By Noël-Marie Fletcher
Described as strong enough to make a jackrabbit fight a bulldog, a raw and fiery rye whiskey made in these parts called “Taos Lightning” was prized throughout the 1800s by thirsty mountain men, soldiers, fur trappers, miners and famous Wild West characters.
Taos Lightning was the brainchild of American entrepreneurs who arrived in the 1820s, saw bountiful wheat crops and envisioned liquid gold that could be manufactured in distilleries. Several distilleries were established in Taos and Ranchos de Taos. The biggest and most well known, however, was opened by Kentucky-born Simeon Turley in the tiny community of Arroyo Hondo, less than 20 miles north of Taos.
And they were correct. Taos Lightning not only made them rich and spawned a booming distillery trade, but the aguardiente gained nationwide fame.
William “Buffalo Bill” Cody in 1898 described a “very bad quality of whiskey made in Taos in the early days, which, on account of its fiery nature, was called ‘Taos Lightning.’ ”
Known for being potent, bitter and inexpensive, Taos Lightning was hailed “as barbarous an alcoholic compound” ever made.
Its potency became notorious far and wide. In 1850, Lewis Hector Garrard reminisced about drinking the whiskey a few years earlier when he traveled to Taos from Missouri with a caravan of mountain men seeking to avenge murdered New Mexico Gov. Charles Bent.
“The green cedar and pine, the mellow light of the sun gleaming through the branches and the twittering of dusky-colored birds induced a dreamy state … We were under the influence of the harmony of nature, tobacco and Taos whiskey,” Garrard recalled.
Trader John A. Rowland moved to Taos in 1825 and became rich after establishing a whiskey distillery. He used his wealth in 1841 to ransom the young son of Texas judge James W. Smith after the boy was snatched on his ninth birthday by Comanches during an attack in Austin.
An American soldier who accompanied Gen. Stephen Kearny on his campaign to seize New Mexico for the U.S. described the whiskey as “vile” and tasting bitter.
Col. Henry Inman, an Army quartermaster, wrote in 1899 that traders used Taos Lightning as a “profitable article of barter with the Indians, who exchanged their buffalo robes and other valuable furs for a supply of it, at a tremendous sacrifice.”
Taos distilleries shipped their whiskey in great quantities to Colorado, where it became a mainstay in saloons and hotels, at political events and in town celebrations. One enterprising man in 1878 used his wagon as a traveling saloon for miners. He sold a barrel brimming with Taos Lightning, which was distributed in tin cups to customers who wanted to “make drunk come quick.”
Army Capt. Smith Henry Simpson, a Taos resident from 1853 until his death in 1916, claimed Taos Lightning-fueled drinking binges caused the violent deaths of 20 percent of Anglo settlers there, who tended to be more susceptible to its intoxicating effects than others. Too much Taos Lightning on Thanksgiving was enough to snuff out the life of one man in Alamosa, Colorado, in 1878.
So pervasive was the flow of the popular whiskey that the Colorado Daily Chieftain joked in 1882: “A new observatory is to be built on Pike’s Peak to protect the residents of the [Colorado] Springs from a flood of Taos Lightning.”
After spending months in the wilderness, trappers drank large amounts of Taos Lightning upon returning to civilization — and subsequently made the civilized world much less civilized due to their rowdiness. This was observed and noted by British explorer George Ruxton, who described in an 1848 article in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine the merriment and brawling of trappers under the influence of Taos Lightning.
Even today, long after the demise of Turley, his mill and distillery during the Taos Rebellion of 1847, the boisterous spirit of Taos Lightning lives on in the colorful tales penned by the 19th-century’s most famous adventurers, soldiers, mountain men and explorers.
Turley’s bold whiskey lives on. It is distilled in nearby Alcalde, New Mexico, by KGB Spirits, one of the oldest American whiskey brands. It can be found in local bars and liquor stores.
Adding to the list of homegrown products popping up in Taos is Rolling Still Distillery, which opened The Lounge last April, delivering a new kick in local cocktails. Vodka is Rolling Still’s inaugural craft spirit with plans to distill other liquors in the future. Not since Simeon Turley’s Taos Lightning whiskey has a distillery operated in Taos County. The Lounge serves craft cocktails and small plates. It’s open daily from 4 p.m. to close and is located at 110 Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Suite D — between Taos Plaza and Bent Street.
A sample of contemporary Taos Lightning cocktails served in local establishments:
An Adobe Bar at The Historic Taos Inn Manhattan prepared by Rushan Perera containing Taos Lightning, Carpano Antica, Angostura bitters, orange and a luxardo cherry.
Lambert’s Treehouse Bar mojito cocktail prepared by Thijs Hoek contains lime juice, local honey, Taos Lightning and mint leaves.
Medley’s Sazerac prepared by Benito Trujillo containing Taos Lightning, Pernod absinthe, sugar water, orange bitters, orange slices and mint leaves.
Taos Lightning made its TV debut in the Star Trek season 3, episode 6 “Spectre of the Gun” (1968). As punishment for trespassing on their planet, the inhabitants condemn Capt. Kirk and his landing party to reenact the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
A quote from the script, courtesy of imdb.com:
Capt. Kirk: [as McCoy wipes Kirk’s split lip with bourbon] Ouch!
McCoy: What’s the matter?
Capt. Kirk: What do you call that stuff? Fire?
McCoy: [reading the label] Taos Lightning, straight bourbon. Try some. In small amounts, it was considered medicinal.
Capt. Kirk: Well, label it “For external use only.”
Scotty: It just takes a bit of getting used to Captain. Actually, a man could grow quite fond of this stuff.