In a Watering Trough as saloons were sometimes known, men went to drink. There was a fair amount of bravado involved in drinking practices and what they drank wasn’t always very palatable.

Whiskey was the main tipple, in various forms. It was generically known as Firewater, the Spanish equivalent being ‘aguardiente’ (literally ‘burning water’). The reason for the name was that when Indians were being sold whiskey, they needed to be convinced it had a high alcohol content and in order to prove this, the peddler would pour some on the fire and make it blaze.

Cayenne pepper was one of the 'added ingredients'
Cayenne pepper was one of the ‘added ingredients’

Whiskey was tough stuff, very often made with raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and the steeped juice from chewing tobacco. In order to make good whiskey go a little further, saloon owners might cut it with various substances which included prune juice, turpentine, ammonia, cayenne, gunpowder and even sulphuric acid. The house whiskey would then be known by such fearful names as Tarantula Juice or Coffin Varnish.

Apart from whiskey, Cactus Wine was popular. It was a mixture of tequila and peyote tea. There was also Mule Skinner, which was whiskey mixed openly this time with blackberry liquor.

The less rugged of the saloons served straight bourbon or rye, and there was beer, too, sometimes brewed on the premises but served at room temperature as there was normally no way of cooling it. Adolphus Busch changed all that when in 1880 he introduced refrigeration and pasteurisation to the brewing process along with Budweiser, which became a national brand.

A man was judged by what and how he drank © Can Stock Photo / creatista
A man was judged by what and how he drank
© Can Stock Photo / creatista

All this is not to say that other drinks weren’t available in saloons. Claret, sangria and champagne flips were popular from the early 1880’s. However a man who asked for a cocktail, or was too long before ordering another drink, was automatically suspect until he became known – or even after. Prejudices were quick to be acted upon when antagonists might be fuelled by the vicious types of alcohol that were available.

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