Saloons in the Old West ~ Whiskey and Women

In Cat’s Cafe, two saloons compete for hard-drinking rail workers, cowboys, bullwhackers, and others in Eagle Rock who love a stiff drink as oftenas they can afford it. Pott’s Saloon, supported by the corrupt town boss, sells cheap, bad tasting beer and, for what passes as whiskey, a house blend of grains and noxious chemicals. Patrick’s, the new saloon in Eagle Rock run by barmaid Fannie Smiles, stocks better beer and genuine, undiluted, red-eye whiskey.

Whiskey available in the mid-to-late-1800s West was usually some combination of alcohol, burnt sugar, chewing tobacco, red pepper, gunpowder, arsenic, and muddy river water. It was transported in ceramic “little brown jugs” until the late 1860s when glass bottles became more affordable to produce. In 1870, George Garvin Brown started selling his Old Forester bourbon exclusively in sealed glass bottles. It was generally considered a special treat for anyone who could afford it.

Various meanings are attributed to the nickname “red-eye” whiskey — from the “red eyes” of hard drinkers in the morning, to a foul rot gut whiskey consumed as a cheap drunk, to the red tint from aging in oak barrels, which is the definition I think is most likely correct. It was considered a more refined whiskey, although some saloons might have served their own homemade whiskey with a little red coloring added to pass it off as red-eye.

Saloons that offered a combination of whiskey and flirtatious women enjoyed substantially increased alcohol sales. However, they were not usually prostitutes. From Legends of America, “Though ‘respectable’ ladies considered saloon girls ‘fallen,’ most of the girls wouldn’t be caught dead associating with an actual prostitute. Their job was to entertain the guests, sing for them, dance with them, talk to them and perhaps flirt with them a bit … buying drinks, and patronizing the games.”

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