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  1. #1
    Join Date
    Mar 2000
    Midland, MI

    Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    Hi all.

    I finally got around to starting to compile my notes on some of
    the old American distilling books that I've been reading. It's
    a long journey! I'm realizing that I'm only partway through...

    I really get the feeling that this is a hugely unexplored area
    of history... what I'm calling "Pre-Industrial" American distilling.
    It seems like most historians start their interest around the
    industrial revolution (1880s roughly), and focus mostly on the
    20th century. That's all well and good, but I think earlier
    periods are sorely neglected!

    With respect to earlier history, the Whiskey Rebellion attracted
    a lot of attention due to it's political importance... but the
    farmer-distiller image presented by Whiskey Rebellion scholarship
    looms so large that it's become the accepted truth about distilling
    at that time: whiskey was made by farmers of the Jeffersonian
    ideal who all had stillhouses next to their henhouses. That might
    have been true for a small segment of the population, but there's
    so much more to the story!

    Some of the books I'm reading include
    Byrd and M'Harry (available from from Raudins), and additionally
    Harrison Hall(1813), Krafft (1804), and Boucherie (1819) which were
    included in Early American Imprints.

    I've had a look at a number of British distilling books (1750-1798),
    the theory being that American distillers were British citizens until
    the late 1770s. I can list those for whoever's interested.

    Here are a few of the ideas that I'm working on... I'll try to
    post some specifics later, and I can try to provide citations
    to back up my ideas if anyone would like. This is definitely
    a work-in-progress...

    (1) Well, first, reading these things is a real pleasure. Each writer
    has his own unique perspective and his own writing style that's quite

    (2) There is a popular notion that American distilling is
    basically a descendent of the Scots-Irish tradition...
    which makes a great story, especially with the
    Whiskey Rebellion tie-in... but I"ve seen all kinds of
    evidence that German and Dutch distilling were major
    influences as well.

    (3) The use of sterilization techniques and
    temperature control during mashing never ceases to
    amaze me, given that Pasteur wouldn't do his work
    until ~1850, and the notion of denaturing enzymes
    was miles and miles away.

    (4) I really think that these were businesses that served
    the desires of the people... and as we all know, Americans
    aren't exactly sticklers for quality. Much of what was
    produced probably tasted terrible!

    (5) The notion of the distiller refraining from selling their
    product in order to have it sit around for a few years would
    probabaly have struck them as a little silly.

    (6) There were many, many commercial operations...
    in my mind they were probably very similar to grist mills.
    There were lots and lots of them, serving local communities,
    but they were definitely businesses... and many of them
    were failed businesses.

    7) The notion that they were artisans
    who carefully crafted their fine products is probably
    not very accurate.

    Some surprising finds:

    (1) Use of the charred barrel: my notes are a little sketchy here,
    but it looks like a true charred barrel used for the purpose of
    flavor change (i.e. not just for sterilization) shows up in Harrison
    Hall p.198, but for mashing and fermenting, not for the distilled
    product. He does talk about the use of oak shavings p.168 for
    distilled spirit...
    I don't have any quotes to give you guys, but next time I'm at the
    library, these are first on my list to look up. I know the search
    for the origin of the charred barrel is sort of a Holy Grail for
    bourbon historians!

    (2) Production of what's basically vodka, and the widespread availability
    of flavorants for such neutral spirits coming at such an early time...
    again from Hall. Early early 1800s! Most people think that clean sprit
    wasn't available until the column still came about. Not so!

    (9) Knowledge of barrel aging. It's pretty clear that they knew that
    putting distilled spirits in a barrel and sending them on a ship
    improved the taste.

    (10) Although the molasses -> rum distilling business
    was a big one, exploiting America's agricultural products
    and natural resources was a bigger deal. They tried
    distilling everything they could get their hands on! It's
    interesting that for various reasons, grain emerged as
    the American drink, and certain grains in particular.

    Okay, that's enough typing for now.

    Just thought I'd give you guys a taste of what I've been
    up to recently!

    Tim Dellinger

  2. #2
    Join Date
    May 2003
    Moscow Mills, MO

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    I'd find it interesting to see what all they did try to distill and what the results were. Why wait for the barrel when you can distill acorns with your corn!

  3. #3
    Bourbonian of the Year 2011
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Toronto, Canada

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    Good work, Tim. I haven't read Krafft, Hall or Boucherie, just M'Harry but what you say accords largely with what is in his book, ditto for the charred barrel, i.e. it was advised for use in fermentation and mashing. Still though (as you said too) they knew that aged liquor improved and took colour (via ship transport, for example). I'd like to know what you found that shows evidence of German and Dutch influences in American distilling. Gerald Carson in Social History of Bourbon hints at same in footnotes referring to books written about Pennsylvania (see his early pages, on historical aspects). I would say though that M'Harry at least, showed concern for quality, he seems to have been aware of gradations of flavor and quality.


  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jul 2005
    Mentor, Ohio, USA

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    Here in NE Ohio Maple Syrup is a big industry. Syrup was used much like whisky as a way to concentrate a product for storage and transport. As such it too was often used in barter. Occasionally I wonder what would happen (or did happen?) if someone tried to make a distillate from Maple. Has anyone run across this???



  5. #5
    Bourbonian of the Year 2011
    Join Date
    Sep 2002
    Toronto, Canada

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    This has been done, certainly fermentation of maple syrup and water, in Quebec Province in recent years. There too maple syrup production goes way back. In the past my understanding is people did not seek to make wine or spirits from it because it was too expensive for that. When I grew up in Montreal maple syrup was a luxury and never in plentiful supply (so were bagels, but that's a different story - how things have changed). If you google words such as maple syrup, wine and Quebec together I'm sure you can find details on what is being done there in the area of potable alcohol production from maple. I heard the government encouraged producers to look for new ways to use the product because a few years ago a surplus of maple syrup hit the market there. It was always a smallholders, artisanal trade but more people got into it or expanded production. I recall the great maple-cured ham of St-Jerome, Quebec sold at La Petit Poucette, a restaurant still going strong in that Laurentian Mountains town. When we were kids there were arguments whether it was sugar-cured or maple-syrup cured and maybe (I now think) it was the former but anyway it was great. Very good with pancakes and maple syrup poured over them. But ham on a bagel, uh-uh (not in my family anyway).


  6. #6
    Join Date
    Sep 2001
    Pelham, AL

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    On a tour of eastern Tennessee (Applachian Mountains) about 15 years ago, the historical view given to us was that the farmers had a crop of corn. It was a very bulky product and they lived in remote areas. It would be extremely difficult to transport that corn to an area (city or town) where there was a market to sell the corn.

    We were told that it took ten bushels of corn to distill a gallon of whiskey (I think that was the figure, but it was a long time ago). It was much easier for them to transport, say, a hundred gallons of whiskey than a thousand bushels of corn.

    The catch phrase of the lesson was that by making whiskey, they were turning corn into money. And it was the only practical way to do so.


  7. #7
    Bourbonian of the Year 2010 and Guru
    Join Date
    Aug 2005

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    It was much easier for them to transport, say, a hundred gallons of whiskey than a thousand bushels of corn.

    Not only that but the whiskey will last indefinitly, whereas the corn will be rotten in short order. So distilling it prolongs the lifespan of the product of your labors(corn in this case).

  8. #8
    Join Date
    Apr 2005
    Chicago SW 'burbs

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    Occasionally I wonder what would happen (or did happen?) if someone tried to make a distillate from Maple.
    Maple Rum... sounds very interesting. It'd probably be fiendishly expensive, though.

    A short distance southwest of Bloomington, Illinois, right off Old Route 66, there is a maple tapping operation. Funk's Grove Maple Sirup (yes, spelled with an "i") is nothing short of awesome. Unfortunately, their production sells out rather quickly...

  9. #9
    Bourbonian of the Year 2003 and Super Moderator
    Join Date
    Feb 2002

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    Actually the figure is close to 10 bushels per barrel of whiskey. Yields vary and the old timers wrung less per bushel than is possible today. But that still should be close. Also there was the issue of roads, or lack thereof and the mule team or horses would eat up a bunch of corn themselves on the way to town. It served the multi-purposes of converting excess corn that was bulky and would spoil or be eaten by rodents, to a more easily handled commodity, there was no spoilage, and it was the equivalent of cash on the frontier.

  10. #10
    Join Date
    Jul 2005
    Mentor, Ohio, USA

    Re: Early American Distilling (\"Pre-Industrial\")

    Maple Rum... sounds very interesting. It'd probably be fiendishly expensive, though.
    Today for sure but back in the day, Seems like it might have been at least experimented with.





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