Mr. Greenhut Explains Highwines

The extract below (via HathiTrust) is from testimony in Congress by Joseph Greenhut, who headed a conglomerate of distilleries in the late-1800s in the U.S. It was known informally as the Whiskey Trust, based in Cincinnati. Greenhut was an early “raider”, in the 1970s sense, buying up and consolidating often-inefficient distilleries to rationalize production and raise profits.

By 1900, its power declined in the wake of financial and legal issues. It went into Prohibition insolvent but some of its brands later formed the core of National Distillers, one of four main liquor companies to emerge after Prohibition. That company later merged with Jim Beam, adding storied brands such as Old Gran-dad Bourbon and Old Overholt rye.

In 1893, Greenhut was testifying on the activities of the trust and his comments on highwines are a good capsule of how the term evolved. He explains that highwines at the highest strength formed “alcohol”, used in industry to “cut oils” due to its high strength but still retaining some fusel oils.

This was the same substance used to make Florida waters or perfumes as discussed in the 1870s Canadian engineering article linked in my previous post. Another term for this alcohol was, appropriately, cologne spirits.

Despite the modern (2017) sense of the term alcohol, this 1893 alcohol aka highwines aka cologne spirits didn’t mean completely neutral spirits. Greenhut explains that to make “spirits”, the alcohol was subject to further distillation and charcoal filtering. The engineering article said the same thing but called the spirits “whisky”.

Greenhut said 95% of his production was this alcohol and spirits. He doesn’t state expressly what the 5% was, but it was probably whiskey-mash distillate (under 160 proof U.S.) aged to make bourbon or straight rye. He calls it “some little stuff” and “highwines in olden times”.

To Cincinnati whiskey-makers c. 1900, whiskey was the product of blending “spirits” – neutral spirits with no detectable odour – with straight bourbon or rye. Elsewhere in the same volume (search under “highwines” to find it) it is explained that often the blend was 4:1 neutral spirits to straight whiskey. This was felt to make a superior whiskey since the straight whiskey on its own was too strong in character. Modern American blended whiskey is often composed in exactly this way, sometimes with added flavouring which is also mentioned in the testimony.

The Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania whiskey distillers still made their whiskey the older way: distilling whiskey-mash spirits under 160 proof U.S. and putting them away for years in the warehouse. Tennessee added as well the old technique of charcoal filtering before barreling and warehousing. The end result was a heavier, more emphatic flavour than the blender achieved but it was all a question of the different “classes” of whiskey, different markets and prices.

Canadian distillers used highwines as the basis for their blends, but fully aged once the aging requirements became law. I infer as well that once the first aging law was passed (1890s), any use of odourless neutral spirits by our distillers ceased in favour of using aged highwines (as the base), because little improvement to the spirit would derive from oak aging if it was vodka-like in quality.  The account in the engineering journal of the visit to Gooderham’s suggests it was using neutral spirits to make whisky, at least for the base (no reference is made in the article to addition of flavouring whisky). But that was years before the aging law came into force.

I should add too that procedures at the Big 5 Canadian distillers c. 1900 (Corby, G&H, Seagram, Hiram Walker, Wiser) may not have been identical in all respects.

The Scots distill their their base whisky for Scotch blends much as the Canadians have since the late 1800s save for some differences in mashing grains. The American highwines Greenhut was speaking of was made from corn, the Canadian mostly ditto. The Canadians also added flavourings sometimes to the blends, and some brands still do. It goes back to this time when blending was a rising technique in the international whiskey industry.

The point is, highwines originally meant the spirit from a whisky-mash before rectification with charcoal/redistillation or warehousing in oak. When pot stills and other primitive stills were used before steam-distillation in columns and rectifiers, this highwines was between 50% and 80% abv off the stills. But once column stills came in, the strongest highwines rose to 188 proof U.S. or 94.1% abv. It was this strongest highwines which was advertised, I apprehend, in the 1917 Moquin ad discussed in the last post except proofed down for sale to 85.6% abv.

Greenhut confirms in effect that the meaning of highwines changed, but what didn’t change was that highwines was never a perfectly pure product. Thus, it could be aged for whisky as some buyers surely did (gentry, maybe grocers, bars). The highwines could also be used for some industrial purposes, and to mix with wine for the Caribou-type product also mentioned yesterday, or punches. It was a white whiskey, broadly speaking.

Anyone who wants to know what it was like should try to find the Global alcool I mentioned. It is sold in Quebec in 94% and 40% abv versions and the latter must be simply the former diluted to 40% abv. Ontario for many years sold a similar “alcohol” (not vodka) but I can’t find it on the listings currently. The Global one was interesting, like a vodka but with traits of white dog whisky. No doubt some craft distillers produce a similar drink but unless aged for the requisite time it cannot be called whisky on the label.

Note re image: the image above of a fountain in 1870s Cincinnati was sourced from Wikipedia, here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All copyright therein resides solely in its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

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