Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Myths-Trade Whiskey:

Although it was a common practice to substantially dilute alcohol or whiskey at the destination, whether it was rendezvous, or at a fort or post, there is no documentation that any of numerous vile or unusual ingredients were added to create a so called "trade whiskey."  The myth generally indicates that trade whiskey was created to make up for losses which occurred while packing whiskey up to the mountains from either Taos or St. Louis (pack skinners hauling goods including whiskey to rendezvous might sample the whiskey en-route to ensure that it hadn’t spoiled.)  In reality, the men did receive a measured daily allotment of whiskey. However, alcohol was a high value trade good at rendezvous, and uncontrolled access to this product was most certainly not allowed.

What is now referred to as trade whiskey did exist, but not until the post Civil War period.  Recipes for trade whiskey varied – a couple are given below (Marie Sandoz).   

A Montana Blend

1 qt whiskey, 1 handful red pepper, 1 lb. rank black chewing tobacco, 1 qt. molasses, 1 lb. black sugar or molasses, Missouri River water as required

An Upper Platte Recipe

1 gal. whiskey, one handful red Spanish peppers, 1 lb. plug or black twist tobacco, 10 gal. river water (in flood), 1 lb. black sugar or molasses, 2 rattlesnake heads per barrel.

The tobacco in these recipes is to give the trade whiskey an amber color. However, during the period of the mountain men, at least through the early 1840’s all distilled alcohol was colorless.  Amber whiskeys (from aging in charred barrels) were not available till a much later time.  

The distilled product sent to the mountains was always almost nearly pure alcohol (after all why haul water all that distance when it was available at the destination).  The alcohol was cut with water at the point of destination, but that was to make it fit and safe to drink as well as to boost profits. Rufus Sage in his journal does record one instance of a young Indian woman who died of alcohol poisoning from drinking pure, un-cut alcohol.  

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