Cocktail History – The Wild West

by Columbine Quillen on February 11, 2010

I’ve been asked to speak this week at the High Desert Museum in conjunction with Crater Lake Vodka to talk about the history of the cocktail in the old west.  I found a lot of interesting little pieces of trivia and put together this blog post.  Enjoy!

A couple of things at the bar were significantly different at the turn of the 20th century.  Namely, ice and refrigeration were almost non-existent for most small bars in the Wild West.  And wild it was, without any laws governing the selling or distributing of spirits.

Take a moment and think the last time you had a drink that wasn’t refrigerated or served with ice.  It probably was a tequila shot and you most likely tossed it back without even tasting it, shaking your head and squinting your eyes in anguish as tepid tequila burnt the back of your throat.  But otherwise, my guess is you don’t drink anything warm except for red wine.  Cocktails are shaken with tens of pieces of ice until hundreds of ice crystals are floating on the top.  Highballs are packed full of perfectly sculpted morsels of clear slippery ice.  Beer is refrigerated or packed into coolers crammed full of a plethora of store bought frozen chips ready at any moment for your convenience.

As anyone’s grandmother can tell them, convenience is a modern luxury, including ice.   In the 1800’s, a man by the name of Tudor thought that he could become a millionaire by selling chunks of frozen water, and at 23 he garnered some money from his family, bought a brig, filled it with lake ice, and sailed 1500 miles to Martinique to offload his valuable commodity.  But the islanders had no interest in this piece of a lake from the Northeast of the U.S..  Why would they pay money for something that lasted only a couple of minutes?  As they saw it, they didn’t have any reason for ice; they had lived without it for hundreds of years.  Tudor returned to the U.S. broke without any merchandise as it melted in transit.  But he felt he was onto something and ventured up more capital to get more ice and to market it. Tudor tried a new brand of marketing and created a craze for the cold drink.   He would speak before large crowds spoiling them at the end with a fresh-squeezed lemonade over shaved ice on a hot muggy day.  It was a tiny luxury that almost anyone could afford and no one ever wanted to go without it again.

Depending on your location, before 1900 all commercial ice was harvested from Northern Lakes or high in the mountains.  The ice would be packed in sawdust to preserve it during the summer.  A little unknown is that during the Civil War, the South had built up quite a dependence on northern ice and still had to find ways to get their beloved drink chiller, despite being at war with the Yankees.

Right around the turn of the century, the first ice factories formed.  To the best of my research, the first ice factory in Oregon was built in Corvallis, most likely because the agricultural school was there.  The Corvallis Creamery Company branched out to open another refrigeration and ice factory in Newport to aid in the packing of halibut.  By 1913, there was also an ice factory in Portland, the Portland Ice Hippodrome Company and an ice factory in Salem at the state penitentiary.  These factories were able to produce about three to four tons of ice per day.

A market war formed between natural ice and factory ice.  The natural ice companies claimed that their ice was more affordable and it was purer and healthier than factory ice.  Even though it was often harvested from contaminated water where there was sewage and dead animals.  The ice factories in the South spent thousands of dollars research and development finally creating an affordable manufactured ice.  In 1920, the ice industry was the 9th most invested in company in the nation.  But thanks to the advent of the household refrigerator, by 1925 the ice industry withered to almost nothing.  Nonetheless, the ice industry is still strong today.  In the U.S. there are 426 ice factories doing almost 6 billion dollars of business a year.

If you’ve seen Deadwood, you have a pretty good idea of what a Wild West saloon was like.  Prostitutes upstairs, plenty of whiskey, tobacco smoking, gunfights, and gambling.  Today, the only thing that’s still legal is whiskey and even that was illegal for 13 years from 1920 – 1933.

There certainly was no Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and definitely no OLCC.  The Bureau formed right after prohibition along with the OLCC.  The bars could really do whatever they wanted and all it took to open up a bar was to hang up a sign, you could even use your tent. There was no such thing as liquor licenses or too many bars.  In  1883, Livingston, Montana had 33 saloons for 3,000 people.  The bars mostly had whiskey and beer; a lot of taverns at this time took to selling their handcrafted ales.  Although by 1880, Budweiser was being was being pasteurized and distributed across the U.S. and Canada.  (Bet you wish you had one of those cans to take to Antique Roadshow.)

Cocktail culture was just developing with drinks like the champagne cocktail and the hot whiskey sling.  But, perhaps the most common cocktail went by the name of coffin varnish was a concoction of raw alcohol, burnt sugar, and chewing tobacco.  No female bartenders then, the only women in the bars were dancers or prostitutes.  The bars never legally had to close, and if the tavern keeper could hire a bartender for the night – he would.

Although the ambiance of the saloon has changed, the notion of having a place to come and socialize while you partake in drink is something that is still very much alive today.  And just like the saloon immortalizes the old west; might the cocktail lounge immortalize post-modernism.

- Columbine Quillen
I am a mixologist bartender and this is my blog.

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