A Portrait of Berlin’s Beer Culture in 1892

A vivid picture of Berlin beer drinking in the 1890s comes down to us courtesy the digitized Pittsburgh Dispatch of December 18, 1892. The article was written by Frank G. Carpenter who later became known as a prolific, global travel author.

Frank_George_CarpenterTo write this article, he clearly had assistance from the American consulate. Without meaning anything invidious in relation to what diplomats do, it is interesting that numerous accounts of European beer and wine customs survive from the 1800s, written by diplomats or, as here, with their assistance.

One can’t avoid the feeling that those on foreign postings sometimes had extra time to indulge such interests, although the articles generally contain economic and business data, a function of foreign missions to be sure. Indeed, it isn’t just beer production and pubs whose economic impact are appraised, Carpenter explores as well the waiting profession, male and female, and the market for home servants (mainly female).

The Berlin style of beer he discussed, Weisse, still exists but without its former influence. It is a “white” or cloudy-refractive style with a component of malted wheat. Berliner Weisse can be related broadly to Leipzig’s Gose Bier, Lambic in Belgium, white beer (Wit) in Belgium especially as it was in the 1800s, and other lactic styles which sometimes are flavoured with fruits and spices. These are all top-fermented beers, “ales” viewed colloquially.

Carpenter was careful to note that Berlin liked other styles of beer as well, but he focused on the city’s home style, Weisse.

It was traditionally a weak beer, approximately 3% abv, and still is both in Berlin and as brewed by craft emulators around the world. It is also generally considered a summer brew due to its sharp taste and low alcohol.


The quantities taken in by Berliners (1892) are hard to believe but other evidence of the time is in support and being a professional travel writer, Carpenter had no reason to fib. Four quarts at a sitting was not uncommon. Students were expected to put away 10-12 quarts while many men in the workforce went higher, up to 18, some every day said Carpenter. He was an American and would have meant 32 oz for the quart, not the British 40.

But still, four quarts is 128 oz. That’s almost 11 normal-size bottles of beer, even at 2.5% abv, it equates to almost six standard drinks. Students were putting away 10-12 standard drinks, and many men went higher as a daily occurrence. These habits reflect a pre-industrial, semi-rural pattern which as a societal practice is now only mirrored during Munich’s Oktoberfest or similar events.

Of the Weisse itself, Carpenter reports:

The queerest beer I have ever seen is the famous Berlin product, known as Weiss bier or white beer, and I shall not forget my first experience with it. A man connected with our consulate asked me if I would not have a glass and he took me to a “white beer” saloon and ordered a couple of glasses of white beer. A moment later the waiter brought them. Each glass was big enough for a baby’s bath tub and there seemed to be fully two quarts of beer in it. It was the color of golden syrup and the foam which ran over the top was as white as snow. Each glass was about eight inches in diameter, and I am sure that the contents of mine would have filled the crown of my plug hat. I had to take my two hands to lift the glass to my mouth and I can’t say that I liked the beer as well as our lager or the Bavarian product. The white beer is largely foam, and it is not uncommon for the Germans to drink four quarts of it at a sitting. It is not so heavy as the Bavarian beer and a great deal of it can be drunken without intoxication.

Both then and now, Weisse was frequently dosed with a syrup of woodruff or raspberry, to flavour it and reduce the acidity. This would produce a green- or red-coloured beer. The golden amber mentioned by Carpenter is probably the beer without these additions. In the image shown of modern Berlin Weisse, the colour does rather look like golden syrup.

At the time though, the barley malt component in Berlin white derived from a darker malt than is used today. Together with the pale wheat malt, this may have produced a somewhat darker colour than today’s.

Weisse is not infrequently seen in modern craft beer bars. I saw a Berliner Weisse in Toronto recently, locally made that is, flavoured with mango. Craft versions can be good, but lactic acid in the tummy is an acquired taste (all beer is though, really). It was usual when Carpenter was reporting to eat large amounts of bread and cheese with Weisse, indeed this frequently constituted peoples’ dinner. The simple but sturdy fare may have provided a good foil for the acid beer.

The article ends on a rather American note. In explaining the loyalty of German servant women, who could work for decades for a family and received a trinket in appreciation, Carpenter said American girls would “turn up their nose” at the prospect.

Note re images: the first image shown, of Frank George Carpenter, is in the public domain and was sourced from his Wikipedia entry, here. The second image is from the website of the innovative Brewbaker pub and restaurant in Berlin, here. Brewbaker, a must-visit on the itinerary of  any craft beer fan, is at the north end of the Tiergarten in the city.

Shout-Out To Vienna Beer, 1867 Style


In 1867 a widescreen description of a Vienna tour surely opened a few eyes in starchy Philadelphia, where it appeared on January 5 in the Evening Telegraph. The tour included a visit to the Volksgarten, or Peoples’ Garden, where beer and food were consumed in the open air.

The Peoples Garden is still a major attraction of Vienna although I think large-scale beer bibbing is gone from the scene.

While disavowing giving a description of the taste of Vienna lager, the Evening Telegraph’s correspondent did a pretty good job notwithstanding:

The Austrian malt liquor is not, except in the cities, a common drink for the humbler classes; for wine, even out of the grape countries, is a cheaper beverage. Tastes can neither be disputed nor be described, and so those whose ill luck has prevented them drinking Vienna beer must be satisfied to hear that it is less bitter, less “capiteux”, and more ethereal in flavor than Bass and Allsop, weaker in alcohol, and more neutral in taste than other German beers; above all, that, when poured into a glass fresh from a cask just brought up from the ice-cellar, it glows like fluid amber, and is crowned with a delicate beading of bubbles, which are true bubbles of the air, and not, like the soapy foam of Scotch ale, bubbles of the earth.

To sip from a glass of Lager, puffing wreaths from a cigarette of choice Latakia, while you gaze vaguely up to a sky flaming with the gold and crimson of a Danubian sunset, and catch the rhythm of waltzes and mazurkas – this is the perfection of ignorant and mechanical bliss. And nowhere else is such blessedness so surely to be found.

I will leave it to readers to figure out what was meant by bubbles of the air and bubbles of the earth. If you know let me in on it, eh?

The writer, clearly of English origin, felt constrained to point out Barclay Perkins’ brewery in London produced almost three times what Anton Dreher’s brewery did and employed a commensurately larger work force. Still, he was seduced by Vienna’s beer, of that there can be no doubt.


The writer who inaugurated the modern beer renaissance, Michael Jackson, noted (1970s) that Vienna doesn’t make the old amber style anymore. He even wrote that brewers there argued with him whether Vienna lager ever existed as a style. Maybe it’s different now, and anyway craft brewers around the world know how to make the beer of Anton Dreher. Still, you are more likely to find it in a California strip mall, or Liberty Village, Toronto, than the city of its origin, an irony not quite dispelled by the fact that at the right time of year, the blueness of the sky in the three places bears a striking resemblance.

Note re images: the first image above, of the modern Volksgarten in Vienna, is © Bwag/Wikimedia, and was sourced here.  The second image was sourced here. Both are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


Munich Lowenbrau in 1895

Lowenbrau-beer_HGR-Oktoberfest (1)We have from The Sun in New York of March 3, 1895 a detailed description of Lowenbrau’s brewing process. The only thing lacking is more information on hop amounts and timing of additions, but from other sources I’d guess at least one lb hops per barrel (U.S.) was used, so like modern Sam Adams lager and possibly modern Lowenbrau itself (I don’t know).  I doubt it was under 1 lb.

The decoction mashing regimen is described in pinpoint detail, as is the aging. Surprisingly, lagering for secondary fermentation was under two months. You can add a month or two more, but the beer had to be consumed within the extra period. We are quite far here from six to nine months or more as in earlier days.

Look at the numbers, the regular lager (not the Marzen consumed in October) was 14 Plato, which is 1057 OG, and at a final abv of 4.45%, I get just under 60% attenuation. This low attenuation corresponds with similar numbers calculated by writers such as Ron Pattinson.

Today, Lowenbrau’s helles must be at least 75% attenuated if not more. I’ve seen recreation specs which start at a lower gravity than 1057 and end at a point or more higher in ABV. Now it must be said, the beer in the subject article was almost certainly dark, a dunkel.

Spaten had just introduced a blond lager the year before, 1894. I doubt Lowenbrau had one in the market in 1895 and if it did, it would have been a novelty, not something the researchers mentioned in the article would have used for their investigation.

By definition the beers were malty in those days. Irrespective of colour and to some extent taste, the attenuation mentioned by Munich’s biggest brewer of the time is a valid point to note, IMO.

There is no question too that many factors can affect attenuation: mash temperature, yeast type, malt type are the main ones. But still I think it is fair to say the 19th century Munich beers were rich and malty drinks. You can see why, in the German lands, malt was the “soul of beer” as the old expression went. It is much less so today. With higher attenuations too, and all things being equal, the significance of all-malt is less and less.

Maybe this is why, when Heineken switched (back) to all-malt 20 years ago, some observers felt it wasn’t greatly obvious in the taste. (I still will always support all-malt over any other strategy, as a philosophy it is a good place to start and end).

And so friends in Germany who support the Pure Beer Law as I do: consider please the historic attenuations of the great lager styles. Who will be the first Munich brewer to issue a special history beer following the old attenuations? Perhaps this is the perfect space for the craft brewers, yes?

Note re image: the old Lowenbrau ad was sourced here, and is believed available for educational and historical use. All trademarks shown are the sole property of their owners or authorized licensees. All feedback welcomed.


Samuel Adams Boston Lager – Quality and Tradition

IMG_20160724_151034The whole history of craft brewing is wrapped up in this beer. Introduced 30 years ago by craft brewing pioneer Jim Koch, it is by far the most influential craft lager ever made. With Sierra Nevada Pale Ale it forms a kind of Adam and Eve of craft brewing. Their progeny are the thousands of craft brews in every conceivable style on the bars of the developed world today.

Samuel Adams lager, like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, is a high-quality beer which has the advantage too of being one of a kind. Unlike the other beer, it didn’t really inspire legions of palate-emulators; rather it inspired by example. To this day, few lagers I’ve had really taste like Sam Adams lager, but countless beers lie in a direct line from Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (which itself had predecessors, notably Anchor’s Liberty Ale and New Albion Ale, but Sierra Nevada eclipsed those in importance not long out of the gate).

Ken Grossman, founder and major domo still of Sierra Nevada, is one of the most important figures in brewing history and Jim Koch, his equal at Boston Beer Company, is the ditto.  For ale and lager respectively.

A recent tasting of Sam Adams lager showed it at a peak of quality. This can is made somewhere in the U.S., the company uses different production facilities, some contracted, some company-owned. The idea is to ship the beer from the closest brewery to destination. I’ve had the lager from different breweries in the group and it is very consistent.

Despite being pasteurized, Boston Lager discloses a fine fresh brewhouse aroma. All-German hops are used, Hallertau and Tettnang. Two malts, pale and caramel, are mashed. The colour is light amber.

The beer has a long history which stretches back ultimately to Europe. Jim Koch comes from a brewing family and his ancestor, German-American Louis Koch, owned breweries in St. Louis, Mo. in the 1860s and 1870s. Jim Koch has always said that the recipe for his beer was provided by his brewmaster father from family papers. That Louis Koch made a beer similar to Sam Adams lager is obvious to me from looking at the major beer styles of German-speaking Europe when Louis Koch was brewing.

At that time, Anton Dreher’s legendary brewery at Klein Schwechat near Vienna was the brewery on the Continent. It was the biggest, with an extensive acreage and cellars and producing some 6,000,000 gallons of beer per year. According to this Philadelphia news account from 1866 relating data gleaned by Americans visiting European breweries, Dreher’s beer for local consumption used one lb hops per barrel (two for export). This 1867 press account from the Urbana Union in Columbus, OH gives further details of Dreher’s many achievements in this period.

Sam Adams Boston Lager also uses one lb hops per barrel, a figure that appeared in early literature about Sam Adams and of which I don’t doubt the accuracy today. The IBUs are in the 30s according to Sam Adams’ website, very respectable by any definition and it shows in the taste.

Blonde German lager didn’t exist in Louis Koch’s time, not in Munich certainly, the prevalent style was dark brown lager, or dunkel.  (Some yellow lager may have existed here and there in Bavaria, but its influence internationally would have been minimal). Quite plausibly Louis Koch’s beer was the Vienna type, as its hop content and colour correspond to period descriptions of Vienna beer. The accounts of colour range from “pale” to “amber”, but we should bear in mind “pale” meant light amber, frequently, in this period.

Yet Sam Adams Lager doesn’t really taste like a modern Vienna beer, it is less sweet and more bitter I think. Perhaps it ends by being a cross between a Vienna and pilsner style. Czech Pilsner beer, famously golden, had been in existence from 1842 and was the other great lager type of influence in the Austrian Empire. It may have been a model for Louis Koch as well given its early fame, equal to or greater than Dreher’s. The two kind of cross anyway since Dreher grew hops in the Saaz district and owned a brewery there.

Louis Koch’s beer probably emulated Dreher’s Vienna beer or Pilsen’s Urquell beer or both. Through an unlikely circumstance – four generations later MBA graduate and descendant Jim Koch takes inspiration from Louis’ recipe – the modern craft brewing renaissance was ignited.

The profusion of craft styles and flavours today is dizzying. From coffee bock to mango Berliner weisse, it’s all out there. A mix-and-match approach has been adopted in the search for ever-newer flavours and sensations. All good. But sometimes it’s salutary to reach back to a true classic, a beer that has inspired, endured and represents 19th century authenticity. Sam Adams lager is too easy to overlook due to its familiarity. Don’t make that mistake.




A Brace of Brandies

IMG_20160722_171343I don’t usually sip on brandy, I like whiskey when I want a hard drink. But I’ve studied all drinks, their manufacture and history, as they’re all related.

If a bunch of siblings, brothers and sisters, are the whiskies of the world, brandies, rums, vodkas et al are the cousins and second cousins.

All these drinks, of European ancestry (broadly), are distillates of a grain, wine, and molasses or sugar fermentation.

All have different flavours due to the different materials used to form the ferment from which the alcohol portion is concentrated by distilling.

In the brandy area, I buy it occasionally to top up a jug of Sazerac cocktail I keep going in an old half-gallon Michter’s crock. I blend whiskeys, brandies, absinthe or similar drinks (Pernod, Herbsaint), and Angostura and other bitters. Sometimes it goes for years, being partly emptied and then re-filled and so the flavours vary although always within a certain range given the constancy of the elements (their type).

My current one though was re-started a few months ago, based on Jack Daniels and two straight-type Canadian ryes. A couple of days ago I added the subtracted part of Valcourt Napoleon you see and the bit missing in the other one.

I’ve used Cognac too, vs. non-Cognac brandy, but I find the non-Cognac type works well and given the price of Cognac today, it’s not worth it to use it. Cognac too has a particular flavour from the loose-grained Limousin oak, a perfumed taste I’ve never really liked. The non-Cognac brandies are probably aged in American oak as they rarely have that taste. I’d guess the Limousin wood is relatively rare and reserved for Cognac.


There is a large range of brandy available today, including at our LCBO. Many countries make them, even Canada. Those from Spain and Portugal tend to be heavy-bodied and can have a heady or hothouse flowers note.

The Duff Gordon brand from Spain has sweet sherry notes too and a lush taste. The French group are generally distilled from wines made from southern grape varieties and are more austere. They vary in taste and most have internal grade categories the top of which can be very good, e.g., St-Rémy Réserve Privée.

I don’t think I’ve had Valcourt before, I know I’ve tried Villard, Cortel, St-Rémy, as well as many examples from other countries.

Of the two pictured, the Napoleon tastes less mature than the other despite being about $8.00 more in price. The odour reminded me a bit of Pisco or Grappa. The taste though shows the effects of aging and the flavour is good with a smooth, soft mouth feel. The Valcourt X.O. is more woody, almost like a Bourbon (!), more harsh on the tongue but more neutral in taste. Blended in the right way with North American whiskeys, absinthe, and bitters, it makes for a fine Sazaerac and the current batch is at a good pitch, I’ll leave it this way for a while.

IMG_20160723_074910Contrary to what some say who make cocktails for maturing in a crock or bottle, I find it doesn’t change much if at all in the container, at least not for the time I keep it. I don’t drink much of it myself but a portion is regularly removed for a devoted reader of Beeretseq.

If you age cocktail or any kind of drink in wood, that is different due to the oxidation factor. Glass or glazed earthenware keeps out out a large invasion of air – there is still some of course in the closed container, but it is fighting a massive amount of alcohol and flavouring and can’t make much headway.

The Valcourt labels state Distillerie de Matha and this is a producer of a well-known line of Cognacs, Brugerolle. I think probably the owner of the Valcourt label has it made at this distillery, unless it’s all one owner and Valcourt is the non-Cognac line.

Online sources suggest too some Armagnac is added to the Valcourt brandies. This is the famous brandy of the Armagnac region of France, made in a simple column still and aged in the sappy black oak of the region (or it was). I can’t say I tasted it but it all goes in to make up the resultant blend and I’m sure it is there for a reason.

Net net, the Valcourt labels shown are very sound but Beeretseq finds their best use in blending, meaning for Sazaerac cocktail as mentioned.

Note re image: the middle image shown is from an old New Orleans guide book (pre-Prohibition), here. Image is believed in public domain and available for educational and historical purposes,. All feedback welcomed.



Burgoo and the Senator

George_Graham_VestOf Burgoo and Horseshoes

That would be a good premise for a tv sitcom don’t you think? Burgoo and the Senator. It’s the Gaslight Era, Kansas City, Mo. A down-home favourite son, when not orating his honey-tones in Washington, tells stories in the cool granite vestibule of the old courthouse.

The show’s name comes from his uncommon knowledge of that toothsome southern specialty, burgoo. The setting is Fifth and Oak Streets, the old courthouse.

First episode opens:

Senator: “Why people did I ever tell you how a gen-u-ine burgoo is con-structed?”

Mouthy lounger: “Yessir Mr. Senator, many times”. (Murmurs of agreement amongst the multitude).

Senator: “I did? You all must be possessed of a powerful memory”.

Another in the crowd: “Tell it again suh, we like the way you talk”.

Senator: “Well son I don’t need to tell it again because some fool scribbler wrote a story ’bout me in the paper and it reached as far as Fort Worth my word”.

(Hands out copies of the Texas newspaper. The scenes unroll onscreen, following the scribbler’s tale):


A party of capitalists from the East, embracing two of the members of the Lombard Investment company of Boston, who have been here several days looking after their investments in this city, had their first taste of burgoo and their first experience of a burgoo party on the banks of the Blue river last Thursday. Several local capitalists having them in charge and wishing to show them something new under the sun, to them at least, decided upon a burgoo party and Thursday morning they started for the Blue river, bright and early, going out as far as Sheffield on the dummy line, taking carriages there and driving a number of miles up the river to a very pretty shaded spot which was sufficiently secluded to suit the promoters of the party as one of the essential features of a burgoo party in seclusion. For it should be known to the uninitiated that a burgoo party is a party where, to use the vernacular, “everything goes”.

It might be well to explain first what burgoo is and what is meant by a burgoo party. There are two definitions of burgoo extant. One is the dictionary definition of the doctrinaires who would not know burgoo from a horseshoe if they were to meet it in the road. The other is by Senator Vest and is a definition suggested by an experience of long standing, a more than speaking acquaintance with burgoo. The dictionary says burgoo is a kind of


or thick gruel used by seamen and says it is derived from the old English buryum, or yeast, and gawl, which means gruel. Without any intention of throwing obloquy on Mr. Webster one is constrained to remark after a careful perusal of the definition that he had never been within a mile of burgoo if that is really what he thinks it is. Senator Vest’s definition is much better. The senator was seated in the courthouse in this city one day surrounded, as usual, by a crowd anxious to hear one of his inimitable stories, when the conversation turned to picnics, and someone in the crowd asked the senator what in the world burgoo was.

The senator paused a moment and said: “A native Missourian who doesn’t know what burgoo is deserves to be transported to Kansas or Iowa, or some other state equally benighted, and there live out his life surrounded by Republicans and prohibition. If there is any worse fate than that on this earth I don’t know what it is.

“My dear sir, the man doesn’t live who can tell you what burgoo is for the simple reason that no two kettles of burgoo were ever made alike. But perhaps by relating a little incident that happened at a burgoo pnrty that I participated in once I may give you a pretty good idea of what it is. The picnic was held on the Current river, a beautiful stream in the southern part of this state, famous for the clearness of its waters and the swiftness of its current. It was several years ago but I remember the day as well as if it was yesterday. When I drove up it was quite late and everybody else was on hand. The burgoo was in course of making then and although I had frequently eaten it I had never seen it made, and wanted to see exactly what went into it.

“You will find it is always the old man of the neighborhood who makes the burgoo, and walking over to the big caldron, I found him stirring about in a thick bowl of soup with a big stick. He dropped in a piece of chicken, a squirrel, a rabbit, onions, cabbage, parsnips, fresh beef –  well I don’t know what else he didn’t put in. Right above him a big tree spread its boughs and on the limb over the caldron was


While I was trying to engage the old man in conversation – a futile task by the way – right down into the soup there dropped a young woodpecker. The pin-feathers were just sticking out of its wings, and its lone neck und head didn’t have a feather, while its eyes stood out like goggles. The old man paused stirring for a moment as if a little startled; and then resumed as he remarked ‘Just in time, just in time!’. That’s about the best idea of burgoo that I can give you.”

The senator’s definition gives a pretty good idea of what burgoo is. Anything from the heavens above or the earth beneath that falls into the caldron is as the old man said “just in time”…

(The story continues, ever more rollicking, in the Fort Worth Daily Gazette, August 24, 1890. Read the remainder, here, and your imagination will unroll further tv scenes as effortlessly as a cup of good burgoo will go down. Or a cup of good sour mash, for that matter. The two, often, went together).




Note re images. The first image above, of U.S. Senator George Graham Vest of Missouri (Dec. 6, 1830 – Aug. 9, 1904), is from his Wikipedia entry, and is in the public domain. The second image is of the Current River in Missouri and was sourced from the Southeast Missourian’s websiteBoth are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welomed.


Woodford Reserve Bourbon – 19th Century Flavour in 2016


What’s Old Is New Again

In a series of posts in the last couple of months, I have been exploring the roots of Kentucky whiskey, especially Bourbon, known around the world today as America’s premier form of whiskey.

Whether one factors a nostalgia element or not, there seemed consensus towards 1900 that the best whiskey in this class was small tub, copper-distilled whiskey. This was whiskey which in some cases used no added yeast but relied on use of setback (residue of last distillation) and natural fermentation and in other cases was produced by yeasting-back, which meant scooping yeast from the last ferment and adding it to the next. In either case, the whiskey was distilled twice in copper pot stills heated by a wood furnace.

In contrast, modern plants c.1900 were using “steam distillation” which could mean a number of things but generally that live steam separated the alcohol from the mash in a column still. This is the form of distillation prevailing today in Bourbon country, setting aside different techniques which may be used by the emergent craft distillers.

All column stills today are made from stainless steel although some copper is usually incorporated as the metal is felt to improve the whiskey, notably by cleaning up sulphur compounds in the new-make spirit.*

One exception to the column-still norm is Woodford Reserve Bourbon, which retains an older element in its production: copper pot stills. Brown-Forman, known for the Old Forester and Jack Daniel’s brands, acquired a site near Versailles, KY about 20 years ago where distilling had an old pedigree. It was the site where Oscar Pepper had made great whiskey with the help of Dr. James Crow before the Civil War. The site was operated by Messrs. Labrot and Graham from the 1880s until the onset of war in America in 1941.

The restoration of distilling by Brown-Forman involved installing a triple pot still system, so three stills instead of two. They are housed in an old fieldstone structure on the property. The matured spirit is, for regular Woodford Reserve, blended with Bourbon produced from new-make spirit made in Brown-Forman’s plant outside Louisville (where Old Forester issues from). Both distillates – the pot still and column – are aged at Woodford Reserve and then mingled to a formula to achieve a specific profile.

The mash bills for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester are the same. The triple pot still produces a spirit at 159 proof, as high as you can go and still call the matured whiskey Bourbon. Setback is used in the mash, but of course fresh cultured yeast is added to ferment the mash as for all distilleries today.

Despite the relatively high proof at which the pot still element is distilled, when matured it is rather different to the whiskey which results from the column still spirit. It is heavier and has a distinctive, oily element. This is the mark of the copper pot still and it is there even after three distillations and a relatively high proof. One can imagine that distilling only in two copper stills at a much lower proof (c. 100), as was common in the 1800s, would produce an even heavier spirit, but the pot still element of Woodford is quite heavy as it is. Indeed it shines through even when blended with a goodly amount of column-still whiskey.

Woodford Reserve is aged, from latest checks, six to seven years, which is right in the ballpark of the five-to-eight year maturation felt appropriate for pot still sour mash in the 1800s. I think current Woodford Reserve is better than 10-12 years ago, it seems generally older in character while back then it could be astringent with a petrol tang.

Setting aside any pot still Bourbon of comparable age coming from craft distillers, Woodford Reserve represents your chance to see what old-fashioned Bourbon in the 19th century was like, as close we can get. And it is good, those familiar with pot still Irish whiskey will see a connection, that oily note again which results from a primarily raw grains grist + use of pot stills. But as with matured Irish, the oils are well-integrated in a complex matrix of flavours which also discloses wood, creosote, and fruity notes.

I’ve tasted various iterations of the Woodford pot still, i.e., on its own, in the form of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection series. The effect is even more intense than in regular Woodford Reserve. I prefer regular Woodford, the column-still bourbon moderates the heavy pot still notes in the right away.

An analogy in rum is the rums of the Caribbean which blend pot-stilled heavy rum with lighter column-still spirit – the rums say of El Dorado in Guyana.

Finally, how do we know a traditional bourbon could taste oily in the 1800s? Because some ads of the time said so. See this one from 1877 in The Bolivar Bulletin in Tennessee, vaunting “pure oily old Bourbon just [in] from Kentucky”.


*Note added later on July 21, 2016: Please see below Jay Erisman’s comment indicating that some column stills are all-copper construction and in use for whiskey production. Thanks to Jay for setting the record straight.





The Paris-to-Cynthiana Connection and Bourbon History


In 1862, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Garrett Davis, declared in the house that Bourbon whiskey was named after Bourbon County: see page 35 of Gerald Carson’s The Social History Of Bourbon (1963). Davis was a lawyer in Paris, the chief town of Bourbon County. Carson considered him a credible source and properly so.

The 1860s and next decade is the time when people start to reflect on where the whiskey, by then of national and even larger repute, originated including not least its name.

In 1866 this news story appeared in the euphoniously named Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette & Comet. Datelined May 8, it was captioned “Bourbon County Distilleries of ‘Old Bourbon'”. “Old Bourbon” as used in this story clearly means the whiskey, not the original boundaries of Bourbon County.

The account is of particular interest because it appeared in the heart of the Bluegrass, and addressed forthrightly what had become a parlous topic. As Henry Crowgey noted in his 1971 The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, the history of distilling was treated scantily by 19th century historians of Kentucky. The reason: burgeoning Temperance attitudes. Whiskey’s heyday in terms of social acceptance had passed by about 1850. Due to pressure from Protestant denomination and other temperance advocates, whiskey had become an off-colour topic in approved circles. This was so even in its centres of production.

19th century Kentucky histories, both state and local, written by people such as Lewis Collins, Richard Collins, and William Henry Perrin are not without interest for the whiskey sleuth, but they are incomplete or omit key early data now presumably lost. For this reason, newspaper accounts are valuable especially those in or near the areas where Bourbon whiskey started. The press was more attuned to the needs of industry and local affairs than establishment writers. By nature too, the coverage was topical, and ephemeral. A story on distilling might cause knashing of some local tongues, but would be forgotten with the next days’ news.


The value of news stories’ reliability is also shown, as I discussed recently, in an 1872 story which claimed a German-American “genealogy” for bourbon. It seemingly was adapted by Richard Collins in 1874 for an expanded edition of his father’s 1850s-era state history.

The Baton Rouge story of 1866 is notable, first because it affirms that Bourbon took its name from Bourbon County, still the best explanation of bourbon’s name. But it does more than confirm Garrett Davis’s account, as it links the bourbon heritage of Harrison County to the fact that part of the County once formed part of Bourbon County.

This is, I believe, the first time in the context of bourbon history that a story references that Bourbon County was once a larger area. Garrett Davis’s account four years earlier isn’t specific in that sense and in my view, while important, is partly a “favourite son” explanation.

The Baton Rouge story also locates the origins of Bourbon in a specifically defined area of Bourbon and Harrison Counties, between Paris and Cynthiana. This is a distance of only some 15 miles. It mentions families associated with the origins of Bourbon in that stretch surnamed Shawhan, Keller, Ewalt, Cook, and also later figures named White and Magebbin.

A Keller clearly was involved in early Bourbon distilling, as the 1872 story mentioned above stated. He was one of the German-Americans credited in that account with devising Bourbon. Other research suggests to me his full name was Isaac Keller.

The Licking River flows through Cynthiana, and this river was a key early avenue to get corn whiskey to the Ohio River and downriver to New Orleans, which the 1872 story also recounted.

The  1866 account, taken with the 1872 one, doesn’t “prove” bourbon originated in a small section of what now straddles Bourbon County and Harrison County. But it is good evidence of a strong connection between the Paris-Cynthiana axis and bourbon’s development.

Let’s recall that 1866 is only 45 years after bourbon whiskey is first named in a news ad, in 1821 in nearby Maysville, KY. 45 years isn’t that long, it is like someone in Ontario remembering the origins of ice wine.

Note re image: the first image shown was obtained from the website of Cynthiana Main Street, a historical association, hereThe second image is from the Town of Cynthiana’s website, hereImages are the sole property of their owner or duly authorized licensee as may be mentioned therein or otherwise. They are used for educational and historical purposes only, all feedback welcomed.

“Put Your New Spirit In A Charred Cask” – Advice from Englishman James Smith, 1815

5a2def54-ca7d-11e5-8356-1895fbbc5b64I have referred to the history of the charred barrel for bourbon in a number of respects, including advice by English scientist William Nicholson in 1806 that new spirits be stored in charred barrels. Nicholson’s theory was that the charring would prevent the wood from imparting undesirable flavours.

Nicholson’s work followed upon that of numerous scientists and investigators in the 1700s who were looking at charcoal and charred barrels to help keep water sweet on board ship and to sanitize water for municipal purposes. The principal names were Lovitz and Berthollet (see my earlier post), but there were others.

In 1815, James Smith (English again, b. 1759, d. 1828) advised in his two-volume Panorama of Science and Art to place new spirits in “charred casks for some weeks” where the liquor was burned. He was referring to parts of the boiling wash (in England) sticking to the pot still due to hot spots on the metal from the fire underneath. This was a constant problem with which American distillers were also concerned. Hot spots would communicate a burnt taste to the spirit, and this was regarded as a fault unless minimal in effect. Indeed at the end of the 19th century, what bourbon historian Gerald Carson termed the “nostalgia” distillers were selling this “haut goût” (my term) as a mark of tradition.

Those interested in brewing history may recall that Detroit brewer Stroh once bruited its “fire-brewed” system – an echo of the same issue. In our vernacular today, it is turning a negative into a positive.

Various mechanisms were employed by brewers and distillers to keep the mash, or unstrained fermented mix of grains (in America) from sticking, generally by agitating it with paddles or chains. This was never a perfect solution. One reason for the later adoption of the steam-heated, multi-chambered still, and finally the columnar still segmented by perforated plates, was to avoid this burned vegetable taste in the matured spirit.

And so, with charcoal and charred casks in Georgians’ minds as something to cleanse and keep stable water and various liquors, it makes sense British science hit on the charred cask to address the burned-spot problem.

To be sure, James Smith wasn’t saying the charred barrel should be used for years, after all in 1815 the long aging of spirits in Britain and America was in its infancy. But the pot still system was still the norm to distill whiskey then. Some distillers reading the Panorama would have tried charred casks to palliate the burned spot problem, and would have noticed beneficial effects particularly when the liquor was kept longer than a month or so.

It is interesting too that a few weeks in charred wood will qualify a spirit distilled under 160 proof, made from a majority corn grist, entered in barrel at not >125 proof, for the name Bourbon under United States law. Think about it…

The charred barrel to store whiskey is first documented in American distilling in 1826, this is 11 years after James Smith wrote and 20 years after William Nicholson wrote. After, not before.

In my opinion, unquestionably James Smith’s book would have circulated in the United States. It was one of those protean 1800s efforts, covering a huge range of mechanical, scientific and technical areas and geared to practical matters, taking in everything from building to brewing to agriculture, engraving, painting and more. The Panorama, published in Liverpool, came out in further editions as well even after Smith’s death.

Henry Crowgey wrote his still-unequalled history of the early years of American whisky-making in 1971. He noted that in the first 20 years of the 1800s, no reference to colour can be found in hundreds of references to whiskey. He looked at sales notices, government specifications for whiskey (it was common then to buy it for medical and military purposes), probate records, and other sources. No one refers to colour or the charred barrel. This doesn’t mean some whiskey wasn’t long-aged – it is known some was – or that the charred barrel hadn’t been in some use. But these practices, one can conclude, were not methodically followed by distillers of American straight whiskey until later.

I infer that William Nicholson’s advice in 1806 to place spirits in a charred cask and James Smith’s advice in 1815 to do so to remove the burned vegetable matter taste contributed or even caused the American practice of using (ultimately new) charred barrels to store what became called Bourbon. The stories of the Spears’s, Shawhans and others taking whiskey on flatboats downriver to New Orleans before 1800 are undoubtedly correct in my view. The whiskey that resulted would have been preferable to new double-distilled corn spirit even if stored in uncharred casks, as much of it had to be.

Whiskey from the large geographic area in north and central-eastern Kentucky originally called “Bourbon” probably acquired cachet early on due to the improvement of the spirit on the long trip down the rivers. But the story of Bourbon is evolutionary. The role of British science and the technical arts between 1806 and 1815 is in my view important in the story of how Bourbon acquired its definitive character, something which took place between 1826 and the onset of the Civil War.

Note re image: the image above was sourced at this auction site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Addendum added July 20, 2016: Implicit in my account above is a suggested rejection, or at least a more nuanced view, of the traditional explanations for the use of the charred barrel to age Bourbon. Most of these are reviewed at pg. 36 of Gerald Carson’s The Social History of Bourbon (1963), here. The explanations include the attempt to remove offensive smells from a barrel previously used to hold fish, or the accidental burning of the staves by coopers when using heat to make the wood pliable to fashion for staves. Another hoary explanation is that empty barrels in a barn, awaiting filling from a distillation, became burned in a fire on the premises but were used anyway to hold new spirit with consequent benefits noted.

In my view, these are all likely what historians call a “heroic” explanation, one based on myth which satisfies the popular need to understand history. It seems more likely to me that science explains the adoption of the practice by Americans. The usually thorough Carson omitted completely (presumably was not aware of) the developments I have referenced in the 1700s and early 1800s regarding suggested use of a charred barrel to hold various liquors including whisky. Nor have I read any reference to them in any other modern book or other resource on bourbon or whisky. I found them by researching in Google Books some years ago.

Lager Lessons

I’ve always enjoyed good lager. Properly made it is unquestionably one of the great styles and deserves its world fame.

Unfortunately, the mass market in recent decades has turned largely to thin starchy beers, i.e., with high adjunct, low hops, and low attenuations – c. 1008 I’m told. I’m sure this pleases many, while leaving fans of a more traditional palate looking for something else.

But there are still many good beers, both within the mass market and certainly the craft field. Also, sometimes a particular recipe just pleases, it may be down to the yeast used, a particular hop or malt, or some other indefinable attribute of brewing. In this sense, brewing is still an art and can’t be reduced to formulas objectively deciphered.


IMG_20160619_130828Cool Lager

This beer is made in a small brewery in Etobicoke in the GTA, its main line is not craft-oriented but it makes a lot of beer under contract, which is.

If you get it very fresh, Cool Lager, draft or bottle, is an excellent beer in the traditional Canadian style. It’s got decent malt and hop notes with a snappy finish. I like it after long walks or bike rides. The glass shown was ordered in a small bar out on Danforth quite a bit east, I had been on foot for a few hours and happened to stop there. Excellent choice for those who like the established Canadian lager profile.



Ace Hill Pilsner

This beer is very German in taste. I had very similar beers in Germany a few years ago. It’s got a mineral note from the Noble hops and a dryish malt characteristic. The yeast too is obviously European and is said to derive from Augustiner (see the company’s website). I drink this half-chilled as this brings out its best qualities.

I like it too because there is no sulphide flavour, the yeast is German but does not have the over-boiled egg taste so many European lagers have. (This is sometimes called hay-like or grassy in reviews, even skunky where the taste is misconstrued for damage by light). It’s a beer that goes well with food.


IMG_20160612_142902Estrella Damm

This tastes different to me at different times. Sometimes I get DMS in it, sometimes not. This one didn’t have any, so yay. It’s a little sweet with the adjunct in place but not obtrusive. Like Cool it’s well-made and while many other beers use similar materials, they just don’t taste as good. As I’ve often said, equal flavour intensities don’t mean the sensory qualities are equal. Something medium in palate impact can taste great, or not, same thing for something with high palate impact or mild impact.


IMG_20160715_232404Flying Monkeys Mythology Canadian Golden Pilsner

This is good, lightly sweet, light honey-gold in hue, firm hopping which the label indicates is Noble hops. There is a citric note though that seems North American. I wonder if the hop bill includes an American hop, or maybe an American variety grown in Germany. But it’s everything a craft lager should be while not tasting like any others out there.


IMG_20160625_163128Polly Want A Pilsner

This is a newish release from Hop City, the craft brewing arm of Moosehead. It’s got a firm grainy taste, on the dry side but with plenty of flavour and traditional lager hopping (cutting but neutral, what I call mineral in these notes). I feel I can taste wheat in the finish though and it’s not a taste that recommends itself to me. Wheat is an ingredient according to the label and I tend to puzzle over this as traditional lager – by which I mean blonde lager in its inception in Bavaria and Bohemia – was all-barley malt. I don’t think the wheat is needed, myself, and prefer the profile of all-malt beer.


Beck’s Beer

I didn’t include an image because everyone knows what Beck’s looks like. Body light but gains from all-malt, hops are surprisingly strong and well-interleaved in the taste. That German minerality again. But the aftertaste goes awry IMO, a cooked or veg note (not DMS). Perhaps it’s the pasteurization as I notice a similar effect in other imports.