I’ve been on a martini kick for a couple of years now. I’m not sure why I switched from the single malt scotch I used to enjoy in the evening. I may have been influenced after reading a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who mixed his own martinis every evening after work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. In any case, I love a dirty gin martini with plenty of olives as I wind down after work.
Not long after I made the switch to martinis, and as I experimented with different brands of gin, a friend surprised me with a bottle of Los Luceros Hacienda gin. I’m now a big fan of the native gin, produced at a distillery in northern New Mexico called KGB Spirits in Alcalde, just north or Espanola. I bought a bottle last week for my brother-in-law and sister-in-law to try.
I have wanted to visit the distillery for a while now. I recently learned from a colleague that KGB Spirits is known for its “Taos Lightning,” described on its web site as a single barrel straight whiskey. I haven’t tried it, but the name caught my attention because one of my ancestors, a well-known merchant and friend of Kit Carson, was known to have produced Taos Lightning in the mid-1800s.
Pedro Jose DeTeves, a Portuguese native of Sao Miguel, Azore Islands, settled in Taos sometime in the 1840s, when New Mexico was part of Mexico. He arrived from St. Louis, and became a successful trader on the Santa Fe Trail. He Anglicized his name to Peter Joseph, probably for business reasons. But his younger brother Antonio, who also made his way to Taos, kept his Portuguese surname of DeTeves, which was later spelled, DeTevis. Antonio DeTevis is my third-great-grandfather.
Much has been written about Peter Joseph, particularly because of his relationship with Kit Carson. I took my family to Taos last summer, where we saw Peter Joseph’s ornate headstone next to Kit Carson’s headstone. We visited Carson’s home, which is now a museum, and I’m not sure how we missed it, but we looked for DeTevis Lane not far from Carson’s home. Not long before my Grandma Rise died last year, she had expressed an interest in seeing the road sign with the DeTevis name, which was her maiden name.
I came across the reference to Peter Joseph’s role as a producer of Taos Lightning when reading a biography of him in the book, Land, As Far As the Eye Can See; Portuguese In The Old West, by Donald Warrin and Geoffrey L. Gomes.
“Joseph’s business during this period was not limited to the Santa Fe trade. The Pike’s Peak gold rush to Colorado in 1859 afforded new opportunities. Kingsbury, in another letter to his partner dated May 6, 1860, noted that Joseph was one of the Taos merchants profiting from the rush: ‘Taos is at present in better condition than any other part of the Territory, their wheat last year was good, Pikes Peak was a good market for their Flour, and this has helped out the whole upper country [northern New Mexico]. Flour & Taos lightning [whiskey] brings a good lot of [gold] dust from the Peak, not much of it comes to the Territory but is sent direct to St. Louis to the credit of those engaged, St. Vrain, Doyle, Peter Joseph, Rutherford, Posthoff & some others.’
“Taos lightning was a colorless concoction distilled from wheat that was much in demand and had been a staple of the fur trade, where it was traded to the Indians for furs. The English adventurer George Frederick Ruxton, who visited Taos in 1846, noted that, ‘The Taos whisky, a raw fiery spirit…, has a ready market in the mountains amongst the trappers and hunters, and the Indian traders, who find the ‘fire-water’ the most profitable article of trade with the aborigines, who exchange for it their buffalo robes and other peltries at a ‘tremendous sacrifice.’’ It seems very likely that Joseph was introduced to Taos lightning during his days in the fur trade, and it may well have been an item he traded with Indians and others after settling in Taos. He apparently distilled his own ‘lighting.’ In 1853, he purchased a property in Taos that included a ‘Still House’ (distillery). The bumper crop of wheat in 1858 made it possible to meet the surge in demand occasioned the following year by the sudden influx of miners into Colorado. Production from Joseph’s still must have increased accordingly, making his earlier investment in the distillery a profitable one.”
The property Joseph purchased must be the same “still home” listed in an inventory of his estate after he died in 1863. The home, purchased from Juan Miguel Baca for $103, was in the mouth of the canon of the River of Don Fernando de Taos.
Joseph purchased “blocks of buildings” and a lot of ground with a building on the “west side of the public square on the main plaza of Don Fernancez,” including 2 billiard rooms and one bar room.
During our family trip to Taos last summer, I took some photos of the west side of the plaza, and wondered what it was like when Peter Joseph was trading Taos Lightning, among other goods.
When I searched online for the origins or Taos Lighting, I came across a commentary that claimed the term Taos Lightning was never used during colonial days. Instead, the trappers called the whiskey, “aquardente.”
A friend at the state archives found a 1963 opinion piece from the Taos Rotary Club and reprinted in the Taos News. The article also mentions that Taos Lightning was originally known as aquardente. But the article also says: “Taos Lightning” is referred to in the earliest diaries of the French trappers who operated in the West as early as 1740.
“No ‘baile’ or fiesta in New Mexico was complete without liberal portions of Aguardiente being available.”