Any mining town, be it for coal, gold, silver, salt, lead, whatever, from the earliest days of the community or when the mining began, had some form of alcoholic beverage. It was either fermented nearby, or was already on site in the hands of one or more of the miners.

Most of the early mining communities in Nevada had a tavern, even if it was no more than a tent, which was often the case, until a frame structure could be built.

Eureka, Pioche, Virginia City, Delamar, Austin, Hamilton, Belmont, Tonopah, Goldfield, Candelaria, etc., all had some, and the list goes on and on. It is easily assumed each community in its time had whiskey available in some manner.

Pioche, for example, in its heyday boasted having at least 72 saloons, and in a relatively small area, too!

Most of the time miners used alcohol to quench a thirst, or bolster courage for some reason or another. But alcohol was also considered necessary for medical purposes and was often given to sick children. Many stories could be told under that heading alone.

No one can be absolutely sure about the date of the first distillery in the American colonies back east, but historians note the earliest references date from the mid-1600s.

Maybe it didn’t come from the Pilgrims, pious bunch that they were, but certainly by other settlers who came later.

Miners in Nevada most likely did not produce alcohol themselves, at least not until Prohibition, but no doubt numerous early traveling salesmen presented their product with great enthusiasm when they visited the mining towns. And stagecoaches, coming into a community from outside, even though drinking by passengers was discouraged on route, probably carried some in their freight supplies, let alone freight wagons that supplied the mining communities on a very regular basis.

The one American agriculture product that was useful in making alcohol, whiskey in particular, was Indian maize, better known as corn.

European countries did not have corn until it was later taken there by returning Spanish, English and French explorers in the 1500-1600s.

The development of corn spirits in the colonies took place mostly in Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and southern Ohio.

To be sure coal miners in the northwest regions of Virginia, now West Virginia, took it to the mines with them. Although straight corn whiskey was widely produced, it proved to be an uneven product at best.

Historians note that by 1792, when Kentucky became a state, whiskey production was on the upswing.

This was due mainly to the fact that many in Kentucky were farmers with whom the manufacturing of strong spirits was considered a proper agricultural pursuit.

What they produced went with the settlers moving further west in the great western migration. Did the wagon trains carry whiskey? Some did. Some of the great cattle drives of later years may have done this as well, although drinking was often forbidden while on the trail.

Burt Lancaster’s 1965 movie, ‘The Hallelujah Trail,’ depicts a wagon train headed for Denver with a cargo of whiskey for the miners. Similar shipments likely came to communities in Nevada as well. Many western Army forts probably had a supply also.

Whiskey experts state that in 1789, Elijah Craig of Bourbon County, Kentucky began making his own brand of whiskey.

There was even an event soon after called the Whiskey Rebellion in 1791 when President Washington imposed an unpopular whiskey tax on producers. An interesting story in its own right.

By the end of the Civil War, Kentucky corn whiskey began to find a character of its own and had found favor throughout the United States.

The miners to the goldfields of California and Nevada, before, during and after the Civil War, brought it with them. Most, if not all, of the taverns in Nevada’s mining communities offered whiskey of some form or another. The Kentucky Bourbon brand was very popular and in great demand, and a miner could buy his own jug if he so wanted.

On May 4, 1964, the Congress of the United States formally recognized the unique quality of Kentucky Bourbon whiskey and proclaimed it a part of the American heritage.

However, untold numbers of Nevada miners had already known that for a long, long time.


adapted from a story by historian Peggy Robbins