Bonfort’s On Burgoo in Owensboro, KY

In 1887, Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular tucked an item about Kentucky burgoo in amongst the trade tips (“light, perfect ventilation and dryness” are good to store whiskey), business gossip (Abe Hirsh did some business in Chicago, “so the boys say”), and market information.

To say it was written with not a little humour is an understatement, but that was the Kentucky style, and still is. Relaxed, down-home, set a while. This little tableau illustrates a detail of town life that would vanish, not so much with the modernization of the liquor business after 1900, but with Prohibition’s clanging iron door.

But burgoo survives still in the South and Midwest, as I said yesterday. Its distant English roots are blithely forgotten, which is fine, and the Americans made something new of it anyway. When you read the term barbecue in the account, don’t mistake: it refers here simply to an outdoor gathering where a meal is served al fresco.

As the article notes, burgoo is a stew. It’s not a roasted or pit-cooked dish. Owensboro knows well the differences because it specializes in another Kentucky regional food, mutton barbecue. There’s another likely English throwback, mutton..

One of the features of Owensboro life is a burgoo club of about seventy-five members, consisting of the leading business men of the place. This club gives a burgoo (which, by way of explanation, is a barbecue, where birds, chickens, squirrels, beef, pork and dog, if one is handy, are thrown into an immense pot, stewed together, seasoned and eaten between drinks) every two weeks during the summer, and the fun these meetings afford keep the boys laughing for the balance of the twelve months. When you attend a burgoo you are first asked to drink, and if you decline, you are made to drink. This drink is big enough to put you in fine shape, and you must then ascend a platform and dance before the crowd. It’s no use to ask a man who has attended one of these burgoos if he danced, because he simply has to dance. Before the day is over every man is called upon for a speech, and a speech he is bound to deliver. It makes no difference how old a man is nor what position in society he holds; if he attends an Owensboro burgoo he must walk the chalk line and do as he is bid. The record for the past summer shows that Fred Clarke of the Sour Mash Distilling Company received several prizes as the best dancer on the grounds, while M.P. Mattingly got the prize for oratory.

Kentucky still enjoys burgoo and one of the best places to get it in a restaurant is at the famed Moonlite Bar-B-Q in Owensboro. The restaurant sells it in a bowl soup-style and in gallon jugs to take away. You see it below amongst many offerings older and newer at the 2008 Owensboro BBQ Festival. Appropriately, Owensboro burgoo uses mutton in the mixture.


The image above was sourced here. Attribution is as follows: By Afreeman (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.

Kentucky Burgoo


The Long And Winding Road

A dozen years ago, I started a thread at America’s premier bourbon forum, (“SB”), on burgoo. The discussion was Kentucky-centric since most of the people who participated live there like Bobby Cox or Bettye-Jo, and those from away are familiar with the Commonwealth as it’s known or allied traditions.

I first saw this on a menu there, and for the life of me couldn’t figure out what it was. And I know a bit about food and food history. I thought it was native American possibly in origin.

First, what is it? It is a stew, usually it involves different kinds of vegetables and meats, and often there is wild game in it. But also, there is always a starchy base to it, usually from a cereal of some kind, corn or something else.  Okra can supply this part, or potatoes. It is a thinnish stew but not a soup. It is always cooked in large quantities and was (is) served communally: church functions, civic gatherings, barbecues, anything involving a large group and quite frequently the outdoors. I liked it the first time I tried it, at a small chain in Louisville which focused on local or down-home eating.

I don’t need to explain the long story of its origin because it was all set out in the thread at SB I mentioned, here. It’s British in origin, as so many traditional American foods prove to be if you look far enough. Pulled pork, too, say, or Ontario’s butter tarts.

Burgoo was a British naval dish, a gruel served to seamen on duty. The thread at SB documents older English books which mention burgoo, which have nothing to do with the U.S. The word is from bulgher – bulgher wheat – and you may say, that doesn’t quite get us to “burgoo”. But this form of wheat had a variant spelling and pronunciation, burghul. Pronounce that in an English-turned-southern accent and you get to where it ended.

On the ships, they would have added any meat they had, corned beef or salt pork from the barrels, any vegetables still on the ship. It was a wheat-based gruel filled out with any vegetable or protein to hand (not fish though). The Americans took it and adapted it to their countrysides and traditions, but you can still see the link to the original dish, both in how it’s made and that it’s served to a large group. Seamen originally, and now other largish gatherings as I said. It was communal in origin, and still is.

Now, how did it get so far inland? Kentucky and Ohio, another stronghold of burgoo, aren’t exactly Atlantic-seaboard. This is hard to say, but some migrants came to these areas from Virginia and other coastal states and must have brought it with them. In turn those people were English or influenced by the ways of the ships which brought the British to North America. Things have a way of moving around, migration is the story of man… But essentially it is one of those historical survivals.

The oldest annals of SB disclose an “atomic, bourbonic burgoo”, a member and his wife brought it to a “Gazebo”, the twice-annual gatherings of the SB clan I’ve mentioned before in Bardstown, KY. I never tried that one, I hadn’t joined the bourbon crew yet. But I’ve always been minded to make my own version of that. It had a good spicy note evidently and a glug or 10 of bourbon in there. (Ya think?).

Note re image: the image above of men cooking burgoo in Kentucky, was posted in 2004 to the SB thread mentioned by SB member Bobby Cox of Bardstown KY. It is believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Kentucky Whiskey-Making In The Wathens Over 100 Years

homeImage-1From 1790-1905, a History of Technology and Innovation

An article in 1905 in The Wine and Spirit Bulletin outlines the history of distilling in one famous family, the Wathens, from c. 1790 until the time of writing. The article is “The Manufacture Of Whisky In Kentucky”, it starts at pg. 22 here in the June 1 issue, running about five pages. Its focus is technological and on output. I won’t give great detail by way of summary because the original is clear and easy enough to read, but some salient points:

To start a distilling run, founder Henry Wathen mashed in his small tubs with water and relied on “spontaneous” fermentation.

This is interesting as it suggests a natural ferment could be achieved without backset (say as lambic is made today). However, as soon as backset – the spent residue in the still – was available from the first boils, that was brought to each successive tub in four- gallon buckets and used to mash. For fermentation, as soon as they had top yeast from the fermenter, they used that – this is yeasting-back, the alternate way to sour-mash.

Also, Henry Wathen used all-corn according to this account. To ensure conversion, part was malted on the property. He used two copper stills, a wash and spirit still, just as in Scotland to this day for malt whisky.

With each generation, improvements and changes occurred. The wash still was replaced with a hollowed log still, then a wood two-chamber still, then a wood three-chamber still. This still is a kind of transition between a pot still and a continuous still divided by plates through which steam surges and continually re-distills the mash. As I glean it, a three-chambered still is really a batch system, like three pot stills side-by-side except except each chamber is placed atop each other and there is no external condensation and re-charge. In effect a triple distillation occurs. They were used into the 1900s but became obsolete after Prohibition.

Other successive changes: the copper spirit still becomes replaced by a horizontal copper doubler, similar to the ones seen today.

And finally, a metal, multi-tiered column still, quite similar to those today, replaces the wood three-chamber still. The account implies the spirit improved with each such change and I think I agree with that. My only experience with pot stills and bourbon is Woodford Reserve’s bourbon. The pot still element of its bourbon is very strong-tasting, at least at four or five years old, vs. column distillate of the same age; I prefer the latter and I think the market probably did in the 1800s, too.

Other changes: barley malt replaced corn malt about 1850, for two reasons: it was made by professional maltsters and more reliable, second, it made the whiskey taste better. This ties in to some other accounts, e.g., distiller Charlie Thomason from Willett of Bardstown, KY said c. 1960 that much modern bourbon has reduced the amount of barley malt formerly used, to the detriment of flavour. (I will show later that in general a greater amount of barley malt was used in bourbon production c. 1900 than today).

image-3One of the Wathen descendants ensured steam-heating of his warehouse to accelerate maturation and produce again a better product, this is later in the 1800s.

Finally, about 1870, a purpose-made yeast replaces yeasting-back.

This would have been a hop yeast, cultured up before labs isolated a pure-culture yeast. In a word, jug yeast. This account from the same era as the article mentioned describes its preparation.

Just as an index of its modernity, as late as 1905 you find ads for whiskey proudly advertising “no jug yeast”.

It appears – this from another account – that the hops neutralized the “bad” organisms to allow the selected yeast to do its work. One can infer the Kentucky distillers’ practice of yeast-making probably is not age-old and developed from the mid-century, but further substantiation would be needed.

The best part of the article is, detailed illustrations show how each item mentioned worked. E.g., the famous log still, an early steam-operated affair made from two hollowed poplar logs, is shown. They were arrayed horizontally on each other, not end to end, which suggests this was a batch-type system, more primitive than the wood two-chamber still but similar in principle.

Allowing for some commercial puffery as any article of this type would have, it is still a remarkable account of technological evolution in bourbon production as practiced by one family over time, the sons working with fathers and then improving in their turn as warranted.

One interesting thing, finally. I don’t think the article mentions the word bourbon once. The operative word is whiskey and this characterized George Washburne’s Wine and Spirit Bulletin in general. The word bourbon often appears in the brand names listed, which is many times, but not too often in the textual narrative. I think this suggests bourbon initially was a retail and wholesale trade term, applied from the beginning from the outside so to speak and literally probably outside Kentucky (in New Orleans, Cincinnati, Chicago, etc.). The Kentucky pros called it whiskey – and lots of them still do.


American Distilling’s Julius Freiberg Leaves A Special Mark

216-218_E_Front_1904Occasionally you read something in the trade press of the American alcohol industry, in this case from Teddy Roosevelt’s era, which jumps out at you.

It was an obituary of Julius Freiberg, a Cincinnati resident.

Freiberg achieved great success in the distilling business. He owned with a partner two distilleries, Lynchburg Distillery in Ohio, and Boone in Petersburg, KY not far from Cincinnati and the Ohio River.

He was born in 1823 in Germany and died in 1905. Of Jewish origin, he was one of those protean spirits, much given to philanthropies including Jewish ones remembered in Cincinnati to this day, and leading his industry’s associations.

His distilleries made straight whisky only, bourbon and rye. Only just before he died – and he had retired by then, the firm was run by descendants – did the firm invest in an alcohol (neutral spirits) plant in partnership with other distillers.

Freiberg had trained as a winemaker and cooper in Germany before emigrating. He worked in Kentucky at a general store, branched out into whiskey jobbing in Cincinnati, and finally invested in his own distillery with a partner, Workum.

Freiberg & Workum’s history is well-described in this posting of the excellent website, Those Pre-Pro Whiskey Men! The firm achieved huge production for the period and established many brands.

Some of these are remembered today such as Cyrus Noble. Noble was a representative of the firm from the west coast and a bourbon ended being established with his name. You can still drink a bourbon with that name, I had it a few years ago in, appropriately, Sonoma Valley, CA with Jim Butler, major domo of There is some interesting lore on Cyrus Noble from the classic family-owned D & M Liquors, here. A choice tidbit:

The year was 1871 when a brand of whiskey was named after him. The exact circumstance is unknown, but it is said that Cyrus was intoxicated by perfecting a new bourbon when he fell in one of the vats of whiskey. Henceforth, that whiskey was named “Cyrus Noble”.

The Wine and Spirits Bulletin, edited by George Washburne, covered Freiberg & Workum’s activities closely. Obviously a journal of this nature subsisted on the patronage of distilleries and their suppliers. It was not going to take them to task for anything, but I’ve read quite a few articles now in the Bulletin and Bonfort’s, the other industry journal of the period, including many obits. Few if any rose to the heights of this particular homage Washburne gave to Julius Freiburg:

Mr. Freiberg’s death will arouse deep feeling in the hearts of many members of the trade. Strongly outlined in his nature was the idea of giving assistance to young men in the early stages of their career. Sometimes this assistance would take a financial form, and sometimes it would be of that definite sympathy and moral backing which would assist in overcoming the discouragements of youth. The writer has a vivid recollection of an incident along these lines which occurred some twenty years ago in his own experience and as a result of which he has ever held Mr. Freiberg in the highest esteem, and shall ever venerate his memory.





James E. Pepper’s Bourbon Methods in 1889


The above advertisement, from the 1889 Souvenir Programme of the Louisville Fall Celebration, shows the distillery then owned by James E. Pepper and William Barnes. E.H. Taylor bought out James Pepper’s family distillery in 1877, the original site of which is now Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY. Pepper was able later to re-enter the business. He no longer had rights to the Old Crow name, which Taylor acquired in the 1860s, but produced fine whiskey again on the site of the former Henry Clay distillery in Lexington, KY.

The Pepper bourbon legacy was certainly indebted to James Crow who did his ground-breaking work there in the 1840s. We have seen how in 1884 Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Journal linked both Crow and Oscar Pepper to a small tub mashing and fermentation system. It relied on backset to set the mash with no added yeast. This produced by my calculation a fairly low-yielding distiller’s beer, about 4.5% abv, due to the relatively uncontrolled methods used. But the claim was, it made for a better taste once the longer maturation period needed was achieved.

When James Pepper started distilling again he made whiskey mashed and fermented in the style his family and Crow had. This is evident from the above advertisement which stresses to the public, “no yeast is employed to secure an unnatural fermentation or large yield”. And it adds that 1000 small tubs are used to mash, by hand. This means no mash yeast or back-yeast – barm selected from the last ferment – was added. Mother Nature did all the work.

This use of natural fermentation, one which recalls the rare, surviving production of lambic beer in Belgium, connects James Pepper to Oscar Pepper’s and James Crow’s use of the same technique. James just continued it, as had E.H. Taylor when he owned the Pepper distillery and for whiskey made at his other plants including OFC, which is now Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY.

The 1889 Programme is a kind of industrial and mercantile survey. It has an interesting chapter, “Kentucky Whiskies”, which repays close reading, see especially pp 51-54. Sour mash is referred to but no claim is made that any Pepper, or James Crow, devised it. The reason for this in my view is the writer knew that the technique predated Crow’s arrival at Oscar Pepper’s plant c. 1840. Sour mash is not ascribed in the article to any one figure, but rather is said to have emerged for “convenience and economy”. When and how, was not known to the author. But it is interesting that the Programme states the first bourbon whiskey made in the state was a sweet mash whiskey with added yeast – I referred earlier to Edgar Preyer’s 1901 book which said the same thing.

The modern bourbon historian Henry Crowgey has discussed two recipes from the 1820s, one entails sweet mash in the sense of yeast being added, the other is evidently an alternating sweet and sour mash system where you start with yeast, then backset alone is relied on for a few runs, then a sweet mash is started up to ensure the backset doesn’t get too harsh and “fiery”. In both these recipes backset is used to scald the mash, as today, but clearly a lot of sweet mash production was mashed just with water (per my earlier discussions). Crowgey’s account is here. Other recipes for sweet mash and sour mash have been uncovered dating back to the same period. So sour mash was not new, but I apprehend Crow applied it methodically in an early industrial setting for “convenience and economy”.

The 1889 Programme does ascribe an honour to Crow: “doubling” “on wood” by steam. Doubling is the second stage of distillation, to refine the product and raise the proof. I read this to refer to a wooden doubler, or small pot still, which was heated by steam, not on a wood fire. Whether Crow actually did this is hard to say. I incline to think he did because the account is quite detailed. It explains that Crow’s whiskey was very good, was carried west in Kentucky from Frankfort by politicians who liked it – Frankfort is the state capital – and thus influenced distillers in the west. Nelson County, where much distilling occurs in Kentucky today, is proximate to Louisville for example.

Why would steam heat for a pot still be better than the old wood fire? Perhaps because the mash didn’t burn, a risk always present in fire-heated metal. In any case, the reference in the 1889 Programme is clearly to the second or doubler still, not the first or wash still.


The Programme further states: “West of the Kentucky River [shown in the image above], the distillers, with very rare exception, copied after Crow, used the sour mash hand-made method, and doubled in wood”. Note the reference to sour mash, these other distillers, who “copied” Crow, were all sour-mashing. Obviously then, Crow did too as we know from Bonfort’s account in 1884.

Numerous improvements in bourbon manufacture have been ascribed to Crow, but I think it is reasonable at least to read both accounts as meaning that Crow sour-mashed with backset and no added yeast, and used a wood doubler heated with steam to bring his distillate to final proof. One always wishes for more information than there is, but we need to work with the information we have. These two sources, carefully examined, provide some very good information on James Crow’s role in bourbon history. Of course, he may have done more, methodical aging has often been mentioned, for example. Indeed his whiskey was noted for being red, it was called the “red cretur” – in effect the aged red/brown bourbon we have today vs. the white or very pale whiskey still common before the Civil War.

The innovation Bonfort’s ascribed in 1884 is undoubtedly true in my opinion. It was recorded, not just in a popular publication, but a specialist one, devoted to the distilling industry. And Bonfort’s mentioned not just Crow, but Oscar Pepper whose son was still living and active and a highly respected figure in Kentucky distilling. I don’t think Bonfort’s would misstate information with historical overtones under these circumstances.

Finally, the ad above confirms the account because it advertises prominently the same method used five years later by the son.

However, James Pepper’s ad also states, “we single and double through Copper Stills over open fires”. No reference to a wood doubler operated by steam! If James Pepper was following Crow’s method, why would he not use the wooden steam doubler Crow apparently did? This is hard to say. Maybe he didn’t stick with that part, certainly the industry had pretty much dispensed with wood for this purpose by the end of the 1800s. Gerald Carson’s bourbon history (1963) states that E.H. Taylor discarded the “uncleanly” wood still, so it makes sense James, who had had many dealings with Taylor, did too. In fact, James made Old Crow whiskey for Taylor after the brand name transferred over as mentioned above…

Certainly today all alcohol stills, of whatever type, are made of metal except for a wood column still and wood pot still, both 1800s vintage and still operating to make rum at El Dorado in Guyana. Peruse its website and look at them yourself. The column still is a frame of wood filled with packing or perforated plates. Steam shoots up through the column to vaporize the alcohol from the descending wash. The pot still is also a wood frame which holds a metal pot in which the wash is boiled.

Wood may have caused problems to an industry increasingly concerned with sanitation and probably was more costly to maintain than metal. So that part had to go, one infers.

The Mother Nature yeasting part did too, finally, by c. 1910.

What stayed? Backset to acidify the mash. All bourbon distilleries today use it. They could add a lactic acid culture and dispense with the backset, but it may contribute some flavour and perhaps also bacteria which create esters and/or more alcohol. And just perhaps, they do it because it is a way to hang on to some old tradition. Bourbon is nothing if it ain’t that. Why, travel down to Kentucky and visit the plants, chat with the people, see for yourself. It’s pretty country too, as you see in the image above.

Note re images above: The first is from the 1889 Programme linked in the first paragraph. The second, of Frankfort, KY and area, is from Wikipedia, here. Both are in the public domain and believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed. In addition, all trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized users.






Rating Wines and Spirits in America in 1940

The Prescience of Consumers Union Reports


The “Consumers Union of the United States” was founded in 1936 and began to issue its famed Consumer Reports magazine to test and rate consumer goods and services for buyers.

The group was the product of a new form of business thinking that focused on the interests of consumers and sought to discourage industrial and commercial deception. In a word, it promoted consumerism.

The idea developed steadily from the later-1800s, the period when the first laws came into force to regulate consumer products, especially food, and rein in egregious examples of consumer fraud or gouging.

The group continues its good work to this day but was reorganized in 2012. A separate company now publishes Consumer Reports and maintains an active web presence; the original Consumer Union now focuses on public advocacy and research.

In 1941 the Consumer’s Union issued its fourth Wines and Spirits report with content dating from November 1940. The publication, despite some inevitable period language, has a modern look and feel. The product comments are not as detailed as in today’s reviews (book, magazine, online rating service, etc.) but are clearly progenitors.

I think, too, one can see the influence on the Zagat restaurant review series. The signature was presenting a serial list of reviews, each short and impactful, and then providing a rating. James D. (“Jim”) Robertson’s 1978 The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, an early modern consumer beer book, also seems influenced by the Consumer Reports style.

Consumer Reports was always notable for not pulling punches and no-buy recommendations are included from the early reports.

The Wine and Spirits report is very interesting. First, there was the shadow albeit lessening of National Prohibition, which ended only eight years before. Second, the dampening effect of the Depression was still operating although it’s something to be intuited in the report vs. being clearly stated.

Then as now, New York City, where the Union was based, had the money to indulge the best but a prosperous middle class had continued through the Depression and one senses it was the main audience for the reports.

Perhaps the most important external factor was what the report termed the “war in Europe”, a literally true statement as the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was still in the future. America was thus at peace but the war had many effects.

These included the cessation of wine and brandy shipments from France, Italy, and Germany. Prewar stocks were going fast. The report stated this provided an opportunity for California vintners, who indeed finally got their due but probably much later than the report authors thought.

Yet, for the time, Consumer Reports was surprisingly bullish on California wine, calling the best of it “really good” although always placing Europe in the front rank for the topmost end. Some faith was placed in Argentina as an influential wine country. Indeed this happened also, finally.

Chile was not mentioned at all. The report bemoaned the shortage of French brandy and dismissed the California product as clearly inferior, in part because too young.


Each section is prefaced by a detailed and accurate summary of the product type. Whisky is given a full treatment, especially Scotch whose lustre was possibly at its apogee in America then, continuing a success enjoyed illicitly during the Volstead era.

Canadian whisky is given short shrift, basically. It is termed “extremely light” and its value questioned in relation to price; American blends were held up as better value. If there was a quality difference resulting from the fact that the neutral grain spirit element in Canada was aged in wood but unaged in the American blends, the report didn’t pick up on it.

In this regard, the report seemed unprophetic, as Canadian whisky continued to grow by leaps and bounds in the U.S. from the 1930s until today.

The report contains what may be, with other early Consumer Reports on the same subject, the only extant reviews of the Canadian straight whiskeys then on the market. One was Pedigree Rye from Seagram at 8 years old, the other was a 5-year-old rye also from Seagram, probably the same whisky but three years younger.

The reviews state that these were straight whiskeys, comparable to U.S. straight rye, and the light character of Canadian whisky really applied to the blended form, e.g., Seagram VO. But the report deprecated the price of these straights (“excellent – but overpriced”). It reflected, largely, the customs duty Canadian whisky had to pay to enter the U.S.

Clearly, the report liked the Canadian straights but felt they weren’t the value they had been when there was still a shortage of bonded U.S. whisky after Repeal. As seven years had elapsed since 1933 American rye and bourbon had time to regain their traditional character yet Pedigree was still more expensive.


The authors clearly were straight whiskey devotees who appreciated body and character, words that recur in their commentary.

Sometimes a taste note is included that could have been written yesterday. The panel grumbles that Old Overholt Straight Rye seemed changed in character, for example: “This brand has changed considerably during the past year. Although it is still well made, it lacks the characteristic brand flavor it once possessed, and is much lighter-bodied”.

Things are always getting lighter and not what they used to be, even in 1940! Certainly the report liked the (American) Finch’s Monticello Straight Rye, calling it “heavy” and well-made.

The report tartly observes that Mt. Vernon Straight Rye sometimes uses distillate from other than Mt. Vernon distillery and its rating should be considered applicable only to the genuine Mt. Vernon stuff. Quite modern-sounding, again.

Now we’ve got to find the beer report, but how? There was at least one, I know, issued c.1949, and the Union probably had dealt with beer much earlier. One can just imagine how some of it went: “Ballantine IPA has the character of the best pre-Prohibition “stock”, or India pale, beers. Expensive but worth it.”.

Or, “New York’s Trommer White Label lager retains the quality of German beer due to its all-malt construction; a high rating is in order”.

Or, “Eichler’s lager in the Bronx seems reduced in body from the straw-boater days, we rate it at par”. And so on.

Note re images: The early cover of a Consumer Reports magazine was sourced at this Consumer Reports website. The second image was sourced at this flickr site, here.  The third, hereAll trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized licencees. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

A Maven Of Intelligent Blending

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We Call It Vatting Today, Edgar

Back in 1901, a New Yorker of the name Edgar Reuben Preyer wrote a compelling book on distilled spirits. It covers “everything”, as its careful and intelligent author claims in the introduction: the science of distillation; mashing and grain; the different spirits; bonded whiskey; taxes; rye whiskey; prices and cost accounting; distribution; rectification and blending; and still more.

Here is a link to the book, via Hathitrust digitized library.

Preyer’s explanation of sweet mash and sour mashing is broadly similar to others I’ve discussed, but with a gloss on back-yeasting. He states that at the beginning of a distilling season a mash is left to ferment naturally in small tubs which he says (correctly) is sour mash. Once a fermentation is secured, the yeast, or barm, is used to seed the next one and so on. He calls that a sweet mash, which is correct as well because yeast is being added by the distiller.

Clearly some distillers operated in this way but some distillers never yeasted back and relied for all their fermentations on purely natural (spontaneous) fermentation as I’ve showed in the past.

Then too, sometimes you would start with a sweet mash and move to sour, in that once enough backset was produced, you would mash with that and add no further yeast. This was the system C.K. Gallagher laid down as I’ve also explained recently.

There are only three basic ways to yeast: naturally, back-yeasting, and with a yeast mash (“from jug to dona to vat”). But there can be variations in each method and differences in their order.

Preyer, relying on the memories of aged distillers who recalled farm-distilling days, states (see pg. 44) that the distilling seasons of spring and fall emerged in the days when distillers relied on natural organisms to ferment. This was because the natural yeasts were most propitious then to a good result. In the winter, the whiskeys were too light and “deficient in flavor”. In the summer, the wild yeasts produced too many fusel oils. There is an analogy here to lambic production in Belgium, which remains seasonal to this day.

Preyer doesn’t claim that ferments would sour in the summer, which seems to me a beer-brewing concept applied by some wrongfully in the whiskey context: he says the whiskeys were too oily from secondary constituents. He indicates with his typical thoroughness that as distilling became more sophisticted, it could take place year-round. The point being, the famous Kentucky distilling seasons have their origin in small tub natural (spontaneous) yeasting.

Preyer notes that Kentucky’s fame as a whiskey-centre was due in no small part to whiskey distribution becoming a sophisticated business and located mainly in Louisville. It is today too easy to forget that distilling was just part of the story. Getting the product to what became a national market was a separate endeavour in which Louisville commerce specialized. So was the practice of selling whiskey in bond to holders of warehouse receipts and the trading in these, which Preyer explains very clearly.

He makes some very interesting comments on rye whiskey. Contrary to some who say that Kentucky always made rye whiskey, he states that its whiskey was based on corn – bourbon. To compete with “Eastern” rye producers, i.e., in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Kentucky started to make rye later in the 1800s.

In most sources of this type, you rarely read any criticism. Industry members often advertised in the books to recompense the author and anyway people in business are not usually inclined to say bad things about others in a similar line. But Preyer states flat-out that the quality of Kentucky rye wasn’t very good for quite a while. He says Bluegrass distillers had little experience making rye and made mistakes, such as not choosing the grain carefully enough and aging the whiskey three years in “cold” (unheated) warehouses. Eastern ryes were emerging after three years with fine colour and maturity due to their sojourn in heated warehouses. The heating encourages more “cycles” for the whiskey in the barrel – expanding from and receding into the frame of the barrel as the temperature rises and cools – which accelerates maturation.

Preyer states though that Kentucky got better at making rye as time went on. Perhaps he didn’t really knock the industry as Kentucky’s fame then and now was based on straight bourbon, not rye. But it ties in to something I recall from early trips to Kentucky when some distillers would say, “we don’t know rye well or didn’t until we decided to make it”.

Straight rye was the great drink of Pennsylvania and Maryland, now lost although craft distilling has started to bring it back, e.g., Dad’s Hat in PA.

Regarding blending, a topic not unfamiliar to those who plumb whiskey history, Preyer has little time for blends which include neutral alcohol. He talks solely about combining straight whiskeys including rye and bourbon together, and was a great proponent of blending in this sense. We call it today vatting, a practice I advocated for years on, encountering not a little resistance at the beginning. I was using Scots practice as a template but had also read predecessors of Preyer such as his fellow New Yorker Joseph Fleischmann who wrote a similar book, but not as well, in 1885.

In our vernacular, Edgar Preyer would be thrilled to see the skill with which modern acolytes of vatting practice their art especially on He probably never dreamed consumers would do it on their own, but then lots has changed since his time in the business. (And lot’s hasn’t). He’d get it totally though, I don’t doubt it. See below a page reproduced from the book on the topic.

A rough count of the distilleries listed in Preyer’s book for Kentucky is 400 – 400 distilleries! Today you can count them on two hands. And 400 was nothing really because since 1860 as Preyer explains so well again, the industry began to concentrate under the pressure of tight federal regulation. That era was introduced with the first tax on whiskey, levied by the Union to help win the Civil War. There were probably a thousand or more distilleries in the first half of the 1800s. The proliferation of distilling and yeasting methods is no surprise given how many producers there once were.

One wonders what happened to Mr. Preyer, an exemplar of his trade and no doubt very successful at it. I mean, what happened when the Volstead Act in 1919 put an end to beverage alcohol in America. He would have been nearing 60 and perhaps retired, or went into another business.

Tom M. Gilmore, who wrote the whiskey chapter in E. Stoddard Johnston’s 1896 history of Louisville and published Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Circular, is cited, among numerous others, as a source in Preyer’s book. Whiskey was a small world then; in some ways it still is. According to a brief New York Times obituary, Tom Gilmore died in 1921, of Bright’s disease, hastened it suggested by the ruinations to his business of National Prohibition. Alcohol hurt a lot of people on its way up in commercial America (North America) in the 1800s. Prohibition hurt a lot of people, too.




The Revenue Men Explain Natural-Fermentation Sour-Mashing

“Jug to Dona, Dona to Yeast Mash, Yeast Mash To Fermenter” (How We Got There)

– Quotation from Bulletin Relative To Distilled Spirits, 1912

In 1912, the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue released its Bulletin Relative To Distilled Spirits. The introduction, by Commissioner Royal Cabell, expresses succinctly and clearly the object: to guide internal-revenue officers whose work brought them in the purview of distilleries. The text itself is as clear as one could hope for, intended for the educated general reader without requiring too much theory.

Scientific books, and books or journals written for the trade such as Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular (of which earlier-mentioned Thomas M. Gilmore was publisher, incidentally), inevitably cover topics only partially or from the writer’s perspective. They are most valuable if one reads enough of them – indeed there is no substitute for it – but sometimes you run into an authoritative summary, which is the Bulletin mentioned. You can’t hide from the government…

I append below a page from the Bulletin, which summarizes yeasting practice in distilleries in 1912. There were three types: the small tub one I have been elucidating in recent posts, where the mash ferments naturally without addition of any yeast (small tubs held about 50 gallons); fermentation in a large vessel (as today) where yeast was collected from a previous ferment and dumped in. This was often called yeasting-back and the form of yeast, barm; and the most modern method, where a selected yeast is grown in a special grain mash, stored in a metal dona and then cultured in a large quantity as needed to seed the next production. The last is today’s system except we also now have distiller’s dried yeast as an option.

As can be seen, the method of E.H. Taylor and Dr. James Crow, recorded by Internal Revenue in 1912, was on its last legs. The reason was inefficiency again, both the conversion from starch to sugar and the latter to alcohol could not compete in output and quality with the third system. The second system was middling in results, relying on an ever-diminishing yeast capability as the generations progressed and incurring a higher risk of bacterial contamination than method #3.

A different source from about the same period, when mentioning that backset is used to scald the mash for sour-mash whiskeys, stated that the “original” method was actually to use water. At first this surprised me, but when you think about it, farm-distillers would not have distilled continuously. Distilling would have been intermittent. They therefore would not have had a regular supply of backset from stilling to add to their new mashes. Therefore, they needed barm, which they made themselves from scratch or obtained from the lees of brewing or wine-making.

They may have used backset occasionally, out of expedient or for some other reason, which is why Oscar Pepper may have heard, perhaps in some mountain town or from an oldster, that you could make fine whiskey without yeast if you used backset to heat the mash. Enter the peripatetic Scottish physician, James Crow. His intervention is crucial here. Pepper was an operating commercial distillery, since 1776*. It had a steady supply of backset. Crow may well have been the first to adopt the use of backset and natural fermentation in an industrial setting. When it is said that James Crow perfected the use of sour mashing in whiskey, this in fact may have been his achievement. For this reason perhaps, the Bulletin calls the second or yeasting-back method, “old time”, not the one which relies solely on wild yeast, Crow’s method developed at Oscar Pepper Distillery before the Civil War.

Many other distilleries adopted the practice though which found its greatest proponent in Col. E.H. Taylor but it finally foundered in the first decade of the 1900s. The advent of modern science including the development of pure yeast cultures did it in.

Where are we today? Backset is still used, to acidify the mash mainly. I believe its dead yeast cells furnish additional nutrient. What about its bacteria count, to assist to produce some extra alcohol or (as one distiller told me) fruity esters from consuming the grain sugars? This may be part of the system today unless the backset is pasteurized first. I know Canadian distillers pasteurize backset where it is used, but I’m not sure if Kentucky or Tennessee does.

Of course today there is no yeasting-back much less any natural fermentation. What we have today is a blend of the old sweet mash and sour mash systems, more the former I’d say.

As Col. Tom Gilmore – he was a Kentucky Colonel too – noted in 1896 in J. Stoddard Johnston’s book I’ve mentioned, distilleries operated in different ways. Sour-mashing had variants and in some “fresh yeast” was added, as today, but not in others (read the full whiskey chapter which I’ve linked a number of times). The method which Col. Taylor promoted relied on natural fermentation, as Crow’s system did. That part has been completely lost in American distilling and even yeasting-back has unless a craft distiller is doing it somewhere.

Did it make for better-tasting whiskey? I think it probably did. I think the bacterial component produced special aromas which must have been estery and variously so, those E.H. Taylor with biz org hat on riffed as “tempting the gods”. Bacteria in dunder in pot still rum production produces a similar effect. Modern bourbon isn’t really strongly fruity, but it was at one time, some of it.  By the way, want to know why Kentucky distilling had, and some distillers still follow, two production seasons, Spring and Fall? Because those seasons favoured maximum results from airborne spores and microflora. It reflects a time when small tub natural yeast production became established in hundreds of small plants in Kentucky and Tennessee in the mid-1800s.

*Note added June 15, 2016: This date is probably too early, and there are contradictory statements when Elijah Pepper started to distill. It is known that Oscar his son built a distillery in the 1830s at which James Crow later worked. My interest is not with Pepper distilling family history as such but with the form of small tub sour mashing which relies on wild yeast solely to effect fermentation.


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

“Aromas and Flavors That Would Tempt The Gods”

– E.H. Taylor, Jr., 1896

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

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

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

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

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

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


How Exactly Did Dr. James Crow’s and E.H. Taylor’s Whisky Sour Mash Work With No Yeast Added?

OldTaylorBookCoverI’ve had the benefit now of discussing with two experienced distillers my recent posts on 19th century American whiskey fermentation achieved solely with backset (no addition of yeast).

One works for an American craft distillery, the other is a retired distiller who had worked in a number of large distilleries internationally including Canada.

First, just to resume a bit: the various sources I quoted in these posts make it clear a fermentation was achieved in three to five days using just backset to scald (heat) the mash in small tubs.

This was denominated a sour mash fermentation. Today, sour mash means using backset in the mashing liquid, often one part backset to three of water, but fresh yeast is always added whether jugged or a distiller’s dried yeast. In the 1800s, sour mash as developed by bourbon legends James Crow and E.H. Taylor involved no addition of yeast to the mash.

To be sure, there were variant ways to sour mash in the 1800s. Some descriptions call for yeast to be added, either fresh or collected from a prior ferment. But it is very notable that the Crow-Taylor sour mash whisky used no added yeast. This small tub method, also validated by C.K. Gallagher’s account of small tub production which I referred to earlier, was a low-yielding method, requiring longer aging than sweet mash whisky but prized for its fine flavour.

Modern bourbon writing has not referenced this aspect of a wild fermentation except for Gerald Carson’s 1963 The Social History Of Bourbon. Even then the reference was lapidary, almost in code unless one understood the background. At Page 88:

His beer was a  creamy liquid, rich in yeasting power. His fermentation was faultless.

Hence my interest to point it out and parse the details.

A question that arises when drilling down is, how did the backset actually do its work to ferment the mash, particularly as boiled spent beer can be presumed to be sterile?

In my discussions with the distilling experts, it became clear to me that in all likelihood, backset alone did not do the job. While it may have contained wild yeast in process of fermenting residual sugars in the spent beer, other sources of yeast – ambient air, wood vessels – probably assisted a natural fermentation. In addition, backset contributes certain bacteria that work with wild yeast to form alcohol. I wasn’t aware earlier that some bacteria can make ethanol. I knew of course they can produce lactic or acetic acid.

But some forms of bacteria are capable of converting simple sugars into ethanol. Zymomonas mobilis is one. (Some of these bacteria have been engineered in fact to boost ethanol production for industrial purposes). Dunder was a source of such bacteria, one distiller told me, and possibly the Crow-Taylor backset was too. Some accounts state that bananas and other things were thrown in the dunder to create sugars that would be fermented along with the converted grain starches. Since there is no evidence starch or sugar was added to cooled backset, the question arises if backset had any function as a yeasting agent or inoculum. Even if it didn’t, its role is still important as a source of the bacteria mentioned and to acidify the yeast.

But I think likely Crow’s and Taylor’s spent beer was in active fermentation when added to the mash. This would explain Carson’s use of “creamy” to describe it and its potent fermentative power he noted. Even dunder with yeast added can take eight weeks to ferment. If, as we know, the Crown-Taylor sour mash took three to five days,to my mind that could not have been achieved merely with atmospheric flora: the backset itself was probably an inoculum, as Carson’s account suggests.

All spent beer, even where you try to get every gram of sugar converted to alcohol, contains some residual sugar. One study I found shows that a mash for ethanol production – feedstock not clear, I think sugar beet – produced about 1.5 grams simple sugars per litre of spent beer. One can imagine the sugar content was much higher in Crow and Taylor’s spent beer since its fermentation was known to be under-attenuated, leaving in other words a rather sweet wort. Taylor specifically stated in the Bonfort’s article I cited earlier that his mashes contained considerable unfermented sugar. Needless to say, that sugar stayed in the mash after the boil in the still – it was a solid that couldn’t vaporize.

Let’s now think about why the Crow-Taylor method employed a series of small tubs. I think the reason may have been to maximize the wood-to-mash contact. The more wood in which lurked microbiota of the type we are discussing, the more likely a successful fermentation would occur. With a sweet mash for which only one large tub was used, it didn’t matter what wild yeast contribution there was since ample purpose-added yeast would ensure a good ferment.

Therefore, the main point I was concerned to show stands – Crow’s and Taylor’s classic sour mash bourbon used no added yeast in the process, which is significant unto itself. But it is also important to state that in all likelihood, the backset alone, and the same applies for dunder in heavy rum production, did not account for the fermentation. Rather, their acids and bacteria worked hand-in-glove with wild yeasts resident in the environment of these non-sterile distilleries.

One of the distillers told me yeast on malted barley in the mash might have been part of this yeast cocktail. He noted that unlike for beverage beer, the malt in a whiskey mash is not heated to a high temperature (vs. the corn and rye which need to be cooked)* and its resident wild yeast would be alive when the fermentation started. I pointed out that barley malt in a bourbon mash is today not more than approximately 5% of the mash. Even if it was more in the 1800s, and it was, generally, that source alone surely would not account for a vigorous – three to five day – wild fermentation. But it may have been an element in the total picture.

My conclusions are, the cooled backset:

i) probably contained fermentable sugar due to the low attenuation of the ferments;

ii) may have absorbed wild yeast from the environment which started to feed on that sugar and the dead yeast cells**;

iii) worked in tandem with natural yeast influence from wood vessels, ambient air, and possibly the barley malt in the mash; and

iv) provided some bacterial action to make alcohol,

which in sum achieved the fermentation in question, one which occurred naturally without addition of yeast by the distiller.

Note re image: the image shown above is from this fine early American antique bottle collection site. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized licensees. All feedback welcomed.


*I want to clarify that the distiller I spoke to actually said, the corn must be cooked, the rye may be, and the malt must not be.

** A distiller reading these notes commented that if, as the historical literature states, hot slop was used to scald the mash, the heating of the slop to boiling temperatures would kill any yeast activity that had developed, therefore can we view the backset, assuming it had undergone fermentative activity, as an inoculum? Good point. My response would be, first, in the 24-48 hour or more cooling down phase (see C.K. Gallagher and other sources I’ve cited), the temperature would drop enough to permit inoculation by ambient wild yeasts which would feed on the nutrients in the slop. Second, even some modern sources, see e.g., Waymack and Harris’s The Book of Classic American Whiskeys, state that backset is sometimes added to the fermenter. It could not be added hot for this purpose, readers will appreciate. (E.H. Taylor did not do this apparently, but didnt’t need to, one could infer). Also, Gallagher seems to suggest slop was also used after the tubs had started setting to cool them down. Again this must have been stored or at any rate cooled slop. Therefore the point is taken but in light of numerous statements in 1800s literature that backset takes the place of yeast in sour mash distilling, and given the various times in the process it could be added, one of these explanations must I believe explain why backset was viewed, by Taylor and numerous others,  as having fermentative power.