Deadwood is back. Thirteen years after the series’ premature and unexpected demise, HBO, creator David Milch, and every surviving member of Deadwood‘s sprawling cast reunite for a TV movie that finally reveals what happened to our favorite sheriffs, saloon owners, gold diggers, and other hoopleheads.
Deadwood: The Movie airs on HBO on May 31, 2019, and you already know that you’re going to watch it — but what are you going to drink while you do? After all, alcohol and drunkenness are a big, big part of Deadwood‘s rough and tumble milieu. With the right drink in hand, it can feel like you’re riding into action alongside Seth, Al, and the rest.
Notice that you need the right drink. What did they drink on Deadwood, and how can you sip along? That’s what we’re here to find out.
The go-to beverage on Deadwood is whiskey, which most characters — particularly Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen — drink like water. However, don’t grab the nearest bottle of Jack Daniels and try to match the characters drink for drink. Not only will you die from alcohol poisoning, but you’ll also have an inauthentic experience. If you want to Deadwood right, you want a whiskey that’s both era-appropriate and that they actually drink on the show.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. To begin with, on Deadwood, people drink whiskey from bottles. That’s a mistake. In the 1870s, when Deadwood is set, most distillers sold their whiskey in barrels. People would use their own bottles and jugs to transport their liquor, but the modern-style packaging and the fancy labels that you see on Deadwood? That wasn’t really a thing until about 20 years later.
In addition, the two most prominent whiskey brands on Deadwood didn’t actually exist in the 1870s. When there’s a close-up on a whiskey bottle in Deadwood, it’s usually Basil Hayden or Bulleit bourbon. Unfortunately, Basil Hayden arrived on the scene in 1991, and Bulleit was created in 1999. They’re tasty drinks, but they’re not really old west alcohols (Bulleit is supposedly based on an old family recipe, but it’s been changed significantly from its original form).
However, Raymond B. Hayden was a real distiller, and he started making a bourbon dedicated to his grandfather, Basil, in 1840. It was called Old Grand-Dad, and you can still buy it today. It’s pretty cheap, too. The Old Grand-Dad recipe has changed since the frontier days (and the Old Grand-Dad name itself was established closer to 1880), but if you’re looking to sip on something that’s been around since the Deadwood era, that’s not a bad place to start.
Deadwood also features Green Brier whiskey, but that distillery died out during Prohibition. Similarly, eagle-eyed Deadwood fans think they’ve caught Swearengen and the rest knocking back shots of Old Overholt, but that whiskey wasn’t known by that name until 1888, and the recipe changed dramatically over the past 50 years.
Finally, there’s some evidence that the residents of Deadwood also enjoy Old Weller Antique 107 — allegedly, that’s what Swearengen keeps in his desk — which the Sazerac Company claims is based on W. L. Weller’s original recipe. There’s no way that’s true: Weller distributed whiskey but he didn’t make it. In addition, the Old Weller line only goes back to 1933. On the other hand, Old Weller Antique 107 is both delicious and affordable, and you should probably have a bottle stashed away anyway.
For an authentic Deadwood experience, you probably want to grab something cheap and water it down a little, but that’s not very fun. Take your pick from the above drinks. All of them have ties to Deadwood and most of ’em are pretty good, even if they’re not historically accurate.
Gin, Brandy, and Whiskey Fixes
The Gem Saloon doesn’t just sell whiskey. In many scenes, you can see a menu of “fancy drinks” hanging above the bar, which come in both pony and jigger sizes.
These specialty mixed drinks include gin, brandy, and whiskey fixes, which are easy to make at home. Here’s how it goes:
2.5 ounces of rye whiskey, genever-style gin, or brandy
1 ounce of lemon juice
1 ounce of simple syrup (or ½ ounce water, ½ ounce superfine sugar)
Shake together in a mixer, strain into a highball glass, and garnish with a lemon wheel. If you’re making a brandy fix, you might want to consider replacing half of the lemon juice with pineapple juice, throwing in some Chartreuse, and lowering the syrup content, but we’re pretty sure that they didn’t have pineapple juice in the Gem. Hell, for those guys, simple canned peaches were a luxury.
Another cocktail that appears on the Gem’s menu is the Judge, which will cost you a pretty 15 cents at Swearengen’s joint. From the looks of things, the Judge recipe was first published by William Schmidt in 1891’s The Flowing Bowl. Here’s how Schmidt described it:
Mix in a shaker 2/3rds full of ice, shake to the “freezing-point,” and strain into a cocktail glass. If you don’t have the ingredients for gum syrup lying around, use simple syrup, or just go ahead and make a Stinger. It’s more or less the same thing.
Old Tom gin
Old Tom is odd to find on the Gem Saloon’s “fancy drinks” list because there’s nothing all that fancy about it. It’s just another style of gin, and while it’s not that well known today, it was extremely common in the 1800s. Flavor-wise, Old Tom gin sits somewhere between genever and London Dry, and it tends to be sweeter than other gins. You can probably find some at your local liquor store.
And, finally, the hottest mixed drink that the Gem Saloon offers is the Blue Blazer, which is a drink that you literally set on fire. Here’s how it works:
2 ounces of scotch (use strong stuff)
2 ounces of boiling water
1-2 teaspoons of sugar
Get a couple of warm glasses ready, and make sure that your fire extinguisher is nearby. Next, mix the scotch and the water, then set the drink ablaze. While the concoction is still ignited, take the two glasses and pour the drink back and forth four or five times, add the sugar, and garnish with a lemon peel.
That’s an awfully showy drink for Deadwood, and we’re not surprised that we never saw Dan or the Gem’s other bartenders make one. On the other hand, the Deadwood camp burned down in 1879. Officially, the fire came from a lamp that fell inside a bakery, but could it really have been caused by a Blue Blazer gone bad? We’ll never know: the fire happened during the 10-year gap between Deadwood the show and Deadwood: The Movie, leaving this — and many other questions — unanswered.