Col. E.H. Taylor’s Sour-Mashing Method Further Explained

“Aromas and Flavors That Would Tempt The Gods”

– E.H. Taylor, Jr., 1896

In discussing recently Col. E.H. Taylor’s sour-mash method of the 1800s, I will reproduce a salient portion of his remarks from the 1896 book I have referred to a number of times, Memorial History of Louisville by J. Stoddard Johnston. Its chapter XIX on the history of whiskey manufacture and sale in Kentucky was authored by contributor Thomas M. Gilmore.

Readers will recall I cited an earlier statement (1884) in Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit journal that Dr. James Crow originated this method – refined is a better word – with Oscar Pepper at his distillery before the Civil War. Taylor, together with partners, bought what was then called the James E. Pepper Distillery after the war (in 1877) and continued it and the methods Crow and his employer had evolved. Taylor sold the business in 1878 to Messrs. Labrot and Graham. The locale is now the site of Woodford Reserve Distillery, owned by Brown-Forman.

In 1870, Taylor founded the Old Fire Copper distillery near Frankfort, KY. It is now Buffalo Trace Distillery, owned by Sazerac Company. Buffalo Trace acquired ownership of the Taylor brand name some years ago from what is now Beam Suntory, to reconnect to a key figure in its history. Buffalo Trace has since issued various whiskeys under the Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. name.

Notable elements in Col. Taylor’s account include: use of spent beer (backset) to scald and sour the mash; slow mash cooling of 24-48 hours; no “artificial” yeast (cultured jug or dried); avoidance of high mashing and fermenting temperatures; a “spontaneous and unforced” fermentation leaving considerable sugar in the mash; and Taylor’s opinion that backset provided the function of yeast, as he states, “In sweet-mash process the substitution of water for spent beer in mashing necessitates an active yeast for fermenting purposes…”.

In my view, the backset together with other factors as discussed in my last post enabled wild yeast to ferment the mash to the degree of attenuation Taylor mentioned. If I read his numbers correctly, his 11 degrees original gravity of mash was in Plato. That equates to 1044 original gravity (OG) on the scale used typically today. He attenuated down three degrees (he said) to eight degrees Plato, which is 1032 final gravity (FG). That would leave only a little alcohol in the beer, about 1.5 per cent which doesn’t seem right. Assuming though Taylor meant final gravity was three degrees Plato, that would produce a beer of about 4.2 per cent abv, still low by modern standards but more reasonable in the context – maybe that is what he meant. While as Taylor said his process was inefficient, he felt it contributed to “flavor and quality”.

Readers should please note that I added two footnotes to my post of yesterday to address comments made by a reader of the blog.

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