The Old Broke Rancher in "Cloudy with a Chance of Sepsis!"

Old Broke Rancher Masthead
gross water

The "whiskey ditch" is Montana's official drink. You might hear that and think that a "whiskey ditch" is when you take a nap on the side of the road on your way home from the saloon, but it refers to this very simple cocktail: 

One part fine whiskey, one part good water, and an ice cube. 

It's my drink. I order it every time I go out. It represents, to me, the final word in cocktails.

But neat whiskey has its place, too, as I learned while traveling through Eastern Montana one spring many years ago. Riding on my Harley was thirsty work, so I pulled into a friendly Eastern Montana town and stopped at a roadside bar for a little ditch.

I bellied up to the bar. The bartender was a grizzled old specimen who looked like an Easter Island head wearing a cowboy hat. He rubbed a well-polished glass with a dish rag and asked, "What can I do ya for?"  

"Whisky ditch," I said.  

The tender just shook his head no.  

A little shocked, I collected myself and tried again.

"Well then, whiskey on some rocks." 

Again he shook his head no. 

"Whiskey neat then?" 

This time he poured.

Now a little curious, I asked, "why not a ditch?" He replied that he had run out of bottled water. 

"Can't you use tap water for a ditch?"  

"You've never drunk outta my well, have you?"  

I allowed that I had not before he elaborated that he "don't see a need to ruin perfectly good whiskey with my well water."  

"Aw, it can't be that bad," I said out of an overabundance of youthful zest and foolhardiness. But to this, he merely shrugged and said, "it will give you the physics unless you're used to it."

What the hell was "the physics?" It sounded like some medieval ailment only treatable through the application of leeches. Really curious now, I probed further. 

"Why not over rocks?"

"Son, I'll pour you some whiskey over a handful of gravel if you're feeling literal, but if it's ice you want, trust me when I tell you you don't want none of it." And then again, he intoned what seemed to be his mantra, saying, "You never drank out of my well." 

A little ice just cools the drink, I reasoned. I wasn't about to let the whole thing melt before I knocked it back, so what harm would one little ice cube do? Nevertheless, the bartender was adamant, and besides, he hadn't made any ice out of his water, so there was none to be had at any rate.

I sipped the neat whiskey he had set before me and tried to enjoy it. But, as has so often happened in my life, curiosity overtook me. 

"Listen, I have to know, alright? So please, just give me a glass of your tap water, ok? Please." 

"What's the matter with you, son?"

If only I could have told him. If it were only that easy, and I could have just said "overbearing mother," or "raised Catholic," or "unrealistic expectations from a lifetime of television watching," and have that serve as an explanation for how I got this way, well, I might have been able to enjoy better relationships with coworkers and bosses, maybe even saved a couple of marriages. But, sadly, I could not then and I can not now tell him or anyone precisely what went wrong to make me the way I am. 

So I said, "Hell, I don't know, just get me a glass, will ya?"

The bartender sighed and walked over to his sink, then he turned a knob on his faucet. He filled a dusty glass with dirty water and handed it to me. 

I eyed it thoroughly. It had a kind of color to it like an eggshell, which I didn't like, and an eggy smell to match. The bartender watched me turn the glass around and inspect it. Sunlight caught in the glass threw patches of refracted sunlight onto the burly arms crossed on his chest. 

"Well, are you going to drink it or not, son? For the record, I think you shouldn't, but its still a free country last time I checked."

I looked at it again and raised an eyebrow. I returned to my whiskey, finishing off the shot and setting it down on the counter before gesturing to the glass in a manner that suggested I'd like it topped off. He poured another, and I took a sip of that one before returning to the glass of tepid water in front of me.

"Yup," I said. "I'm going to drink it alright."

Then, with a turn of the wrist, I admitted a gulp of the warm, fetid liquid into my gullet. My eyes crossed like I'd taken a shot of everclear. I made a noise like a barking dog, and clutched at my throat.

I have never, before, or since, tasted water quite that awful. It savored of eau de Sulphur, alkali, minerals, and, finally, the delicate taste and smell of a malfunctioning septic tank. 

"Goddamn," I sputtered after spitting most of it onto the bar's dirt floor. The part I'd swallowed, unfortunately, was sliding viscously down into my stomach. I rose off of my barstool, righteously indignant as I clapped him with the evil eye.

As my eyes goggled and I exploded into a coughing fit, he shook his head and kept talking. 

"You were dead set on it, I couldn't have stopped it if I tried." he said. "If you'd have come a day or two earlier I'd have had some bottled water, but damned if I didn't run out after a Californian feller and his girlfriend stopped through on his way to Portland and bought them all. As for this stuff, you sure can't drink it, can't hardly even do laundry in it, works well enough to flush the toilet though, and just barely at that. But bottom line, though is it will ruin whiskey. I told you not to drink it, son, but you just wouldn't listen to reason. Well, what have you got to say for yourself?"

"Damn! Why the hell'd you let me drink that," I asked, indignant. 

Then I collected my things, pushed out of the door, got on my Harley, and sped away with that indescribable taste still lingering in my mouth. 

I imagine the bartender shook his head and returned to polishing that same glass, glad to pretend no longer that he suffered fools - like me - gladly.

Gary Shelton was born in Lewistown in 1951 and has been a rancher, a railroader, a biker, a teacher, a hippie, and a cowboy.  Now he's trying his hand at writing in the earnest hope that he'll make enough at it to make a downpayment on an RV.  Hell, scratch that.  Enough to buy the whole RV.  He can be reached at [email protected] for complaints, criticisms, and recriminations.  Compliments can be sent to the same place, but we request you don't send them - it'll make his head big.

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Ric (not verified) , Thu, 05/16/2024 - 11:13
Now, if you would have had some of that Five Seasons whiskey they used to make in Great Falls, it may have improved that east side alkali water. We took a jug of it to elk camp, and after a week it was still over three quarters full. And that was with four serious whiskey drinkers in attendance. When we left the south fork camp, we stopped at the South Fork Saloon. They were trying to sell that rot gut for 25 cents a shot, with no takers.
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