Whiskey’s Role in Early Settlements, Part II

A quote which illustrates well the role of distilleries in the North Country of New York (see Part I of my account yesterday) appears below. It is from a news article written in 1902, 11 years before Katy Parker’s account I discussed yesterday. The 1902 piece discusses also many matters pertaining to the land-owning brothers, David and George Parish, who opened an area in Oswego County for settlement. The county is south of Lake Ontario at its eastern end, somewhat west of St. Lawrence County and the general area I discussed yesterday, but part of the same region with a similar economy and propinquity to Canada.

A distillery was one of their enterprises.

This interesting clan were originally British but had re-established in Germany to pursue their mercantile interests, whence they departed to invest and settle in the United States.

The 1902 story was written in the light of both of an official history, the Hough book mentioned, and personal accounts of aged residents. It confirms everything Parker stated down to the principal grains used for whiskey, corn and rye.

Contemporary manuals on distillation, notably Samuel M’Harry’s 1809 The Practical Distillerpublished in Pennsylvania, also refer to these grains as the main whisky grains.

M’Harry gives varying combinations: all-rye, all-corn, and mixes either equal or where one predominates. Clearly, the grists varied depending on price and availability. Also, most of the whiskey then was sold new, the concept of aging whiskey was not unknown but was in its infancy. A white dog spirit made from corn or rye would show less refinements of taste, less difference I mean, then the fully-aged article. Only later did corn-based bourbon and rye-based whiskey acquire geographical significance and that came finally with the concept of straight whiskey.

Dealing in grains but also cattle was a key part of distilling then, directly or indirectly. American-born Canadian distiller J.P. Wiser had worked as a cattle dealer in the North Country before moving to Prescott to take up distilling there (see footnote in my Part I account).

 

George Parish not only continued the distillery business, but greatly increased it. He took much of what the settlers had to sell, which made a market for them, and for years the town was as prosperous as any in these parts, corn was usually $1 and rye fifty cents per bushel. These he converted into whiskey and sold at twenty or twenty-five cents per gallon. It was pure whiskey, much better than the most of what’s sold today at ten times that price. In those days the people did not think they could do a haying, raise a building, or do a logging job without a good supply of whiskey.

Accordingly there was a more or less local market for the whiskey, but it was only a fraction of what was made. For years it was drawn in barrels in large quantities to Fort Covington, where, I suppose, it was shipped by boat to Montreal and other places along the St. Lawrence and the lakes. At one time, owing to some duties, a long building was erected which stood one end in Canada and the other in the States, in which the whiskey was stored. When “the coast was clear” I suppose the barrels rolled right over into Canada.

The hauling of this whiskey was quite an industry and afforded the farmers a considerable revenue. Nearly all those nearby the village took a hand in it more or less, while some made it a continual business for years, to wit, P. Piper, Bailey Cross, Foster Brownell and Charles Gibson.

The distillery stables would hold one hundred and one head of cattle. These were bought of the settlers and as soon as fattened on the refuse or mush of the grain were driven to Montreal and sold. The cattle were fattened in the winter time. In the summer they bought and fattened hogs. These were mostly driven to St. Regis where they were slaughtered and shipped by boat.

All this traffic, as may be seen, and as I have stated, made Parishville a live and thrifty village. Then, too, it was on the Turnpike, the main thoroughfare on which daily passed four-horse coaches, with much other travel, and had the largest and best hotel on the road.