Taos Lightning: Old West Whiskey That Made Hair Fall Off the Chihuahua

taos lightning whiskey
Photo: Sid Balachandran

According to legend, one sip of the 50-proof whiskey made from rich New Mexico wheat was all it took to make one think he’d been struck by lightning.

That could be how Taos Lightning got its colorful name. As for its reputation, it earned that the hard way. The powerful spirit kept an entire territory either entertained or hungover since it was introduced in the 1830s.

Taos Lightning was largely responsible for much of the drunken lawlessness of Old West towns, often leading to alcoholism among Native Americans, and spawning a collection of tall tales and wildly exaggerated claims. It all started when a couple of good ol’ boys from Missouri brought their copper still to New Mexico.

Simon Turley and the Birth of Taos Lightning

In the backwoods of Madison County, Kentucky, in 1806, Benjamin Turley and Nancy Ann Noland Turley gave birth to their ninth child, a boy named Simon Turley. After Benjamin Turley died in 1812, young Simon went to live with two of his grown brothers in Boone’s Lick, the same part of Missouri where Kit Carson, a future frontiersman and key figure of the Old West, lived. As children, Simon Turley and Kit Carson played together and became lifelong friends.

One of their neighbors, who was about twenty years older than Turley and Carson, was William Becknell — the man who, in 1821, blazed the Santa Fe Trail. The youngsters loved to hear Becknell tell of the wonders of the Southwest. Several families from Boone’s Lick and the nearby town of Franklin, Missouri, were caught up in Becknell’s description of New Mexico, and took him up on the offer to follow the Santa Fe Trail to Taos.

Source: Legends of Kansas

The older Turley brothers joined the growing number of Missourians to relocate to New Mexico. In 1829, Simon Turley followed them, with a few friends in tow. The rowdy young men brought along their most prized possession: a copper still.

The buddies planned to start a distillery using the wheat growing in bountiful fields across the Taos Valley. Turley purchased land in Arroyo Hondo, about ten miles north of Taos, and got down to the business of distilling whiskey.

He soon found that his friends were more interested in drinking the product they made than they were in operating a business. It was best, Turley thought, to make his distillery a solo venture.

Quality Wheat Equals Potent Whiskey

The rich wheat growing in Taos Valley was an ideal ingredient for Simon Turley’s whiskey. Although he was skilled at making alcohol from corn back in Missouri, he was pleasantly surprised at how much more potent the wheat whiskey was.

New Mexico’s dry climate coupled with the high elevation improved the flavor of the wheat. After some tweaking, Turley hit on a recipe that would serve him well. That recipe, according to legend, consisted of one gallon of Rio Grande river water, the siltier the better, to which Turley would add a pint of raw wheat alcohol, a smidgeon of Jamaican ginger, a pinch of bitters, and a plug of chewing tobacco.

Once the ingredients were mixed together, it was left overnight to age. Some stories say that the whiskey was flavored with gunpowder and chili powder. The validity of this recipe is questionable, of course. Most likely, it is the product of the tall tales surrounding Taos Lightning.

Booming Business

Turley’s distillery grew in size and popularity. He was able to build a large, two-story grist mill adjacent to the distillery. He also built a dam across the Rio Hondo and diverted the water through a narrow slot canyon to power his mill.

The mountain men that frequented Taos and the surrounding area were particularly fond of Turley’s whiskey. They referred to it as “Taos Lightning,” claiming that the explosive alcohol hit like a bolt of lightning.

Simon had some competition, but they didn’t cut into his business much. He did feel a pinch when one of his rivals drastically cut the cost of their whiskey, but it was only temporary. They were just unloading their inventory before packing up and heading for California.

Once they were gone, it was back to business as usual for Turley. He had an advantage when the United States began to strictly enforce restrictions banning whiskey from being imported into Indian country. Turley’s distillery was on Mexican land, and his customers came to him.

Charles Autobees. Source: Wikimedia Commons

As his business grew, Simon Turley hired Charles Autobees to work as his travelling salesman. Taos Lightning was stored in 10-gallon wooden casks and loaded onto pack mules.

Autobees rode along the Arkansas and Platte Rivers, selling and trading the casks to outpost keepers along the route.

They, in turn, resold the whiskey in smaller bottles to the fur trappers and Native Americans who frequented their trading posts. Taos Lightning was a hot commodity.

Bottles were traded and re-traded among the trappers, and some bottles even made it into British Columbia and beyond.

Potent Whiskey (Maybe Too Potent)

Taos Lightning was strong stuff. Really strong.

Depending on the batch, the liquor was between 40- and 50-proof. It didn’t take much to get folks good and drunk. The traders, mountain men, Hispanics, and Native American were so fond of the beverage that it was stocked in every saloon.

In 1846, a visitor from England passing through New Mexico wrote about Taos Lightning in his journal. He referred to it as a “fiery spirit.” He also noted with disdain that more than half of the businesses in Santa Fe served the powerful whiskey. The whole city, he noted, was filled with “reeling, drunken men.”

Drunk on Taos Lightning, some men got loud, rowdy, and destructive. Fights were common. According to reports, there was a trader along the Missouri River that came up with a creative way to keep his patrons from becoming dangerous drunks. He laced each cask of Taos Lightning with laudanum, a depressant made with opium, to offset the effects of the whiskey.

Before the introduction of Taos Lightning, alcoholism — even drunkenness — was a rarity among the Native American and Hispanic populations of New Mexico. Hard liquor was not easy to come by. But Taos Lightning was cheap and readily available. It was the biggest factor in the rise in alcoholism among native populations of the region.

Some of the traders figured out that Native Americans had a weakness for the whiskey, and they used this to their advantage. When negotiating trade between the native people, these traders would offer a swig of Taos Lightning.

And then another. And another.

The drunker the Native Americans became, the more willing they were to trade valuable buffalo robes for a fraction of their worth. From time to time, a trader would swap a diluted cask of Taos Lightning to the unsuspecting Indians in order to con them and get the better end of the deal.

Alcoholic beverages were scarce in the Southwest at that time, but the area was not entirely without libations. Beginning in the early 1620s, Franciscan priests started vast vineyards in the Socorro Valley.

From the grapes they grew, they made their sacramental wine. They were even known to produce grape brandy in their copper stills. The beverages, however, were meant for ceremonial use, not for mass consumption.

Other settlers to the region also made brandy and wine, but both the quality and the quantity were so poor that it was not commercially viable. Other liquors that were transported into the Southwest were too costly for the average person to afford.

Taos Lightning changed all that.

Taos Whiskey and Tall Tales

The Trapper’s Last Shot. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Mountain men and fur trappers of the Old West had a reputation for exaggerating and telling tall tales, and Taos Lightning was not immune from this tradition.

In fact, the fire and potency of the whiskey lent itself to some funny — and downright horrifying — tall tales.

For example, some old trappers would point to a chihuahua dog and claim that the dog was once covered in long fur. A few sips of Taos Lightning, they claimed, made the poor dog lose all its fur. Conversely, other stories claimed Taos Lightning was so strong it would put hair on a chihuahua.

Several stories about Taos Lightning seem to center around an Old West figure named Peg-Leg Smith. Some accounts even claim that it was Peg-Leg Smith, a cantankerous mountain man and ne’er-do-well, and not Simon Turley, that first invented Taos Lightning back in the 1820s.

In addition to legitimate business, like fur trapping and trading, Peg-Leg Smith was also involved in his share of unlawful activities, including horse stealing and kidnapping Native American children to sell to Mexicans as slaves.

When Smith was shot in the knee by an Indian, the wound became so infected that his leg had to be amputated. Peg-Leg Smith, as the tall tale states, took a few swigs of Taos Lightning to dull the pain and performed the amputation himself.

The Taos Insurrection

The New Mexico territory during this time was under the control of Mexico. The United States military, under the leadership of Stephen Watts Kearny, invaded the territory in August of 1846. Caught off guard, the governor of the territory, Manuel Armijo, quickly surrendered to Kearny.

But when Kearny left for California — leaving Colonel Sterling Price in charge of a small unit of soldiers and Charles Bent as the new territorial governor of New Mexico — the Mexicans organized a revolt.

revolt at taos new mexico

Featured Read

Revolt at Taos: The New Mexican and Indian Insurrection of 1847

“Rarely do you come across an account of this war. Mr. Crutchfield has written a wonderful history on this topic.” – L. A. Graham, Amazon

Read Now

A group of insurrectionists, led by Pablo Montoya and Tomas Romero, mounted the Taos revolt on January 19, 1847. Their first stop was the home of Charles Bent, the territorial governor. Bent was shot with arrows and scalped in front of his wife and children, but miraculously survived.

When his family tried to escape with the gravely wounded Bent, however, they were discovered. Bent was killed but his family was unharmed. Several other territorial officials were also killed in the insurrection.

The rebels moved on to Arroyo Hondo, outside of Taos, and attacked Simon Turley’s distillery. Turley’s traveling salesman, Charles Autobees, was returning from making a whiskey delivery and saw the insurrectionists heading toward the distillery.

He spurred his horse on to warn Turley and then rode to Santa Fe to get help. Simon Turley and a handful of grizzled mountain men were left to defend the Taos Lightning distillery.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

A force of 500 men, both Mexicans and Native Americans, descended on Turley’s distillery. Turley’s mountain men friends advised him to barricade the gate and all the entrances and to board up the windows.

At first, Turley was reluctant. He had always had a great relationship with both groups. He was sure they meant no harm. He was wrong. When the group arrived at the distillery, they demanded that Turley turn over his property to the insurrectionists and they would spare his life. When he refused, the fighting started.

Greatly outnumbered, Turley and his group of about ten were able to hold off the rebels for most of the day, thanks to the strong barricades. That night, however, the rebels set fire to the mill where the men were hiding out.

Trapped in the blaze, the men decided to make a run for it. About half were shot and killed by the rebels. Three of the men got clear and split up, going in different directions in search of help.

As for Simon Turley, he was wounded and unable to escape. He hid from the mob until he saw one of his long-time Mexican friends pass by. Turley offered the man money in exchange for a horse to help him make his getaway. Instead of going to get a horse for Turley, the man betrayed Turley’s whereabouts to the insurrectionists. He was captured and murdered.

The Future of Taos Lightning

After Simon Turley’s death and the destruction of his business in 1847, the distillery was not rebuilt. Turley’s famous Taos Lightning whiskey was no more.

By this time, better trade and distribution routes had been established, making it easier and more profitable to bring Kentucky whiskey into the Southwest. Stories of the fiery, locally distilled whiskey fell into legends. But good legends never die.

Source: KGB Spirits

Roughly 160 years later, a small-batch distillery in New Mexico, KGB Spirits, resurrected Taos Lightning. Perhaps not as potent or intense as the original Taos Lightning, this liquor serves as a way to allow Old West buffs the opportunity to taste history.

Like the original whiskey, KGB’s offering used wheat grown in the high elevations of New Mexico’s dry climate, factors which add to the distinct taste of the whiskey.

Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice?

Read more about life in the Old West:

Although Karen lives in the Midwest, she likes to put the emphasis on the "west." A freelance writer who specializes in American history, Karen has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Central Michigan University and a master's degree in English from Indiana University.

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