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.


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