View Full Version : Bourbon Distilling Techniques in 1870

02-08-2008, 07:38
The New York Times archive has also has been digitized. Searching under "Bourbon Whisky" (the NYT of the era preferred to spell whiskey without the vowel), I found what seems an important key-hole to perceive how Bourbon was manufactured in Kentucky in the era mentioned.

The article is called "Kentucky Whisky: The Different Methods of Distillation, The Process Described" and appeared in the April 4, 1870 issue.

The article was however a reprint of one from the March 14, 1870 Louisville Commercial. The article is quite short but manages to describe six contemporary forms of whiskey manufacture, which are called "grades" in the article.

The six types are: "sour mash, pure copper", "sour mash, log and copper", "sweet mash, pure copper", "steam copper", "Bourbon steam", and "High Wines". Details of mashing are given too.

The first method was double pot distillation over a fire, the mashing using slop in a multi-day process. Interesting detail is given e.g., it is mentioned either yeast was added to the mash to ferment it, or a portion of fermenting mash was added which sounds akin somewhat to the krausening process in brewing.

The second method was (apparently just) one run through a beer still made of wood and copper - rum is still made in such a still in Guyana today. The third was like the first except using water no slops and the mashing completed in a day. The fourth seemed to use an all-metal column still, the fifth was a method described as used only in Bourbon County, Kentucky and similar to the last except the output of the still was doubled in a doubler. The Bourbon steam method sounds like the way Bourbon is made today except the doubler used then was wooden. High wines was similar to Bourbon steam except barreled at distilling-out proof (presumably relatively high - no dilution with water prior to barreling) and made from lesser quality grains. Also - an important indicator in my view - High Wines was barreled in "unburnt" barrels, the implication being the first five processes all used charred barrels for aging.

The last form sounds like a high proof grain whisky in modern terms.

The other forms vary by being made either in pot or column stills, using sour or sweet mash, and whether and how the singlings from columns were re-distilled. It was said that some distillers departed from these 6 modes but most did not because it would change the accepted taste.

While describing 1870 methods, in a sense the article is a picture of the processes used over the 1800's, since double pot distillation would have been the earliest method and Bourbon steam is where things ended up more or less to this day. In 1870, numerous processes were being used, spanning original and latest technologies, whereas today bourbon is made largely only in one type of still and is always re-distilled.

Microdistillers seeking inspiration from early methods might take note.

Registration is required to use the archive but it is free, see www.nytimes.com


02-08-2008, 10:28
Just some more data from the article and interpretations.

In describing the fourth method, "steam copper", the article states that the beer is distilled in a "wooden still", i.e., presumably the log-and-copper still mentioned for the second method. Yet, because of the otherwise unqualified name "copper" in "steam copper", I think the fourth method may have used an all-metal still, but perhaps not. If it did not, what distinguishes this method from the second one relates to mashing: the second method used the old-tub method, under which the mash was not cooked as such to liquefy the starches and prepare them for conversion to fermentable sugar. Rather, the necessary change was achieved in the mash through ambient temperature and of course the pouring in of boiling hot slop.

Note that in sweet mashing, the small tubs were still used but only with water - hot of course although not stated - not slops only or slops and water. The necessary heat was imparted through this addition of hot water or hot slops - the mash was not cooked by applying steam or other external heat (whether atmospherically much less in closed vessels) as invariably today.

The fifth method, and the sixth, are expressed as using the "American still". This must have been the all-metal still which is the predecessor of the modern column stills in the Kentucky distilleries. So here clearly we depart from the early 1800's wood-and-metal packed still. And of course for these last methods, the mash was steam-heated to cook it as for the fourth method - we are out of the era in the Bourbon County distilleries of the small tub for mashing and the wood-and metal still much less the old double copper pots.

Under the first-mentioned, artisanal method of distilling, the article states that a couple or so gallons of whiskey were obtained from upwards of two bushels of grain,a low yeild indeed. And also: when barreled, the proof was reduced by adding some of the "low wines" - to save costs they were diluting double-distilled spirit with congeneric singlings!

It seems only the steam copper and Bourbon steam methods avoided diluting the barreled spirit with singlings. This is because they entailed a double-distillation: the first three methods either used singlings in the way mentioned or were just one run to begin with. I wonder now if Bourbon County whiskey became famous and considered the best of the Kentucky whiskeys because it - perhaps from the beginning regardless of the type of still used - ensured the whiskey was double-distilled and diluted therefore only with water (if that) when barreled.

Bourbon (the name) became a moniker of quality well-before 1870, so perhaps in Bourbon County the barreled whiskey was always double-distilled whereas in other parts of the State, it was either singlings only (low wines can be pretty rough) or singlings mixed with doublings. At any rate the distinguishing characteristic was not the use of the charred barrel since the first five types of whiskey described in the article all clearly were aged using charred barrels.


02-08-2008, 14:35
Thanks for the link to all the old material. There is alot of info in those old papers. Read through a few articles about production levels and certain brands that were popular back then.

02-08-2008, 17:08
Fascinating. The great thing about articles like this is that they are such a snapshot in time. It's entirely possible the landscape was very different in 1869 and had changed again by 1871. That these methods were different enough and established enough as to create different grades is fascinating. Add to the equation the fact that there were hundreds and possibly thousands of licensed distilleries operating at that time. That helps us understand how completely different the business dynamic was, with hundreds of distilleries producing very different products, most of which were never bottled as singles but were sold to rectifiers who used them as raw materials for making the brands of the day.

02-08-2008, 19:40
I wonder what that whiskey tasted like from method no. 1 in particular: the mash stirred in small tubs, the only cooking coming from addition of boiled slop, double copper pot distillation, the barreled whiskey a mix of low and high wines at (interpreting the article) something like 100 proof. Using also mountain or dent corn of the day with (per again the article) not too much rye or even malt added.

We know from other sources discussed that these whiskeys were aged from 2-10 years, with the lower end of this range being characteristic.

Add to this barreling and aging in well-seasoned original growth oak.

Maybe it tasted (after 4 years or so) like a combination of the best Old Fitzgerald you ever had from S-W with a dash of Hirsch blue wax thrown in.

Or maybe it tasted like Jim Beam White Label does today - maybe artisan methods affected simply the yield of whiskey they could get in those days.

Maybe Buffalo Trace will make some dent corn whiskey according to method no. 1 in its experimental still and tell us in 4 years. Or maybe someone else will, maybe a microdistiller..


dave ziegler
02-27-2008, 13:28
A very Interesting Article Gary It is always so great to find these things about History it is like going back in time and being there to see it almost!
Dave Z