Whiskey Is for Drinking; Water Is for Fighting Over

Mark Twain? Warren Neufeld? Bruce Babbitt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Fresh water is an essential resource, and the battles over water rights in the Western region of the United States can be bruising. Famed humorist Mark Twain is often given credit for an incisively funny remark about this. Here are three versions:

Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over.
Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting.
Whisky’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’.

However, I have never seen a pointer to a document or book from Twain’s time period containing this expression. Is this another fake Twain quotation?

Quote Investigator: Multiple researchers have examined this saying and there is no substantive evidence that Mark Twain said or wrote it. The website TwainQuotes.com edited by Barbara Schmidt is an important reference tool for checking statements ascribed to Twain, and Schmidt notes: 1

This quote has been attributed to Mark Twain, but until the attribution can be verified, the quote should not be regarded as authentic.

Twain died in 1910, and the earliest evidence of the expression located by QI was quite modern. In April 1983 the Aberdeen American News of Aberdeen, South Dakota printed the saying. The words were spoken by the head of a government agency named Warren Neufeld, but the context suggested he was employing an anonymous adage. Twain was not mentioned: 2

“Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” Those words were a realism in South Dakota until a few years ago, says Warren (Bob) Neufeld, secretary of the South Dakota Department of Water and Natural Resources.

In the Summer 1983 issue of “Western Wildlands: A Natural Resource Journal” a periodical from Missoula, Montana an article titled “River Conservation in the 1980s” by Christopher N. Brown was published. A version of the maxim was printed in the table of contents and ascribed to Twain: 3

Mark Twain was more than prescient when he said: “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In September 1983 the Wall Street Journal published “Water Needn’t Be a Fighting Word” by Terry L. Anderson which included the following passage: 4

Water shortages in bureaucratic systems have long been a source of conflict. State is pitted against state and region against region in the political struggle. Mark Twain said, “Whiskey is for drinking—water is for fighting.” The fight will continue as long as water is allocated by politics instead of the market.

In March 1984 the Governor of Arizona Bruce Babbitt spoke before a subcommittee of the U.S. Congress. Babbitt ascribed the adage to Twain, and he detailed the circumstances of the remark. But a supporting cite for this tale has not been located: 5

Mr. Babbitt. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
About the turn of the century Mark Twain took a trip out to the West, passed through Nevada and California, and I believe Arizona. He returned to the East and summarized his view of this rather contentious area by saying, “Out there they use whiskey for drinking and they save the water for fighting.” Indeed, that was something of a prophecy about how we have handled our problems in the past.

In May 1984 the New York Times printed the saying without attribution in an article titled “Range War in Rosebud Valley”: 6

There is a saying in the West that whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting. “I don’t drink whisky,” Patty Kluver says, “but I’ve sure done more than my share of fighting over water.”

In July 1984 an article in the San Diego Union newspaper of San Diego, California began with this statement: 7

MARK TWAIN once wrote: “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”

In 1984 an organization called Resources for the Future located in Washington, D.C. released an annual report for the year ending September 30, 1984. The maxim was included: 8

Mark Twain remarked that, in the West, “Water is for fighting. Whisky is for drinking.” Much has changed since Twain’s time, but there still is as much truth as wit in his observation about the perennially water-short West, as this research paper attests.

In October 1984 the maxim reappeared in the pages of the New York Times, and this time it was credited to Twain: 9

In California, where water can help transform a useless desert into a tract of expensive homes or a productive orchard, water politics can be emotional, contentious, complex and unpredictable, a world that Mark Twain described almost a century ago: “Water is for fighting. Whisky is for drinking.”

In November 1984 the saying was printed again in the New York Times, and now it was ascribed to Westerners in general and not to an individual: 10

The preciousness of water and the cost of obtaining it have had Westerners joking for years that “whisky’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’.” For example, developers, utilities and cities are fighting in court in Arizona over who gets the sewer water from treatment plants.

In 1985 a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on water allocation for the Colorado River, and the author connected the maxim to Westerners in general: 11

Colorado water is yielded grudgingly. “Whiskey is for drinking, water for fighting,” Westerners like to say.

The Nevada State Library and Archives has a web presence at nsla.nevadaculture.org. An undated article discussing the saying was titled “Myth #122 – What Mark Twain Didn’t Say” by Guy Rocha, former Nevada State Archivist. The essay began with this unequivocal statement: 12

Mark Twain didn’t say “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over,” or any other version of the oft-quoted phrase. That’s what seemingly everybody wants to believe. It’s a great quote but there’s absolutely no reliable evidence linking it to Twain.

In conclusion, this post presents a snapshot of what QI has discovered on this topic. Substantive support for linking the saying to Twain is currently non-existent. It is probably possible to antedate the first cite in April 1983, and QI looks forward to hearing from readers who can provide solid references. QI suggests that the adage should be designated anonymous.

(Great thanks to Professor Jay R. Lund who asked about this saying and noted that Barbara Schmidt’s TwainQuotes website had expressed skepticism. His inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and initiate this exploration. Special thanks to Professor Charles Doyle for verifying the Summer 1983 citation on paper.)


  1. TwainQuotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, Comment at bottom of webpage titled Whiskey. (Accessed twainquotes.com on June 3, 2013) link
  2. 1983 April 12, Aberdeen American News (Aberdeen Daily News), Neufeld: Water development key to economy by Cindy Eikamp, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  3. 1983 Summer, Western Wildlands: A Natural Resource Journal, Volume 9, Number 2, “River Conservation in the 1980s” by Christopher N. Brown, Quote in Table of Contents and also on page 26, Montana Forest and Conservation Experiment Station, Missoula, Montana. (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system; quotation is based on text in table of contents. A second instance on page 26 has slightly different punctuation)
  4. 1983 September 30, Wall Street Journal, Water Needn’t Be a Fighting Word by Terry L. Anderson, Quote Page 30, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  5. 1985, U.S. Congressional Hearing: House, Hoover Powerplant Act of 1984: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Water and Power Resources of the Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-Eighth Congress, First and Second sessions, on H.R. 4275, Serial Number 99-2, (Hearings held in Washington, DC, November 17, 1983 and March 6, 1984), (Panel with Bruce Babbitt, Governor of Arizona on March 6 1984; the excerpt is spoken by Bruce Babbitt), Quote Page 49, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  6. 1984 May 6, New York Times, Range War in Rosebud Valley by Jim Robbins, Start Page 82 (PQ Page 339), Quote Page 87, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 1984 July 29, San Diego Union, Section: News, Untitled Column by Richard Louv, Page A-2, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News)
  8. 1984, Resources for the Future: Annual report: For the Year Ending September 30, 1984, Section: Books in Review, (Book Review of: Saving Water in a Desert City by William E. Martin, et al), Quote Page 46, Published by Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1984 October 18, New York Times, Southern California Worrying About Pending Loss of Water by Robert Lindsey, Quote Page A18, Column 1 and 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1984 November 15, New York Times, Thirst in West for Farm Water May Be Costly by Iver Peterson, Quote Page A18, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1985 December 22, Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: National, Divvying Up the Colorado River: A Watershed System is Born by Mike Leary (Inquirer Staff Writer), Page A01, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (NewsBank Access World News)
  12. Website of the Nevada State Library and Archives: A Division of the Department of Administration, Title: “Myth #122 – What Mark Twain Didn’t Say”, Author: Guy Rocha (described as former Nevada State Archivist), Undated webpage, (An endnote claims: The Historical Myths of the Month are published in the Reno Gazette-Journal and in the Sierra Sage, Carson City/Carson Valley.) (Accessed nsla.nevadaculture.org on June 3, 2013) link