Old West Recipes: Snakeshead Trade Whiskey
When you read about the Wild West, you tend to run into a lot of weird claims about whiskey. The stuff was potent, cheap, and highly adulterated, according to the claims. And, as often as not, these stories will insist on an especially strange ingredient: rattlesnake heads.
Mari Sandoz's 1964 book "The Beaver Men," as an example, gives a recipe for Upper Platte trade whiskey, which was the sort of stuff fur trappers and mountain men would purchase at a trading post. The recipe is as follows:
1 gal. alcohol
1 lb. plug or black twist tobacco
1 lb black sugar or molasses
1 handful red Spanish peppers
10 gal. river water (in flood)
2 rattlesnake heads per barrel
With the additional note that sometimes locals added wormwood or or even castoreum, which is a smelly substance produced, um, very near the anus of a beaver and used to mark territory.
I decided to create a version of this recipe, skipping the wormwood and castoreum but adding in a couple of flavors I had also heard associated with Wild West whiskey: leather and gunpowder.
All of these adulterants have their explanations. Well, almost all. The tobacco was added to color the whiskey, at it was usually young and clear, like moonshine. Peppers also added flavor, as did sugar or molasses. Western whiskeys sometimes tasted of leather because they were stored or carried in leather flasks.
It's a little harder to explain the gunpowder, and it may be legendary. History has notorious characters like Blackbeard adding gunpowder to their drinks, and so it might be a myth to make them sound, well, badass. But there is an explanation that the gunpowder was added to test the proof of whiskey: At more than 50 percent alcohol by volume, or 100 proof, gunpowder reportedly will still catch fire when added to whiskey. So, if you wanted to make sure you were drinking stuff that was more alcohol than water, you threw some gunpowder in and put a match to it.
As to the rattlesnake heads, well, I don't know what was going on there. There was a vague association between rattlesnakes and whiskey, as it was thought the latter would cure the bite of the former. Additionally, snakes were associated with medicine, possibly owing to the influence of Chinese laborers who worked on the railroad, for whom snake oil had long been a folk remedy.
Western recipes favored rattlesnakes in particular, perhaps due to a literal snake oil salesman named Clark Stanley, who claimed to have been a former cowboy and learned the secret of making medicine from the Hopi Indians, which involved killing rattlers, milking them of their fluids, then then selling that as a patent medicine. Subsequent tests demonstrated that his medicine was, in fact, mostly mineral oil with no actual snake content, but Stanley put on a big show with actual rattlers, traveling from medicine show to medicine show and making quite a splash at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, in 1893.
Whatever the reason, snake heads were associated with Western whiskey, to the point that several cowboy slang books I own give "snakehead," "snake juice," and "snake water" as a cowboy nickname for whiskey.
The first step was locating a rattlesnake head, which proved to be the easiest step: Freeze-dried rattler heads are sold on Etsy. I was rather worried that this was going to be the most toxic drink I had ever made, as, even after death, rattlesnake heads have venom, and there are even stories of them reflexively biting years after death and poisoning a surprised victim. I was worried that the venom might leech into the whiskey, and what it would mean if I drank that.
Reading up on it, there were claims both that the alcohol destroyed a snake's protein-based venom, and, besides, if you drank straight venom it would be destroyed by stomach acids before it could have any effect. This seemed to make sense, as there is a sort of liquor in Southeast Asia called Snake Wine, which consists of high-proof rice wine with a venomous snake drowned in it. This is drunk fairly often, and I have never read of someone being poisoned by it.
But, to make certain, I emailed Bryan Greg Fry, who calls himself the Venom Doc, and who runs the University of Queensland's Venom Evolution Laboratory. He wrote the following back to me:
"The proteins are rendered non-toxic and would not exert an effect if drank anyway since they would be digested in the stomach."
He then explained the popularity of snake wines as a medicine as "Placebo effect combined with malignant testosterone driven narcissism," which seems fair. I would have to admit that part of the appeal of creating this Western whiskey is malignant testosterone driven narcissism.
So I put the snake head in a jar of whiskey. I used Wild Turkey, as a whiskey site I frequent had opined it was probably closest to Western whiskey, in that it is high proof and uses the sorts of distilling techniques favored in the era, such as cypress fermenting vats.
Next I added in leather. There used to be a local alcohol, Norseman Distillery's Leathered Aquavit, that let leather soak in their drink for a few weeks, but it was taken off the market for using "non-food-grade leather." I'm not sure that food grade leather exists, but I did what Norseman had done: I tracked down leather that had been tanned naturally (it's called bark tanning or vegetable tanning). This would have no toxic chemicals in it, and was easy to find: This sort of leather is favored by saddle shops, and so I bought a piece about the size of my hand for under a dollar. I let it soak in the whiskey for two weeks.
Tobacco proved to be a greater challenge. While there have been experiments in infusing alcohol with tobacco, there is a general agreement that this is a risky undertaking. Nicotine can be extremely toxic at relatively low doses. I decided instead to purchase an artificial tobacco additive from a perfume supply store. Usually it would be added to a cologne, perfume, or candle, but it's non-toxic and food grade, so it can safely be added to whiskey. The flavor wasn't tremendously pronounced, but noticable at the finish, a distinct cigar-like flavor.
I also threw a few peppers in and let them soak. I've added peppers to alcohol before and it doesn't take long before the drink becomes so hot as to be hard to drink, so I made sure the peppers weren't in for more than a few days.
Finally, there was the gunpowder. As deadly as it sounds, gunpowder is entirely non-toxic. It's made of three ingredients, sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter, none of which are toxic and all of which are used, in one way or another, in foods.
It's generally pretty easy to get, as there is still a sizable community of enthusiasts for what are called "black powder" guns — traditional gunpowder is now called black powder, to distinguish it from modern smokeless gunpowder, which is made with different and potentially poisonous ingredients.
I went to a local gun store that sells black powder and requested some. The man working there quizzed me on what I was looking for, naming different types, and I was indifferent. He then asked what I intended to use it for, say, an antique musket. I told him I was recreating a Western whiskey and he cut me off, telling me he could not sell me the gunpowder. "It can't be sold for any reason other than to use in guns," he told me. Never mind that guns can actually kill people whereas my purpose couldn't.
This turned out not to be a problem, because not only is it easy to purchase food grade sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter online, but the total cost is less than that of gunpowder. So I just bought the ingredients, made my own gunpowder, put some of it in a pouch meant for tea, and let it soak in my whiskey for about a half hour.
Frankly, even with all the research I had done, the drink was terrifying. The rattlesnake head floats at the top, mouth agape, looking ready to strike. The whiskey is very dark and a little murky. I bought myself a ladle to spoon it out, still afraid that the freeze-dried snake head might nonetheless drive its fangs into me if I got close. And who knew how it would taste? The drink cost me as much as a really fine scotch, and in service of recreating a Western drink that was so notoriously terrible that cowboys mixed rock candy with it to make it palatable.
But, then, whiskey aficionados add leather, tobacco, and even gunpowder to their drinks specifically to gain those flavors, and speak of them fondly. What would it be like?
I spooned out a small amount into a glass and sipped. It was hot, thanks to the peppers, but not too hot, not so much that you lost the other flavors, not so much that you couldn't drink it. The leather was immediately recognizable, giving the drink a slightly woodsy, musty quality, and the gunpowder added some bitter notes. The smokiness was still present at the end, very much like the flavor of a cigar.
It tastes, as my girlfriend said, like an antique shop. It tastes old and strange, a complicated flavor associated with old things, and with a memorable burn that keeps you from wanting to drink too quickly.
It tastes wild. Like the West should taste.