Tennessee Maple Mellowing in 1908

George-Dickel-cascade-ad-argus-1915In 1908, a couple of years before distilling became impossible in Tennessee due to pre-Volstead prohibition reaching all corners in the state, a chemist studied the famous maple leaching system for Tennessee whiskey, also called the Lincoln County Process.

The study is here, by William Dudley, published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

The Cascade Distillery is referenced specifically so the data mentioned clearly relates to that distillery.

This was located in Cascade Hollow in Tennessee and was about one mile from where the George Dickel Distillery is (now) located, its successor after a winding path.

Some salient points:

– the maple charcoal vats, whose dimensions are precisely described, were designed to hold 80 bushels of maple charcoal and could leach 80 barrels of whiskey – thus one barrel needed one bushel of charcoal for the desired effect. About three barrels were produced each per day

–  the vats were replaced “frequently”, but a more precise interval is not stated. Today at George Dickel, I’ve read in this authority it is about 12 months;

–  the analysts found the taste of leached and unleached white dog very different. I’ve tasted the “before and after” of Jack Daniels and found them fairly similar

–  he felt that all fatty oils soaked into the charcoal and acids were notably reduced as well, which alteration also meant the whiskey aged differently once put into regular charred barrels for storage (which it was, he makes this clear)

–  the way “Bourbon whiskey” is referred to, it seems no bourbon the analyst was familiar with was subjected to a similar process: to him the maple charcoal mellowing system was peculiar to Tennessee

–  some bourbon and rye mash whiskey was subjected to a “before and after” test similar to the one done for Cascade’s whiskey. This was done to all appearances in the lab using a scaled-down maple charcoal tube the scientist had fashioned. From what I can tell the only “production” white whiskey compared before and after was from Cascade Distillery.

There is other interesting data which only a full reading of the article can convey.

2. Cate TN.jpg - cI have read latterly hundreds of pages in 19th century and early 1900s sources on Kentucky whiskies in trade papers, science texts, and druggists’ literature. I never found a reference to any brand of Kentucky whiskey so treated.

To be sure, there are vague general statements that at one time more distillers used the method, but it seems in other words to have been associated only with Tennessee at least after the Civil War.

In Tennessee, apart from Cascade, Jack Daniels used it – still does – and a distillery called R.H. Cate did, in Knoxville, TN. There were probably others, bearing in mind as prohibition advanced across Tennessee in the late 1800s that there was only a handful of producing distilleries there by 1900. Kentucky still had hundreds.

To be sure distillers outside Tennessee had used the method latterly but it is referred to in this regard as a “highwines” method. Distillers who made neutral alcohol would leach their low wines (the first run) in the vats and then re-distill it to neutral alcohol territory. Charcoal vat leaching is never referred to as something a Kentucky sweet mash or sour mash distiller would do – not that I have found.

I am starting to think, unless any evidence to the contrary pops up, that it may really have been a Tennessee strategy to help genuine whiskey (not highwines) on its way to early maturity. As to why Kentucky wasn’t using it in the period mentioned, hard to say. Many accounts of prized double-distilled whiskey in the Bluegrass refer to its body and even to being “heavy”. Perhaps the Kentucky connoisseurs didn’t like the lightness of body the Lincoln County Process imparts. There is no question both Dickel and Daniels today are genuine whiskey, but most whiskey hands would aver that they have a relative lightness of body compared to Kentucky bourbon. The maple vats achieve this.

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2 thoughts on “Tennessee Maple Mellowing in 1908

  1. Fascinating, Gary. Thank you. Three observations struck me (in no particular order) – that it may have been a means to ease young whiskey to early maturity which fits with some of the experiments being done by some of the majors, crafters, and NDPs today with wood types, wood staves, double barreling, barrel size, etc.; that it affects the body of the spirit compared to un-charcoal filtered whiskey which many of us (think?) we have noticed; and that the history record thus far does not confirm a Kentucky distiller used it which makes me wonder – not one of them even tried it? In short – nice find.

    • Thanks Harry and I endorse your conclusions. I think it is possible that once Kentucky saw the benefits of methodical warehousing, it did not use charcoal leaching – that was something reserved to clean the whiskey to sell it when white or very young, common whisky as it was called. Of course that declined as the aged product became the norm and blended products took over as well.

      Kentucky distillers may have decided that the two techniques conjoined – maple charcoal leaching and long warehousing in new charred wood – were not compatible to produce the palate they liked. Whereas in Tennessee, where distilling never had the scale and “organization” of Kentucky, perhaps distillers were happy to use both methods and evidently liked the results. Hard to say.

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