During the recent American presidential election, much was made of Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s religion. Romney is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, a family-oriented faith founded in 1830 known for its anti-gay marriage messages, no caffeine and absolutely no alcohol. But what many people may not realise is Mormons were once whiskey makers.
In fact, Mormon whiskey was so popular that Mark Twain referenced it as “Valley Tan” in his book Roughing It. Valley Tan “was the exclusively Mormon refresher,” Twain wrote.
As new American settlers travelled West in the 1800s, they used whiskey as currency, trading it for beaver pelts, tobacco, food and even for a good romp in the sack.
Like most Americans, the Mormons needed whiskey for survival in a time when money was not regularly available. Travelling toward Utah would require whiskey to trade with Native Americans and mountain men looking for gold.
But, this necessity for currency contradicted the faith. The consumption of alcohol violated founder Joseph Smith’s Word of Wisdom. Despite this, many early apostles, even Smith, partook in alcohol consumption. On July 1, 1845, Mormon and frontiersman Hosea Stout wrote in his diary: “This day there was a grand concert ... we had .... much beer, wine....”
Several other accounts confirm the discourse between the preaching of no alcohol and consumption. But, something even more heinous in the eyes of some Mormon followers began occurring: They made the alcohol.
As they made Utah home, the early Mormons used alcohol as a means of profiting and the church enjoyed a monopoly of the Utah liquor trade. According to the book, The Lion of the Lord: A Biography of Brigham Young, in 1856, one Mormon freighted six tons of tobacco, rum, whiskey, brandy, tea and coffee across the plains for the prophet Brigham Young, after whom the Brigham Young University was named. All of these materials, with the exception of non-caffeinated tea, are currently prohibited in the religion. But not only did Young ship these materials; he admitted to owning a distillery. “When there was no whisky to be had here, and we needed it for rational purposes, I built a house to make it in,” Young wrote June 7, 1863, according to Journal of Discourse, Volume 10.
In 1861, a Salt Lake City Council special committee discussed purchasing or renting the Brigham Young distillery near the Mouth of Parley’s canyon for “immediate operation.” The committee saw the potential in selling whiskey to meet “public demand” and to control the flow of whiskey, while accruing profits into the City Treasury.
Meanwhile, a high priest was selling whiskey at $2.50 a gallon, and the city evaded whiskey taxes. O.H. Hollister, a government revenue collector, was forced to sue Salt Lake City for $30,000 to collect on the “distillation of moonshine by the Mormon high priests,” according to the 1909 book Lights & Shadows of Mormonism. Hollister settled for $12,051.76.
This blatant contradiction of their teachings and actions from high Mormon leaders led many within the faith to demand change. Lights & Shadows of the Mormon Church claims Mormon high priests were whiskey wholesale and retail distributors, while the church’s most-important figures were distillers.
In fact, during the early 1900s, when other religions organised Temperance messages, the Mormon church appears to have done the opposite. “The Mormon church has been in absolute control of the legislature of Utah,” wrote John Francis Gibbs, author of Lights & Shadows of Mormonism. “There has not been a time during the period just named that the Mormon leaders could not have prohibited the manufacture, importation and disposal of intoxicants. All that was necessary on the part of the Mormon leaders to enforce prohibition was to request the presidents of the various stakes of Zion to see it that only such men as would vote for prohibition were sent to legislature. Instead, however, of bringing their unappealable dictum to hear on the side of temperance and decent morals, the Prophet Brigham became a distiller of whiskey...”
Many Mormons remain in denial that one of their most-influential prophets was a distiller, and their high priests greatly profited from liquor. But, as more history has been uncovered on the church, they’re less ashamed of it. Perhaps that’s why when David Perkins started the High West Distillery in Park City, Utah, no member of the Mormon Church contacted Perkins with a cease and desist letter. After all, Perkins didn’t just create Utah’s first legal, tax-paying distillery since 1870; he made “Valley Tan Utah Oat Whiskey” and highly promoted Mormon whiskey history. “We never heard a word from anyone,” Perkins says. “History or not we were going to do a distillery in Utah come hell or high water. The history was a bonus.”
Shortly before opening the distillery in 2007, Perkins did discover what he considers the country’s first whiskey gathering. In 1826, more than 20 years before Mormons arrived, mountain men gathered to exchange pelts and eventually whiskey. Called “Rendezvous,” the event lasted 15 years and whiskey was always in “generous supply” for the annual summer gathering. Of course, Perkins named a whiskey after this event. A blend of two straight ryes of 16 and six years, Rendezvous Rye whiskey is about a 51 to 53 per cent rye mash bill.
How close is this recipe to what the Mormons were making? Nobody knows. Not even Perkins has found a Mormon whiskey recipe. The church probably burned them during the times they were ashamed of their whiskey-making past.
But, if Perkins ever found a mash recipe in an abandoned Mormon building, would the High West Distillery attempt to make the recipe? “Oh yeah!,” Perkins says.