Around this time of year, I always get to thinking about John Sutter and how he unwittingly fathered San Francisco’s vibrant cocktail culture.
In the middle of 1847, Sutter, a Swiss-born adventurer, found himself in possession of large tracts of land around Fort Sacramento in California, a territory then in the process of being transferred from Mexico to the United States. Sutter was a forward thinker, and was willing to bet that the rich soil and generally temperate climate there would attract a significant number of immigrants from back east. Those immigrants would need things and pay good money for them.
Sutter already had a tannery and a distillery, where he turned the wild grapes that grew along the banks of the Sacramento River into brandy. A flour mill would be good, but for that he needed lumber—as would any newcomers for anything they wanted to build. Of course, there was no Home Depot nearby. If he wanted boards and posts, he’d have to cut them himself, or have his people do it. After some search a good location was found, on the south fork of the American River, some 40 miles to the east. Coloma, as the place would be known, was surrounded by tall timber and the river’s current was swift enough to drive a mill wheel. Sutter dispatched James W. Marshall, who knew how to build sawmills, and a crew of Mormon workmen, and they set to work. By the end of the year, the mill was well advanced and Marshall’s men were digging out the millrace that would divert water from the river to the mill wheel that would drive the huge saws.
On January 23rd, 1848, as he had been doing, Marshall had water let into the millrace to deepen it and wash out the loose soil his men had dug. When they cut the water off again, it had exposed a seam of rock that Marshall believed might contain gold. He let more water in and at the crack of dawn the next day hammered the flood gates closed again and climbed down into the empty channel.
Five days later, Sutter wrote this diary entry: “Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we were alone in a private room he showed me the first specimen of gold, that is he was not certain if it was gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was gold. I told him even that most of all is 23 carat gold.” By then, Marshall’s workers had already begun pulling nuggets out of the river wherever the current slowed.
Within a couple of weeks, word had leaked out all over the region. Word reached Hawaii in July: “A gold region has been discovered…and all California is rushing thither to dig. Half the population of San Francisco has already gone,” the Honolulu Polynesian reported. By August, the news had begun reaching the great population centers of the East. In December, President Polk addressed Congress, confirming even the wildest of rumors. The race was on. By the end of 1849, San Francisco, a ramshackle village of 1,000 people when Marshall made his find, was now home to some 25,000, most of whom had arrived in the last six months of the year. More were pouring in every day.
A CITY LIKE NO OTHER
San Francisco at the end of 1849, when the Gold Rush really got into gear, was like nowhere else on earth. Six months earlier, the place was practically deserted, with much of the population off panning for gold. But now the harbor was packed with ships, most of them drifting aimlessly at anchor or run aground against the muddy shore, their crews having run off into the hills. The streets were rivers and sloughs of mud on most days (the sidewalks were “made of sacks of flour and boxes of Virginia’s finest tobacco,” as one ‘49er recalled), but still they were thronged with people: dour Yankees, proud Virginians, Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese (who brought their own prefab houses with them), wild “Sydney Ducks” from Australia, “Kanakas” from Hawaii—half the world was there. Men were rushing around trying to assemble the necessary knowledge and equipment for becoming an instant millionaire—that is, if they weren’t standing around waiting for a sucker to pass by.
Panning for gold is hard work, you see, and even in the richest strikes—and California’s was certainly one of those—for every day you pick up a gold nugget there are two or three days where you end up with mere flakes of the stuff. Sure, you can get lucky, and many did, but you can also work your ass off in the most primitive, even miserable, conditions and end up with less than you would have made if you had stayed home stocking shelves or pressing trousers or mixing drinks or whatever it was you did before the gold fever bit you. In fact, by the end of 1849 a significant number of would-be millionaires had realized that the most surefire path to riches wasn’t to mine the hills, but to mine the miners.
You could do that in an endless number of ways. San Francisco was both the jumping off point for new miners and the earthly heaven, such as it was, for successful old ones; where they went to splash some gold dust around before they boarded a ship headed back to civilization. In either case, there was little to do in the city but drink: even if one were intellectually inclined, the only art on public display was in barrooms and the only music in liquor-drenched dancehalls. There were no schools, parks, museums, libraries, reading rooms or any other cultural institutions that didn’t involve either cocktails or praying.
The El Dorado saloon and gambling hall, on the other hand, had a female orchestra and the bartenders, as close to artists as you would find in the city, used a solid gold muddler to crush the sugar in their Whiskey Cocktails and Mint Juleps. So, what if the roof of the place was canvas tenting—it still charged a dollar a drink, gold dust accepted. Back east, that drink would cost you a dime.
By 1851, after a couple of hairy years—the heart of the city burned to the ground several times over—things started to get a little better organized. Brick and stone buildings replaced wooden shacks. All but the largest of the hills that studded the city were leveled to the ground or were on the way there. The streets were paved, at least in the heart of town. Many of those abandoned ships rammed up against the shore were reworked into buildings or filled with rocks and dirt from the leveling of the hills and used to extend the shoreline.
By 1853, there were even a few bars that had achieved permanence. The El Dorado wasn’t one of them, having burned down too many times, but Hoff and O’Brian’s White Hall bar was going strong, even after the fires, and so was Barry and Patten’s. In fact, the bar, which a pair of young men from Massachusetts, Theodore Barry and Benjamin Patten, founded in 1850 at the corner of Montgomery and Sacramento streets, right in the heart of the newly solidifying business district, would last until 1878, holding for most of that 28 years the title of fanciest saloon on the West Coast. When the bar’s fixtures were auctioned off after Patten’s death at the end of 1877, they included “fine wines and liquors,” “walnut bar racks and fixtures” and “fine cut glassware,” as any elegant saloon would stock. Even the “photographs and busts of prominent men” and “elegant oil paintings by eminent masters” were standard high-class saloon fixtures. But there was also history there, in the form of “autographs of the pioneers of California,” a “large lot of curios, collected since ’49,” and “other articles and relics of interest collected during the early days of the city.” In fact, five year before, Barry and Patten had written one of the most useful first-hand accounts of Gold Rush-era San Francisco.
That should be no surprise: more than any other American city, San Francisco was built around its saloons. They were its meeting houses, its civic centers, its museums, reading rooms and concert halls.
That museum quality was shared by the legendary Bank Exchange, the home of that legendary San Francisco drink, Pisco Punch (ships sailing for California around the bottom of South America tended to stop in Peru and Chile, where they stocked up on the clear grape brandy that fueled the drink). On Montgomery Street, just a couple of blocks from Barry and Patten’s, the bar occupied one of the corners of the new Montgomery Block, alias the “Monkey Block,” a hulking, fortress of an office building that was built to withstand fires and earthquakes and whatever else California had to throw at it. Named after the bar that had previously occupied the site and apparently somehow connected to it, the new Bank Exchange inherited that bar’s fancy oil paintings and added to them a $1,500 mahogany bar, a black-and-white marble floor and every other fancy fixture that could be loaded on a ship and sent around the Horn.
Everyone with pretensions to being somebody in San Francisco went to the Bank Exchange, at least until the city’s administrative center moved to its current location, a mile and a half away from the establishment. After that, the clientele became a little less business-driven and a little more Bohemian. As the city grew other institutions took their places in the first rank of San Francisco saloon society. I won’t produce a laundry list of them, but such a list would have to include the coffee saloon kept on Montgomery Street by Vincenzo Squarza. Squarza, who had fought with Garibaldi for Italian independence and then become his business partner when the Italian liberator was in exile on Staten Island, was famous for many things, including his clever mechanical inventions and his colorful dress, but his pre-bottled clarified Milk Punches, in many flavors, were a West Coast institution. Another on the list would be Louis Eppinger’s bar on Halleck street. It might have been tiny—it was made by putting a floor and a roof and front and back walls on a sliver of a lot left vacant between two loft buildings—but it was always thronged. Eppinger’s Bamboo Cocktail, a full-flavored but light-punching mix of sherry and vermouth, is still a part of the discerning tippler’s repertoire. The others—well, let’s just say that San Francisco’s “Cocktail route”—the progression of bars through which a town’s sporting gents would make their nightly rounds—was among the longest and most luxuriously appointed in the country.
That Cocktail route took a lot of supplying. The city’s biggest whisky supplier—San Francisco was always a whiskey town, at least when it wasn’t drinking brandy, Champagne, gin, rum, tequila or pisco—was Anson Hotaling. A New Yorker, Hotaling came west in 1852 to mine gold. Apparently, he found that work uncongenial; by 1854 he was a clerk in the Sansom Street establishment of one Peter Christie, a liquor importer. Two years later, Christie had cashed out and returned to wherever he had come from and the establishment was now known as Hotaling & Co., “importers and jobbers of liquors.” The “& co.,” Patrick Riley, split from the business in 1858, to be replaced by John W. Griffin. By 1867, when Griffin retired, Hotaling had had it with partners. From now on, he was on his own. That same year, he moved the business to a new, substantial brick building on Jackson Street, in the heart of the infamous and very, very wicked Barbary Coast, where his wares were in constant demand. He took over the building next door in 1874 and the one across the alley by 1878. The reason he could do that was J. H. Cutter whiskey.
While Hotaling sold all the popular drinks of the day, from British ale to Holland gin to Sazerac de Forge et Fils’s Cognac, as popular on the West Coast as it was in New Orleans, San Francisco was a whiskey town, and that was the bulk of his business. Hotaling wasn’t a distiller, or even a “rectifier,” who aged and blended whiskey. But he knew a very good one.
Charles P. Moorman was a native Kentuckian who, like his late business partner John H. Cutter, knew just where to buy the best whiskey, how to age it and how to blend it (he used all straight whiskies, not a blend of straight whiskies and neutral spirits, as later became the norm in the United States). From 1866 or so on, Hotaling was his exclusive West Coast agent (before that, the Bank Exchange had handled the brand).
While “common” whiskey retailed for $2 a gallon in San Francisco, J. H. Cutter went for $4.50 to $5.50. I don’t know what Hotaling was wholesaling it for, but it made him rich, even against stiff competition from “J. F. Cutter” whiskey, pushed by J. H.’s son. By the time of his death in 1899, Hotaling’s was the largest, most luxurious whiskey warehouse in town.
That is worth mentioning because of the events of April 18, 1906, when San Francisco was shaken nearly to pieces and the ruins burned to smoking ash. The fancy new hotels, such as the St. Francis and the Palace, whose fashionable bars had recently established themselves as milestones on the Cocktail route, were destroyed, as were most of the lesser bars along the way. Indeed, along with the rest of the city’s institutions, that night and the subsequent day saw most of the city’s drinking institutions destroyed.
There were, however, two survivors: The Bank Exchange, then under the management of Duncan Nicol, a dour, unflappable Scot, and Hotaling’s warehouse, saved with the help of a mile-long pipeline from a Navy ship, a bucket brigade, and buckets of sewage and slop from a lot next door. This miracle inspired a modern commemorative bottling of Old Potrero Hotaling’s Whiskey as well as caused local wit Charles K. Field to utter the following verse:
“If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did he burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whisky?”
Field’s verse always brings me back to old John Sutter. The Gold Rush, of which he was the proximate cause, saw him try to parlay his land holdings into a fortune, only to lose almost all of them in the legal—and general—chaos that ensued. What if, I wonder, he had taken that early gold and invested it in his distillery, expanding it, perfecting his brandy, perhaps adding whiskey to his product line? What if he, too, had invested in a strong warehouse in the heart of San Francisco? Would God have spared Sutter’s whiskey along with Hotaling’s? God loves those who help themselves, they say, and going into the booze business in Gold Rush San Francisco has to be the dictionary definition of helping oneself.