Cowboys, Whiskey, and the Saragosa Saloon
It was Friday morning. The week had been good to me. I had just wrapped up my third story for the week and the local whiskey bar was on my evening agenda. I was reminded I was still at the office when my boss stopped by my desk and handed me an assignment slip.
“Have you ever heard of Saragosa?”
I repeated the word slowly, “Saragosa.”
“No, can't say that I have. I like the sound of it though.”
“That's good,” he replied. “Because I'm sending you there. I have a lead on a story that I think is right up your alley.”
“I'm on it. Fill me in on the details.”
“Saragosa is a re-creation of an old western cow town. It's been around for a few years but its only just recently made its way onto the radar. Turning into quite the tourist attraction from what I understand. Mosey on out there and find me a story.” He chuckled at his own weak humor. “It's up in the hills West of town. You'll find the directions on the assignment slip.”
I'm somewhat of a western buff so I'm surprised I haven't heard of this place until now. I'm anxious to check out Saragosa so I grab my coat and head for my car.
The drive is pleasant as the road I'm on has taken me quite a ways out into the country through tall timber and bare patches of recently logged off areas. It's hard to believe anything out this far can turn into a tourist attraction of any real significance.
I'm actually beginning to wonder if I'm on the right road, but I soon come to a small makeshift wooden sign that says Saragosa and nothing more. It points off to the right. The road I turn on is dirt and I'm on it for about a mile before I come to a small parking area. It's full.
Another sign points in two directions. Left for overnight camping and right to town. I go right. There's a tall fence with an arched entry with a sign above it 'Welcome to Saragosa'. Before I get to the entrance a real stagecoach pulls up and unloads several visitors and loads up a few more for a fun filled ride around the property. I'm beginning to like this place already.
Walking through the gate is like walking into the past. Except for the tourists milling around, this place looks like the real deal. It's a small town of maybe ten buildings. They're all geared toward tourists. From the general store and boarding house, right down to the jail and local saloon.
I wonder along the boardwalk checking things out. I notice a sign of coming events including the next 'Authentic Shootout' at 3 o'clock. So far, I'm impressed and decide to stop at the saloon and see if I can talk with someone. The bartender seemed like the logical choice. The sign attached to the bat wings says 21 and older only, so I figure they're not serving sarsaparilla here.
There were a few tourist looking types inside, but the majority of patrons were, (from what I found out later), western enthusiasts who volunteer to play the role of an authentic cowboy. There are poker players, men standing at the bar and even a couple of soiled doves milling around the patrons. It all looked authentic including the bartender. He's an older gent, a bit overweight, has a handlebar mustache and wears a dirty white apron which he uses to wipe off the shot glasses.
“What can I do for ya mister?” He growls sharply.
I introduce myself. “My name is Scott. I'm a reporter for The Daily News and I'm here to dig up a story about this place.”
“Is that so,” he replies with an easier tone. “I've been here from day one. I can tell you what you want to know, but first you need to order a drink.”
What the hell, I figure. I'll just start my weekend early. The whiskey bar in town will just have to wait. “I'll have a whiskey, and make it the good stuff,” I replied, thinking it was probably how a real cowboy would have ordered.
The bartender smiles. I have Jack Daniels, Crown Royal and Jameson Irish Whiskey. What'll it be?”
“Jameson,” I reply.
He pours me a Jameson and I down it. He pours me another and I leave it sit on the bar. “This town seems pretty authentic except for a few minor details,” I say as I point to the variety of alcohol bottles behind him.
“Well, we got to please the tourists,” he retorts with a smirk.
“I suppose that's true,” I agree. “I wonder what the whiskey was really like back in the day.”
The bartenders face lit up. “You really want to know? I've done plenty of research on the subject.”
“What have you got,” I reply, smelling a story.
The bartender pours himself a drink and starts off by telling me a story...
“A cowboy walks into a saloon and moseys up to the bar. And just like you did, he says 'I’ll take a whiskey, and make it the good stuff.' The bartender slaps a small glass onto the bar, pulls the cork from a bottle off the back shelf, and pours him a shot. The ol’ cowboy grabs it up and gulps it down. He pounds on his chest a couple of times and lets out a whoop. “That’s some powerful tanglefoot you got their barkeep. I’ll take another.”
“Sounds like the whiskey was strong back then,” I remark.
“You don't know the half of it,” replied the bartender. “This was a classic scene from the Old West played out in countless mining camps and cow town saloons of the 1800’s. Question is… what did the cowboy really get? What exactly was he drinking?”
“What do you mean?” I question.
“I can guarantee you it wasn’t anything like the Jameson you're drinking today. There was no such thing as quality control, and those things like 'Standards and Practices' they didn’t yet exist.
“In fact, mixing up a batch of whiskey was really not much of an art or a science. The whiskey served in many of the saloons back then was a fairly nasty concoction, which more than likely was put together in a back room by the bartender himself.
The basic ingredient was usually raw alcohol, and to that, any number of strange ingredients may have been added to the batch including, but not limited to creosote, burnt sugar and chewing tobacco.”
I interjected. “You're making this up.”
“Gods truth, this is the way it was. In fact, if the bartender purchased his Whiskey 'ready made' it was usually 100 proof, but he didn’t necessarily serve it that way. He would usually cut it with such things as turpentine or ammonia to make it go further, and quite possibly he added a few ingredients of his own such as gunpowder or cayenne.
Back then gunpowder was made from a mixture of sulfur, saltpeter and carbon. It's all edible.”
I can't believe what I'm hearing. “Turpentine? Gunpowder? Bullshit, you're making this up.”
“I swear I'm not. You can do the research yourself if you like,” remarked the bartender.
He continued. “Can you imagine drinking a mixture of raw alcohol, chewing tobacco, creosote and cayenne pepper…and possibly even a little gunpowder?”
My stomach began to feel a little queasy as I thought about it. “I guess I can fully understand why it was served in a shot glass and drank down in one gulp. Proof enough for me that the whole idea behind drinking swill like that was to either get drunk or show how tough you were.”
“Lets not forget the fact that the saloon was a man’s world, and bravado was definitely part of the scene,” replied the bartender.
He continued with his almost unbelievable story. “I have a few more facts for you. Seems the cowboys and miners who frequented these saloons had all kinds of names for this stuff. Like Tanglefoot, rot gut, red eye, coffin varnish, ditch water, firewater, bug juice, pine top and forty rod.”
Forty rod?” I questioned.
“Yup, the name Forty Rod has to do with distance. Forty rods is 660 feet, or the distance across a ten acre parcel of land. This stuff was so powerful, it could kill a man before he could walk that far after drinking it.
“Here's something else to think about. The name 'Firewater' is said to have originated with the Indians who were sold whiskey by the white man. They would spit the first mouthful into their fire and if it flared up, it was good.
“And one more thing. The term 'proof', originated back when whiskey dealers would test the strength of a product by soaking gunpowder in it and then trying to ignite it. If it lit up, it was considered 100 proof. The idea behind this test was to show the strength of the product and to prove that it wasn't watered down.”
“Well that's quite a story you got there, but I'm still not convinced there 's a lot of truth behind what you're saying.”
The bartender smiled and cautiously gazed around the room. “Not only have I researched it, I've made some of it. Want to try a shot?”
I was a bit hesitant. “It's not Forty Rod?” I questioned.
“No, but I do need you to sign a waiver. For my own protection,” he quickly added.
My curiosity was up and after all, I was there for a story. “How much?” I asked.
“Two bits for a double shot,” he replied.
“Well, what the hell, I'll give it a go.” I plunked my quarter down on the bar and the bartender pulled out the paperwork.
I signed the waiver and the bartender pulled an unlabeled bottle out from under the bar. He poured a double and quickly stowed the bottle.
I smelled it. It was rank for sure. I set it back on the counter. The things I'll do for a story, I thought.
The bartender chuckled. “Are you going to drink it or not?”
I took it as a challenge. I grabbed up the glass and drank it down. It burned in my mouth, in my throat, it burned all the way to my stomach. I started to gag and thought I was going to puke it right back up.
The bartender laughed out loud. “This is the whiskey those cowboys drank, no fooling.”
My eyes were watering, I couldn't talk and I felt sick. I started for the door wondering what the hell I had just done to myself. I could hear the bartender laughing all the way out to the street.
“Don't worry,” he called out. “You'll be alright in the morning.”
I found a bench on the boardwalk and sat down with my head between my knees. It was spinning and I felt awful. I was in no condition to drive home. I walked across the street to the boarding house and got a room for the night.
I don't remember what happened after that. I woke up the next morning with a slight hangover and happy to be alive. On my way out of town I stopped at the saloon. I still owed for the Jameson I drank. The bartender was there wiping glasses with his dirty apron.
“Well, I see you're still with the living,”he said in jest.
I didn't bother to ask him what I had drank. I just paid him and thanked him for the experience and the story. In fact, two stories. One about Saragosa and one about old style whiskey, the good stuff, or so they say.
© 2018 Scott Gese