Coffin varnish, jig juice and sudden death

Those are among the names given to various concoctions purporting to be “whiskey” in the Old West.  As part of the research for my forthcoming Western novel (and the series I hope will follow from the first book), I’ve had to study a great many aspects of the period. One of the more entertaining (and sometimes nauseating) areas of study was saloons, and the availability and use of alcohol.

A very interesting and authoritative source for such information is Jeremy Agnew’s “Alcohol and Opium in the Old West: Use, Abuse and Influence“.

I thought I knew a lot about home-made alcohol after my experience as a prison chaplain, having encountered some of the nauseating concoctions brewed up by convicts using garbage bags, fruit, moldy bread and the like.  However, it looks like they’ve got nothing on the Old West!  Here’s what Mr. Agnew has to say about ‘Bogus Whiskey’.

Whiskey in the Old West was not always the legitimate product. Though saloon liquor was sold as bourbon whiskey, its true origin might have been in the backroom of the saloon. The liquor might be homemade because of a shortage of real whiskey or, in many cases, due to the desire of an unethical saloon owner to increase his profits. Sometimes genuine distillery whiskey was simply watered down to make it go further and then colored with a little tea or tobacco juice to bring it back to a semblance of its original color. This practice extended the number of servings and could yield drinks at the bar of three or four times the original quantity of alcohol, hence raising the profits for the saloon owner.

Bogus whiskey was made by starting with raw ethyl alcohol, then adding various adulterants to flavor and color it until the result could fool inexperienced drinkers. Some of the additives used to give raw alcohol the general appearance and taste of whiskey were chewing tobacco, tea, coffee, red pepper, prune juice, gunpowder, and tree bark. In addition, burnt sugar, molasses, sagebrush, black bone meal, or dried peaches might be added to give color and flavor. The ingredients for some of these homemade whiskeys were bizarre. Even less-conventional chemical ingredients, such as tartaric acid, sulfuric acid, ammonia, strychnine, turpentine, or creosote, might find their way into the brew to give it a little bite. Though these additives may sound humorous, the side effects of drinking them could cause serious harm to the unwary recipient, and drinkers occasionally even died as a result of ingesting them. The practice of adding noxious chemicals became so common and so bad that on June 6, 1857, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (one of the leading national newsmagazines of the time) reported that the Ohio legislature had banned the use of strychnine in manufacturing liquor.

As a result of these peculiar mixtures, counterfeit booze packed a powerful jolt, leading to a variety of colorful names that were attached to them. Among the pet names for whiskey on the frontier was “forty-rod.” This peculiar name came from the belief that the drinker could expect to travel about forty rods (220 yards, or an eighth of a mile) before the booze took hold and he collapsed.

Other “drinks” might be counterfeited in a similar manner. One recipe described how to produce fine “Irish whiskey” by adding a half-pint of creosote to a barrel of raw alcohol. Bogus “wine” might consist of watered-down alcohol with the appropriate coloring and flavoring, such as cherries or prunes. “Brandy” could be made from a half-barrel of alcohol, with grape juice, burnt sugar, sulfuric acid, and tobacco added to provide color and flavoring. Some “brandies” were produced by simply adding grape juice to a raw alcohol base. In Leadville and Denver, in Colorado, in 1879, some drinkers became quite inebriated on a low-alcohol mixture of brown sugar, water, and yeast that was sold as “champagne cider” for five dollars a quart. One of the more peculiar additives to “whiskey” was rattlesnake heads. Some peddlers of bogus booze and patent medicines were known to add a half-dozen or so to a barrel of counterfeit whiskey in order to “add power to the liquor.” The resulting brew was sometimes known as “snakehead whiskey.”

Because drinkers could not be certain what was in the fancy bottles at the bar, customers applied a series of tests to determine if the brew was true. Liquor “experts” knowingly ordered “sink-taller whiskey,” because they believed that a piece of tallow (beef or mutton fat) would float in whiskey that had been diluted or had a low alcohol content but would sink in liquor with a high alcohol content. Others felt that they were able to determine the strength of the liquor by studying the bead, which was the bubbles that formed at the surface when the liquor was shaken. When whiskey of good quality was shaken, it produced a bead at the top. The longer the bead was present, the higher the proof. Real experts knew that half of a true bead would stay in the liquor and half would float on top. If all the bead floated on top it was probably due to soap, which was often added to counterfeit whiskey to produce the appearance of a good bead.

Another test for quality was to throw a little of the liquor onto a fire to see how high the flames flared, similar to the British seaman’s test for proof. This test was the origin of the Indian name of “firewater” for whiskey with a high alcohol content. This was indeed a reasonable test, but had to be performed with care. On June 22, 1881, a bartender inspecting the inside of a barrel of whiskey at the Arcade Saloon on Allen Street in Tombstone, Arizona, inadvertently brought a lighted cigar too close to the fumes. The whiskey must have been good stuff because it ignited. The resulting fire destroyed four city blocks of the downtown area and leveled sixty-six businesses.

. . .

The Indians had their own ideas about whiskey and as long as the “whiskey” they traded for met these expectations, the drink was considered to be good. One preconceived notion was that they felt liquor had to be strong enough to make them throw up, and they figured that it wasn’t any good unless it did. Unscrupulous white traders soon realized that various additives could make the Indians just as sick without wasting good alcohol. To achieve this when they made their “whiskey,” they added a bar of soap— which also produced a good bead at the surface— or some tobacco, both of which induced vomiting in the drinker. Traders developed various recipes of their own for Indian “whiskey.” One consisted of a gallon of raw alcohol, three gallons of water, and a pound of tea or black tobacco to give the mixture the correct color. Ginger and a handful of red peppers went into the mix to give it a kick. One variation was to add a quart of blackstrap molasses to the mixture and call the resulting mixture “rum.” As well as trading with the Indians, the same traders foisted this “rum” off on the mountain men at their annual rendezvous.

There’s much more interesting information in Mr. Agnew’s book, and in his other volumes dealing with different aspects of the Old West.  Recommended reading for history buffs, and outstanding source material for authors.



  1. I found the comment about igniting the alcohol to test its proof particularly interesting…. my little, staid Connecticut town had its center flattened by a five block fire in 1889. Said fire started, not in the factories (which were tinderhouses) but in the basement of the local pub…which had just gotten in a major shipment of whiskey. It apparently went up like a bomb. I wonder if someone was testing the proof of the new stock?

  2. "Tarantula Juice" was another moniker.

    Shaking the glass container to look at the "bead" is still practiced with moonshine whiskey in Appalachia, and of course the moonshiners know how to produce a counterfeit "bead."

    Hope we'll see more unusual guns in your books, Peter. I'd like to see some Pettengill revolvers, myself. Bear in mind that the period right after the Civil War was a time of great change, as the transition from cap-and-ball to cartridge guns was well underway, and smiths learned quickly how to do conversions.

    The western No Good Like It Is by McKendree Long covers this same era, and Long is a gun aficionado, so his writings about the guns of the period are fun reads. (the two sequels to No Good Like It Is are of lesser quality).

  3. Ahhh, man's constant desire for inebreation. "Snakebite" was a term for whiskey where I grew up in California, now I know where it came from! My dad was a Navy vet from WW II, a destroyer sailor. She they returned to base they would turn in the torpedoes and draw new "fish" when going out again. They would drain the denatured alcohol fuel, "renature" it(?) Through a loaf of bread in cheesecloth, and mix with grape juice. The crew called it "Panther piss"….

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