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
(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
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
(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!