The term, “Valley Tan” was associated with a range of goods produced by Mormons in Utah. One of the first industries introduced in Salt Lake Valley by the Mormons was leather tanning. Because the tanning process often was done crudely, the term became associated with any article of Utah home manufacture done in a rough-hewn way, including making whiskey.
Prominent witnesses have attested to the raw-boned nature of this liquor. Among them was Mark Twain. In 1871 he visited Mormon Utah and was given a taste of Valley Tan. No stranger to strong drink, Twain found it potent. His subsequent book, “Roughing It,” contained a story about a fellow traveling with Twain named Bemis who came into his 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 describes how Bemis threw off some of his clothing, pronounced it “too many for him,” and went to bed with his boots on.
At first, Twain wrote, his companions thought it was something he 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.”
Another encounter with Valley Tan was narrated by 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 accused killer, wanted in Missouri. At this point Rockwell had been appointed deputy marshall of Salt Lake City. His violent reputation had preceded him, however, and Burton was anxious to meet Rockwell.
Their encounter occurred over dinner one night at the home of a mutual friend just outside town. The notorious Mormon 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: Rockwell pulled out a dollar Burton later wrote, 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 stayed with him, drink for drink, as the mountain man gave him advice about Burton’s plans to travel overland to California. Sir Richard later sent Rockwell a bottle of brandy as thanks, never remarking on the quality of Valley Tan.
Another link from the Church of the Latter Day Saints to Valley Tan was its sale in the department-like store established by Brigham Young to provide necessities to Mormons in Salt Lake City. Called Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI), the store, shown above, sold Valley Tan. That could never have occurred without the leader’s blessing. Young is shown here pictured on a Pabst beer issued mug issued in 1897 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Mormons in Utah.
As for Brigham Young himself, he seems to have been of two minds on the subject of alcohol. He claimed never to have tasted whiskey, and his son-in-law William Hooper said, “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.” The Mormon leader himself has been quoted 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.”
That said, in 1873, the territorial legislature granted Brigham Young the exclusive right to manufacture and distribute whiskey and other spiritous liquors in Utah. He did not have to “blow out the brains” of the whiskey makers, just usurp their activities. Among the products of this Mormon monopoly was Valley Tan. As one writer has explained: “…Young generated a large amount of revenue for his new territory by taxing and controlling the very liquor he manufactured, yet despised.”
Because Young died in 1877, it is questionable how long this monopoly over alcoholic drink lasted. Certainly as the 19th Century wore on, other Utah residents were active in the whiskey trade. Among them was Fred Kiesel who established a liquor house in Ogden, Utah, in 1887. Kiesel 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 here is a celluloid match safe with an ad touting Valley Tan as “Pioneer of Whiskies.” The other side has advertises “Brigham Young Tonic Bitters” with a picture of the Mormon leader.
With the coming of statewide prohibition in Utah in 1917 and National Prohibition in 1920, Valley Tan disappeared from the national scene and seemingly was not revived after Repeal in 1934. In recent years, however, Valley Tan brand whiskey has made a re-appearance. 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 Burton’s writings that he found the recipe for Valley Tan. Apparently originally it was made 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 is a far cry from Mark Twain’s “fire and brimstone” Valley Tan, the Mormon whiskey.