While reading a classic Mari Sandoz book, I came across a frontier whiskey recipe that was too intriguing to pass up.
For good or bad, alcohol plays a substantial role in American history and culture. When Europeans first colonized Jamestown they were carrying a good deal of beer with them when they landed. It should be no surprise that beer was drank in celebration at the very first meal ever eaten at our initial colony. Also, it may not be a well-known fact, the Pilgrims at Plymouth also brought and drank beer. In fact, journal entries from the colony mention beer on several occasions, perhaps showing its general use by those folks. Another era where alcohol was noticeably prevalent was the fur trade.
The fur trade in America has a rich history and is important to understand. Most folks educated in history understand the significant role the fur trade played in encouraging European settlement of the new land. It started with the French Voyageurs in the east, and would culminate with the American mountain men of the west. Although culturally the groups were different, they both had some similarities. For one, both groups liked their drink. Voyageurs were noted as bringing copious amounts of booze in their canoes, and the frolics of the mountain man rendezvous have been well noted.
In addition to the use by the French and Americans, there has also been much written about the dubious use of frontier whiskey in trade with Native people. The use of frontier whiskey in trade was a hotly debated issue during the fur trade era. On one hand, traders wanted to use it in trade with Native people as this helped profits. On the other hand, the ethical dilemma of saturating those people with alcohol to essentially steal from them and debase their societies was not lost on people of the time. Using alcohol in frontier trade was certainly a hot issue in the 1800’s.
Again, for good or bad, the use of frontier whiskey was widespread during the fur trade era. What was it made of though? While there likely were numerous recipes out there, I came across two frontier whiskey recipes while reading Mari Sandoz’s book The Beaver Men that really grabbed my attention.
In her book, Sandoz is recounting a story in which William Clark had authorized Narcisse Leclerc to take 250 gallons of alcohol up the Missouri river. At the same time he had denied Pierre Chouteau Jr the same privilege. Once upriver, Leclerc turned the alcohol into frontier whiskey for use in trade. At this point Sandoz cites two frontier whiskey recipes Leclerc could have used.
1 qt. alcohol
1 lb. rank black chewing tobacco
1 bottle Jamaica ginger
1 handful red pepper
1 qt. molasses, black
Missouri water as required
Boil the pepper and tobacco together. When cool, other ingredients were added and stirred. As the whiskey was drank, more river water was added.
Upper Platte recipe:
1 gal. alcohol
1 lb. plug or black twist tobacco
1 lb. black sugar or molasses
1 handful red Spanish peppers
10 gal. river water (in flood)
2 rattlesnake heads per barrel
After the Upper Platte recipe Sandoz goes on to note,
Variations in flavor might be a “brush” of vermout, wormwood of the Plains or, for an occasional real beaver man, a castoreum, for the musky perfumish odor.
As you can see, frontier whiskey was nothing to be played around with. Rank tobacco. A handful of red pepper. Beaver castoreum. Rattlesnake heads? One ingredient that is easy to gloss over is Missouri river water. In the same book, Sandoz recounts the complaint at the time the Missouri was, “Too thick for soup and too thin to plow.” Imagine the grime and grit that found its way into the whisky concoctions. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t try to make, or drink, this stuff at home.
Frontier whiskey was not for those with a weak constitution. It was for rough and tumble frontiersmen and was used to debilitate entire nations. These recipes can shed some light on how rough the frontier actually was. It wasn’t a place where the faint of heart lasted very darn long. While not all men of the time partook in its drinking, frontier whiskey did play a major role in the fur trade and settlement of The West. In conclusion, as much as I like to experiment with historical skills, this is one area where I’ll have to pass.
Thanks for reading this brief dialog on frontier whiskey. It seemed too rich to pass up. If you enjoyed it, please follow this blog by clicking the button near the bottom of the page. Also, if you are interested in the mountain men, you might enjoy this article on the mountain man’s possibles bag.