Despite all the old-fashioned images that adorn today's American whiskey bottles—log cabins, buffalo, and long-dead distillers who look like Civil War generals—most of today's famous brands wouldn't taste very familiar to cowboys from the Wild West. And vice versa: whiskey drinkers today likely wouldn't recognize frontier whiskey. And that's a good thing, because it probably tasted horrible.
The bottles holding Jim Beam, Maker's Mark, Wild Turkey, and Buffalo Trace wrap the era in fond nostalgia with fonts reminiscent of "Wanted: Dead or Alive" posters. Bulleit Bourbon stamps the words "Frontier Whiskey" on its bottle even though the brand has only been around in its modern form little more than a decade. In fact, all those brands were created well after the West was tamed, and also probably taste better than most offerings from 150 years ago.
So what were they drinking back then? Some popular whiskey nicknames from the era offer a glimpse: mountain howitzer, coffin varnish, chain-lightning, strychnine, and tangleleg—none of which sound very appetizing. Cowboys never had a reputation for being very sophisticated connoisseurs. The whiskey they drank was simply fuel for the saloons' many other pastimes, whatever those happened to be.
Quality and flavor among whiskies in the late 1800s varied widely. There were few regulations about how the stuff should be made. Additionally, trademark and copyright rules were lax. Not much prevented someone from calling a product "Pure Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey, Aged 10 years," even though just about every word on the label was a lie and the product tasted like kerosene. Back then, it was hard to know exactly what you were buying.
In the decades after the Civil War, distillers making what we today would generally recognize as bourbon only supplied about 10 percent of the whiskey market. The rest of the whiskey was made by giant distilleries churning out what were basically grain neutral spirits: a product distilled at such a high proof that it lacked much flavor and was almost identical from one distillery to the next.
These spirits were then sold to rectifiers who would "improve" them by redistilling and mixing them with other flavorings and colors so they resembled whiskey. The results were sold to wholesalers, who bought spirits in bulk and created their own whiskey brands by mixing together whatever was at hand. These wholesalers were probably responsible for any aging that was done.
Some of the whiskey going west might have started out as bourbon, but somewhere along the journey to the saloon it was often mixed with additional water, grain neutral spirits, and other ingredients to expand the supply and increase profits. Some products labeled as bourbon were actually distilled from a low-grade variety of molasses, and additives could include burnt sugar, glycerin, prune juice, and sulfuric acid. (That last one is what the Joker from the Batman comics sprays from the flower worn on his lapel.)
The whiskey industry was riddled with this sort of crooked behavior, and it took years of opposition from reformers both within and outside the industry to introduce quality standards. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt's Pure Food and Drug Act added regulations for whiskey in addition to many foodstuffs. Within the whiskey industry were distillers like Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor, Jr. and George Garvin Brown, who pushed for quality standards that eventually helped lead to the Bottled-in-Bond Act in 1897. The Act made the U.S. Government the guarantor of a Bottled-in-Bond whiskey's quality, requiring that the stuff within the bottle was all made at one place and that the label correctly identified the maker.
But going back to today's bottles, it's no wonder modern distilleries would want to capitalize on the romantic imagery of the frontier, with its promise of new beginnings and its messy models of justice and commerce. Those symbols are a lot sexier and exciting than the unsung heroes who have truly made bourbon into a world-class sip—scientists in white lab coats, reform-minded bureaucrats, and yes, even marketing executives.