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An 1809 reference to a sour mash style process

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From The Practical Distiller, by Samuel M'Harry of

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, 1809

(reprinted by Raudins Publishing 2004)

"Art. VII: To make four gallons from the bushel"

begins on page 55, and he talks for a page and a

half about the virtues of a process that can increase

yield in the production of whiskey, quoting the

number "four gallons per bushel". This he considers

a good yield, having previously (p.37) mentioned that

through the use of good yeast, yield could be increased

from 1.5 gallons to 3 gallons to the bushel.

The actual description of the process he describes takes

up the greater part of one page, which I will summarize here:

Mash your grain in the method that yields the most whiskey, but

the day before you mash, set out a clean barrel, and

"when your singling still is run off, take the head off and

fill her up with clean water, let her stand half an hour,

to let the thick part settle to the bottom, which it will

do when settled, dip out with a gallon or pail, and fill

the clean hogshead half full, so that when you fill it up

with cool water, it will be about milk-warm, then

yeast it off..."

He then says to let this sit overnight and use it the

next day instead of cool water when cooling down the

warm mash to make it ready for yeast.

My first thoughts are that although this is not the

sour mash process as we know it, it does capture all of

the essential features of the sour mash.

The method definitely combines a bit of the previous

batch of whiskey with the current batch, which is

the popular notion of sour mash. According to the recipe,

1/3 of the barrel that contains the new batch will be

from the (diltued) remains of the previous batch.

Although he doesn't mention it, the liquid

that he adds to the new batch was undoubtedly acidic,

which (as we now know) has the effect of discouraging

bacterial growth. This would account for the increase

in yield that he reports, and is (in my mind) the

primary reason for the sour mash process.

The only susbtantive difference between his method

and the modern method is the time at which the sour water

is added. I would suggest that the modern sour mash

process has a rather practical side: when mashing, one

has the sudden need for a lot of water, preferably hot,

and if it's slightly acidic that wouldn't be bad either.

M'Harry never quite makes this connection, but prefers

instead to let his sit overnight with a bit of yeast in


A few historic bits for perspective:

The importance of micro-organisms, and the true nature of

yeast and bacteria, weren't clear until around the time

of Pasteur, roughly ~1850.

Until then, fermentation was though to be the result

of chemistry.

Modern chemisty didn't really come around to recognizing

the existence of atoms and molecules until roughly ~1900.

Modern "yeast cake" preservation of yeast for future

didn't happen until the late 1800s.

The "patent still" / "Coffey still" wouldn't be developed

until the ~1830s.

So all of these things would have been unknown to the

1809 distiller.

Tim Dellinger

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