Thursday, August 18, 2016

Brigham Young and “Valley Tan” Whiskey

Terming the Mormon leader Brigham Young a “whiskey man” might strike some as an absurdity, given the injunction against strong drink that has been a traditional teaching of the Church of the Latter Day Saints.  The facts seem otherwise.  For example, in 1873 at Young’s request the territorial legislature granted him the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other spiritous liquors in Utah.  “Valley Tan” was the name of his principal brand.

Young seems to have been of two minds on the subject of strong drink.  Although indications are that he drank beer when polluted water was an issue, he is said never to have tasted whiskey.  Brigham is recorded saying:   “If I had the power, I would blow out the brains of every thief in the territory, and I despise the whiskey maker more than I do the thieves.”  Strong words indeed from a religious leader and sometime distiller.

Valley Tan predates Young’s monopoly over Utah whiskey.  The name itself was associated with a range of goods produced by Mormons in Utah.  One of the first industries they introduced into the Salt Lake Valley was leather tanning.  Because their tanning process often was done crudely, the term became associated with any article of home manufacture done in a rough-hewn way, including distilling liquor.  A quart whiskey bottle bearing Valley Tanning (V T) embossing is shown right.

Prominent witnesses to the character of  Valley Tan have attested to the raw-boned nature of this liquor.  Among them was Mark Twain.  In 1871 he visited Utah and was given a swallow.  No stranger to strong drink, Twain found it an unusually potent.  His subsequent book, “Roughing It,” contained a story about a man named Bemis who came into Twain’s Salt Lake City hotel room about 11 P.M., “…Talking loosely, disjointedly and indiscriminately, and every now and then tugging out a ragged word that had more hiccups than syllables in it.”   Twain then described how Bemis threw off his clothing and went to bed with his boots on.

At first, Twain wrote, his traveling companions thought it was something Bemis had eaten. “But we knew afterward that it was something he had been drinking.  It was the exclusively Mormon refresher, ‘Valley Tan.’”  The author then explained: “Valley Tan is a kind of whisky, or first cousin to it; it is of Mormon invention and manufactured only in Utah.  Tradition says it is made of (imported) fire and brimstone.”

Other testimony to the potency of Valley Tan came from the famed explorer and adventurer, Sir Richard Burton, shown right, who in 1860 stopped to explore Salt Lake City and its environs.   Among the people Burton was eager to meet was Orrin Porter Rockwell, a notorious figure with a reputation as a ”mountain man,” Mormon enforcer, and wanted criminal.  At this point Rockwell had been appointed deputy marshall of Salt Lake City.  His reputation had preceded him and Burton was anxious to meet him.

Their encounter occurred over dinner one night at the home of a mutual friend just outside town.  The Orrin Rockwell the Englishman encountered was “…a man about fifty, tall and strong, with ample leather leggings overhanging his large spurs, and the saw handles of two revolvers peeping from his blouse.”  Rockwell and Burton apparently hit it off from the beginning.  According to Burton’s account, Rockwell pulled out a dollar and sent to “the neighboring distillery for a bottle of Valley Tan.

“We were asked to join him in a ‘squar’ drink, which means spirits without water.  Of these we had at least four, which, however, did not shake Mr. Rockwell’s nerving, and he sent out for more, meanwhile telling us of his last adventure.”
Burton apparently kept up with Rockwell, drink for drink, as the mountain man gave him advice about the Englishman’s plans to travel overland to California.  Sir Richard later sent him a bottle of brandy as thanks, never remarking on the quality of Valley Tan.

Another link from Brigham Young to Valley Tan was its sale in the department-like store the leader had established to provide necessities to Mormons in Salt Lake City, ostensibly because non-Mormon local merchants were gouging his people.  Called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the store, shown above, sold Valley Tan.   That could never have occurred without the leader’s blessing. 

Because Young died in 1877, his whiskey monopoly may have lasted only a short four years.   His death did not, however, end his association with alcoholic drink.  He is shown here pictured on a Pabst beer issued mug issued in 1897 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Mormons in Utah.  Young’s association with Valley Tan was perpetuated by Fred Kiesel, a liquor dealer who operated out of Ogden, Utah, and financed a second outlet in Salt Lake City. [See my post on Kiesel, August 2014.]  

Kiesel, left, was a “Gentile” who enjoyed tweaking the Mormon establishment.   Certainly among his jabs was issuing his own Valley Tan whiskey and advertising it with a picture of the Brigham Young monument that stood in downtown Salt Lake City.  

Shown right is a celluloid match safe with an ad touting Valley Tan as the “Pioneer of Whiskies.”  The reverse side advertised “Brigham Young Tonic Bitters” with a picture of the Mormon leader.  Kiesel’s bitters also was a beverage well-laced with alcohol.

Of Brigham Young, his son-in-law William Hooper wrote: “Brigham Young hates intemperance and its evils, and who, if he could have, would never have made a drop or permitted a drop to enter Utah. He wishes that all the whiskey that the Gentiles brought had been so filled with poison as to have killed all who drank it.” 

Yet Brigham Young allowed Valley Tan whiskey to be sold in the ZCMI and later sought and received the monopoly franchise to manufacture and sell liquor in Utah.  This whiskey man clearly was of two minds.  As one writer has summed up the situation:  “…Young generated a large amount of revenue for his new territory by taxing and controlling the very liquor he manufactured, yet despised.”

In recent years Valley Tan has made a re-appearance on the whiskey scene.  In 2007 a Colorado native named David Perkins opened Utah’s first distillery since the 1870s in a village called Wanship, about 37 miles from Salt Lake City.  Perkins claims it was from Sir Richard Burton’s writings that he found the recipe for Valley Tan.  It is said to have been made originally from wheat and potatoes. Perkins uses just wheat for his whiskey and claims that his “Valley Tan is lighter and more delicate than other whiskeys — perfect for sipping.”   Certainly this liquor is a far cry from Mark Twain’s “fire and brimstone” Valley Tan — Brigham Young’s Mormon whiskey.


  1. Informative and fascinating.

  2. Dear Unknown: Thanks. Glad you liked the post. It was fun to research and write.

  3. This is amazing. I had no idea. I can't wait to see what my devote Mormon family members will think of this!


  4. Dear Unknown: I am sure this association of Brigham Young with whiskey will come as a surprise to many people. It did to me.

  5. How does Valley Tan whiskey rwlate to Valley Tan the short lived newspaper? Or does it?

  6. Randi Raven: Valley Tan the whiskey and Valley Tan the newspaper probably have little to do with each other except their names. The paper was anti-Mormon, the whiskey from a difference source was not necessarily so. Both referenced a common term used for the alleged rough work put out by Salt Lake tanneries.

  7. I am reading 'the Saga of the Pony Express' by Joseph J. Fe Certo. Valley Tan whiskey was mentioned...Googled and found this! Very cool! Thanks for the background/ history.

  8. Dear Unknown: Thanks for your kind comments. Valley Tan is whiskey with a true history.

  9. When I purchased this from High West yesterday, the team member there told me they only produce Valley Tan in July in honor of Pioneer Day. And when the whiskey that was produced is gone, it is gone until more is made the next July.

  10. Thanks, Debbie, for this information. One of my oldest and best friends is keen on the products from High West. If you could send an e-image of the bottle and label to me at, I would be most grateful.

  11. Great read! Thanks!

  12. Love this article. Lots of great laughs.