Friday, January 24, 2014

Shopping Local: Taos Lightning and Hacienda Gin

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.
Peter Joseph
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.”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Family's Grapes of Wrath

While it doesn’t happen enough, I get excited when either of my daughters discovers a book that they can’t put down. That happened recently with Isabella, who was learning about the dust bowl. She couldn’t remember the name of the book she read in class, but it clearly caught her attention. She asked me if I knew of any movies about the dust bowl. The movie that came to mind was The Grapes of Wrath, even if it was about much more than the dust bowl. In any case, Bella wanted to watch it.

I read the book in high school, but never saw the 1940 movie that featured Henry Fonda as Tom Joad. My mom told me the book by John Steinbeck was one of my Grandpa Louie’s favorites, because it accurately described the brutal conditions he experienced as a teen-ager during the Great Depression.

Grandpa Louie and his most of his family were back and forth between New Mexico and California during that time. He was 12 years old in 1930, when the U.S. Census shows him in a packed household on Ft. Moore Pl. in Los Angeles. He was with his mother, Eliza Chavez, his sister Perla, 8, and brothers, Benny 5, and Lalo, who was just 2. His father, Diego Antonio Chavez, and brother, Mike, were back in Cubero. Eliza’s brother, Felix Otero, his wife, Flora, and their children were also living in the same house in L.A. His Uncle Felix was the only person working – at a department store.

The Chavez’s moved back to New Mexico, at least by 1935. They were living in Grants, according to the 1940 Census. But tragedy had struck twice. Grandpa’s brother Mike was killed in an accident in 1936, and his father, Diego Antonio, died after a battle with TB, in 1939.

My Grandpa Louie married my Grandma Lola Gallegos in San Fidel, outside of Grants, in 1941. They must have left to L.A. soon after that. Grandpa Louie’s younger brother, Benny, died in 1944 in an accident at the shipyards in San Pedro, outside of L.A. My Uncle Lalo said his mother, Eliza, used the insurance money from his brother’s death to buy a house in L.A.'s Boyle Heights, where they stayed for many years. But Grandpa Louie and Grandma Lola moved back to New Mexico.

It’s clear that the depression years, and the treks to and from California, had left an indelible mark on Grandpa Louie. I wish I had the opportunity to talk to him again about his experiences. At least, I’m glad his great-granddaughter, Isabella, could get some sense of his plight as she watched The Grapes of Wrath.

As an aside, a funny thing happened soon after we watched the classic movie, based on the Steinbeck novel. I wrote recently about the rumor that another famous author, Ernest Hemmingway, wrote his most famous novel, The Old Man and the Sea, during a stay in Cubero, the birthplace of my Grandpa Louie.

I still doubt that the rumor was true. But during research of the rumor, a friend at the New Mexico Records Center and Archives reached out to expert Hemmingway scholars. One wrote back with the lyrics of a song referencing the rumor about Hemmingway’s supposed stop in Cubero.

While the song doesn’t prove the Hemmingway-Cubero connection, the thing at just about knocked me off my chair was another reference in the song --  the reference to John Steinbeck’s novel about Tom Joad.

John Stewart, a singer/songwriter, wrote "The Road,” about Route 66:

Where is the road?
Cyrus Avery’s ribbon of dreams
that ran away from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean to connect the Mid-West and the Promised land.
A concrete artery for the American Dream
for the automobile, for the restless traveler.
Where is the road that wouldn’t die
in 1977 when they took down the last highway sign and thought it would just go away,
but it wouldn’t just go away.
It wasn’t just a road Cyrus Avery's ribbon of dreams.
It was Pop Hick’s Diner with
Howard and Mary Nichols In Clinton Oklahoma
Where the heart beat of what John Steinbeck
Called the Mother Road
was heard over the sound of coffee cups
knocking against plates of Spanish Omelettes
And home fries.
Where is the Road that Tom Joad traveled west
From Oklahoma with his family
and tethered mattresses in the Grapes of Wrath.

Where Ernest Hemingway sat and sipped wine
In the Villa de Cubero in Cubero, New Mexico -
where he wrote The Old Man and The Sea.
Where is the road that refused to die,
as highway signs saying Route 66 began to reappear on the sides of buildings, shops and sheds as if by magic.
As if the signs that appeared painted
on the very concrete itself were a kind of
stigmata of the American dream.
Where Will Rogers once stood in the Coleman Theatre in Miami, Oklahoma
and re-defined the image of a country
with a reality check that long outlived
even Rogers himself, as the road became known as The Will Rogers Highway.
and the Coleman Theatre still stands beside 66
with an ornate style that screams "I am alive"
against the Oklahoma horizon.
Where is the road where Stanley Marsh planted
ten Cadillacs in the ground outside of Amarillo, Texas and Cadillac Ranch became visual rock and roll.
The road runs from Tucumcari
to Flagstaff, through Meteor City and Winslow, Arizona, with the line of a spider vein on the thigh of a runway dancer.
And the road cuts through the Mohave Desert
where sidewinders find the shade
in the shadows of abandoned Oldsmobiles
bleached into rusted skeletons
like those that lie beneath the
white hot sand of America’s highway.
And then it’s Azusa, Pasadena, Pomona
where harness horses walk under wool
blankets in endless circles at the L.A. County Fairgrounds and the solid air of Los Angeles hangs like the smoke of a
Hollywood pot party over the fading walls of the Miracle Mile.
Where is the road that stops at the Santa Monica Pier, where Crips and Bloods strut their territory over weathered boards that still shake to the feet of tourists and the sound of a carousel spinning it’s innocence in what’s left of the Promised Land.
Where is the road?
I must find out.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

North Valley Ditches

My daughter, Isabella, loves to go for walks. Actually, she would prefer to be on her scooter or her bike. But given the chance to be outside for any reason, she’ll take it. I love outdoor walks, as well, but as Bella will point out, I now prefer naps to exercise.

During the recent holiday break, I tried to take time each day to at least take our dog, Sophie, out for a walk around the neighborhood. Sometimes we went alone. I love the opportunity to listen to music and breathe the crisp, fresh air. Other times, Isabella went with me, and on a few occasions, Carin joined us. We live in a great neighborhood with friendly neighbors, many of whom walk the paved trails and sidewalks.

We’ve gone on bike rides along the paved Bosque trail, and we’ve ventured as a family into the foothills of the Sandia mountains. On New Year’s Day, I suggested taking a very short drive into the North Valley to walk along the banks of the ditches, which is where I spent a good part of my childhood. In the end, Bella reluctantly joined Sophie and me. Bella had no idea what I meant by walking the ditch banks. She kept asking if we were going to walk in the ditch. I couldn’t comprehend how she didn’t understand.

We drove a few miles to the townhouse where Yvette and I first lived when we were married. It was a few miles south of where I grew up, but still in the heart of the North Valley. I had great memories of walking along the banks of that particular ditch which ran behind our home. I remember waking up to the sounds of neighbors riding their horses along the ditch, or cadets from the police academy taking their early-morning jogs. I also remember going for a walk down that ditch bank one afternoon after learning that my editor at The Albuquerque Tribune had lost her courageous fight against breast cancer.
Isabella and Sophie crossing the Gallegos Lateral in the North Valley
This week, I convinced Bella to trust me and go for a different kind of walk. She laughed, and understood it meant a lot to me that she tag along with me down memory lane.

A funny thing happened along the way. Within a few minutes, Bella was hooked on the experience. We probably walked a mile round-trip; the sun was out, but the sun was setting and the wind was kicking up little dust devils. It was cold in the shade. Still, we had a blast. When I suggested that we keep track of all the different animals we would encounter, Bell had no idea what was in store. Of course we saw several dogs – in back yards and walking with their owners. We also saw chickens, a duck, horses, Shetland ponies, a goat, cranes, and a rabbit. We also enjoyed peering into the long, narrow back yards of the homes in the neighborhoods. Unlike our suburban-like neighborhood, no two yards area alike in the valley.
Shetland Ponies getting some exercise in a backyard next to the Gallegos Lateral
Bella got a kick out of my stories about the ditch banks in my old neighborhood. My friends and I would walk along one ditch bank on our way to Taft Middle School. There was one yard that had a hole in the chain link fence. Sometimes, when we were late, or adventurous, we would slip through that hole and run as fast as we could through the long yard, which led directly to the front of the school. Bella loved that story. When she discovered a hole in a fence at the end of our trek on Wednesday, she just had to climb through and pretend she was sneaking through somebody’s yard.

My brother and friends from the neighborhood used to fish for crawdads in that same ditch; we rode our bikes north where we jumped the fence and grabbed cherries and other fruit; we even played football in the dry beds of a larger ditch that ran adjacent to our friends’ house off Rio Grande. I didn’t tell this to Bella, but “ditching” class at Valley High School sometimes meant literally walking along the ditch bank on the north and east sides of the school to somebody’s house or a waiting car. When we went to parties in neighborhoods where we potentially needed an escape route out, we scouted nearby ditches and planned a meeting spot in case we split up.

Ironically, the ditch that Isabella and I walked this week, is called the Gallegos Lateral. It runs through the original Elena Gallegos Land Grant. Maybe that’s a sign that we need to move back to the North Valley. At the very least, I’m glad that Bella got to experience, and appreciate, the same North Valley ditch banks I roamed in the 1970s and 80s.