The West has been settled since at least the end of the nineteenth-century, depending on how you reckon it, but the appeal of the frontier remains compelling—just ask any fan of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Little House on the Prairie or Deadwood. We may not go out with our six-shooters blazing, but we can spend the rest of our lives watching it on TV.
The social and cultural hub of the Wild West was the saloon. There were thousands of them, and they served every function from mail drop to brothel, meeting place to gambling den. And, of course, they served whiskey. There was no FDA in those days, so you were never quite sure if the stuff you were drinking would poison you. All you really knew was that it was safer than drinking water.
Taos Lightning claims to be the oldest spirit brand in America. Depending on which version you believe, it was either first produced in 1820 by Simeon Turley of Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, or in 1824 by Peg-Leg Smith. Either way, it was popular in the Southwest until 1847, when Turley was killed during the Taos Pueblo Revolt. It was revived 160 years later by KGB Spirits of Alcalde, New Mexico (no relationship to the Soviet espionage outfit of the same name).
Their Governor’s Reserve Taos Lightning ($50) is composed of 95% rye and comes in at 90 proof. The Governor in question was Charles Bent, the brother-in-law of Kit Carson, who also perished during the revolt. His portrait appears on the label, although the spirit has no age statement. The whiskey is believed by some sources to be five years old, and was apparently purchased from another distiller and aged in barrels by KGB in New Mexico.
It has a fragrant nose with overtones of roasted grains and baking spices. It is light and lyrical in the mouth, compact and nicely balanced, with a deep spiciness offset by flavors of vanilla and round notes of toasty oak. KGB compares it to an Islay Scotch in terms of subtlety and refinement, but it’s actually far more pleasant to drink—while it would be delightful to sip neat, it also makes a smooth and elegant Manhattan.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in 2016. For more information, go to amazon.com