Sunday, March 27, 2016

Trail Dust: ‘Taos Lightning’ brought drunkenness to New Mexico

By Marc Simmons

What was New Mexico famous for in the 1830s and 1840s? It wasn’t pretty landscapes, spicy cooking or wild dances called fandangos, although the territory had plenty of all three.

No, New Mexico’s renown, throughout the Rocky Mountains at least, rested upon its celebrated whiskey that went by the colorful name Taos Lightning. By all accounts, a jigger of that heady stuff, swallowed in a single gulp, could knock a fellow’s boots off.

The source of this stout spirit lay in the bountiful wheat fields of the Taos Valley. In 1824, a couple of Missouri backwoodsmen who had settled there looked at all that grain and wondered what kind of beverage it might be made to yield.

They brought a copper still from the East, opened a small distillery and came out with a liquor more potent than corn whiskey — or White Mule, as Southerners termed it.

The new creation, Taos Lightning, won immediate acceptance. Several well-staffed distilleries appeared at Taos proper and at Ranchos de Taos. The largest, however, was established by Missouri-born Simon Turley at Arroyo Hondo, 12 miles north of Taos Pueblo.

In 1836, Turley hired Charlie Autobees as a traveling salesman. With pack mules carrying 10-gallon wooden casks of Taos Lightning, Charlie ranged as far north as the Platte River, vending his liquid wares.

The casks were purchased by owners of fur-trading posts who resold the liquor to trappers, American Indians and even agents of Canada’s Hudson Bay Co. Through the latter, Taos Lightning became available to guzzlers in faraway British Columbia and other western Canadian provinces.

Since the Taos product was 40 percent to 50 percent proof, imbibers easily got roaring drunk, and sometimes dangerous. One trader on the Missouri River was reported to have laced his casks with laudanum (tincture of opium) to help control the unruliness of his customers.

New Mexican liquor vendors who dealt with the Comanches on the Texas plains had their own method of self-protection. They buried their casks several miles out before going into the tepee village.

Upon trading for buffalo robes, they made a quick exit, leaving one of their number as hostage. After a half-day, he would guide the Comanches to the alcohol and then ride at top speed to get away before the big drunk began.

Intoxication also became a problem among New Mexicans themselves. British traveler George F. Ruxton, visiting New Mexico in 1846, took note of Taos Lightning, calling it “a raw, fiery spirit.”
On the Santa Fe Plaza, he was shocked to see that every other place of business was “a whiskey shop disgorging reeling, drunken men.” The revelers were both native Santa Feans and recently arrived American soldiers.

Before the appearance of Taos Lightning, drunkenness had been fairly rare in Hispanic New Mexico. The main reason was the small supply of hard liquor.

No comments: