Where We’ve Been Drinking: the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Posted on Feb 1, 2017


Where We’ve Been Drinking: the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Last week, our friends at Wigle sponsored an event at the Smithsonian, as any whiskey maker would. As part of their American History After Hours series, the museum was doing a program on the myths and facts of The Wild West, and they asked Wigle to supply the whiskey–without which, of course, any discussion of the wild west would be woefully incomplete. We’d been saying we wanted to take more advantage of all of DC’s museums. An evening program involving cowboys and whiskeys seemed like the perfect opportunity to get started.

A Few Fun Artifacts I Saw

  • Numerous bottles of ‘snake oil,’ and advertisements for them
  • Annie Oakley’s boots
  • John Wayne’s wigs from Rooster Cogburn

A Couple of Things I Learned About The Wild West

  • The famous Pony Express was actually only in operation for one year. While it captured imaginations and lived on in westerns, it was a failing business that quickly went bankrupt.
  • Cowboys went through a fairly sudden turnaround in reputation in the late 19th Century. In the 1880s they were thought of as down-and-outers, riffraffs, and crooks. But by the time Teddy Roosevelt (who spent a little time as a cowboy himself) was president, they were the heroes of all the most popular dime novels.

A Couple of Things I Learned About Whiskey

  • A popular 19th century cold remedy was whiskey mixed with rock candy (large crystals of sugar). I tried a sip; I think it beats Robitussin.
  • In the old west, saloonkeepers often watered down whiskey to make it last. Simply watering it was a bit too obvious, though, since even the color would give it away. So, they would add tea or even tobacco to the bottle, to help disguise it. In 1897, Congress passed the Bottled in Bond Act, which gave whiskey both a tax break and a government seal if they distilled and bottled it in one distillery to the proper specifications. From then on, you looked for the bond to know if you were getting your whiskey full strength.

Some Whiskey I Drank

  • Though Wigle mostly focuses on rye whiskey, the historically appropriate whiskey for Pennsylvania where they distill, they’re now trying their hand at Bourbon as well. I got to try this somewhat wheaty version of corn whiskey for the first time, in the form of an old fashioned with aromatic and orange bitters. There’s nothing like listening to a museum panel with a good old fashioned in your hand.
  • Wigle has their own version of a ‘Bottled in Bond’ whiskey. Interestingly, almost all the spirits we drink nowadays would be watered down, by 19th century standards. To be Bottled in Bond, whiskey has to be at least 50% alcohol by volume, but the modern standard for alcohol by volume is only 40%. Wigle’s Deep Cut Rye is a hefty 57% alcohol by volume, served at cask strength without any proofing at all. Despite its strength, it’s remarkably smooth. It’s a bit too pricey and too precious to use in cocktails, which is what we almost always do; so we don’t have a bottle in our own bar. Thus, I’m always extra pleased when they’re giving tastes of it at Wigle events.

If you’re looking for a fun night out and live in DC, keep an eye on the Smithsonian’s After Hours schedule. And if you want to know for sure that there’s no tobacco in your whiskey, get yourself a bottle of Deep Cut.