Mint Juleps Of The Old South

EA0917_Mint-Julep_s4x3.jpg.rend.sni12col.landscapeThe weather yesterday was upwards of 35 C, about the level when mint julep was typically served in the old South, the “cordial” as it was called then. Many odd customs attended its preparation and serving.

One was to present it to the house at sunrise. This is one of those practices which convince you the past truly is a foreign nation, it’s akin to reading about soothing cholic in babies with teaspoons of bourbon.

All this and more is attested in a vibrant article by Martha McCulloch Williams in the Topeka State Journal of January 31, 1914.

It was reprinted from The Sun in New York City, where she was based as a writer. I can’t recall any other article of the time written by a woman discussing the merits of drink (versus supporting Carrie Nation, say, or Prohibition in general). A short extract:

Harking back to mint julep, I wish my critic might have the luck once to see and smell and sip juleps such as were served to us upon rising at the most hospitable house in hospitable Robertson county. Mint for them grew in very rich soil, partly shaded; thus it sprang quickly, almost magially, but was never coarse.

It was cut at dawn in midsummer, drenched with dew, snipped off at three inches or less, and set dew-gemmed around the goblet edges, half sunk in sugared water and broken ice. Washing would have been profanation; it had grown too quickly to have even a trace of dust. After it was duly placed the whisky was poured very gently, very steadily, until it stood level with the rim. Such whisky! Robertson county’s best! Wilson Pitt was a favorite brand, so was Silver Spring. Made from sound flint corn, after the old honest fashion, aged in wood, colored very faintly by charred barrels, and kept at least four years, it was fit for the gods. “Not a headache in a hogshead of it” unless you overdrank.The pity of it that prohibition has conquered such an Eden! That, however, is beside the mark.

Our Juleps came to us about sunrise. A tinkle of ice and spoons outside our doors was a mighty pleasant reveille. One maid fetched the tray of juleps. Behind came another with a bigger tray full of dewy flowers, roses, carnations, heliotrope, scented and scarlet geraniums. It was the law of the house that you came to breakfast beautifully, with flowers in your hair, at your throat, in your belt; thus only were you in harmony with a table heaped high with dew-wet blossoms all down its length.

Who was this extraordinary woman of the Wilsonian era? Williams was a food and domestic writer, and probably a working journalist. She authored amongst other books, Dishes and Beverages Of The Old South. Rather oddly, she declares in this book to be an “ardent” follower of Temperance (page 12) but insists on including recipes for drinks and where whiskey is used as an ingredient. Her detailed mint julep recipe appears at pg. 39.

I can’t account for the contradiction. Maybe she told a white lie in the book to encourage sales amongst its presumed market (women, then generally against drink), or meant to profess Temperance ironically.

Anyway she seemed someone of unusual spirit for the time, and her encomium on the julep is engaging and well-written. It presages the kind of food journalism and writing now quite common.

First, it tells us a bit about Tennessee’s Robertson County’s famous whiskey, of which I wrote earlier. Despite that it was aged four years, the whiskey only had a “very faint” tint from the wood.

This seems hard to parse. Four years for any straight whiskey usually imparts a decided brown-to-red, think for example of Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam.

It might be that the producers she mentioned, who indeed were famous for quality, selected whiskey from a part of the warehouse where it matured slowly and took only a little colour from the wood.

I’ve seen images in fact of old Tennessee brands which were only light yellow, so that may tie in.

Or, the barrel may have been charred in a way to minimize extraction of colour. Today, we tend to think of dark whiskey as the best. In a former time, deep colour was not always preferred. For example, pale brandy (Cognac) and dark brandy were marketed as separate items in the 1800s.

Given that Roberston County whiskey underwent the charcoal leaching process just as Jack Daniel’s did, it makes sense to me some distillers sold the whiskey only with a light hue. They may have meant the subsequent aging to be restrained so as not to leach remaining character from the whiskey.

The other striking thing from Williams’ article: mint juleps were served at breakfast. Indeed it was an old southern custom, now obsolete one might say.

Many things do sound odd from the past, although I suppose they would regard some things we do with consternation.

Reading how William’s ideal julep was constructed, it makes me think how hard it would be to emulate. Not because of the whiskey – many types could be chosen and indeed many craft distillations would be ideal  – but how to get that mint? It was grown outdoors in a hot climate, harvested quickly so nature’s dust hadn’t time to settle, and used within an hour of being cut.

As to the hothouse flowers scent in the non-air-conditioned breakfast parlour, you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure that…

I guess if any time is apt to find the mint, it is now with the Southern-like heat and the market gardens in full swing.

If you find the mint, let me know. I’ll bring the whiskey.

(Read the rest of William’s article via the link given, it is very interesting and she drops the name of O. Henry amongst other tidbits).

Note re image: the image of the mint julep was sourced from the Food Network site, here. Alton Brown’s recipe given there is highly recommended. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Most Antebellum Bourbon Was Little Aged, Not

15ylabel1An article from August 1, 1886 in The Sun (New York), entitled Bourbon and Rye, discussed whether a new era of well-aged bourbon and rye would commence. The author, uncredited, described himself as an expert in the field and the article shows every sign he was: see for example his deft explanation how temporary exportation of whiskey can reduce the cost of maturing it.

What I find really interesting in the piece, apart from the looming shadow of Prohibition, is the description of Bourbon before the Civil War, or not so much the war, but the raising of the whiskey tax, newly imposed in 1862 and sharply increased by the end of the war. For convenience though I’ll speak here of before and after the war.

The writer posits the pre-war era, or Antebellum Period, as the golden age of Bourbon, when it was long-aged, especially on the distilling estates of the Bluegrass:

Then the theory was that Bourbon never reached its rich maturity “until half the contents of the barrel had evaporated”. Nothing short of six-year-old bourbon was accounted fit for use, and many a hospitable Kentucky mansion contained in its cellar mellow and aromatic Bourbon of from ten to twenty years old.

Although the author doesn’t mention it, commercial producers such as Oscar Pepper also aged their product for a reasonable time, this is known from other sources. Oscar Pepper’s product, made by the legendary Scots physician James Crow, was noted for its red colour and must have been seven years old at a minimum. As early as 1818, some Kentucky whiskey was advertised as seven years of age and some was known to be available at higher ages. Still, some bourbon historians have considered most Bourbon sold before the Civil War was young, a year or two at most. Gerald Carson appears to hold this view in his The Social History Of Bourbon (1963).

The Sun explains that aging liquor was no great burden before the war or when the tax was low. Annual shrinkage, the angel’s share to which spirits are subject, added to the whiskey’s cost as the tax had to be paid on new spirit and the producer was not credited for shrinkage, but the extra cost was considered acceptable. When the tax rose however to $2.00/gal., it became uneconomic to age whiskey as long as before. The writer was a little inaccurate on his recollection of the tax rates, this U.S. government source gives the true picture, but there is no reason to question his general argument.

The result of the Civil War tax regime was Bourbon became much younger than people were accustomed to earlier, two or three years old, half the minimum age considered acceptable before the war. This created an opportunity for blenders, who added a few gallons of rare old whiskey to a much larger amount of neutral spirits to create an acceptable drink. Indeed, blending manuals start to appear about 1860 although the practice probably started earlier. This blending is the origin of modern American blended whisky, taking in brands such as Seagram Seven Crown.


By 1886, the increase in the bonding period, during which whiskey could be stored tax unpaid, and new rules which relieved distillers from paying tax on the angel’s share, made it economic to keep whiskey for longer if not generally 10 and 20 years. When these stocks were supplemented by American whiskey brought home from a seven years sojourn in Bremen or Liverpool, that permitted a market where bourbon and rye could be offered at seven years vs. the four year average then prevailing.

It’s interesting that again today, four years is the norm for straight whiskey. Jim Beam White, Four Roses Yellow Label, Maker’s Mark, or Jack Daniel’s, say, are that age more or less.

There is a tendency in modern distilling to consider Bourbon over-aged at more than eight or 10 years. Charlie Thomasson, in a c. 1960 article on old-fashioned distilling at Willett’s Distillery in Bardstown, KY, wrote that the best Bourbon was about six years of age. Yet The Sun in 1886 explained that grandees prized Bourbon aged two to three times longer before the Civil War. Thomasson felt that prolonged aging would impart a “punky” taste to the liquor, a degraded flavour from a breakdown of the barrel staves, yet old Kentucky must have liked that taste.

Between the late 90s and about 2010, there was a large amount of old Bourbon and rye in the market, a legacy of the “whiskey glut” of the 80s and early 90s when brown spirits languished in relation to vodka particularly. That changed of course as the whiskey renaissance took pace. Old Rip Van Winkle, Hirsch, Michter’s, and other brands noted for long ages became rare. Where you could still find them, they cost a lot more than before.

Despite Carson’s view, there is good reason historically to consider that “Bourbon” always meant an aged drink, one that a acquired a brown or red colour from the wood and a sweet taste from caramelized wood sugars. In contrast, much “whiskey” and especially “common whiskey”, including corn whiskey, continued to be sold un-aged or little-aged until the Civil War. Terminology was never precise. “Old whiskey” frequently meant Bourbon (or straight rye), and I am sure examples can be cited of “Bourbon” advertised at two or three years. But in general, Bourbon, or the quality end, meant a well-aged drink with a rich palate, one comparable to fine French brandy, Cognac and similar. The Sun’s account supports that.

I don’t believe Bourbon emerged to compete with brandy or acquired its name from a connection to New Orleans or the French influence there. But there is no question Bourbon was considered an alternative to Cognac as a quality spirit. The availability of old brandy by the mid-1800s perhaps inspired extra-long aging by Bourbon distillers. A similar influence was probably at play too from the Scottish Highlands where the lairds liked to keep a vatting of old malts in the cellar. There was old rum as well in the international market: all these trends worked together and probably influenced each other.

The takeaway: when people say today Bourbon at 12, 15 and 20 years is too old and reflects more a glutted market (or that time) than a gastronomic criterion, it is not so. Fine Bourbon was precisely in that range before the Civil War.

Note re images: the labels shown above were sourced here and here. Both are believed available for educational or historical use, all feedback welcomed. All trademarks shown belong exclusively to their owners or authorized licensees.

A New Brewing Venture In Ontario – Cowbell Brewing

IMG_20160709_143648Ring Them Bells

In June and earlier this month, a spate of stories appeared on a new brewing venture, Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company, in Blyth, ON. Blyth, off the shore of Lake Huron in the southeast part, is about a three-hour drive from Toronto.

The Canadian Beer News has an informative account of the brewery, here. Further details on the origin and development of the project, including the founding Sparling family, are in this story from the North Huron.

The project is carefully thought through and impressive in scope. The Sparlings are building an ethically responsible, “closed-loop” plant on a sizeable farm which will grow barley, hops, and other inputs for the beers. There will also be a 100-seat restaurant overlooking the brewhouse.

Part of the business plan is the theme set out on the label of the first beer, the fact that in 1855 a rich landowner in England bought the town lock and stock but never visited his property.

It’s cool branding but there is much more to the brewery’s plans as the linked stories make clear.

Grant Sparling trained recently at Sunderland’s brewing school in England. Stephen Rich, with stints at Sweetwater Brewing and the former Beer Academy in Toronto, will help Sparling create a range of beers the first of which is Absent Landlord. Since the brewery is still being built, Absent Landlord is currently brewed under contract, in Hamilton, ON (I’d think at Collective Arts).

IMG_20160708_151004The beer is first-rate with a fresh and appealing flavour, quite yeasty but in a good way: there are no sulphide notes or that type of flavour. It’s not just a gateway beer, a term that tends to have a left-handed connotation, but a tasty and moreish one that stands on its own merits.

Kolsch yeast is used and the beer is described as a “country Kolsch”. Unlike modern beers in Cologne, Absent Landlord is fermented warm with the goal to extract maximum flavour. It has a faint apple note, a touch of earthiness, and the flavour of fresh grains.

I plan to keep some cans for while to see if the yeast drops somewhat as I do tend to prefer a clear glass of beer, setting aside weizen and other styles which should be turbid.

Still, tumbling out of the glass after a bouncing trip from Stratford, ON where I found it at a LCBO, it was as tasty as could be. Perhaps this beer will be an example where it needs its full charge of yeast to have maximum effect.

Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky


The name of this post could easily caption a contemporary article on bourbon in a glossy magazine, or historical quarterly.

In fact, “Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky” was the name of a story that appeared on April 26, 1872 in the Public Ledger of Memphis, TN. It reprinted an article that had appeared, presumably the same year, in another newspaper, St. Louis Republican. You can read the Memphis article here.

The story is fascinating as it is surely the first “academic” look at bourbon. It treats bourbon not as something to sell, analyze scientifically, or place in a social setting, but as something worthy of historical appraisal.

In the last 20 years of the 1800s technical books on distilling, general histories, and trade journals gave useful information on bourbon, but you don’t see much of this before 1880. The 1872 article was prescient to understand the importance bourbon had already achieved in American social life. [See Addendum below].

What makes the piece, reproduced below, especially noteworthy is that bourbon as a name for whiskey had first appeared in print only 51 years earlier, in 1821. Just enough time had gone by for someone to look at the subject sociologically, essentially.

Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky

Prof. S. Williams in St. Louis Republican.

It is not generally known that the genealogy of Bourbon whisky is as purely German as a “Pennsylvania Dutch” descent in a direct line can make it. Look in the State Department at the papers relating to the Pennsylvania whisky rebellion against the federal excise tax in 1780. The names of the compromised parties will be found to be Shankweller, or Schwartz, or some other addition pronounced with the “sweet German accent.” These Teutons, the pioneer immigrants from Germany, were as stiffnecked anti-muckers on the liquor question in the infancy of our republic as they are now and resented all government interference with their glorious old Monongahela whisky as stoutly as modern Germans do the puritanic attempts to deprive them of their Sunday lager. And thus “old Bourbon” became the first-born of ” old Monongahela.” The blessed old patriots who invented Bourbon whisky, and whose names can still be found branded by their descendants on any bona fide ante-bellum barrel  – alas! how few and hard to find – were the Spearses, the Kellers, the Kizers, the Kleisers, the Lydicks, the Hoffmans and others, who found it healthy to light out from Pennsylvania about the time that United States marshals with writs in their pockets were hunting for Hugh Henry Breckinridge, the author of “Modern Chivalry”

They were a florid, ponderous, stalwart and manly race, and the tourist is astonished at the percentage of heavy weights visible even now among their descendants at any Bourbon court-day gathering. They embarked on broad-horns with their wives and children and copper stills, floated down the Ohio to Limestone, crossed the Licking hills and built their cabins and set up their stills in the cane-brakes of Bourbon, free from the molestation of United States marshals. Soon the excise tax was repealed. There was no market for produce in Kentucky. Stock had to be driven through hundreds of miles of wilderness, and across the Alleghanies to be sold. But by converting the corn and rye into whisky and bacon, tbey could flatboat it out of Licking, sell boat and cargo in the Spanish port of New Orleans, and walk home through the wilderness with their Spanish doubloons swung over their shoulders in canvas bags. Such is the origin of Bourbon whisky, which owes its reputation to the same honest process which made Old Monongahela famous in its day.

Some points. The professor’s first or Christian name is absent, he states just an initial. Why? Perhaps because that was just the style of the day.

Famed American journalist and author Henry L. Mencken, who was born about the time the article appeared, called himself “H.L. Mencken” professionally. And there was that fellow, T.S. Eliot. Will Rogers, the humorist, is kind of an example too.  Or S.J. Perelman. It was a style.

Alternatively, perhaps Williams didn’t want his full name used. Increasingly after the Civil War, to speak in polite circles about whiskey or any beverage alcohol was not “meet”. The climate against alcohol was growing. While liquor was tolerated until, finally, Prohibition ended its manufacture and sale nationwide in 1920, speaking of booze in an establishment setting became verboten. Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Journal and other trade media didn’t follow this path of course, but they had a product to sell.


And so S. William’s article was a departure from societal norm. Perhaps St. Louis, Missouri at the time was quite “open” in regard to liquor. Certainly from the 1870s on bourbon and other alcohol were extensively advertised in its media.

In Memphis too in the 1870s the whiskey culture, being native to the area and important to the economy, was still viewed with tolerance or even indulgence by established circles.

But what of the “1780” date for the whiskey tax? The excise tax on liquor became law in March of 1791, and collection started in July of the same year. How could Williams get it wrong?

I don’t know, perhaps the St. Louis paper had got it right and the Memphis paper misprinted it. Or maybe the St. Louis article stated 1780 too, and Williams got it wrong for some reason. (I tried to locate the original article from the St. Louis Republican, but could not).

Still, the rest of the article is so specific, naming many names associated with bourbon or Kentucky history to this day, that even an egregious error should not mislead us as to the article’s general significance.

What axe would Williams have to grind? The article recites no current bourbon brands so it doesn’t seem in other words a marketer’s invented history, an exotic gloss on a stock product.

People with the surnames Lydick and Kiser did live in north-central Kentucky in the 1800s (I checked). And Jacob Spears is a legendary name in bourbon studies, he is one of the bruited makers of the “first” bourbon. I found a Solomon Kellar in early whiskey history, he is probably the Keller referred to by Williams, or of that family.

Hoffman was the name of a well-known distillery in Bluegrass Kentucky, in Anderson County where distilling began around 1775, as confirmed e.g., here. 

I couldn’t find anything on Kleisers or Shankwellers, but the names seem too specific not to have a connection to bourbon’s early history.

Was Williams’ thesis of significant German origins to bourbon correct? He was a lot closer to bourbon’s origins than we are, certainly. He was right that German names are connected to Pennsylvania rye whiskey history, and that form of liquor (“Monongahela”) preceded Kentucky bourbon.

Bomberger is an example – of the distillery later called Michter’s – but there were many others. But the Scots-Irish were also ardent whiskey-makers in Pennsylvania and down the Appalachian trail and there were many who settled western Pennsylvania. Still, they had not worked with a rye mash at home, it’s not commonly used for whiskey, or for food, in Ulster, Scotland, or England.

Could German-Americans have shown Scots-Irish immigrants how to mash and work rye? It’s possible. In fact in Germany and Holland today rye is still used to make a hard liquor, generally not aged as moonshine in America wasn’t.

Dutch genever (gin) is an example, as is some of the korn, a white vodka-like drink, from Germany.

Henry Crowgey’s Kentucky Bourbon – The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (1971) documents distilling in “old Bourbon”. This was the part of Virginia, and later Kentucky after it was formed, where settlers arrived from Pennsylvania and other states well before Kentucky acquired statehood in 1791. The settlers were of numerous ethnicities including Scots-Irish and German.

Crowgey doesn’t explore the German angle but writes that rye was used for liquor in North Carolina before Kentucky was founded. Both Scots-Irish and German communities had settled parts of North Carolina just as in Pennsylvania and Maryland, so a German role can’t be excluded even there.

In sum, the 1872 article is too specific on numerous points to be disregarded. At a minimum it suggests a not insignificant role that German-Americans played to develop bourbon.

The whiskey that people made in the earliest years, 1780s-1800, probably was unaged or kept in the barrel only a short time. Bourbon emerged as a form of whiskey aged in charred casks. It was brought downriver to New Orleans as Williams states, a subset of the frontier moonshine, concentrated in north-central Kentucky.

The area bourbon developed from now includes Bourbon County (smaller than its original boundaries), Mason County, Anderson County, Fayette County, and Nelson County. This regional form of the whiskey became finally the norm for aged American whiskey.

The only difference with Pennsylvania was that rye whiskey tended to dominate there in the 1800s – rye formed the majority of the mash whereas in Kentucky corn did. But both drinks are close cousins.

Bourbon probably therefore does have a German Monongahela bloodline, as Williams said. Packhorses carrying kegs of rye whiskey over the Allegheny hills may have provided the first proof to Pennsylvania distillers that keeping whiskey in wood improves the taste, and colour. This would have encouraged the practice to ship whiskey long distances by water transport.

Since New Orleans was Spanish from 1763-1803, and if Williams was right, this would argue against the view that bourbon is named after the royal family of France to emulate Cognac brandy. Some Pennsylvanians came to Kentucky even before the whiskey tax, Jacob Spears did.

As they, with later emigrants, evolved bourbon whiskey, they would have sent it to New Orleans well before 1803, hence Williams’ reference to payment in Spanish doubloons. In other words, the term probably was used for the whiskey before the French took over in Louisiana.

The next time you sample bourbon raise the glass to Professor S. Williams of St. Louis, Missouri. You can tell from the article he liked the product. He was one of us.

Addendum added July 10, 2016: I note that in Richard Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky (1874), an update of a work from the 1840s by the author’s father, Lewis, a short account is given of Joseph Shawhan (1781-1871), an early Kentucky pioneer from Pennsylvania. Collins writes, see pg. 217, that Shawhan was an early producer of bourbon and brought it downriver to New Orleans, walking all the way back with those Spanish doubloons. Perhaps Collins had read Williams’ article before writing his own. Apart from the two-year time difference, the significance of Williams’ account is that he looks at bourbon’s history from a broader perspective, a pedagogic one, essentially.

First, he links bourbon to an earlier product, Pennsylvania rye whiskey, then relates both drinks to an ethnic group, Pennsylvania Germans, whom he considers largely responsible for both. As far as I know, these were novel claims at the time. The name Shawhan sounds Celtic, probably Scots-Irish, but that is neither here nor there as emigrants of multiple ethnicities departed western Pennsylvania for Kentucky. Shawhan was just one distiller… Williams is making a claim for a predominant German influence on the American whiskey heritage. Indeed, in 1872, he is making a claim for the bourbon heritage as such, novel certainly for the time.

Note on the images above: the images, of the Licking River in Kentucky and a flatboat (broad-horn) bound for New Orleans, are sourced from from Wikipedia, here and here.  Attribution for the image of the Licking River in Kentucky is as follows: “I, ChristopherM [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons”.

These images are believed available for educational and historical use. All intellectual property in them lies in their sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

Some Beer Reviews

A Pot Pourri of Brands and Tastes

IMG_20160625_163128Polly Want A Pilsner

From Hop City Brewing in Brampton, ON, a unit of Moosehead but as LeBlanc and St. John note in The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, its brewer started with the predecessor craft operation, Niagara Falls Brewing. Good pedigree. Still, I’d like to enjoy the beers more than I do.

They are well-made technically but tend to have flavours I don’t cotton to.

The pilsner has good stability and authentic German hop flavour but I get a drying, wheaty finish that doesn’t seem right for a blonde lager, in my view again.

Perhaps this is from the wheat in the recipe, or the carastan malt: the company commendably lists the ingredients on its website. I think the beer would be much better just with German lager malt.

IMG_20160708_135927The Range at The Black Swan, Stratford

I was in Stratford again, today in fact, and tried the TBS range in a “paddle” (flight).  I thought the IPA and Galaxy were first-rate, textbook in fact: rich but perfectly balanced and lotsa hops. The porter was well-brewed too but it has that very dry acerbic finish many stouts and porters have in Ontario, e.g., Keefe Stout from Granite Brewery, Black Katt Stout, the new Collective Arts porter.

To my mind, a porter or stout should have a rich roasted flavour with good residual sweetness. The brewery informed me no raw grains are used. I’d assume chocolate malt and perhaps the target attenuation result in the dry, somewhat harsh style mentioned.

Just my opinion, the ubiquity of the style means many like it of course.

The pale ale didn’t work for me, with a dry milk chocolate or Postum-like palate.

The raspberry weisse (Berlin-style) was back to form, full of lactic character and very drinkable. The house pointed out that in a style like this the special culture tends to overpower the wheat, but that’s fine. Excellent brew and the weather outside was perfect for it when I was there, over 90 F.

Kudos to TBS for not air-conditioning the brewery excessively. Summertime beer drinking should be just that.

IMG_20160706_170649_editBurdock I.P.A.

Every brew I’ve had from Burdock Brewing is excellent despite the relative newness of this Bloor West brewery and pub. They are all true to style and stable in the glass (by which I mean, they don’t break down half-way as some neophyte beers do).

The IPA, pictured at Bar Volo in Toronto, had all the right flavours with a peach-like finish, and in this regard reminded me of Hill Farmstead’s Edward, the Vermont classic. To try to give some context, the Black Swan’s IPA was not dissimilar but the latter had a more “dank” quality, which I like too.

IMG_20160620_195201Henderson’s Best

This Toronto-based brewery has impressed the GTA beer community with this English-style effort which has proved its flagship.

The house calls it an ESB type, I’d say perhaps more “best bitter”, the way Courage Best Bitter was 20 years ago. It’s the fruity, flowery type of bitter, not golden but also not toffeeish from caramel malt.

The beer needs to be very fresh to really show its stuff. I had a pint mid-town recently that seemed a bit oxidized, although it was still good. But at its freshest, the flowery, English style is hard to beat. On cask this should be extremely good.

Strongbow Cider

I remember this cider as having a distinct taste of English apples. That taste is perfumed, winy, complex, a quality North American apples don’t have. However, recent glasses of Strongbow (the regular one) seem more indistinct in character, as if you blended North American (or New Zealand?) apples with English ones to get the must from which the ferment was prepared. Also, the taste seems less upfront than I remember, blander.

I have no issues with use of concentrates or sugars, I used to like Strongbow but at the present time, no.










Rye Whiskey And A Slow Boat To Bremen

In 1901, a Pennsylvania newspaper, the Pennsburg Town and Country, published this story about a successful liquor dealer named Mary Moll:


Mrs. MARY MOLL, of Green Lane, the only lady liquor dealer in the State, has successfully conducted that business for a period of ten years. The late NATHANIEL MOLL, her husband, started the business about twenty-six years ago and conducted the same until his death. Mrs. KNOLL then took entire charge of the business and through her careful business management has more than tripled the capacity of the business. Today Mrs. MOLL is considered to be the most successful liquor dealer in the vicinity. Most all her purchases are in carload lots, thus placing her in a position to sell liquor of the best quality at the lowest possible price. The history connected with this lady’s business career is most interesting. Mrs. MOLL, when she took possession of the business, had many obstacles to overcome but, being a woman of wonderful business tact, she bravely fought the many unpleasant features connected with business and successfully built up a trade far superior to any in this county. She deals directly with the leading liquor brokers in the United States, who are held in account for every action by the government. Mrs. MOLL’s first year’s sales amounted to ninety-six barrels of liquor. This she increased by giving the business on the road her personal attention. After three years careful work as a drummer she abandoned the road. During her trips on the road she kept a strict account of all her expenses and came to the conclusion that she could build up her trade much better by giving her customers the advantage of her expenses. She now sells her liquors 50 cents a gallon cheaper than when on the road. Mrs. MOLL during her business career has gained the reputation of selling nothing but high grade liquors. She supplies the leading doctors throughout this and adjoining counties with liquors for medicinal purposes. She carries a stock of pure rye whiskies ranging in age from 5 to 20 years. Her business has rapidly increased and now she handles over three hundred barrels every year. The success of her business is due largely to the manner in which Mrs. MOLL buys her whiskies. Her purchases are made generally in carload lots, not only being able to buy at a good reduction, but saving considerable on transportation. To give our readers some idea of the extent of this business, it is only necessary to say that a representative of the Star Union Railroad Company recently visited her at her home and tried to make arrangements to have her shipments over their lines. Last week she received five barrels of a twenty-year-old whiskey as a sample order. After testing the liquor she found it to be even a higher quality than what she had expected and immediately wired for twenty-five barrels more. This whiskey was made from pure rye in this State in 1881. In 1894 it was shipped to Bremen, Germany, where it remained till 1900. The high-grade whiskies are generally sent across the seas as it is claimed that the salt air and peculiar motion of the vessel increases the quality of the liquor. Liquor in the process of aging evaporates very rapidly and the greater the evaporation the more valuable the liquor. Of the five barrels received by Mrs. MOLL when first filled each contained 44 1/2 gallons. When Mrs. MOLL received them the barrels contained from 14 to 20 gallons a piece. Twenty-year-old whiskey is seldom found in liquor stores at the present day, but it is known that Mrs. MOLL always has in stock the choicest and most rare liquors, according to age, that can be found in the market.*

The story is interesting on numerous accounts, but here I will deal with the unusually long age of the whiskey in question and some connected matters.

The whiskey, described as “pure rye”, was undoubtedly a straight rye whiskey and almost certainly distilled in Pennsylvania. Corn-based whiskeys became the preserve of Kentucky and Tennesee and I have written of numerous types of these, e.g., sour mash and sweet mash bourbon, Lincoln County whiskey, Robertson County whiskey, white and yellow corn whiskeys.

RyeWhiskeyPennsylvania and to a lesser extent, Maryland, were producers primarily of rye-based whiskeys. Rye whiskey was the first type generally made, in Westmoreland County and elsewhere in Pennsylvania where Scots-Irish settlement predominated. With the departure in the 1790s of many farmer-distillers for Kentucky and southerly on the Appalachian Trail, corn became the primary distilling grain. It grows well in Kentucky and Tennessee and is a staple for foodstuffs as well. (Rye has never been a major food source in North America).

But Pennsylvania and Maryland never stopped making fine rye whiskey. Except for a handful of revivalists established in the last 10 years, the industry did not survive Prohibition. In truth, it was being eclipsed even before 1920 by the burgeoning growth of bourbon, but still the industry was well-established in Pennsylvania certainly. Some of the names were Overholt (still made, now in Kentucky by Beam Suntory), Large, Bridgeport, Sam Dillinger, Sam Thompson, Hannis, but there were many others.

1901 was the height of rye’s ascendancy in Pennsylvania and clearly Mary Moll was a top-notch dealer who offered an enviable range – five to 20 years old – and great prices. She probably dealt both in blended goods and straight whiskeys, as blends were a big part of the U.S. whiskey market then (and still are in a roundabout way, but it’s called Canadian whisky now).

But as I’ve said, a 20 year old whiskey was almost certainly a “straight”, an epicure’s drink if there was one.

Now, the question. Why did it go to Bremen, Germany for an extended sojourn?

There were two main reasons whiskey in bulk was sent from the United States to Bremen and elsewhere in Europe (Hamburg, Liverpool).

First, with short bonding periods – one year, later three yearsBremen_aerial_view_9 – from the Civil War until 1894, federal excise tax had to be paid when the whiskey was withdrawn from bond. Thus, say whiskey was removed from bond in 1878, when the bonding period was three years. The tax had to be paid to Internal Revenue unless the whiskey was not to be consumed in the U.S. If it was exported, the tax still had to be paid, but was subject to drawback (repayment) upon a U.S. Consul certifying the goods had landed in a foreign port.

In other words, the problem was, whiskey didn’t always have a ready market on exit from bond and three years anyway might be viewed as too young. It was cheaper to pay return freight and German insurance and storage costs than pay the U.S. excise tax on withdrawal from bond. Also, the tax was being paid in future dollars. There were agents in New York who handled all the details, international business is nothing new…

When the goods were brought back to the U.S. years later, quality had improved and market conditions were better: the tax was paid and the goods went into the domestic market.

So it was a way to defer the tax and improve the product. Some whiskey lounging in a German or English warehouse was sold in Europe and never came back, but a lot did, with the cachet of extra age and the ineffable effects of the “salt air and the peculiar motion of the vessel”.

Mary Moll’s whiskey though had to have been tax-paid before export since it was thirteen years old. Perhaps the market was soft and the owner felt the whiskey was better off getting even older in Europe while the market hopefully improved at home. At any rate, a rye whiskey of remarkable age was made available to connoisseurs via Mary Moll’s agency – not that older is always better as I have explained earlier, but there has always been a market for well-aged whiskey. Until recently straight rye of 15-20 years and more was commonly seen in the market.

The international shipment of liquors to improve them is an old gambit. Linie is a famous acquavit from Norway which crosses the equator in sherry barrels. Some Scotch whiskies in the past advertised long shipment to East Indies as part of their quality. Madeira wine basically was invented on this principle although methods were later devised on the island to emulate the benefits of ship travel. The rocking of the boat and changes in temperature worked oxidative and other effects which matured the product in a particular way.

Distillers and agents had favourite locales. Baker, a famous PA rye whiskey sold by the Walters agency out of Baltimore, was sent on clippers to Brazil to add a je ne sais quoi.

I’ll leave India Pale Ale out of this, as at best it is a quasi-example of transpontine amelioration. The very story of bourbon is connected though, as shipment downriver on flatboats from Kentucky river ports was seen to mature the drink faster than if the barrels were stationary.

With the change to an eight year bonding period in 1894, foreign shipments declined and today are unheard of for bourbon and rye with the exception of a few barrels carried on a voyage and bottled as a curiosity after their return. I recall reading about one which was felt to have a notable salt air quality, and when one thinks of Islay whisky in Scotland, it all kind of ties in. Not that new Islay whisky goes overseas today (if it goes anywhere it is to a Central Scotland warehouse), but residence in seaside warehouses does expose it to a lot of active North Atlantic weather.

Note re images: the images shown are from Internet sources, Wikipedia in the first instance, and a Bremen German tourist board for the second, and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*The quoted story, from the Pennsburg Town and Country, March 23, 1901, is © copyright 2015 Nancy C Janyszeski for the Montgomery County PAGenWeb Project. All rights are reserved by the copyright holder. It was obtained here and is reproduced pursuant to following notice on the source linked: “Unless indicated otherwise in a particular page carrying this copyright notice, permission to use, copy, and distribute documents and related graphics delivered from ( for non-commercial use is hereby granted, provided that the above copyright notice appears in all copies and that both the copyright notice and this permission notice appear. All other rights reserved. Nancy Janyszeski disclaims all warranties with regard to this information. The information described herein is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied”.



I Like Beer In The Summer

IMG_20160705_194841In many countries, an essential part of the beer experience is to “use” the drink, as the Victorians would have put it, in summer. “I like beer in the summer”, the old left-handed compliment, is an idea not quite past its due-date. That is, while beer is an all-season matter for those dedicated to the malty way, many still associate the drink with summer and the outdoors, especially baseball and barbecues.

And in truth, a cold one in hot summertime has an undeniable charm – that is if actually consumed outdoors at an event such as mentioned or in your own backyard.

Enter, A/C. I think it was in Commentary magazine recently that an economist, using an arresting image, said he asked his mom who lived in Florida how much money she would accept to give up A/C. He said, would you take $9,000,000? She said no. He was explaining that in measuring the successes of the modern economy, one shouldn’t look at it strictly in linear, wealth-accumulation terms – some achievements have a worth hard to estimate in money. A/C in North America and many parts of the world is an example, the Internet is another example that occurs to me.

No one can gainsay the importance of A/C. In my own lifetime I recall working in hot offices indoors when we relied on windows for airflow and fans were used to move air inside. The same applied at home, where people sat outdoors more in the evening.

Somehow we survived it, and of course people still do in many parts of the world where the climate is much hotter than ours and A/C is absent or a luxury.

So is there a downside to A/C, setting side the energy cost and that part of the equation? I would say yes, it has lessened the beer experience. Beer tastes best in the open air, which is why Germans invented the beer garden and the English lounge outside the pub, or in a yard behind, to sip their pint. There is a natural affinity between a cool beer and sunshine or a natural breeze.


There is something, well, not wrong, but inapposite, about drinking a fine beer with the wind of A/C on your neck when it is 80 F outside, breezy and glorious.

To be sure, at 90 F + and with no shade, many will prefer the dank interior of an air-conditioned bar or restaurant. But at least in our climate, the norm is for less intense Hades than that.

Still, most will go indoors where it is colder. It becomes a habit, but the beer won’t taste as good. (The flip side is drinking beer ice-cold when it is freezing outside in January, but people still do that too). Nonetheless, some bar-restaurants have a roof deck or patio and if the weather is just right, you will find people there enjoying a drink. There are fewer than before, in part because you can’t smoke in Toronto in those areas now.

Last night I met some friends after work for a drink. We met at an off-piste place, Cloak and Dagger, on College Street near Bathurst. By the name and fascia it looks like an Irish or U.K.-type pub. It isn’t though, it is a small dark room with wooden banquette seating which must be generations old. The bar is in the back and has an excellent craft beer choice, usually with a cask ale on offer. It attracts a neighbourhood crowd, many from Kensington Market, and has a bohemian feel to it.

The Cloak has a very pleasant yard in the back surrounded by high brick walls of various faded hues and foliage covers a good part of the murs. If one of the surrounding roofs had a chimney-pot or two you would think you were in England, given too the wood trestle tables and the pint glasses of brown stuff on the tables.


It’s a quiet escape for an hour and is rarely crowded, a plus when the weather is at its best here.

Last night, it had cooled somewhat by 7:00 p.m. but apart from our group only a couple lounged outside, most of the customers preferred the air-conditioned interior.

Another example of outdoor drinking, in another part of town, is at the Drake Hotel and a scene is shown of my recent visit there. It’s the rooftop bar during a brunch there this past Sunday. The other scene is the patio area along the hotel north from Queen Street.

The Drake is one of Toronto’s great restorations, it’s an old commercial travellers hotel (near a former railway junction) which was restored 12 years ago retaining many of the original fittings. It looks like some of the old provincial hotels in England and the surrounding area also has an early suburban English look. You see that a lot in Toronto, the parts which survive the developers’ gaze.

Use Of Wheat In Modern Craft Lagers

Wheat_harvestThe use of wheat in a beer not traditionally associated with the grain seems to be on the increase, in ales but particularly blonde lagers including those styled pilsners. Wheat can be added in a variety of forms, but in a lager context, often it is treated in some way, flaked or torrified, to ensure rapid access to its starches by the diastase in the barley malt.

My recollection of the history is, this practice became notable in England for ales and later was extended to lagers. I am speaking of a craft brewing context, so not situations where adjunct is 30-40% of the mash bill, but where relatively small amounts are used, 5-10%, say. I remember first seeing wheat listed as an ingredient on some English craft ales, but now many lagers feature the ingredient as well.

I won’t discuss it here in the context of “adjunct”, a loaded term which can obfuscate more than enlighten. I am concerned simply with flavour in other words, not “philosophy”.

On numerous Ontario lagers today wheat is listed as an ingredient, or on the “tents” at a brewpub for draft lager. The other day I bought one, not checking the label, and found the taste oddly dry and somehow “wrong”. When I checked the label, it listed wheat. I feel I can taste it, it is a dry grainy/starchy note, and I’ve never enjoyed the effect it gives to lagers, or ales for that matter.

I’ve asked brewers about it over the years and the explanations seem to come down to better head formation, contribution to yeast health or stability, and promotion of clarity. Yet to my mind use of wheat, even in small amounts, alters the true flavour of blonde lager and the same for ale. To be sure minute percentages may avoid this effect on a practical basis, but where the taste is detectable as it often is IMO, I avoid beers of this type.

In the classic era when dark and blond lagers became a byword for quality, say 1842-1914, the avatars were all-malt. Carlsberg’s first lager was all-malt, as Tuborg’s, so was Heineken’s (it is again today), Pilsner Urquell’s (still is), and all the German lagers.

Sam Adams Boston Lager, which helped kickstart the modern craft brewing movement, was and is all-barley malt. So is Ontario’s Upper Canada Lager, still an excellent beer when you can find it. Creemore Lager too. Side Launch Mountain Lager too, which presents the profile of blonde lager at its highest quality. So are well-known American flagship lagers such as Victory Prima Pils, or Anchor Steam Beer which is technically a lager.

These beers never had problems with head formation, or clarity. Some brewers today don’t mind a light veil to the beer anyway, but since so many lagers which are all-malt pour clear the clarity issue seems a red herring.

In my view, all-malt lagers have a characteristic richness and clean taste, which made the category famous to begin with. It isn’t a question of dry vs. sweet as attenuation limit can vary with each brand and the brewer’s preference. Heineken is fairly dry, for example, as are a number of German lagers, but I’d wager if you add 5%-10% flaked wheat to them they wouldn’t taste the same.

In a word, and expressing one sub-set of consumer preferences, I’d say wheat is not necessary for lagers or Anglo-American ales and there is the danger of altering their essential characteristics. In wheat beers and other styles which traditionally use the grain, the Belgian wit, say, or saison, by all means go for it. They are by definition a different kind of beer.

The success of craft brewing was based on all-barley malt, the wheat styles mentioned apart (always a small part of it). The more this is chipped away at, the fewer beers will be available which were the raison d’être of craft brewing and largely explain its success.

Note re image, it is from Wikipedia, here, and in the public domain. Believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Maturity in Strong Stout

IMG_20160704_172158Aging was an important component of porter in its English heyday. It was stressed that maturity didn’t mean sourness, although in practice some stale beer as it was termed did attain that quality.

The beer pictured is a good illustration of a strong porter which aging improves without leading to a vinegar palate. It is Alchimiste’s Imperial Stout, the well-known Quebec craft brewery, from Joliette. This has been in the fridge for about six months.

The result is a much more knitted beer than when new, with good malt sweetness and it lacks the rough edges I recall when purchased. I believe some raw barley was used and am reminded of a Victorian writer who said while he prefers roasted or brown malt to roasted (unmalted) barley, if you age the product long enough the result can be very good.  I have seen the proof of it, so to speak. This is a 7.9% Impy, by no means in the classic alcohol territory for the drink, but strong enough, more than strong enough.

It is, too, upwards of 90F outside…

The long sojourn au frigo also reduced the carbonation somewhat, a plus in this case.

Withal a fine example of traditional brewing which shows the merits of long aging.

Jack’s Drink

800px-Illustration_Tanacetum_vulgare0Did Jack Daniel drink his own whiskey? The question is not an absurdity, as some famous makers of drinks didn’t touch the stuff. E.H. Taylor, Jr., who riffed on the real sour mash, didn’t drink. As bourbon historian Gerald Carson memorably reminded us, “he was a hedonist for others”.

Charlie Thomasson, a distiller for a small house (Willett’s), wrote an essay on traditional methods c. 1960. He didn’t drink either. Yet his article is still very interesting, e.g., he says old-time bourbon has a smell like a ripe apple.

It’s perfectly natural of course that some people in the liquor industry don’t drink, perhaps especially understandable given the temptations of being around the stuff all the time.

However, I’d guess most liquor-men (and women) did have a sip, not too often of course, because you can’t take alcohol and work effectively, or most people can’t, but most of the “names” seem to have enjoyed a dram regularly. Samuel Bronfman did, who founded Seagram. He liked his whiskey with water. I’ve enjoyed a drink with Bill Samuels, Jr., who used to run Maker’s Mark.

Jack Daniel liked his own product too. In the early 1950s, a couple of lengthy magazine articles on the distillery helped to kickstart its unceasing growth since then. Before that, it was a small Tennessee operation trying to re-establish after the lengthy shut-down of Prohibition. The war interrupted its progress but it carried on and the brand acquired cachet outside its traditional areas, in part due to the articles mentioned. You can read them on this very interesting Jack Daniel’s memorabilia website.

One of the pieces says Jack drank his whiskey with tansy and gives an account of building the drink. He would put a bunch of fresh-picked tansy in a glass, add water and sugar and fill with whiskey.

Tansy is one of those barely-remembered nostrums of a much older time, it is a herb, native to Europe and brought here by the British. A 1930s book, Old-time Herbs For Northern Gardens by Minnie Watson Kamm, gives the low-down on tansy, or Tancetum vulgare. It is a bitter, fairly aromatic plant and other accounts describe it as spicy and peppermint-like.

It was used initially apparently for religious purposes, in Easter cakes as an echo of the Jews’ use of bitter herbs at Passover. (Who knew?).

IMG_20160704_080903This lead to a general but irregular use in cookery, with eggs and in puddings. It was always too one of the “medicinal” herbs, used for teas and in other ways as a general “specific” for colds, ague, fever, rheumatism, and other mostly bootless complaints. With the rise of beverage alcohol in America from Colonial times until the long push to control alcohol started in the 1830s, tansy entered numerous drinks. There are recipes in numerous cocktail manuals of the 19th century for whiskey-and-tansy, or gin-and-tansy.

The Scots-Irish in southwestern Pennsylvania were particular fans of the herb and brought it down the Appalachian trail as they moved south. Jack Daniel’s ancestry is mostly Ulsterman, in fact.

Tansy has some thujone in it, as wormwood does, which in large amounts is a poison, and I wonder if this may explain why tansy in drinks has disappeared – not just faded – while a mint julep, say, is still a known quantity. Be that as it may, if I could find the stuff I’ve give Jack’s drink a try, but have never been able to secure any. July, too, is the special month of its cultivation or rather appearance along roadsides, in ditches, culverts, and other places not very exotic. Maybe it’s in the Toronto ravine to my right 30 stories down, I’ll have to take a look.

So that’s how Jack Daniel took his whiskey, with tansy. Perhaps it tasted like a mint julep with a shot of absinthe in it? Hey that sounds pretty good anyway, a Dan MintseyYou read it here first.

Note re first image above: The illustration of tansy is from Wikipedia, here, and indicated as in the public domain. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.