Episode 032 - Frontier Cocktails

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In this episode, we hit another stop on our historic world tour of cocktail heritages celebrating the launch of the Embitterment Heritage Collection of cocktail bitters right here on modernbarcart.com.

For those of you who don’t know, Embitterment is our flagship line of cocktail bitters, and we’ve recently added four new members to the family all based on cultural flavors and cuisines from around the world. If you’d like to check out brief descriptions of those, definitely hit up episode 31, where we do a brief intro of each product and a deep dive into the flavors of the Indian Subcontinent to honor our Liquid Gold Ancient Trade Bitters. Or, you can head over to the products section of modernbarcart.com and browse through product shots and descriptions of each of our four new flavors.

Today, instead of jet-setting off to a strange land, we’re gonna keep things a little closer to home - but only in a manner of speaking. Our subject is the cocktails and cocktail culture of the American frontier, and that is going to take us, by definition, to a few places that are a little wild, places where you’ve got to let the horse pick his own path because there are no roads. But, to quote a professor I once had, “where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

Before we jump into the history, the science, and the straight-up weirdness of frontier cocktails, I thought I’d take a minute to introduce you to this episode’s guest of honor: our Frontier Sarsaparilla Bitters.

When our team sat down to develop the Heritage Collection, we realized that a lot of our ingredients came from warm, tropical locations--and that didn’t really pose a problem because there’s plenty of different cultures and flavors that developed in the tropics. BUT, what it did reveal is that we’ve probably been overlooking a lot of NATIVE flavors from our own continent.

Frontier Sarsaparilla Bitters balance the pungent, mentholated, terpene-driven flavor of woodsy ingredients like juniper berries, lemon balm, and hyssop with a deep, woody backbone of birch bark and Mexican sarsaparilla root, and just a little bit of sweetness on the finish. And that sweetness comes from blueberries, which have a close analogue in the European Bilberry, but are in fact a truly North American native plant.

Featured Cocktails

So, now that you know all about the flavor profile of these bitters, you may be wondering which cocktail is the best staging ground for your first experiment with this delicious, woodsy concoction. And in truth, the answer is simple: the Frontier Old Fashioned.

The Frontier Old Fashioned

This cocktail is, as you would suspect, a simple old fashioned made by swapping out our Frontier Sarsaparilla Bitters for whatever Aromatic Bitters you’d otherwise be using in the drink. And as I’ve said before, I think simple cocktails are often the best place to test out new bitters or other cocktail ingredients like liqueurs and vermouths because you get the chance to experience that new flavor without a whole lot of noisy competition.

But, one thing I would encourage you to potentially modify when you make your Frontier Old Fashioned is the type of sugar you use. One thing we know about the staples available to folks in the frontier is that it wasn’t all extremely fancy. It was usually the rougher stock that could handle changes in temperature and humidity as it traversed the mountains and the desert. Maybe a little rainfall on the back of a mule. So pure, refined table sugar wasn’t encountered all that much.

Instead, consider using a darker, less refined sugar cube. Something like sugar in the raw, florida crystals, or even brown sugar might do you just fine.

Also, for the sake of recipe conversion, ½ tablespoon of loose sugar is going to roughly approximate the size of the sugar cube you normally use in your old fashioned.

Finally, if you really want to go above and beyond, you might consider making a molasses syrup by boiling 2 cups of sugar, 1 cup of water, and 2 tablespoons of molasses. Unlike sugar, molasses was significantly easier to store and transport on the frontier, and so it was used as one of the most common sweetening agents from the time our country was a scrappy collection of colonies, right up to the early 20th century. So if you’re looking for Frontier authenticity - that’s it. 

And, returning once again to that issue of recipe conversion, I really wouldn’t use more than a ¼ ounce liquid measure of this syrup in your old fashioned, being that it’s a rich simple ratio, and that molasses is definitely gonna assert itself.

The Fur Trapper's Daughter

We call it the Fur Trapper’s Daughter, and it’s made with a fusion of French and American ingredients. And this makes sense, because before the time of the Louisiana purchase, French fur trappers were some of the first folks who ventured beyond the Mississippi and into the Rockies and beyond. Lewis and Clark even employed such a Frenchman, named Charbonneau, to help guide them on their journey.

To make this drink, you’ll need:

  • 1.5 oz Cognac or brandy
  • ¾ oz Apple whiskey (Applejack or Calvados)
  • ¼ oz of orange liqueur (Cointreau or Grand Marnier)
  • Several dashes of Frontier Sarsaparilla Bitters

Add these ingredients to a mixing glass with ice, stir well, and then strain into a coupe glass. I think a ribbon of apple peel could work really nicely as a garnish here, or if you want to go for a brighter option, use a lemon twist, which will complement the dark, velvety sweetness of the brandy.

Early Frontier Booze

In the 16- and 1700s, the American frontier was kind of this understood line drawn from North to South down the western border of the Appalachian mountains. And this was largely fine. The foothills, coastal plains, fast-flowing rivers, and deep water ports to the east of the frontier were just perfect for setting up urban hubs from which these colonies, and later states, could govern themselves. So for a while, the frontier wasn’t on the minds of most people who were setting up their farms and businesses in the new world.

But that doesn’t mean that the guys (and the were all guys) in the high offices weren’t thinking about all that awesome lumber, and farmland, and GOLD that could be lying just on the other side of those fairly un-intimidating mountains. So despite the normal person being largely content east of the Appalachians for the first 200 years of our nation’s history, there were still plenty of folks who were absorbed in extending the frontier - in pushing that blade further into the tender, unexploited meat of the continent - and it is the largely commercial, political, and military concerns of these groups and individuals that are responsible for creating the expansive North American frontier that we think of today.

So, starting in the very early days, those simple times when the Appalachians were the bleeding edge of the frontier, what were the rich folks imbibing, and what did the poor folks scrape by with?

Well, you have to remember that in the 16- and 1700s, cocktails weren’t a thing yet. If you listened to our last episode, you’ll recall that this was the high age of Punch--that wonderful, five-ingredient elixyr born in India that migrated its way around the world aboard British freight ships.

And for the colonists, England is where all things fashionable and popular came from. So if you were part of the landed gentry in the New World, it was sort of your job to take whatever the latest fad was in England and make it a part of your repertoire in Philadelphia, or Boston, or Baltimore. So in country taverns and wealthy estates alike, punch was the popular thing to drink for anyone who had some money to spare.

If you didn’t have all that much jingle in your pocket, you were likely to partake in something more along the lines of weak beer, country cider, or if you were lucky - a nice whiskey. I say whiskey because this was produced in the more rural areas that grew and harvested the base grains you’d need to make such a spirit - like corn, rye, wheat, and barley. Rum and Brandy were also popular in the colonies, but at least early on, you’d really only come across these spirits in wealthier settings--and often in the punch bowl.

There was one really heavy hitter in the whiskey world that reigned supreme as our nation’s frontier began to edge westward in those years following the Revolution, and that was Old Monongahela rye whiskey. This stuff was produced in the watershed of the Monongahela river, spanning south-central Pennsylvania, Western Maryland, and Northeastern West Virginia, and it was a staple renowned for its quality and drinkability.

Monongahela Rye was one of the first distinctly American spirits, and you can read about some of the production and aging attributes that makes it special in the show notes page where we link to a few resources, but the most important thing to note here is that, as eyes were turning toward the frontier, rural Americans were beginning to form their own cultural identity, and they took great pride in the spirits they distilled.

Now let’s fast forward a bit.

  • In the year 1800, we’ve got the Louisiana purchase which more than doubles the entire landmass of the United States--and all for the bargain price of 15 million dollars.
  • Then we’ve got the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. The famous journey to locate a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean via water.
  • In the 1810s and ‘20s, we’ve got the Missouri compromise that kind of sets the rules and lays out a path to statehood in certain territories of the country, as well as some treaties with the Britain and the Russia to establish the northernmost boundaries of our nation--our current day border with Canada.
  • In the 1830’s we’ve got the Texas revolution, breaking that future state away from the rule of Mexico.
  • And then 10 years after that, we’ve got President James K. Polk who extends the landmass of the nation yet again by initiating the Mexican-American war, which ended in the Mexican Cession and the Gadsden purchase, which gave us California and the entire American Southwest.

So in the period of about 40 years, we go from a country with a pretty straightforward little life, tucked between the Appalachians and the Atlantic, with a relatively stable frontier, to a country that’s SO big, and SO wide open that it’s literally stuffed with both danger and opportunity.

This is the American frontier we think of in our imagination--filled with mountain men and hostile Native Americans, amber waves of grain, and dramatic mesa-studded sunsets. This is the myth of the American west. This is what sold dime store cowboy novels and created the characters that made John Wayne and Clint Eastwood famous.

This is when brave Americans in the east gazed westward with both hope and trepidation, loaded up their wagons, tightened their belts, and started walking.

And they brought their liquor with them.

The Rise of the Saloon

After a brief and bloody interruption by the American Civil War, the railroad starts opening up the frontier to more and speedier settlement, and the telegraph begins to connect these individuals and their exploits with business interests and news-hungry audiences in the east.

It was these improvements in access and communications that spurred a whole ton of economic and technological development, all of which paved the way for the rise of the cocktail.

Over time, a few places became very important metropolitan centers in the West. San Francisco, of course, which exploded after the gold rush that began in 1849. Then there was Salt Lake City, Denver, Dodge City, Kansas City, and a whole bunch of others in Texas and the deep southwest.


And these places were where the wealthy transplants from back east, the new money from frontier entrepreneurs, and the everyday ranch hands and cowpokes would mingle, share news, have a drink or five, and occasionally bathe. Which brings us to our question: what were the rich folks imbibing, and what were the poor folk swilling?

This was the time when saloons came into full swing, some as stand-alone establishments, and some housed in the fancier hotels where people of means were lodged.

In response to the question of what types of drinks were commonly consumed in the old west saloons, Frontier Fare columnist Sherry Monahan says, “While it’s true that wine, beer and whiskey were largely consumed in most Western saloons, many also offered fancy mixed drinks. They were quite popular in the wealthier communities, like San Francisco, Denver and Dodge City, where bars served drinks such as the Gin Sling, Mint Julep and Whiskey Punch.”

And Arizona state historian Marshall Trimble adds:

“Depending on the location and year, a shot of whiskey usually cost around a quarter. Beer was around 10 cents a glass. The mixed drinks went up from that price.”\

Working Class Liquor

From what I can gather online, skilled craftsman were generally paid around $2.00/day, and we can assume that other trades spread out from there, with many folks coming into lump-sum payments after finishing cattle drives or fulfilling commercial orders.


The bottom line is: if you weren’t a business owner or a wealthy carpetbagger from back east, chances are you were on the lookout for affordable booze whenever you could find it, and whatever it tasted like.

For a little inspiration, I visited “The Old West Glossary of Strong Drink” online to see what cowpokes were calling their hooch, and I was not disappointed.  

Some of the colorful names for the absolute roughest whiskey and illegally fortified or distilled spirits include:

  • Bluestone
  • Bug Juice
  • Forty Rod
  • Fusel Oil
  • Nose Paint
  • Red Eye
  • Stagger Juice
  • Tanglefoot
  • Toper
  • Valley Tan

Just to name a few. You can’t help but lapse into a cowboy accent when your read those.

And there are a couple items on this list that you can kind of identify as cost-savers for these thirsty, lower-class frontiersmen.

One is the "fusel oil" that I mentioned above, which kind of served as a “rotating tap” as a manner of speaking. But really it was just any fermented beverage that either a saloon owner or a mobile person on a wagon would offer straight from the barrel for an affordable price. It was the PBR tallboy of the Wild West. And the beauty of fusel oil is that you could use whatever was in season. In the winter, it was probably closer to beer, made using grain or starchy roots, and in the summer, you could use anything from apples, to grapes, to cactus fruit, depending on what nature or your local farmer had to offer.

And another, slightly less honorable practice that was often used by saloon owners was cutting (or fortifying) these spirits with all manner of other ingredients to make the barrel or the bottle last a little longer, and perhaps keep their prices lower than the saloon on the other side of town. You’ll see this practice come back about 80 years later during Prohibition when booze was also hard to come by.  

"Fancy" Drinks

But enough about those crusty gauchos and penniless drifters.

What if you were a well-to-do lady or gentleman who just arrived on the latest train from Chicago? Perhaps you might be more enticed by a so-called “fancy” mixed drink that you’d need to specify by name to avoid some of the questionable concoctions that some of these saloons would serve.

And chances are, you’d have some sort of palatable option. There are a whole swarm of drinks that became popular around this time that all were kind of orbiting and being pulled in the direction of the cocktail, including:

  • The Sangaree, which was any beer, wine, or spirit, cut with water, sweetened with sugar, and topped with spice, like nutmeg. Almost like a lazy punch
  • Then there’s the Sling, which included 2 oz of a spirit, 1 teaspoon of sugar, 1 oz of water, and a small lump of ice.
  • And of course, as the 19th century drew on, there were the popular juleps and smashes, which included shaved ice, fruit and herb garnishes, and in some cases multiple liquors.

Another benefit of more transportation and improved technology was carbonation, and this is where you see sodas made from citrus and various other flavoring agents (including - lo and behold - sarsaparilla) becoming popular mixers, especially for lighter drinks in warmer climates.

The Cocktail Cometh

As you can see, this is the setting in which the punches, toddies, slings, and tonics that had followed settlers across the frontier from back east became transformed into the cocktails that characterized the golden Pre-Prohibition age of drinking toward the end of the 1800s.

And there was one big commodity that spurred this advance: ice.

Think about it. If you’re a saloon in a boomtown like the one we see in the popular HBO series Deadwood, are you concerned with ice?


You wanna get the miners, cattle hands, various foreigners, and ladies of loose character all liquored up as quickly and efficiently as possible so you could part them with more of their money. And that meant whiskey shots and beer, which have minimal storage and refrigeration considerations.

Chances are that you, as a saloon owner,  haven’t been around long enough (or don’t plan to stay around long enough once the railroad moves on) to worry about building an insulated ice house, then waiting for winter (if you’re someplace cool enough for that to happen), cutting ice on a lake, lugging it to the ice house, and dealing with all that labor and upkeep that would amount to a whole other business in and of itself...and one that would fail immediately if the demand wasn’t there.

So it’s no wonder that frontier slings and toddies - both precursors to the cocktail - were served either room temperature or hot - just like punch.

But in the 1850s, in the midst of the California Gold Rush, things began to change.

As access to ice, refrigeration, and the railroad accelerated, access to fancy drinks expanded. And a wonderful era of cross-pollination between cities developed, in which the nation’s best bartenders like the famous Jerry Thomas began setting down their recipes so that people all over the world could learn how to make these fine concoctions.

This was the golden age of the cocktail, and it is the subject of another episode.


Clips from the following artists were used in this episode, with great gratitude. All music is licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons 4.0.