Saloons and Grog Shops of the Gold Rush

Before saloons had a chance to establish themselves in Cariboo gold rush towns like Van Winkle, Stanley, and Richfield, there were plenty of “grog” shops. Grog was a simple mix of rum and water. As the Hudson’s Bay Company provided a ready supply of their own brand of rum, this was an easy and accessible drink for the weary miner. However, not all the liquor sold at these grog shops came straight from a bottle. Very strong liquor was referred to as “chain lightning” and “mountain howitzer” implied liquor that “kills at over 1000 yards.”

As the mining camps became more established, stone jugs of ale and porter were carried up the trails as well as puncheons of Scotch whiskey and kegs of champagne.

The BC gold rush also brought a mix of British and American influences. Gin punch drinks known in Britain as  ‘John Collins’ were served using cold water and gin while toddys (hot whisky punches) were made with boiling water.

IcePickIn the United States, the profession of saloon keeper had been transformed by the availability of ice year round, due to new storing techniques. Blocks of ice were shipped to saloons and the bartender handled them with tongs and picks. Then they began the task of breaking the blocks apart with axes and mallets. Using a variety of tools, ice was cracked, broken into ‘lumps’ or shaved directly into a glass for individual drinks made to order.

The American Saloon on Yates Street in Victoria advertised “ICE constantly on hand” while the Phoenix Saloon in Victoria advertised “plenty of ice on hand” for sherry cobblers, mint juleps, brandy smashes, Heenan cocktails, and Sayers gin-slings, done up in the latest style by their bartender Frank Pfaff, who came from Portland, Oregon.

Mr. Pfaff most likely used a shaker or tumbler made of tin to mix the sherry cobblers and mint juleps. Sherry cobblers were served with a straw to avoid swallowing pits. For stirring gin slings, he would have used a long-handled spoon with a twisted stem.  Making a drink pleasing to the eye as well as to the palate was a new challenge and bartenders, known as mixologists, were well-regarded.

It is interesting to note that while gold seekers had very little vitamin C in their diet, many of the ice drinks contained slices of lemon or other citrus fruits. Sherry cobblers, for example, were made with a few slices of orange. Perhaps those miners who were fortunate enough to find a saloon were able to stave off scurvy. Gin slings (so named because one would ‘sling’ them back) were once considered a health drink. Similar to toddy, a sling was made with gin, white sugar, water, and a small lump of ice.

The Steward and Barkeeper’s Manual printed in 1869 included a recipe for “Canadian Punch” with the following ingredients:

  • 1 quart of rye whisky;
  • ½ pint of Jamaica rum;
  • ½ pineapple, sliced;
  • 4 lemons, sliced;
  • 2 quarts of water;
  • ice and sugar