The Bourbon Sour Mash: The Path Back From E.H. Taylor To Dr. James Crow


What James Crow’s Sour Mashing Was Really All About

Putting a few things together, it is clear, not just that E.H. Taylor whom I discussed yesterday used backset – the spent beer of a previous distillation – to yeast his mash, but that he got the idea from Dr. James Crow. Correlatively, it shows that adding backset to mashes was not the only part of Crow’s important work: the use of it to substitute for yeast was just as important, indeed more so from the standpoint of flavour and quality.

Crow was a Scottish physician who came to America in 1823 and worked in distilling for the Pepper family. They were long-established distillers in Kentucky, claiming origins from 1776 in pre-Kentucky Virginia. Their stone buildings now house the Woodford Reserve facility where Brown-Forman makes bourbon which incorporates some pot still whiskey.

First, I should make clear modern whisky-writing has not omitted to notice that E.H. Taylor did not add yeast to his mashes to ferment them. Gerald Carson, in his 1963 The Social History of Bourbon, wrote at pg. 88:

[Taylor’s] beer was a creamy liquid, rich in yeasting power. His fermentation was faultless.

This elliptical statement is nonetheless clear: the spent beer, or backset, Taylor used had “yeasting power” and was “creamy” from evident biological activity. Carson saw, then, the significance of this part of Taylor’s remarks quoted in E. Stoddard Johnston’s 1896 history of Louisville I linked yesterday.

But where did Taylor get the idea? According to the January 10, 1884 issue of Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Circular, a trade magazine of the beverage alcohol industry, Dr. Crow had perfected the technique working with Oscar Pepper. In Bonfort’s words:

While Oscar Pepper was carrying on the business, James Crow came to this country and applied to him for employment and got a position in the business. Mr. Pepper noticed the fermenting capacity of spent beer, and mentioned one day to Crow his belief that a mash could be fermented by its use without yeast. They commenced a series of experiments, and the result was the discovery of sour mash whiskey.

It makes sense Oscar Pepper would know about backset, as recipes from the frontier for sour and sweet mash whisky had been known since the early 1800s, see e.g. these recipes in Henry G. Crowgey’s Kentucky BourbonThe Early Years Of Whiskeymaking (1971). By starting in distilling in 1776*, perhaps the family had used the technique, or discussed it with neighbours who used it. To say Crow or even Pepper “discovered” sour mash would not be correct but as Crow was a trained scientist, he used scientific methods to approve and refine the technique.

Taylor was primarily a business figure, and he worked with practical distillers and chemists but there is no cause for thinking he came up with the notion. Bonfort’s explanation makes good sense, but what is the link between Crow-Pepper and Taylor? Chuck Cowdery, in his excellent Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (2004) explains that Taylor’s first distilling venture, W.A. Gaines & Co., bought the Pepper/Crow distillery in 1867. Taylor had known Crow, and was close to the Pepper family (see Cowdery again on this).

It seems obvious that Taylor’s knowledge and respect for sour mashing all derived from James Crow’s work at the historic Pepper distillery (near Versailles, KY) which Taylor’s business interest acquired.

Understanding that Crow and Taylor used backset, not just as mashing liquid, but to stand in for yeast, answers a question that has long puzzled me. It has often been written, indeed ever since the later 1800s, that the sour mash method was less efficient than sweet mash bourbon production: it made less alcohol but better whiskey. But if a sterile spent beer substituted for part or all of the water in mashing, it is hard to see why inefficiency would result. Whatever mashing liquid is used, yeast must still be added and it will consume the grain sugars the same way. If anything, one would expect sour mashing to be more efficient. Its well-known control of unwanted bacteria ensures the yeast can do its job of making alcohol unhindered. Bacteria love consuming sugar, but they don’t excrete alcohol as a result.

The answer lies in the fact that Crow’s sour-mashing had the backset doing the fermenting, via the action of wild yeast or a cocktail of them. That yeasting capability was never as strong and reliable as a selected, jug-stored, uncorrupted yeast. This is why the yield in alcohol fell a gallon or more under what people could achieve with a carefully-selected jug yeast.  In conventional beer-brewing, you would call the result under-attenuated.

The flipside was, in Taylor’s explanation, that the unusually high level of unfermented sugars remaining in the mash contributed positively to flavour, i.e., when put through the still. Whether sour mashing in this old way had the taste results claimed by Taylor, I can’t say, but generations of whiskey-makers seemed convinced of it in the 19th century.

Also notable is Taylor’s explanation, in J. Stoddard Johnston’s whisky chapter again, that a slow fermentation with backset produces less fusel oils than a faster, hearty ferment from freshly-added yeast. It would be interesting to hear the views of modern fermentation science on this.

Final point: when distilling began anew each season (Spring and Fall), the first tubs were set with added yeast unless backset was obtained from another working distillery. But after a few fermentations and distillations, you had enough backset to use only that going forward. This is made clear in C.K. Gallagher’s impressive article from 1883 in The Pharmacist And The Chemist on the Kentucky sour mash method.

By the 1900s, considerations of yield became primary and/or people felt sour mashing a la Crow and Taylor didn’t produce special effects on palate. No large distiller today uses backset to ferment. Few if any craft distillers would, either. If one has tried it, I’d like to know.

The upshot: today’s sour mash is quite different from the 19th century’s. Quite possibly, no whiskey palate achieved today can approximate James Crow’s and E.H. Taylor’s finest bourbon.

*Note added June 15, 2016: this date is probably too early. There is contradictory information about when Elijah started to distill, and it is known that his son Oscar built a distillery in the 1830s where Crow was ultimately employed. I am not concerned here with the specifics of Pepper family distilling history except to note that Bonfort’s, a reputed industry journal of the 1800s, associated Oscar Pepper and James Crow with the sour mash method which eschews use of added yeast.

Note re image: the image above, of the still room at Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, KY, is in the public domain and was sourced here. Believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.


Bourbon, Sour Mash, And E.H. Taylor

05_02_JimBeam_DAL_0Taylor Used Backset in Mashing And Did Not Add Yeast To His Ferments

In the 1896 Memorial History of Louisville (KY) by J. Stoddard Johnston (1833-1913), chapter 19 constitutes a 12-page mini-history of bourbon in Kentucky. It is an informative documentary source, on numerous areas: the original grain bills used; origins of the industry; the different types of bourbon manufacture; its economic importance and taxation/bonding; significance and origins of aging; onset of neutral spirits; and the sociological aspects of whiskey. In effect the article is a bird’s-eye view of the industry from the perch of the gaslight era.

Of the many impressions the account leaves even on an old hand at bourbon history, not least is the confident and entirely justified assertion of bourbon’s national and indeed international reputation by 1896. This is all the more astonishing since the first recorded advertisement for bourbon appeared in the 1820s and it was only on the eve of the Civil War that bourbon had a notable impact beyond Kentucky. This was due in particular due to the success of Old Crow, the “red crettur” whiskey developed by Scottish immigrant Dr. James Crow.

His pioneering work in the second quarter of the century on sour mashing and aging helped bourbon become what it is today. Even given Crow’s vital work, Johnston’s whiskey chapter notes that only after the Civil War did producers methodically age bourbon. This arose in good part due to the influence of the bonding laws which delayed payment of excise on whiskey until it was sold to the public. Slack periods resulted in whisky staying in bond longer than planned and showed distillers how additional aging improved the product.

Thus, it was only after 1864 that bourbon, a regional drink with pockets of influence, really had a chance to make its mark on the nation. This came through the settlement of the west, economic expansion after the Civil War despite the periodic busts, and probably Mark Twain; he liked bourbon and wrote about it in his books. But 1865-1896 is a mere 30 years! In 30 years something originally local had become an institution, a thing in our parlance – not that it wasn’t in the gunsights of the temperance campaigners, but that is another story.

And, whether sweet mash or sour and no matter (I would add) how distilled, all these types were viewed in the market as “bourbon” (see E.H. Taylor’s quoted remarks), a high-quality product on a par with the whiskeys of Great Britain and Ireland. In this fame must be included Pennsylvania and Maryland, as they specialized in the straight rye whiskey which preceded the corn-based form that became bourbon.

It’s hard to think today of a similar product which achieved acclaim and high professional respect in such a short time. Perhaps Ontario ice wine is an example. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is another, and Ken Grossman is surely the E.H. Taylor of his industry today, but that is also another story.

Johnston’s chapter on whisky, actually authored by Thomas Gilmore, a contributor to the book, quoted from or interviewed the said Edmund Haynes Taylor, banker, distiller, politician and one of the founders of the bourbon industry. Also quoted at length was a Yale-educated chemist who probably worked for one of Taylor’s distilleries. In Taylor’s detailed description of small-tub whiskey-making, he specifically states the mash was fermented spontaneously, with no yeast added (“The fermentation is spontaneous and unforced…”).  He noted that this produced a less “attenuated” (thorough) reduction of the grain sugars – thus was less efficient than adding yeast but resulted in a superior product.

Taylor also was a proponent of double pot-distillation. He noted that sour mash whiskey of this type needed long aging, he said eight to ten years at a minimum. His distilleries did not (then) use column stills even though they can be adapted to produce a “heavy” spirit by restricting distilling-out proof to under 160 (80% abv).

Thus, small-tub mashing used backset as sole fermenting agent in the 1800s. While various American whisky-making directions have been published since the early 1800s, some for sweet mash, some for sour, it has not generally been accepted, I believe, that backset can truly take the place of yeast. Given however the analogy to dunder I made yesterday and the plain statements in older (and there are newer) chemical texts that dunder is an innoculum, and given too Taylor’s specific comment quoted by Johnston’s book that whiskey fermentation using backset is spontaneous, there can be no doubt that backset alone caused a sufficient fermentation in bourbon-making in the 1800s.

Of course, yeast could still be added and probably was for stuck fermentations or in some distilleries. In fact, Gilmore gives a list of production techniques which are a “mix and match” set of various elements: where only water is used to mix the mash, where backset is used, where yeast is added from a previous ferment or freshly, where the newer column stills were used to produce the distillate, and so on. Many variations existed, most of which have died out over time. Today, the large distillers at any rate only use column distillation-plus-doubling except for Woodford Reserve with its triple pot still system, and all add yeast to cause a fermentation. All use some backset in the process.

The closest today to what Taylor described would be Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon which uses three pot stills, but even there there are notable differences. I understand Woodford is aged 5-6 years at most. Taylor argued for longer aging, 8-10 years minimum. On the other hand, Woodford’s distilling-out proof is 159, much higher (cleaner) than what Taylor used (c. 100 proof), and with three stills vs. Taylor’s two, maybe it evens out…

Note re image above: The image above was sourced from this site of Jim Beam Bourbon. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



The Different Meaning Of Sour Mash In the 1800s


Making Fine Whiskey Without Adding Yeast

An 1881 insurance article described in some detail the production of whiskey in America (see pp. 137 et seq). It is a succinct and accurate account of the subject, necessitated by the importance of the industry and its evident risk of fire hazards. That risk, while lessened today, is always present: a good part of Heaven Hill Distillery burned to the ground 20 years in Bardstown, KY, a devastating fire whose origins were never determined.

Following some verbal play involving rosy-hued Bacchus, handmaidens, and the temperance man Gough, a clear but detailed description of whisky-making appears. In this period, there was sweet mash whisky, sour mash whiskey and “alcohol” (Cologne spirits aka neutral spirits aka plain spirit). Some producers, distilling and non-, blended whiskey and alcohol, and we have seen earlier how Ontario distillers created Canadian whisky in the process.

This was a time when sour mashing still held connotations from the early 1800s. As the author explains, sour mash meant, not even that yeast from an earlier ferment was used in the next, but that backset could create a fermentation on its own. Backset, for which there are many synonyms e.g., slops, setback, pot ale, is simply the spent beer from a distillation. It is the un-condensed liquid which drains away after the alcohol is extracted by the heat of distillation.

This liquid comprises acids, some alcohol, enzymes, proteins, dead yeast cells, maybe glucose, burned sugars, and a host of other organic and inorganic chemicals. It depends on the feedstock, and concentrations vary depending whether re-cycled process water is added: this analysis from Florida researchers is something to ponder. Adding backset to a mashing or fermentation vat was and remains a way to inhibit unwanted bacterial action. Its effects can be emulated today by acidifying mash water, yet some claim backset contributes positively to flavour – I’m not sure why since its elements were not volatile to begin with.

My understanding is Canadian distillers don’t usually do a backset sour mash, either they acidify with food-grade acids or they don’t use even these, relying on modern sterile plant conditions to ensure yeast dominance and a predictable result.

This part of the history of backset use is not controversial but another part is less well-understood. When you read, as in the 1881 article, that backset serves the function of yeast added to a ferment it seems a riddle. How can a boiled substance, one in which all live organisms are killed by high temperature, provide a source of yeast? For this reason some have thought that old books when referring to pot ale or backset as a fermenting mechanism must have meant the dregs of the cereal beer ferment, the stage just prior to distillation.

Callwood-DistilleryIn fact this is not so. The old books were correct and the key to understanding them is to examine the role of dunder in Caribbean rum distillation. As this Victorian chemical encyclopedia confirms at pg 114, fresh dunder contains no live yeast.

But the dunder used as backset in mashing or fermentation is not fresh. As the account explains, by exposure to air it acquired a new fermentative capability, a “regeneration”. Wild yeast sought the dead yeast as a nutrient source in addition to sugars and caramel in the backset. Dunder was stored in pits dug in the forest and became bioactive, indeed an innoculum; one can imagine that vegetation fell in and provided yet further material for wild yeast propagation. Use of dunder in a new ferment was enough to turn the grain sugars into alcohol without any yeast being added.

Obviously exactly the same thing happened with corn and rye liquor backset on the American frontier. The effect was noted as early as 1818 by Pennsylvania distiller Harrison Hall, see the footnote at pg. 125 where he wonders how Kentucky and Tennessee distillers achieved the results they did without adding yeast. He did not understand the causes but science gleaned them later in the same century.

This hand made way of fermenting was slower and less efficient – less attenuating in technical terms – than adding measured amounts of a fresh yeast of known properties. By the end of the 1800s, it is doubtful many distillers were sour-mashing in the old way, but one or two may have continued into the 1950s. The term “small tub distilling” may in some cases have pointed to the old method.

Thus, sour mashing today, practiced by all Kentucky and the large Tennessee distillers, is different from what it meant in the 1800s.

The old sour mash was said to produce a richly fruity whiskey, just as dunder is said to produce estery and complex heavy rums. Also, it required a different aging regimen, a couple of years longer to get optimum results.

The new Last Barrels Canadian whisky from Wiser, which I discussed a couple of posts ago, is a sour mash whiskey, apparently a little sour milk was used to impart the lactic acid needed. This would be a modern sour mashing – and it is very good.

I am not aware any modern distiller has made sour mash in the 19th century sense, any information to the contrary would be gratefully received.

Note re images above: the first image is from this distiller’s yeast supplier’s site. The second, from this resort’s website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.


Rye Whiskey, Beer Taste Notes of Yore


The Continuity of Taste

The vocabulary for descriptions of foods and drinks in the past tends to vary from today. Vocabulary changes, and also, people didn’t always look at things the way we do now. In the beer area, it is the custom today to describe beer flavour in a detailed, metaphorical fashion that has leaned quite a bit on contemporary wine-writing.

The British beer writer, Michael Jackson (1942-2007) had a lot to do with that. He (among others) took inspiration from Hugh Johnson and other wine experts who described wine flavour by reference to fruits or other foods, flowers, spices, and more (“flint-like”, “animal” , “nervous”).

Professional wine writing perfected the style as the consumer society took flight in the post-war era. Indeed one can say in this regard, British wine-writing did so, with the rest of the world soon following.

So, a typical taste note for beer today might read: sweet biscuit taste, flowery/piney hop odour, citric aftertaste.

In the 1800s, it was rare for beer to be described this way and even more so earlier. People were satisfied with other adjectives, such as “washy”, “empyreumatic” (burned or smoky), “mucilaginous” (thick and sugary), “heady”, “sickly” (infected), “blinked”.

Often, a simple “good” or “bad” sufficed, or that Victorian stalwart, “sound”, as in “sound old ale”. You can tell sometimes what was meant by the older vocabulary, but in general the impressions conveyed were less precise than today.

One of the most famous beer studies is a late 1800s, multi-volume work by Alfred Barnard. He rarely described an actual taste, but did so occasionally, e.g., that an old ale had a “Madeira odour”. This is a fruity, oxidative smell, familiar to those who know the taste of bottle-age in beer – and Madeira.

Once in a while another writer in Victorian times used terms that could be written today. Louvain white beer in Belgium was described in 1892 as tasting of soapsuds, pitch, and vinegar. That’s pretty clear. (It was not meant as a compliment, but beer flavour is always relative to area, time, and other factors).

White beer (Wit) today doesn’t taste quite like soap, tar and vinegar, but in the 1800s a lot of “Belgian white” was lactic-sourish. Casks then on the Continent were often pitched, so the tar part may come from that. Berlin’s Weisse today is probably fairly close, or some brands of Leipzig Gose Bier.

In the American book, The French Wine And Liquor Manufacturer: A Practical Guide (different editions, 1860s), author John Rack stated of American rye whiskey that “when old and pure, [it] resembled the odor of new-mown hay”. 

Even an urban-dweller can conjure the idea of newly-mown hay. I’d call it loamy, herbal, maybe perfumed. It can also evoke something funky/vegetal, from fertilizer or the natural growing cycle. This note in various grasses derives from an organic chemical, couramin. Couramin was isolated in the later 1800s and is used today in perfumes and certain foods to lend the keynote flavour. Clover in particular has a concentration of this chemical, which makes sense as it is a frequent component of hay and silage.

Some modern writers have used words similar to Rack’s to describe straight rye whiskey. The odour of Booker’s Rye has been compared by whiskey-writer Savannah Weinstock to “raisin bran and fresh sweet hay”. Some Canadian straight (so-called flavouring) rye whiskey fits the bill too.

150 years on, straight rye can show a remarkable continuity of taste. It is often said we can’t know what things tasted like in the 1800s, grains have changed too much, yeasts, stills, etc. Yet, Booker’s Rye smells of fresh hay just as the 1860s rye that put John Rack to flight. Some things don’t change.

Note re image: the image shown is in the public domain and was sourced here Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Silent Spirit, Silent Sam

cq5dam.web.1280.1280 (1)This is really a postscript to my post of earlier today, but it may be noted that a brand of vodka sold at the LCBO, Silent Sam, recalls 19th century distilling when the term “silent spirit” was devised.

The term was not just Canadian, it was used in Britain and the U.S. as well. As this 1883 English article states, “silent spirit” meant a spirit of such purity that it was silent as to its origins.

In turn this meant, you couldn’t tell if it was distilled from rye, wheat, sugar, corn or anything else capable of being fermented and distilled into a spirit. The distillation was so thorough that the only compounds left, practically, were ethanol and water. And all ethanol tastes the same regardless of source.

In traditional whisky distilling and ditto for brandy, rum, and the other traditional spirits, chemical compounds other than ethanol are allowed to remain which speak of the materials they derive from. Hence some rum tasting of molasses, or tequila of cactus, etc. (Rye sometimes tastes like soap or pine, not sure why, but it does).

Silent Sam, from Diageo/Schenley, was the kind of spirit Charles Richardson was referring to when mentioning how Canadian whisky was confected in the last part of the 1800s. It must be recalled though that all Canadian whisky must be aged in wood barrels at least three years, so the silent spirit part is modified by such wood and air contact.

Some distillers consider that notwithstanding the great purity their neutral spirit, or grain whisky as it is known, achieves, there is still some flavour contribution from the spirit, vs. only the wood tannins and sugars it acquires from barrel aging. This could result from trace amounts of congeners – higher alcohols, acids, esters – which remain in the spirit even at 94-95% abv.

This is possible, but in my view, this extra flavour is minimal. The real flavour comes, apart from wood tastes, from the straight rye or other straight whisky added in blending. That is why they are called “flavouring whisky”, it is a distillers’ term, not mine or anyone else’s.

Canadian Whisky Perfected 1870-1894

1024px-Column_stillLegend: A. Analyzer B. Rectifier 1. Wash 2. Steam 3. Liquid out 4. Alcohol vapour 5. Recycled less volatile components 6. Most volatile components 7. Condenser


Between 1892 and 1894 the Canadian Royal Commission on the Liquor Traffic held hearings to study all facets of the liquor question. This arose in the wake of burgeoning pressure for legally-enforced temperance by well-organized advocates across the country. The work and results of the Commission are well-described, here, by Jack S. Blocker, Jr., David Fahey, and Ian Tyrrell in Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: a Global Encyclopedia (2003).

At a hearing in Ontario in 1894 the Commission took evidence from a Charles Richardson, described as holding a lectureship in chemistry at the Ontario Veterinary College. In his testimony Richardson stated that he had previously worked for the Brewers Association of Canada as a chemist.

Richardson was questioned on a range of topics pertaining to beverage alcohol in its different forms. He was asked at one point if he thought the law that required aging of whisky was beneficial to consumers. In 1890, Canada enacted a law stating that whisky produced here must be aged at least two years (today it is three years). In this regard, readers should consider that two years under present U.S. law is the necessary period to call bourbon whiskey “straight bourbon”.

Richardson in the course of his answer stated that Canadian distillers were now blending whisky from two types: i) a “silent spirit” (a grain neutral spirits distilled to 94% alcohol purity and largely free of disagreeable-tasting fusels), and ii) whisky which retained its fusel oil component and required lengthy barrel- aging to remove the off-flavours.

He did not specify the percentages of each, but we know from the general literature that the amount of non-silent whisky in the blends was quite low, generally 5%-10%. This probably explains why many brands tested for a opalescence in 1892 didn’t show any, or only a slight amount, as I explained yesterday. (Cloudiness is a sign of fusel oils and therefore the presence of traditional whisky).

Richardson testified that Canadian distillers had devised this new blended whisky only since the time they were able to produce “silent spirit”, which he said was “fifteen or twenty or twenty-five years ago”. He said before that, distilling technology did not permit rectifying the whisky to silent (neutral) status. In other words only long barrel aging produced a clean pleasant taste albeit one not neutral certainly.

Richardson’s explanation is confirmed in Tanya Lynn MacKinnon’s masterful study (2000) of the historical geography of the early Ontario distilling industry. This was the period in which a handful of industrially savvy distillers emerged to dominate the market by 1900: Hiram Walker, Gooderham & Worts, Wiser, Corby, and Seagram.

MacKinnon explained that up to around 1850, Canadian distillers used the old fashioned pot still. Starting from the 1850s, some distillers invested in the newer, three-chambered column still (a form of it is still used in France to make Armagnac). The spirit was brought to 50 Over Proof in the old British proof system, or 85.6% abv. The new distillate was then filtered in vats holding layers of charcoal, stones, and felts.  Readers who are familiar with Jack Daniels and its maple charcoal leaching might reflect that it is nothing new, simply a survival of general 19th century practices. Tiny apertures in these materials trapped some of the oily fusel matter, the stuff that gave the spirit a petrol smell and taste. Canadian distillers used the same techniques as Jack Daniels still vaunts today, but with the same limited results: the spirit was further cleansed but not to the degree getting it to 94% abv purity would do.

By the time of Confederation (1867), the most ambitious distillers were using yet newer technology which involved condensing the spirit in a second, rectification column. The first column got all the alcohol out of the weak cereal beer, the second one brought it to 94% abv or practical neutrality. The old charcoal vats were dismantled, and the era of modern distilling arrived.

The new vodka-like drink didn’t taste like the whisky people remembered from the pot still or single column still, charcoal filtering days. So Ontario distillers started to add a little of the traditional whisky to the silent spirit type, with all of it aged for at least two years after 1890. This became the Canadian whisky style, and the original straight whiskeys dropped out of the market.

Some of those older whiskeys were straight rye made from all-rye or a mash in which rye predominated, which is why the name rye whisky lingered to describe the new blended form.

Thus, by the 1890s when most of what was in a Canadian whisky bottle was made from corn, the name “rye” stuck to describe our national whisky type.

When you read Charles Richardson’s testimony carefully, it is clear he considered the new Canadian whisky quite different from traditional whisky. The blend was preferable to the old form only when the latter hadn’t been properly aged. That is, he implied that traditional whisky distilled at a low proof was superior to the new blended form when properly aged. Hence his approval of the two year aging rule although by the time that rule became law most Canadian whisky was blended. Aging might improve the taste but it was the silent spirit that did the brunt of the work to make the drink palatable.

While opining that adding real whisky to silent spirit cannot copy real whisky Richardson stopped short of calling the new form factitious or adulterated. Some in the international whisky industry at the time were not so reticent including a group of traditional distillers in Ireland and U.S. bourbon makers.

Uncertainty over what was really “whisky” led to a legal definition being adopted in the next 20 years in Britain and the U.S. The decision in both places was that silent spirit made from grain (vs. say sugar) was entitled to the description of whisky. Canada followed the same path, as it had earlier in regard to the blending revolution that gave rise to this problem. In other words U.K. and U.S. distillers were adopting blending when Canadians did, it all happened around the same time.

Richardson’s statements were probably largely lost on the Royal Commission. I doubt the Commissioners understood the technical reasons behind his testimony, and the questioning soon turned to other topics.

What this history shows us is that by 1894 Canadian whisky was mostly (aged) neutral spirits and no longer straight whisky. It had assumed the mild form we know today, in other words, e.g., Canadian Club or Crown Royal.

But Canadian distillers recently have issued products whose character stretches back to an earlier time than the 1890s, when whisky still had piney, petrol, or waxy notes. That was considered traditionally the “whisky” taste especially at a time when whisky was little aged if at all.

Some of the new products from Canadian distillers taste like this again although as a group the whiskies are probably much better than anything known in the early 1800s. This is due to the longer aging they now receive, three to 12 years or even more.

Note re image above with legend: the image with legend is by Karta24 (Own work – Création personnelle) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons, and was sourced here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Canadian Whisky In the 1890s

1024px-Coffey_StillIn the 1890s the Canadian government analyzed numerous food and beverage products for adulteration, this in the wake of then-new consumer legislation. Beer, butter, coffee, tea, were some of the substances analyzed in government labs – and whiskey. The analyses are very useful.

Canadian whisky was not found to contain harmful substances. Sugar, and glycerine (for body) were sometimes found, but in small amounts, nothing that should cause concern. The alcohol levels – both “draught” (in barrel) and “case” goods (bottled) – were sometimes found too low, under 40% abv often. This was a situation which attended many alcoholic drinks back then and arose usually from duplicitous retail practices.

The most interesting finding was that almost all Canadian “rye”, sometimes called “old rye”, showed no “opalescence” when diluted with water. This was a test used to detect the presence of congeners or secondary chemical constituents, in a word the fusel oils characteristic of spirit distilled at a low proof traditionally in a pot still vs. neutral spirit from the newer patent stills. One product showed slight opalescence and was thought therefore to be a blend of traditional whisky and neutral spirit.

In one of the assays (there were several for a few years), “old rye” from Seagram showed considerable genuine whisky character under this test, which makes sense judging by the name: straight rye was surely the original type, made in western Pennsylvania and New York before Ontario was settled, and adopted in Canada. Straight rye was “the” U.S. straight whisky before bourbon overtook it later in the 1800s.

In addition to other period evidence, this suggests that a lot of Canadian whisky by the late-1800s was aged neutral spirit and if it contained any flavouring whisky, it was a very small amount. Different qualities were probably produced following the emerging Scots practice, as Usher, John Walker, Teacher and others there were evolving blending in a way that would have been noticed in Canada. The links to Britain were still strong before WW I.

By this time, corn (maize) was the main grain used in Canadian whisky production. Before 1850, other grains were used, notably rye, wheat, oats, and barley malt. The term old rye must derive from that earlier time when, before the column or patent still was in general use, spirits were made on Scots or Irish lines – or akin to how Dutch geneva gin was made which is rye-based. Note in the table linked above how well Dutch genever scored for pot still character.

Before 1850, some, not all of Canada’s pot still production was from a mixed mash: wheat, barley, oats, rye. The strong taste of rye as against corn and wheat might have impelled distillers to call their product “rye” too.  Bourbon today which has a high rye content, e.g., Old Gran-dad, has an evident rye taste for example.

In the 1890s, the whiskeys produced in Canada were the new patent still form of rye, “bourbon” (perhaps aged in new charred barrels but judging by the analyses mentioned, typically from neutral spirits too), Scotch and Irish whiskies, which were barley-based, and white wheat whisky, which was similar to today’s vodka. There were no appellation rules then or sophisticated trade accords to protect distinctive national products, all this came later.

At some point, by the 1890s or a little later – perhaps as a spin-off of the “what is whisky” controversies in Edwardian Britain and Teddy Roosevelt’s America – Canadian distillers perfected the blending of whisky which relied on a little straight whiskey being added to aged neutral spirit to bump up the flavour. Straight rye was generally used for the straight element, but not invariably. Some distillers used a bourbon, Scotch, or Irish-type whiskey. Rum could be used too, or brandy.

Setting aside the new crop of releases I discussed yesterday, it is evident that Canadian whisky, post-Hiram Walker, post-Jos. Seagram and the other distilling pioneers, was a mild-tasting drink. That is its nature, and it has achieved wide consumer acceptance, at least up to now.  To produce a clean mild alcoholic drink in the 1890s was a feat of technology. “Heavy” spirits – distilled under 160 proof or 80% abv – had an unpleasant chemical taste from the oily congeners unless aged six years and more. Buy a three year old Kentucky bourbon, not to mention the white dog, or unaged straight whiskey, being sold today by craft distillers, to see the challenging taste involved.

What Hiram Walker and his peers introduced, plain Jane as it may seem to some of us, was applauded by all except a few hold-outs in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, the Scottish Highlands and the hollows of green Ireland. I’d like to include the ravines of Toronto and port towns of Lake Ontario in that, but I can’t.

Note re image: the image of an Irish column still is by HighKing (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. It was sourced here. Believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Canadian Whisky’s Top End



For many years, Canadian whisky was what one writer has called a compromise spirit, meaning it did not achieve the quality of the single malt or bourbon category, but had a ready market due to its versatility (especially for mixing) and price.

The reason for this has a complex historical and technological background, but to summarize, Canadian whisky is typically a blend. A blend means, most of it is a vodka-like, neutral alcohol (made from grain), but aged in wood for at least three years. This aging imparts a degree of “whisky” flavour, but the neutrality of the spirit when young means it can never mature in the way a traditional whisky would. The traditional types were and are made in pot stills. The more industrial and modern column still is used to make the neutral type but it can also be used to make the older type. It is not the type of still which counts but the type of whisky you want to make.

Using a little of this traditional whisky (5%-10%) to “flavour” a much larger amount of aged neutral spirit became the Canadian style. Often too, sherry or sugar of some kind is added to round out the whisky’s flavour or give it a browner tint.

For almost 60 years, this became the only style you could buy in Canada that was produced here. To drink straight whisky – in effect the flavouring whisky uncut – you had to buy U.S. bourbon or single malt whisky. The Canadian distillers made the straight type, but used it only for blending. In America and Scotland, straight whiskeys were also used for blending – Seagram 7 Crown, Cutty Sark, say – but the straights – the original type – were never taken off the market as in Canada.

With the rise of the whisky renaissance, Canadian distillers have started to release their straight whiskies uncut or produce blends with more straight whiskey than in the past. In either case, the flavour result will be much more impactful than the classic restrained Canadian blend such as Seagram V.O. or Alberta Premium.

Dark Horse, Lot 40, Wiser’s Legacy, Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye, Seagram Northern Harvest, all fall in the new category, they are very flavourful from being 100% straight or blends in which a high percentage of straight appears. Most of them are, for the straight element, rather young in palate. Even when aged seemingly long (7-10 years), account must be taken of the fact that Canadian distillers, with some exceptions, age their whiskeys in reused oak barrels vs. the new charred barrels used by U.S. bourbon distillers. The reused barrel is perfectly good to age whisky – that is what the Scots use for their famous malts – but it takes a long time for straight whisky to acquire its maximum quality in such wood.

Putting it a different way, few people today would rate a single malt very high which isn’t at least 10 years old and often the benchmark starts from 12. Yet most Canadian straights produced for blending are much less aged than that. The reason is partly cost but also, a younger whisky will make more flavour impact on a large amount of near-neutral spirit than an old, well-modulated spirit. On its own, it may taste, as some of the new releases do, piney/congeneric, but that can be a plus for blending.

This is why the whisky pictured was of such interest to me, not so much the jazz about sour mash, but the fact it is a bourbon mash, and aged 14 years. Bourbon mash means:

i) distilled and entered in barrel in the territory traditional for bourbon, under 80% abv and 62.5% abv, respectively, and

ii) made from a mash of >50% corn plus rye and barley malt.

Last Barrels was aged in all-reused barrels, and bourbon by U.S. law is aged in new charred barrels. However, the 14 year period for which Last Barrels was matured more or less equates in palate to what you would get with half that time in new charred wood. The new charred barrel has a “red layer” (just under the black char layer) which imparts caramelized wood sugars to the bourbon. It is said to be exhausted after one fill of bourbon, but while it will take longer, you will ultimately get similar rich, wood sugar qualities in the whisky as any good malt will show.

Last Barrels tastes very much like a high quality bourbon. I doubt people would place it as “Canadian” if included in a blind bourbon tasting. But it is Canadian because it was made here and qualifies as Canadian whisky under our broad definition. The important thing to appreciate is, the straight whiskeys used in Canada for blending always were U.S., Scots, or Irish-type straight whiskeys. We never had a straight style of our own, we had a blended style of our own.

Canadian distillers should release more whiskies like Last Barrels. Their straight character – I use the term not in the American technical sense but in a broader, international one – lends an inimitable traditional whisky character. You can age the typical Canadian blend until the cows come home, and some distillers do, but more wood doesn’t equal more whisky quality, it just means more wood. Yes, other things happen too with aging any spirit.

But from a palate standpoint, there is no substitute for genuine whisky meaning in particular whisky distilled under 80% abv as all malt is, all bourbon is, all straight rye is.  (All brandy and tequila too, by the way). This is due to its complex chemical composition which results from low proof off the still vs. the nearly pure ethanol-and-water of spirit distilled at 95% pure alcohol.

The blends are all very well to be sure, they can be sold at a reasonable price – generally half or less what Last Barrels costs – and are good for mixing. But as mentioned, they cannot be compared in palate to the original straight whiskies.

Pink Gin

“On the West India Station”


One of the great gin drinks is the simplest: pink gin, or gin and bitters. Generally water and ice are added, but are optional and not additional ingredients anyway, they are dilutions.

I will let Frederick Martin speak, who wrote the essential An Encyclopedia Of Drinks And Drinking. This very useful and entertaining book had an unlikely publisher, Coles, generally known in Canada for producing resumes of literary works.

“Coles Notes” has been a student standby in Canada for generations. Somehow this house published the book by Martin, an ex- British Army officer who had long been in the wine and spirits trade. The copyright is 1978 but internal clues suggest the text was written in the late 1960s. A left field choice for Coles, but one I’m glad it made.

After first explaining that gin was a proletarian drink disdained by the merchant classes and gentry, Martin sets out the slow but steady way gin crossed social barriers. One reason was the following:

Gin was taken up by the Royal Navy, whose prestige was colossal. We do not know quite when officers started drinking pink gin. “Bitters” were originally a medicine, a specific for sundry fevers such as the Royal Navy might encounter on the West Indian station. Since Plymouth was, and is, a distilling centre, it is reasonable to assume that a puncheon of gin found its way aboard a man-of-war and that an officer of an experimental turn of mind tried taking his bitters with gin, thus inventing a drink destined to go far outside service circles.


As to how to make the pink gin Martin is authoritative:

The correct way to make it is to put four or five dashes of Angostura bitters in a suitable glass and shake out all but that which clings to the surface (unless you wish the drink to be specially aromatic). Using ice cubes, or not, to taste, pour in the gin, adding soda or plain water to individual liking. There is a gimmick version in which the bitters are fired.

As an ideal brand Martin specifies the classic Plymouth gin – the sole surviving example of a regional English style that was associated with Devon’s famous port. “Plymouth” was said to be a little more flavourful than London Dry. Martin assures us though that any London gin is likely to be as good.

I always liked Beefeater: bone-dry, good juniper notes, very pure. Never really went for Bombay and Hendricks. Some brands, especially the cheapest, seem to stint on the “botanical” flavourings and also their alcohol base sometimes is too harsh for me.

I just bought the venerable Gilbey’s which is similar to Beefeater but a touch sweeter with more orange notes I think.  Of course there has been a gin boom in recent years with many craft and newer big-company iterations, so the choice is enviable. However, the gin should not be too forward in taste as this can clash with the bitters.

Note re second image above: The painting shown is in the public domain, a fine 18th century work by English marine painter Peter Monamy. For source and further details, see here. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*Note added July 26, 2019: see my Comment added today to an earlier post of mine on Martin’s book, regarding the well-known, late U.K. drinks writer John Doxat. I discuss there whether Doxat in fact authored Martin’s book and “Frederick Martin” is a nom de plume.



Krausmann Restaurants in Montreal – Part III


Famous for food




– From a 1939 tourist brochure in Montreal

In the last two posts I discussed the history of two restaurants with a German theme in Montreal operated by two brothers, John and William Krausmann. They hailed from Elora, Ontario but had a Germanic heritage that was reflected in the food and drinks served. John had importation rights for some prestige German and Bohemian beers including Kulmbacher and what is now called Pilsner Urquell. John’s restaurant, founded 1901, was in the financial district. It prospered for a generation but appears not to have survived, or for long, his death in 1929.

William’s Lorraine Cafe, founded in 1922, continued in business into the 1980s, changing location at least once. Since 1990, Brisket, a restaurant which offers a diverse, “Montreal” menu, operates on the last site occupied by Kraussman’s on Beaver Hall Hill.*

Brisket continues the Krausmann legacy in a modest way by including “Salon Krausmann” in its full name and also, it features the pickled pork hock dish which was a specialty of the old Krausmann restaurants.

I had thought perhaps Krausmann family descendants were involved with the Krausmann business at least until the Brisket era. This appears not so, due to a surprising twist in the history: by 1927, Krausmann’s Lorraine Cafe had been sold to Traymore Limited, a Canadian restaurant chain comprising (in that year) five cafeterias. You see in this 1927 prospectus for an issue of convertible preference shares that Krausmann Lorraine Cafe is listed as owned by Traymore. Traymore also listed the restaurant among its group on postcards showing the company locations.

traymore-cafeteriafrSince William had health problems by the mid-1920s, it makes sense that he decided to sell. It appears he had no involvement in Traymore management but may have worked at the Lorraine Cafe for a time in an employed capacity. His brother John did not sell his Krausmann’s to Traymore as far as I know, but with John’s death in 1929 that branch seems to have ended its activity.

Traymore Limited was an early restaurant chain, indeed a public company founded before WW I in Toronto. By the late 1930s, some of its locations had gone under due no doubt to the Depression. But the flagship cafeterias under the Traymore name in Toronto and Montreal continued for decades after WW II. It seems they closed in or by 1961. I suspect that Krausmann Lorraine Cafe closed for a time, in 1961 or perhaps earlier, since this advertisement in Montreal in 1964 announced a new and revived Krausmann’s in Phillips Square.

I can’t tell if the new Krausmann was in the same building as the original Lorraine Cafe. The civic numbers old and new don’t seem to tally but the Square had been redeveloped since the 1920s and maybe the building numbers changed. Anyway the new operation was still in Phillips Square.

A Mr. Jacques Fauteux was the manager and the menu was Continental, advertising English, German and Swiss dishes. Entertainment was also offered, which reprised the supper club atmosphere of the Phillips Square Krausmann’s in the 20s and 30s. In general a high tone was promised by the upbeat ad. It does not state when the original Krausmann’s stopped operating.

By the 70s, this Krausmann as I recall it had become a middle-class brasserie, primarily a lunch destination, and I don’t recall a band playing by then. The beer offered was similar to that at other taverns and certainly the era of German imports and “light and dark draft beer” proudly advertised in the 1920s had past. But pickled pork hocks were still on the menu, the family tradition of Sarah Krausmann, who was born in Alsace-Lorraine, still casting its long shadow as I apprehend it. And it’s on the Brisket menu today. Perhaps it wasn’t strictly accurate when I said that the dish has been served for 115 years as it seems Krausmann’s stopped operating for a time prior to its post-1964 revival, but it doesn’t matter, the heritage of the dish is long enough and certainly originated in 1901.

My best guess is that different ownership had taken control after the Traymore era ended and likely the Krausmann family has not been involved with the restaurants since the 1930s. Needless to say any readers who can add to this picture are welcome to comment or contact me and I’ll be happy to write a further note on the history.

We tend today to think of food service corporations and restaurant chains as ultra-modern. In fact they go back a century and more. The idea to supply a chain from one set of sources to ensure volume pricing, and manage them from a central location, made no less sense in 1914 than it does now. Traymore was a pioneering operation in Canada in this field.


I’ll leave you with a bittersweet story about Kraussman’s, in this case relating to the Toronto hotel, probably managed in that period by William Krausmann. A German had worked for a time in the hotel, then went home and ended in Kaiser Wilhelm’s army fighting England and its Dominions. In about 1915 during one of those strange moments when opposing forces declared a brief peace and would mingle in no-man’s-land sharing cigars and coffee, Canadian and German forces bantered, then returned to their own lines. As the Canadians entered their trenches, they heard a voice drifting from the German side, “Hey Eddie McDougall, want to run down to Krausmann’s tonight?”.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from this vintage and genealogical postcard site. The second is from John Chuckman’s fine Toronto historical postcards site, here. Both are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*See my note in the Comments to Part I added April 1, 2018.