The Roots Of Hand-Made Sour Mash: Appalachia and the Scots-Irish

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In the 1913 bookOur Southern Highlanders by Horace Kephart, chapter VI offers a detailed sociological and technical look at moonshining in the Great Smoky Mountains. This section of Appalachia, taking in parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, featured largely in the book as Kephart lived there for years doing his ethnological study. It is remembered to this day as a pioneering examination of Appalachian culture.

This culture stretched from western Pennsylvania, where the bulk of the Scots-Irish first settled, down the mountains southerly through parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama. While Pennsylvanian Germans, the French, a sprinkling of southern Irish, and English people were part of the ethnic mix in Appalachia, the Scots-Irish have long been identified as a prime contributor to “mountain culture”.

This was shown conclusively in Albion’s Seed (1989) by Thomas David Hackett Fischer, a landmark study of the four major British groups who settled in America and established the bedrock elements of its society and culture. They were the Scots-Irish, East Anglians, Northern English (e.g. Quakers), and London/Southern English.

These groups, while exhibiting many differences in culture, social-occupational status, and religion, also shared certain important traits, notably the English language, Protestantism, and the mercantile spirit.

The Scots-Irish made whiskey, says Kephart, because they had made it at home. Home was the plantations of Ulster but (as Fischer showed) also Lowlands Scotland and Borders England. These three areas shared a common ethnic origin (Anglo-Saxon) and a mobile culture which included home-distilling. Together with that came a rebellious attitude to authority when it interfered with something viewed as a long-established folk custom.*

Whiskey was regarded as a medicine and also something to trade for ready cash. Kephart describes well the eternal tussle the moonshiners, called blockaders in his part of the south, had with the revenuers, the government agents charged with stopping illegal distilling.

There were two types of distillers in the mountains: large-scale operators who often bribed low-level government employees, and what we would now call independents, hard-scrabble farmers looking to make extra coin and have a jug for their families. He describes the latter as unsentimental people, using nothing more than their wits in the cat-and-mouse game with the Revenue, and sometimes paying the price with a spell in the penitentiary, which they accepted stoically when necessary.

Kephart points out whiskey was a luxury even in the mountains  – most people got to drink it only once or twice a month, and its use as a medicine tended to ensure it wasn’t abused. He recounts what today sounds a terrifying practice: giving spoonfuls to babies. One informant reported to him that if whiskey is about and the child got none, “she just raars“.

Kephart describes carefully the way these blockaders made their whiskey. I am glad I read it at the tail end of a process of reading about artisan manufacture of whiskey in Kentucky, as it ties beautifully into it. The rudimentary methods of the early Kentucky distillers, what they did to make hand made sour mash whiskey, is essentially what Kephart describes.

The hallmarks of Kephart’s mountaineers’ whiskey were as follows:

– corn was malted by the blockaders – moistened, allowed to sprout, dried

– it was ground in small grinders of metal and stone made locally

– it was mashed with water and Kephart specifically calls the mash a “sweet mash”, which is correct historically, as he is describing distilling after a still is newly set up and only water was to hand for mashing. The same term, sweet mash, would apply to the first mash when an existing still is re-started

– the mash was allowed to ferment naturally without any added yeast, and this sometimes took eight to 10 days. Small tub whiskey-makers in post-Civil War America were able to halve that time while still relying on natural fermentation, e.g., James E. Pepper at his distillery in the late 1880s. The reason is partly that backset for mashing, once available, would ensure a faster and more effective fermentation and in commercial distilling, backset was almost always available

– the beer produced was distilled twice in a basic pot still-and-worm system and then filtered in a rude charcoal filter to take out the “fusel oils”. While no further description of the filter is given, one can see the obvious roots of the Lincoln County Process used to this day by Jack Daniels and George Dickel

– after being filtered through the rude filter, the whiskey was ready to drink. Mountain people had no interest in aging whiskey, they drank or sold it for money as soon as it was potable

Kephart states that once made into beer ready for the still, the “sweet mash” became “sour mash”. This is a correct statement but quite compressed. What he clearly meant was, as we have seen from numerous descriptions of early commercial distilling in Kentucky, once a still is run, you have backset, the spent beer from distilling out the alcohol, to mash the next batch with. There is a perfect accord between Kephart’s 1913 mountain description of moonshine or blockade whiskey and numerous accounts of 1800s-era commercial sour mashing.

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* I am well aware that many families associated with distilling in Kentucky are of English Catholic origin. Distilling cannot be solely associated with the Scots-Irish (aka Ulster Scots). But my reading of history shows them to be of significant influence in what was originally a folk practice and later a commercial activity in Kentucky and elsewhere in the south.

Note re image: the image shown of the Great Smoky Mountains 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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