There are days when everything is just too complicated. The only thing you can do is dump out your coffee and go back to bed for an hour. I had one of these recently. On my way back to bed, I grabbed my copy of Pete Dexter’s Deadwood and a stack of cocktail books.
Dexter’s 1986 novel could almost be confused as a non-fiction account of Wild Bill Hickok and Charley Utter’s experience in Deadwood, South Dakota in the 1870s. For those familiar with David Milch’s Deadwood TV series, many of the real-life characters are here as well – Seth Bullock, Solomon Star, Al Swearengen, Calamity Jane, and E.B. Farnum – but the lens that they’re seen through is more Deadwood Historical Society than HBO. Nothing against HBO, of course. The series is, in my opinion, one of the finest television series ever made.
Both feature sex, guns, and drinking as characters themselves.
In Dexter’s book, the men of Deadwood spend their time at the saloons guzzling copious amounts of gin and bitters. Picture a hulking bounty hunter carrying a human head in his rucksack elbowing up to the bar. He then orders the first of many pink cocktails. Right there is Dexter’s vision of Deadwood saloon life.
Yes, there was also whiskey and beer, but gin and bitters was the new drinking fad for all of the miners and outlaws and cowboys of Deadwood. These were the years of the Gin Cocktail, which basically consisted of gin, bitters, and simple syrup (or gum syrup).
One notable cocktail that would have been available back when Wild Bill could sidle up to a bar in Deadwood was the Yellow Daisy. The Savoy Cocktail Book offers a recipe:
- 2 Glasses Gin.
- 2 Glasses French Vermouth.
- 1 Glass Grand Marnier.
- Before shaking add a dash of Absinthe.
The Yellow Daisy was invented by Richard William Clark (aka Deadwood Dick). It was his favorite drink. Savoy describes Clark as quite the raconteur. He was a “onetime Custer scout, Pony Express rider, Deadwood Gulch stage-coach guard, inspiration for all the (64) Deadwood Dick novels of E.L. Wheeler; friend of Wild Westerners, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Poker Alice Tubbs, Calamity Jane, Madame Mustache and Diamond Dick Turner of Norfolk, Neb.”
(The above recipe is enough for six people, says Savoy. For a more in-depth look at the cocktail, The Science of Drink has shaken one up.)
Now, gin and bitters as a cocktail (or pink gin, as it is often known), originated in the 1820s in the United Kingdom. The English would add a dash of Angostura bitters to their gin, thus giving the gin a pink hue.
Bitters are the mainstay of the current cocktail renaissance. Bitters are concentrated herbs, spices, and botanicals that are infused into high-proof alcohol. Many of these recipes were originally used to create patent medicines.* Bitters are also digestives. Today they are mainly used to enhance the flavor of cocktails.
The exact recipe for the gin and bitters cocktail of Deadwood is nothing more than a few ounces of gin and a dash of bitters. But let’s break it down and see if the exact cocktail can be replicated today.
Harry Johnson’s 1882 guide to operating your own bar – Harry Johnson’s Bartenders Manual and Guide for Hotels and Restaurants – lists the principal bitters that every respectable bar owner should have on hand. These include: Boker’s, Hostetter’s, Orange Bitters, Boonecamp Bitters, Stoughton Bitters, Sherry Wine Bitters, East India Bitters, and Angostura.
So it is very likely that the bitters behind the bar – I’ve not forgotten that Deadwood is a work of fiction, by the way – were Angostura bitters.
These are also the bitters that are most commonly used in pink gin. As are Peychaud’s Bitters, which Charles H. Baker, Jr. lists as an essential bitter for “every bar shelf, be it ever so humble” in his book The Gentleman’s Companion. Baker also notes that a dash of bitters can be accurately measured out to be three drops. The dasher top on a modern bottle of bitters will give you a dash each time you turn it over.
But for the Deadwood variety, there was likely a heavier addition of bitters. So rather than a dash, just start shaking out bitters until you have the color you want.
The English commonly used Plymouth Gin for their gin and bitters cocktail. But what kind of gin would be used in a saloon in Deadwood?
As David Wondrich notes in Imbibe!, his history of the cocktail, unsweetened English gins were not available or even widely distributed in the states until the 1890s. So it’s unlikely they were guzzling Plymouth in Deadwood.
English gins like Old Tom and London Dry were commonly available, as was Hollands (also known as Genever), says Wondrich. Some Dutch brands of the time also included Meder’s Swan and Olive Tree. These were the gins that were most likely used by Jerry Thomas who wrote the first ever cocktail book – 1862′s The Bon Vivant’s Companion.
Hollands is, in fact, the gin Wondrich says Thomas was most likely referring to in his recipes. For the sake of this belabored and wandering argument, let’s say that Bill Hickok was a Hollands gin man. Hollands has a much more malty taste to it than the English variety.
So if you’re looking to drink like they maybe probably would have in Deadwood in the 1870s perhaps or thereabouts, dump a mess of Angostura bitters in all of that.
In part two of this series, I will try to replicate the whiskey that Gus and Call drank in Larry McMurtry’s masterpiece Lonesome Dove, which was published in 1986, the same year as Pete Dexter’s Deadwood. In part three, we’ll look at Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian from 1985 in order to replicate the apocalypse.
*In one of my favorite passages from Lonesome Dove, the Texas Rangers Gus and Call come upon an abandoned wagon. While searching it, Gus finds some patent medicines. Says one of the other rangers, “What do you think it will cure, Gus?” Gus responds, “Sobriety, if you guzzle enough of it. I expect it’s just whiskey and syrup.”