“Lorie darlin', life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it's likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
—Gus McCrae in Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove
What did settlers drink in 1889? Whiskey. Saloon versions of whiskey often meant grain alcohol mixed with tobacco, burnt sugar, turpentine—anything to, you know, to make it taste better. It went by many names—rotgut, coffin varnish, tarantula juice, red eye. But, since we’re in the mood for quotes today, as Raymond Chandler said, “There is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others.”
There were, when Shane rides onto Joe and Marian Starrett’s little Wyoming homestead in 1889, many branded distilleries up and running, some of which are still producing to this day, at least in some form. Of course these weren’t the folks adding the turpentine. The barkeeps and saloon owners did that to stretch the dollar.
The closest you’ll get to the old brands are the ones that say it right in the title. Old Grand-Dad, Old Crow, Old Forester. The brands have been bought up by larger companies now, and recipes and production methods have changed, but “The Olds” are called that for a reason. Elijah Pepper, granpappy of Old Crow, established his distillery in Kentucky in 1776, Basil Hayden (for whom Old Grand-Dad would later be named) in either 1785 or 1796, and the Brown family (Old Forester) started distilling shortly after they settled in Kentucky in 1792.
Abraham Overholt (later Old Overholt) started up in Western Pennsylvania in 1810, Taylor William Samuels (Maker's Mark) was operating in Deatsville, Alabama in 1844, and the Beam Brothers, David and John, were both working in whiskey, David at the Old-Tub Distillery, and John at the Early Times Distillery. David’s son would be named Jim.
Frankly, if your quest for authenticity leads you down the path of exploring the history of whiskey in America, I’m pleased to send you to the website of DISCUS, the Distilled Spirits Council of America, from which I have now learned more than I can remember or responsibly report.
But onto the Muleskinner.
The Muleskinner seems to be a somewhat obscure cocktail that was reportedly a favorite of the saloon-goer looking for something a bit sweeter. A blackberry liqueur is mixed fifty-fifty with whiskey. Those proportions were suspect to me, but we tried it with more whiskey, and more liqueur, and fifty-fifty was the favorite.
We also made our own Blackberry Liqueur, but if time and energy are against you, a store-bought version such as Chambord will do nicely.
Homemade Blackberry Liqueur
If fresh Blackberries are available to you, please use them. They weren’t quite in season for us though, so we went with a bag of frozen ones.
- 2 cups fresh blackberries or one 10 oz bag frozen blackberries
- 1 ½ cups vodka
- zest strips from ½ a lemon
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 3 cloves
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
Place blackberries and vodka in a sealable glass jar, large enough that you have some extra room, a couple inches at least. Smash/ muddle berries into vodka with the back of a wooden spoon or, as I did, with a club you use to beat fish when they’re naughty. Add lemon peel, vanilla, and cloves. Seal in the jar, shake, and store in a cool dark place, shaking every few days, for two-three weeks.
Strain mixture through cheesecloth and a fine mesh sieve.
Return to jar.
*** Freeze what remains of the blackberries in a Ziploc to use later for Onion Blackberry Vodka Jam***
Make a sugar syrup of one cup water, one cup sugar. Simmer and stir for a few minutes until sugar is dissolved and syrup has cleared. Allow to cool.
Add sugar syrup to strained vodka. Seal back in jar, put in cool dark place. Let sit another week, or for as long as you can resist.
- 3 oz. whiskey (We tried ours with Bulleit Rye and Old Grand-Dad. I’m partial to the Bulleit.)
- 3 oz. blackberry liqueur (homemade or Chambord or equivalent)
- Mint sprigs for garnish
Combine whiskey and blackberry liqueur in a mixing glass (such as a pint glass) or shaker with one or two ice cubes. Stir to cool and slightly dilute.
Completely fill two single old fashioned glasses with ice. Strain whiskey and blackberry liqueur into glasses. Grab a couple of mint sprigs and give them a few flicks, or smack against the counter, or smash with fist. Put in glass. Look, pretty, no?
Sit on your porch in your old rocker and imagine how much less pleasant your life would be if you didn’t have ice. Or the aspirin you may want tomorrow morning. Or a toilet.