Visiting The Toronto Distillery Co.

IMG_20160608_081323There is no substitute for visiting a distillery. Understanding distilling theory, and whole chunks of social history, greatly assists an appreciation of the different types of distilled liquors.

But visiting in situ brings the reality home. I’ve had the opportunity to visit distilleries, and former distilling sites from which much can be learned too, in Kentucky, Tennessee, Scotland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ontario.

Recently I visited Toronto Distillery in the Junction area, south and a touch east of St. Clair Avenue and Keele Street.

Mark Bylok of kindly introduced me to Charles Benoit, one of the two principals. Charles explained the operations with great care and each product currently made. The still in use is a stainless pot still with a column extension which includes copper components which scrub sulphur from the spirit. Thus, it is a version of the so-called hybrid still frequently used in small-scale distilling plants. Charles and his business partner are dedicated to producing their own spirits on their own site, they do not buy or blend spirits from other sources.*

The nature of the still permits distilling-out at different proofs and with different “cuts” to separate out oils in the tails for example. Spirits are distilled separately from malted corn, rye, wheat and other grains, as well as organic beet root. The fermented mashes aren’t filtered for the boil, they go in as is and an agitator (stirrer) in the unit ensures no sticking or burning. In this sense the process is similar to American practice in bourbon country. In contrast, the Scots drain a wash from their mash and send that to the pot still, at least for malt whisky.

A range of white spirits is produced and some are laid away for aging. There is also a golden-coloured applejack, blended in this case, which has a lovely fresh apple nose.

A gin is also produced which offers soft floral/spicy notes. The rye spirit has a distinctive sharp, spicy quality that you can recognize in aged rye whisky as well. Of course aging in wood alters any spirit particularly when distilled in a traditional way to retain character from the mash, as all Toronto Distillery’s products are. Certainly none of the products I tried were anywhere near neutral! They all have a vigorous character which reflects the grains and other materials they issue from.

The organic beet spirit has a remarkable nose and flavour of fresh beet, and would make a perfect spirit to add to cold borsht and sour cream. Heads-up to the fashionable restaurants of Toronto. Incidentally, beet spirit was much produced in the 1800s and this is a welcome revival.

The white grain spirits would be very similar to whisky made in small distilleries in Ireland, Scotland, Ontario, Kentucky, and other places when distilling was an artisan craft, before methodical aging came in. Toronto Distillery has been in business three years and hasn’t had time to amass large stocks of aged spirit as there is a demand for its white spirits and gin, but as I said there is aged spirit in inventory and it will be interesting to see how the process affects the spirits. I believe if held long enough they will age into fine brown whiskeys.

Some of the barrels used are new-charred oak, some reused. I was interested to know at least one hickory barrel is onsite. Hickory, not an easy wood to fashion for casks, was used historically to age some spirits in America. The tradition was remembered in the name of the now-defunct brand, Old Hickory Straight Bourbon albeit the latter was aged in conventional new charred oak casks.

IMG_20160608_080942In trying these single-grain varietals, it reminded me that spirit distilled for whiskey but drunk new is really in its own category. The acids, esters, higher alcohols and residual oils of traditional grain distillate are so distinctive, and change so much by a few years in wood, that it is not right to compare them in the two states.

This ties in to how young spirit was consumed, say c. 1800 when oak aging was in its infancy including in Great Britain.

I have no doubt that some people always liked white whisky. But much of it probably was never drunk neat. When you read of early Irish whisky, you read concurrently and frequently of a compound of the whisky with sugar, spices, herbs, and other flavourings. When you read of early Canadian or Scotch whisky, you read often and concurrently of whisky toddy, or whisky, sugar, water, lemon. It starts to spell a pattern…

This is in fact the origin of drinks like Drambuie and Irish Mist. Had fully-aged malt whisky or the Irish equivalent always been available, I doubt those early compounds would have emerged. But vigorous young white or little-aged spirit marries extremely well with many kinds of flavouring. Some years ago in a gathering of lawyers to taste different kinds of historical spirits, we tasted a specially-made punch which employed a white rye spirit. The recipe involved fresh pineapple and lime and was based on a recipe from Saveur Magazine, here.

Numerous tasters said it was the best drink of the night and the other drinks were all well-aged, well-known brown spirits.

The Saveur punch recreated a typical early American punch, as pineapple has been grown in hothouses in the U.S. since the late 1700s and was prized for use in drinks such as these. It was notable how well the white rye married with these other elements. If you used vodka instead of white rye, it wouldn’t have been half as good. The marriage of congeneric whisky and fresh fruits of a certain kind created a third and very pleasing taste.

The use of Jamaican overproof and other white rums distilled at a low proof in punches of fruit juices and spices is a similar example. In fact if you use aged rum in lieu of the overproof it isn’t as good, the tannic acid doesn’t mix well with the citrus. I was in Saint Martin once and they favour there the ‘ti punch (or ponche), a feisty white rum with lime and sugar or syrup. Ditto in Martinique and Guadeloupe. I was told you can use dark rum, but most people prefer the white and I can see why, it tastes better with a clean, zingy fruity hit.

There is a particular chemistry, quite literally, some fruits and other punch ingredients have with non-neutral white spirit. I suggest to people who purchase white grain spirits to try traditional recipes of this sort. David Wondrich’s excellent study, Punch, is a good resource for traditional recipes. With one of the single-grains of Toronto Distillery, I plan next to make a whisky ‘ti punch (or cold toddy). I’ll use simple syrup, the 100% wheat spirit, lemon. Maybe a dash of bitters. Summer’s coming…

*Note: Excluded from this statement is the company’s gin. Per the website: “the base for [the gin] is neutral spirit (‘pure’ alcohol, 95% alc./vol.), which we source from Brampton’s GreenField Ethanol. Neutral spirit is best made in large continuous column stills, which run non-stop for most of the year and can produce neutral spirit with the most energy efficiency”.


A Doctor’s View Of (Fine) Spirits In The Gaslight Era


Famously, author William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. The past is not even past”.  A fellow-novelist, Briton L.P. Hartley, wrote around the same time, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

Which is true? They both are, it just depends what the topic is. In the 19th century, much – never quite all – of the medical profession viewed alcohol as a valuable aid. Hence we see an illustration of L.P. Hartley’s  thinking, since things are very different now.

But in the 1800s, whiskey was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the official compendium of drugs that may be prescribed and ingested for treatment. Whiskey, or Spiritus Frumenti (spirits of grain), remained there into the 1900s including during Prohibition when whiskey could be obtained under medical prescription. Doctors were not blind to the abuses of alcohol, and deprecated them in strong terms, but many nonetheless viewed alcohol as useful in the clinic, emergency room, and household. This was so even for children, it is not hard to find instructions to give babies a few drops of bourbon for various problems, and later, a teaspoon for tots. It seems insane now, but was a regular practice and it lived on in folklore. I recall being told by locals in Kentucky that their gums had been rubbed with whiskey in infancy. None of them was an abuser of alcohol, incidentally.


Today, alcohol is never prescribed or advised by doctors and its use by society in general is cautioned against constantly.

There has been some suggestion in the last generation that the moderate use of wine can assist heart health.

This is controversial: many doctors think the risks outweigh the benefits, a stance that would have puzzled most Victorian practitioners provided the consumption was moderate. Moderation was defined in different ways, but formulas such as a pint of beer with meals or a dram of diluted spirits were not uncommon. After all, this was a period when whiskey brands were advertised in medical journals.

The indulgence or credulity of physicians was assisted by a number of factors. First, there was no sulfa in this period. No aspirin.  Anaesthesia was in its infancy. Few effective drugs existed. Opiates existed, but they were highly addictive and often counter-productive. Life expectancy was short.

The quotes which follow are from an article in 1884 by Dr. John Octerlony, A.M., M.D. He was Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children at the Univerity of Louisville. The article was published in The American Practitioner: A Monthly Journal of Medicine and Surgery. Indeed, it shows that medicine was a different country then.

When the stimulant effect of alcohol is required, especially in cases of acute disease, or in sudden emergencies, good whisky or brandy is to be preferred….That form of alcohol which in our opinion is best suited for general administration to patients in this country is the so-called Bourbon whiskey….While all Kentucky whisky, made by honest distillers – and these are many – may in general terms be counted as good when of proper age, that known as “sour mash” Bourbon whiskey is esteemed by most persons as the best. It is claimed to be the softest and most purest – to continue to improve the longest, and as it ripens to develop all the better qualities of the old Cognac brandies. It is used medicinally in Kentucky to the exclusion of almost every form of alcohol, and it is so used because experience has taught that it is, both in flavour and digestibility, and as a stimulant, fully the equivalent of the finest, oldest and most expensive brandies.

IMG_0195Thus we have a highly-skilled doctor vaunting, not just the whiskey of Kentucky for medical purposes, but the merits of genuine sour mash. Its “flavor” and “digestibility” did not escape notice, and in another part of the article, Dr. Octerlony was careful to approve, not just any sour mash, but one aged 4-6 years. If you read him quickly, you could be forgiven for thinking he was a whiskey connoisseur with a sideline in writing for the retail market. Is it possible that the deep purses of distillers were used to buy favour from doctors? We can’t rule it out, but I don’t think that was the case here. Dr. Octerlony’s beliefs were shared by too many of the Faculty, both in North America and overseas, to suggest a general vitiation in this sense.

No, this was the zeitgeist, or rather its zenith, since the 1880s were the high-water mark of favourable medical opinion on alcohol. The license given doctors to prescribe small amounts to patients in the Volstead (Prohibition) era was a last gasp of the time when whiskey or brandy was thought useful in medicine.

Still, even our resolutely modern temper retains the old idea that alcohol can be good for you, or a quick-fix. The St. Bernard dog going to the rescue with his keg of something strong is still an instantly identifiable image of beneficence with a curative or therapeutic undertone.

In a future posting, I will draw attention to doctors of the time who were less robust whether the pint of aged sour-mash should be part of the doctor’s medical arsenal.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from this retail packaging design site. The second, from this ebay listing.  The third, from this vintage ads site. All trademarks shown are the sole property of their owners or duly authorized licensees. Images shown are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Bourbon Bunkers Now And Then


I was talking the other day of J. Stoddard Johnston’s 1896 Memorial History of Louisvilleits Chapter XIX which is a mini-history of the bourbon industry. It was actually written by Thomas M. Gilmore, a contributor to the book.

Gilmore was clearly a devotee of bourbon which assisted his work in the sense that he set out the full history as he understood it, or at least as much as space allowed. He wasn’t crimped by a temperance view which might have impelled, not just an undue criticism, but an elision or even ignoring of the story of whiskey in Kentucky.

Modern bourbon historians have made the point that in the 1800s and for some time after, the whiskey trade was viewed in many quarters of the state as an unsavoury part of its past. The result is important parts of its history were not recorded when the facts were still known, and are now lost. While considerable information has still been documented, information from the formative years, 1775-1850, is relatively scant. The problem was exacerbated in that some established families discarded or withheld information on the whiskey-distilling of their ancestors, to preserve an image of utmost propriety.

Chapter XIX of the book mentioned is, to my knowledge, the first reasonably detailed look at the history of distilling in Kentucky, and broke the earlier pattern of reticence or silence.

I myself have contributed to bourbon history, mostly in posts over the years at and Areas I have looked at include the origin of the charred barrel, the use of hay to fire the barrels, the different ways (still types, processes) to produce bourbon and rye in the 1800s, rectification techniques, blending and vatting, and the vexed question of bourbon’s name. Of course I posted product reviews and general comments too. In the course of participation over the years in these forums, and many visits to Kentucky, I picked up a lot of information from others. Some of it was in the area of nomenclature.

best-western-generalI learned the terms “bunker”, “Gazebo”,  and “vitamins”, for example. The first was devised by Bobby Cox of Bardstown, KY, he originally called it “bourbo-bunker”, meaning one’s current bourbon collection. Bardstown is “bourbon central” in the state, it is where Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Barton 1792 Distillery are located. It is also the home of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Gazebo, a term devised I believe by bourbon collector and blogger John Lipman, meant a gathering of bourbon fans in the wood gazebo behind the Best Western General Nelson Motel in Bardstown. Members of, which is run by Californian Jim Butler, meet twice a year in Bardstown and stay at this motel. In the evening they gather in the gazebo behind the motel to discuss the day’s touring in bourbon country and to taste bourbon. Food and cigars come out too. I haven’t attended in some years now but the tradition carries on. in particular is an important part of the bourbon renaissance.

Vitamins is a term used by some to describe the taste of George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey: the whiskey reminds them of the crunchy coating of a vitamin pill. Another term, which I devised (in a bourbon context), is funky, to describe the signature flavour of Jim Beam which may derive from the house yeast.

I also came up with “vatting”, based on Scots blending practice, to describe the combining of American whiskeys to achieve a different palate, Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam 3:1, say. (Try it).


But Bobby Cox came up with the term bourbon bunker and it is now a stand-by on Bourbon for this purpose includes straight rye and Canadian whiskeys, really any whiskeys.

Thomas M. Gilmore, to return to him, had a prized bourbon bunker in 1896. He didn’t use that term, but that’s exactly what he meant. He explains it in ornate Victorian prose which conveys not a little humour, too. Kentucky oratory in this period has to rank with the best anywhere with its echoes of 18th century (and earlier) literary or expository English.

To advocate the sale of whiskey is to place yourself, in many portions of our country, without [outside] the pale of polite society, but to venture the assertion that you possess a garret shelf groaning beneath a load of bottles, all filled with Kentucky whisky, now a quarter century old, and which was full fifteen years in the wood, to assert such a thing, we say, is to insure you friends and visitors galore in any community from Maine to California in which you may reside, and in any circle of society in which you may be thrown, whether it be among the millionaires, in our centers of wealth, or among the brawny handed sons of toil, who delve in mother earth for a livelihood. Then if prompted by generosity you give a bottle of this old whisky away, rest assured that you have loaded the recipient with a debt of obligation that he will feelingly refer to as long as he may live.

Gilmore’s bunker was quite astounding: he had a collection of whiskeys in his possession for 25 years, which were 15 years old when put in the bottle. This would mean the bottles were filled about 1870 and distilled in 1855. I suspect that the whiskey was the legendary Old Crow straight bourbon. Dr. James Crow was known to be a proponent of methodical aging and stories have been handed down of well-aged bottles hoarded from his tenure at Oscar Pepper Distillery prior to the Civil War.

IMG_20160526_190203From 1820-1850 bourbon became known in large areas in the U.S. By the end of the century, it had an international reputation. As Gilmore put it in his inimitable fashion, bourbon is “the beverage that has carried the fame of this Commonwealth to the uttermost parts of the earth”.

I wonder what a 15-year-old bourbon distilled in 1855 tasted like. Perhaps like the richly-flavoured Last Barrels from Wiser in Canada.

Last Barrels is aged 14 years and made pretty much to a bourbon formula. It doesn’t use new charred barrels, but not all bourbon did in the 1800s, and anyway it has a fine bourbon-like palate, probably due to its extra-long sojourn in reused wood.

A scant 24 years after Gilmore was writing, the curtain of National Prohibition descended in America. A similar system existed for a time in parts of Canada. If Gilmore was “the man” at parties in the 1890s, imagine how popular he would have been in the Jazz Age.

His description of booze in the gas-lamp period shows the Janus-face it had then. Polite society felt constrained to look balefully on alcohol, even its occasional or otherwise responsible use, but private America often expressed a different view. The failure to resolve this schizoid sociology led to Prohibition (1920-1933), some of whose repercussions last to this day. The problems and toll of alcohol in society are undeniable, but the attempt to ban drink nation-wide only led to newer problems.

And so, some people had “bunkers” in the 1800s, particularly in Kentucky, centre then and now of America’s whiskey terroir. And some bourbon fans have a bunker today. (To be sure I like a glass of bourbon or other whiskey once in a while, but beer is my regular drink).

The best place to drink bourbon is Kentucky, it just is. Anyone reading who is thinking of going should visit the Kentucky Bourbon Festival which takes place in September each year. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the drink, visit distilleries, eat Kentucky specialties like chess pie and hot browns, and take in Celtic-tinged bluegrass music. Bardstown, where the KBF takes place, is a particularly attractive town, as is the surrounding area. It’s all stone-built or red brick towns, meadows, and green hollows. The rolling hills are also called knobs, whence the bourbon name, Knob Creek. It’s current single barrel bottling at LCBO is said to contain whiskey around 14 years old, so that is another candidate for a Gilmore bunker equivalent.

If you go at festival time, drop by the gazebo behind the Best Western General Nelson. Introduce yourself, and make friends. They are some of the nicest people in the world.

Note #1: This post is dedicated as follows. First, to the memory of members Tim Sousley and Paul Elliott Schroder whose untimely passing was rued by all who knew them. Second, to James (Jim) Butler of Healdsburg, CA, founder and sure helmsman of the best bourbon site anywhere, which debuted in 1999. When it comes to pioneers of the bourbon renaissance, Jim Butler stands in the front rank. Why his picture hasn’t been on the cover of one of the whiskey or food and drink magazines is a mystery to me. Maybe a whiskey scribe reading will remedy that.

Note #2 re images: the first image is from this tourism website for Bardstown, KY. The second is from this TripAdvisor site. The third is from Wikipedia Commons, here. All are believed available for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.



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


What James Crow’s Sour Mashing Was Really All About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bourbon, Sour Mash, And E.H. Taylor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Different Meaning Of Sour Mash In the 1800s


Making Fine Whiskey Without Adding Yeast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note re images above: the first image is from this distiller’s yeast supplier’s site. The second, from this resort’s website. Both are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.


Rye Whiskey In 1860s America And Today


The Continuity of Taste

When you read about foods and drinks of the past, the description of taste tends to vary quite a bit from today. Vocabulary changes, and also, people didn’t look at some things the way we do now. In the beer area, it is the custom today to describe beer flavour in a detailed fashion which has leaned quite a bit on contemporary wine-writing. The English beer writer, Michael Jackson (1942-2007) had a lot to do with that. He took inspiration from Hugh Johnson and other consumer wine experts who described wine flavour by reference to fruits or other foods, flowers, spices, and minerals (“flint-like”).

The use of such vocabulary was not really new even in the Bacchic sphere, but professional wine writing perfected the style as the consumer society took flight in the post-war era. Indeed one can say in this regard, English wine-writing did so, with the rest of the world following.

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

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

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

One of the most famous beer studies ever written is a late 1800s, multi-volume work by Alfred Barnard. Yet, he rarely described the actual taste. He did very occasionally, e.g., he stated of an old ale that it had a “Madeira odour”. This, clearly, is a fruity, oxidative smell, familiar to people who know the taste of bottle-age in beer – and Madeira. But in general a lot of guessing must be done.

Once in a while though you run into a phrase that could be written by a modern writer. Louvain white beer in Belgium was described in 1892 as tasting of soapsuds, pitch, and vinegar. That’s pretty clear. It was not meant as a compliment, but beer flavour is always relative to area, time, and other factors.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Silent Spirit, Silent Sam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Whisky Perfected 1870-1894

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Canadian Whisky In the 1890s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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