How Boot Hill Distillery traced down an original Old West bitters recipe and brought it back to life.
By Mark A. Vierthaler, Boot Hill Distillery marketing director
Prickly Ash Bitters began its life as many patent medicines of the 1800s did – with questionable claims of medicinal benefit, and unquestionable intoxicating effects.
Advertisements at the time touted the elixir’s supposed miraculous qualities. If the salesmen across the old west towns were to be believed, Prickly Ash could cure “dyspepsia, constipation, jaundice, sick headaches, and bilious complaints.”
And naturally, there’s no way it could ever be considered intoxicating, as its “cathartic properties forbids its use as a beverage.”
That it happened to have 20-25 percent alcohol by volume and was popular among the cowboys ready to rest their weary backs on the cattle trail? Certainly, that was all just coincidental.
Like many Old West bitters, they eventually became extinct thanks to rigorous enforcement of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Prickly Ash Bitters breathed its last ignominious breath in the late 1910s after it was found (multiple times) that while a tasty alcoholic beverage, it offered little to no medicinal benefit.
Boot Hill Distillery has spent the past year painstakingly recreating this historic western beverage by utilizing historical records, advertisements, druggist manuals, and even gas chromatography on rare existing bottles.
WHY BOOT HILL DISTILLERY AND PRICKLY ASH BITTERS?
It’s perhaps one of the most striking images of the rowdy early days of Dodge City. During those years, when we were known as the Beautiful, Bibulous Babylon of the Frontier.
An austere brick building sits in front of a line of wooden frame shops that recede into the distance. The road in front of the shops is nothing but dirt and mud. Shadows of locals line the wooden boardwalk. A stagecoach sits hitched in front of the Longbranch Saloon – one of the Old West’s most infamous bars.
Unceremoniously plunked in the middle of the street is a ramshackle well that props up two hand painted signs. The one on the top: “The carrying of firearms is strictly forbidden.” Below that: “Try Prickly Ash Bitters.”
Google “Prickly Ash Bitters” and among the classic advertisements and occasional (empty) bottles that pop up for sale, you will find the image of Dodge City’s Front Street. It’s the same image that served as the basis for the current layout for Boot Hill Museum, just down the hill from us here at the distillery.
It’s this same association with Dodge City that has led countless tourists from across the globe to ask the museum if they sell Prickly Ash Bitters. Alas, the museum never had, as the so-called “curative” had been dead and moldering in its grave for almost a century.
Read more at BootHillDistillery.com
Boot Hill Distillery donates one dollar per bottle from the sale of Prickly Ash Bitters to Boot Hill Museum.