What’s Old Is New Again
In a series of posts in the last couple of months, I have been exploring the roots of Kentucky whiskey, especially Bourbon, known around the world today as America’s premier form of whiskey.
Whether one factors a nostalgia element or not, there seemed consensus towards 1900 that the best whiskey in this class was small tub, copper-distilled whiskey. This was whiskey which in some cases used no added yeast but relied on use of setback (residue of last distillation) and natural fermentation and in other cases was produced by yeasting-back, which meant scooping yeast from the last ferment and adding it to the next. In either case, the whiskey was distilled twice in copper pot stills heated by a wood furnace.
In contrast, modern plants c.1900 were using “steam distillation” which could mean a number of things but generally that live steam separated the alcohol from the mash in a column still. This is the form of distillation prevailing today in Bourbon country, setting aside different techniques which may be used by the emergent craft distillers.
All column stills today are made from stainless steel although some copper is usually incorporated as the metal is felt to improve the whiskey, notably by cleaning up sulphur compounds in the new-make spirit.*
One exception to the column-still norm is Woodford Reserve Bourbon, which retains an older element in its production: copper pot stills. Brown-Forman, known for the Old Forester and Jack Daniel’s brands, acquired a site near Versailles, KY about 20 years ago where distilling had an old pedigree. It was the site where Oscar Pepper had made great whiskey with the help of Dr. James Crow before the Civil War. The site was operated by Messrs. Labrot and Graham from the 1880s until the onset of war in America in 1941.
The restoration of distilling by Brown-Forman involved installing a triple pot still system, so three stills instead of two. They are housed in an old fieldstone structure on the property. The matured spirit is, for regular Woodford Reserve, blended with Bourbon produced from new-make spirit made in Brown-Forman’s plant outside Louisville (where Old Forester issues from). Both distillates – the pot still and column – are aged at Woodford Reserve and then mingled to a formula to achieve a specific profile.
The mash bills for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester are the same. The triple pot still produces a spirit at 159 proof, as high as you can go and still call the matured whiskey Bourbon. Setback is used in the mash, but of course fresh cultured yeast is added to ferment the mash as for all distilleries today.
Despite the relatively high proof at which the pot still element is distilled, when matured it is rather different to the whiskey which results from the column still spirit. It is heavier and has a distinctive, oily element. This is the mark of the copper pot still and it is there even after three distillations and a relatively high proof. One can imagine that distilling only in two copper stills at a much lower proof (c. 100), as was common in the 1800s, would produce an even heavier spirit, but the pot still element of Woodford is quite heavy as it is. Indeed it shines through even when blended with a goodly amount of column-still whiskey.
Woodford Reserve is aged, from latest checks, six to seven years, which is right in the ballpark of the five-to-eight year maturation felt appropriate for pot still sour mash in the 1800s. I think current Woodford Reserve is better than 10-12 years ago, it seems generally older in character while back then it could be astringent with a petrol tang.
Setting aside any pot still Bourbon of comparable age coming from craft distillers, Woodford Reserve represents your chance to see what old-fashioned Bourbon in the 19th century was like, as close we can get. And it is good, those familiar with pot still Irish whiskey will see a connection, that oily note again which results from a primarily raw grains grist + use of pot stills. But as with matured Irish, the oils are well-integrated in a complex matrix of flavours which also discloses wood, creosote, and fruity notes.
I’ve tasted various iterations of the Woodford pot still, i.e., on its own, in the form of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection series. The effect is even more intense than in regular Woodford Reserve. I prefer regular Woodford, the column-still bourbon moderates the heavy pot still notes in the right away.
An analogy in rum is the rums of the Caribbean which blend pot-stilled heavy rum with lighter column-still spirit – the rums say of El Dorado in Guyana.
Finally, how do we know a traditional bourbon could taste oily in the 1800s? Because some ads of the time said so. See this one from 1877 in The Bolivar Bulletin in Tennessee, vaunting “pure oily old Bourbon just [in] from Kentucky”.
*Note added later on July 21, 2016: Please see below Jay Erisman’s comment indicating that some column stills are all-copper construction and in use for whiskey production. Thanks to Jay for setting the record straight.