Sunday, March 12, 2017

New Mexico was known for ‘Taos Lightning’

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 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, Indians, and even agents of Canada’s Hudson Bay Company. Through the latter, Taos Lightning became available to guzzlers in faraway British Columbia and other western Canadian provinces.

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

New Mexican liquor venders who dealt with the Comanche’s 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.

Franciscan padres in the 1620s developed the first large scale vineyards in the Piro pueblos of the Socorro Valley. They made sacramental wine and grape brandy using a copper still.

Others soon produced wine and brandy commercially. But the poor rural masses usually could not afford either beverage.

When Americans arrived in the 19th century, they enjoyed the local brandy, but preferred Taos Lightning if they could get it. That became impossible in early 1847 since the Turley distillery was destroyed during the Taos insurrection. Simon Turley and most of his employees were killed.

But by then barrels of Kentucky whiskey were being imported over the Santa Fe Trail. That was too expensive to be used in the Indian trade. So a cheap substitute was created.

Here’s the recipe: To one gallon of silty water from the Rio Grande, add a pint of raw grain alcohol, a dash of bitters, a pinch of Jamaica ginger, and one plug of chewing tobacco. Stir and age overnight.

For obvious reasons, this concoction became known as rot-gut whiskey.

Marc Simmons is a retired historian and author of thirty-five books  I was honored to present The Rounders Award to him in 1991. 

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