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tdelling

Early American Distilling ("Pre-Industrial")

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tdelling

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

enjoyable.

(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

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gr8erdane

Tim,

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!

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Gillman

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.

Gary

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kbuzbee

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???

Thanks!

Ken

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Gillman

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). smile.gif

Gary

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ratcheer

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.

Tim

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barturtle

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).

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CrispyCritter

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. yum.gif Unfortunately, their production sells out rather quickly...

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bobbyc

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.

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kbuzbee

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.

Chhers,

Ken

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Edward_call_me_Ed

It wouldn't necessarily have to be boiled down to syrup before fermenting, just down to whatever the optimum sugar to water ratio for fermenting is. That would bring the cost down a good deal, I would think. Then again it might not taste the same, the additional boiling caramelizes the maple sap.

On another tack, has mead ever been distilled?

Ed

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Gillman

Good point, this would work if the ferment was done as the sap was drawn. But to store the solution I don't think you could keep it very long, whereas if reduced to syrup or at least enough to ensure preservation, the solution could be kept a relatively long time and distillation take place throughout the year. I did actually buy a distilled mead once, in Picardy in France. Picardy is one of the few places in the world mead (hydromel in French) is still made. It was a young distillate and somewhat like a white rum, it may have been spiced, too. There are hundreds of drinks in France of every description, its diverse and rich agriculture and the former pattern of village life have given rise to every conceivable variation, including whisky of various kinds - but not bourbon. smile.gif

Gary

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ratcheer

Correct, now that you mention it, that aspect was mentioned, as well.

Thanks,

Tim

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tdelling

> I'd find it interesting to see what all they did try to distill

> and what the results were.

My gosh, they tried just about everything. In the late 1700s/early 1800s,

there was still this feeling that the country was full of bountiful

resources just waiting to be plucked... but it wasn't exactly clear how

to go about using these resources. Maybe I'll make a list... I recall

reading about pumpkins and turnips... the only thing that sticks in my

mind that I haven't seen yet is onions. I guess those keep over the winter,

and the sulfuric acid might kill the yeast.

A favorite quote (Krafft p.93):

"The distillation of potatoes may, in a short time, become a matter worthy of

attention. At present the negroes of Georgia and the Carolinas are the only

manufacturers - the spirit is of an inferior quality, and is used by the poorer

class of inhabitants, but a vast field of improvement lies open."

Tim Dellinger

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tdelling

> ditto for the charred barrel, i.e. it was advised for use in fermentation

> and mashing.

My reading of M'Harry is that he would burn straw in the barrel primarily

in order to sterilize it (although he had no idea what what sterilization was.)

It's hard to say whether it also contributed to flavor development, or whether

they thought that it did.

> I'd like to know what you found that shows evidence of German and Dutch

> influences in American distilling.

Krafft sees American distilling as it's own creature, of mixed parentage,

and not really a highly developed and stabilized art form:

(p.13)

"In the United States the business of distillation, differing from the precise

practice of all countries in its general extent, has some strong features of

the Dutch practice, but has never yet been united into a body of doctrine."

On p.148 he notes that the Dutch distill on the grain. This might differ

a bit from what he personally advocates... I'll have to check.

> 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.

Oh, indeed! They ALL are highly aware that better product brings higher

prices. I don't mean to imply that they weren't all shooting for quality,

but rather that they often missed the mark.

Krafft again, p.168:

"The principal intention and design of this operation is

to render the spirits more palatable, consequently more

valueable : this subject is a matter worthy of the attention

of every distiller."

(He is of, course, talking about "flavouring and improving spirits",

i.e. what we would today call "cheating".)

More comments on rectification (p.105):

"still-burnt rye whiskey may, for example, by this means be made to sell

at the price of the first quality Cogniac"

My reading of that is that they often scorched it by burning the fire too

hot.

(I love these quotes! The whole thing is so much fun to read and

think about...)

Tim Dellinger

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tdelling

> On another tack, has mead ever been distilled?

Yup! It's much more common than you'd think... well

about as common as mead is. (Mead people are certainly

an interesting breed...)

Apparently there's a northern european tradition of mead

distilling. I've seen references to both British and German

practices, from medieval to modern. It's a small subculture,

but it's there.

And if you don't have resourceful German friends and

are curious, keep on eye on Rabbit's Foot Meadery in

California:

http://www.rabbitsfootmeadery.com/

"We are also proud to be the first and original producer in the

world to make a strong mead similar to port, our Grand Reserve

Mead of Poetry, which makes the perfect after-dinner drink and

the soon to be released Mead Song, a distilled mead that is sure

to please anyone who enjoys fine spirits."

Tim Dellinger

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Gillman

Excellent, thanks. But I wonder what does "distill on the grain" mean? And when he speaks of Dutch practice influencing American does he mean the mechanical steps of fermentation and distillation or the use specifically of rye (which was and is a key element of genever spirit production in Holland, and in Germany too - Germany may have been meant for the term "Dutch" as e.g., in the term Pennsylvania Dutch: this meant German stock people, not Hollanders).

Gary

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tdelling

> Occasionally I wonder what would happen (or did happen?) if someone tried

> to make a distillate from Maple.

I don't recall seeing anything about it, but surely someone's tried it.

My feeling is that historically we were importing so much sugar cane,

molasses, etc. from the French Caribbean into New England that Maple probably

couldn't compete on the basis of price.

(The French, or course, didn't allow their colonies and possesions

to distill... might compete with French brandy. Being British, we were

under no such law, thus the huge rum distilling industry in New England.)

Speaking of which, has anyone picked up Ian Williams' book "Rum: A Social

and Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776"? It was just released

in August, and I haven't had occasion to buy it yet.

Tim Dellinger

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tdelling

> But I wonder what does "distill on the grain" mean?

Oops, sorry, I probably should have explained that better. It means

that you never filter out the solids at any point in the process, but

rather keep them all the way through fermentation and even pour them

into the still. Scotch whisky makers today seperate out the juice from the

solids before they ferment (i.e. what beer brewers call a "wort").

Bourbon distillers are happy pouring solids into their stills, but

Scotsmen wouldn't dare; it would surely get all burned and blackened and

crusty in the still!

> and when he speaks of Dutch practice influencing American does

> he mean the mechanical steps of fermentation and distillation or

> the use specifically of rye

He's thinking more in terms of process. The picture he draws is that

people distilled everything they could possibly get their hands on. Krafft

lists yeilds for rye, indian corn, buckwheat, oats, barley, speltz, and rice

(p. 94), so my reading from that is that they had experience with all of

them. Although it might be true that certain people kept the distilling

traditions of their old countries, my impression is that people had no

compunctions about deviating from tradition or trying new things. I love

the theory that Germans brought a rye whiskey tradition to the New World,

but I think that the real way they did this was by bringing rye... the

distilling was inevitable once we figured out that rye grows well here.

Oh, and about the "Dutch" wording: he means Holland. He's completely

flabbergasted that America can't make decent gin, and is absolutely

dying to know what the secret is.

(p.160)

"Crossing the ocean cannot produce this advantage, because our gin has been

exported even to China, and returned but little improved - whence the cause?"

On p.111 he notes that people are too quick to try to make a profit,

and they throw juniper berries in the low wines and distill again to

make "bad Geneva".

Tim Dellinger

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monte

Occasionally I wonder what would happen (or did happen?) if someone tried to make a distillate from Maple. Has anyone run across this???

In preparation for a bottle hunt in Maine, I stumbled across this web site, listing three odd vodkas: one fermented from maple syrup, one fermented from lactose (derived from cow's milk!!) and one fermented from cane sugar. I've never seen the stuff, and I don't think the proprietor's making vast quantities, but someone's doing it now...

Vermont Spirits web page

Cheers,

-monte-

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tdelling

Oh, I forgot about that guy... he's a real hoot.

His distillery burned down. So he built another. A safer one.

Tim Dellinger

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kbuzbee

I stumbled across this web site, listing three odd vodkas: one fermented from maple syrup.... I've never seen the stuff, and I don't think the proprietor's making vast quantities, but someone's doing it now...

Vermont Spirits web page

How cool, I'll have to keep an eye out for this. Since it's a Vodka, I doubt there will be much of the Maple characture left...

Cheers,

Ken

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Edward_call_me_Ed

His site says the distinctive quality of the maple fermentation comes through. Whether it does or not is another matter. I wonder how he got his license?

Ed

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kbuzbee

His site says the distinctive quality of the maple fermentation comes through. Whether it does or not is another matter. I wonder how he got his license?

Ed

I saw that, Ed. But (okay call me a cynic) but I'm not sure 'quality of the maple fermentation' equals maple flavor.

Cheers,

Ken

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tdelling

> I love the theory that Germans brought a rye whiskey tradition

> to the New World, but I think that the real way they did this

> was by bringing rye... the distilling was inevitable once we

> figured out that rye grows well here.

The more that I think about this, the less comfortable I am with

the statement I made a few days ago. I think I'm going to reserve

judgement on this one.

I think that although early Americans were experimenting will all

different kinds of grain, that's very different than being skilled

at using all different kinds of grain.

For instance, Krafft p.113 makes a comment to the effect that

distillation of all-malt recipes has been unsuccessful in Pennsylvania.

And there's also the matter of the buying public... traditions and

tastes die hard, and I have a feeling that rice whiskey just wouldn't

go over as well as rye.

So I'm still open to the theory that German / Dutch / misc. immigrants

from northern continental europe played a large part in the prominence

and success of rye whiskies.

Tim Dellinger

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