High-proof whiskey

A prank played on a whiskey-loving visitor in Milwaukee's early days gave a new meaning to the term "strong drink." Illustration by Carl Swanson

A prank played on a whiskey-loving visitor in Milwaukee’s early days gave a new meaning to the term “strong drink.” Illustration by Carl Swanson

Early settler James S. Buck wrote the four-volume Pioneer History of Milwaukee [1881], which chronicled events both great and small – plus a few Buck found too funny not to share. For example, many historians recorded the construction of Milwaukee’s first courthouse, but only Buck gave us “The Courthouse Trouser Disaster.”

In the summer of 1845, John Shields, a fellow resident of the boarding house at which Buck was staying, ran afoul of the historian – and paid the price.

James S. Buck

James S. Buck, early settler and inventor of the most powerful cocktail in Milwaukee history.

“It happened that John, who was an inveterate drinker and a nuisance generally, was in the habit of coming into my room and bothering me with his senseless twaddle until the thing got to be unbearable,” Buck wrote.

Knowing Shields was quick to help himself to any handy liquor, Buck purchased a bottle of whiskey, “regular rot-gut,” he notes, to which he added the hottest peppers he could find. After the mixture had brewed for 10 days, Buck found the concoction spicy enough to “burn the enamel off a stone crock.”

He filled a flask and placed it on the floor of his room where a visitor was sure to see it. Sure enough, the following Sunday, Shields stopped in for a visit and, presumably, to deliver another tedious monologue, when his eye fell upon the bottle.

He did not wait for a second invitation, but seized the coveted treasure, pulled the cork, inserted the nozzle into his capacious mouth and poured nearly half the contents down his gullet before you could count six. By that time he discovered that it was not ice water, and with a desperate effort to conceal his disappointment, he replaced the cork, deposited the flask upon the floor and without waiting to answer my kind inquiries as to the quality of the fluid, he started down stairs taking four or five steps at a leap, his mouth wide open like the door of a coal stove, and as red as rooster’s comb, while from that, as well as his eyes, the water was running in streams.

He broke for an artesian well that stood near, and commenced taking in water like an engine fighting a fire. He must have drank a barrel, stopping at intervals to catch his breath and give vent to his feelings.

When he was able to speak, Shields began denouncing of the joker who added peppers to the whiskey, “with an adjective sandwiched in between every second word,” Buck wrote. “It was the spiciest little speech ever made.”

For weeks afterward, Shields limited his drinking to water while he treated his scorched mouth with borax.

“He never came into my room after that,” Buck wrote, “my whiskey was too high-proof.”Carl_sig



  1. Buck reported another incident where a man drank something with unexpected results. Please share that story sometime.


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