View Full Version : A clue about whiskey aging from Moby Dick
Does Herman Melville's Moby Dick offer a clue as to when it became common to age whiskey in new, charred oak barrels? One thing we know is that only whiskey so aged takes on a reddish hue. Unaged whiskey is clear, while whiskey aged in used or uncharred barrels is yellowish, so if whiskey is referred to as being red, it probably was aged in new, charred oak barrels. Melville's book was written in 1851. The relevant passage describes the harpooning of a whale and the great production of blood that results.
"That drove the spigot out of him!" cried Stubb. "'Tis July's immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! Then, Tashtego, lad, I'd have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we'd drink round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we'd brew choice punch in the spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the living stuff."
Interesting that the three whiskey references are to "Orleans," "Ohio" and "Monongahela," but not bourbon. The theory is that Melville's readers would have understood these references to all refer to red whiskey.
This is an interesting quote. I think Orleans means in fact bourbon, the whiskey sent far downriver from Bourbon County to New Orleans that acquired colour and maturity from the long water voyage. Aged Monongahela speaks for itself, the odd descriptor meaning presumably, unspeakably good! The reference to old Ohio shows that States adjacent to Kentucky once had an admired whiskey tradition, now defunct. I agree too this shows the taking of colour was early on seen as a mark of quality.
The reference to "Ohio" probably refers to the river moreso than the state and oould just as easily refer to bourbon. It would be very interesting to know what a reader in 1851 would have understood by all three of those terms.
You must read a lot! You are very observant! I think you are on to something! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/toast.gif
I cannot tell a lie. Someone else tipped me off to it and the internet produced the exact quote. I am re-reading an early American author at the moment, though, but it's Washington Irving.
When it comes to knowing a lot about bourbon and its history, you are the man! http://www.straightbourbon.com/forums/images/graemlins/bowdown.gif
John Lipman and I have been talking about this quote since he found it about a year ago. I agree with him that it is shows that people recognized "red whiskey" in the 1850's. He was trying to use that the fact that Melville only mentions Monogahela by name that it must be the original "red whiskey". I don't buy that idea. What it does say is that Monogahela was aged whiskey in the 1850's. I think we already knew that. The quote he was telling you this past weekend from Audubon is also interesting in that he names Monogahela as a style of whiskey, but he does not mention color. What I would like to see is a reference to "red whiskey" before 1825. That would help narrow the field as to when aging whiskey in barrels first happened in the United States.
I'll have to disagree with you a bit here.
Just because the whiskey is red (or even dark colored for
that matter) doesn't neccesarily mean that it was aged.
It might be colored to simulate aging. I've been reading
through M'Harry's Practical Distiller (1809), and he
mentions doing exactly this... as a matter of fact, he
considers it to be an improvement, and not a deception.
He also mentions that whiskey picks up color when it
goes on sea voyages, and that this is advantageous.
So the concept of barrel aging is clearly there.
The book overall is very engaging.
I had thought that I would be able to post a quick
review / summary of important points, but there's
just too much good stuff in there.
For instance, I think that he has what is possibly
the earliest known reference to the sour mash process
on page 57. It's not exactly the same as the modern
sour mash process, but it captures all of the essential
I'll try to post more about it this weekend.
I agree with you about the added color, but I think that they were adding color to imitate aged whiskey or brandy.
You are right about the sour mash reference. If 1809 is the earliest reference I have heard of to this date. I would be interested to know if this book is a first edition 1809 or just the American Edition. It is possible that it may be in print even earlier in a European edition.
Looking forward to your additional information.
About a year ago, I found online an extract from a novel from the mid-1800's. It was either a novel or some sort of reportage. It may have been an early travel book. I recall very clearly that the author said in the bars of lower Manhattan there were two barrels containing Monongahela whiskey. In one the whiskey was red, in the other, white. If the customer asked for gin or schnapps, he got the white whiskey. If he asked for whiskey or brandy, he got the red whiskey. I cannot locate this in my bookmarks, I must have lost it. I have spent a couple of hours in the search engines but cannot locate the original statement. Many on the forum here are probably better than I am at finding such items. So, to Mike Veach's earlier challenge, I add a second: who can find this statement and thus contribute further to the question of whiskey's hue in the 1800's and how it was perceived in the marketplace?
Since we're trying to figure out when aging in new charred oak barrels became a regular practice, it seems highly unlikely that a spirit would "be colored to simulate aging" prior to the adoption of aging itself.
I found (I am almost sure) the reference to whiskey in saloons in New York in the early 1800's I was looking for but cannot figure out how to access the link. Here is what I did (after much surfing): I typed "barrels + colored red + lower manhattan" in the search box of www.hotbot.com. (http://www.hotbot.com.) "Ernst Chapter Four" comes up as no. 1. The words of summary seem clearly to point to the text I am looking for. Yet when I click on the link, it leads to a New York City educational research site that indicates access has changed and from there I can't figure out what to do to access the information (I don"t know enough about computers)! If someone can figure out how to get to this page and post the quotation, I believe it will show the information I am seeking. It is about boarders or newcomers to Manhattan and what they find in the local saloons in the way of whiskey, with reference to barrels containing both red spirits and white. Thanks for any help from the computer mavens!
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