink have a mixed and colorful history as rough and rugged as the Wild West and the whiskey made in it. Perhaps their derogatory names for the alcohol that fueled them were a way to keep the West wild. But as everyone knows, the West was tamed, Snake Pizen evolved into an evening cocktail and bartenders have gone from shooting horseback riders on the stairs to flaming orange peels.
It’s all a salute to progress.
And the wagon it fell off of.
Courtesy of Cullen’s American Grille & Whisk(e)y Bar
2 ounces Whitmeyer’s Peach Whiskey
1 teaspoon Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
1 teaspoon Dry Orange Curaçao
1 teaspoon agave nectar
2 teaspoons lemon juice
½-ounce Cognac V.S.O.P.
Shake all ingredients thoroughly, withholding the cognac. Then, float the cognac on top.
Garnish with lemon wheel and a flamed orange peel (squeeze a piece of orange peel over the drink while holding a lighter flame in front of the peel, allowing the oils in the peel to spray out and flame as they pass through the fire).