British Science Advises Charred Barrels for Spirits (1806)

Science vs. Accidental Explanations

One of the great questions in whiskey history: how did new charred barrel emerge to age bourbon and straight rye whiskeys? It is a question likely without  definitive answer, but progress can be made, as will appear.

The Filson Historical Society in Louisville, KY announced some years ago that the first mention known of the charred cask for American whiskey is in 1826. (The term bourbon itself, for a type of whiskey, first appears in 1821 in a Maysville, KY newspaper, a fact known since the 1960s at least).


On the Filson’s page, it is explained that a grocer in Lexington requested, of a distiller in Bourbon County, John Corlis, that his whiskey be delivered in barrels charred to 1/16″. The letter was polite, leaving the decision to the supplier, but leaving clear the opinion that the spirit would be “much improved”.

By the end of the 1800s the aging of bourbon and rye in new charred oak was routine, and associated with fine Kentucky and Pennsylvania whiskey. At a minimum though, one can infer that around 1825 some whiskey was aged in charred barrels (new or other) and prized as such, at least in Bourbon County, by then much reduced in size from its original area that took up much of northern Kentucky.

This doesn’t mean, in other words, that all Kentucky whiskey was aged in a charred or other barrel c.1825. Henry G. Crowgey, in his landmark study Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, makes clear that in the first quarter of the 1800s, whiskey is described without reference to its colour. Sometimes, he said, it was called “old” and finally by reference to a term of years: 1, 2, 3 etc. years old.

For example, he cites a whiskey advertised in 1818 as seven years old. But generally at the time much whiskey was sold new, hence white and taking no or little colour from the barrel. Early texts such as Samuel M’Harry’s from 1809, Practical Distiller, also clear again some whiskey was aged in barrel and some was not.

M’Harry, writing in Philadelphia, seemed to like the colour and flavour that wood imparted. He also noted this was undesirable for certain purposes, e.g. when the whiskey was intended to be blended with beer or brandy. This was to increase the strength, or “extend” it in the parlance of the day.

M’Harry writes of using straw to burn the wood vessels used in mashing and distilling whiskey (more than storing it, that is), but he is not clear if they should be charred black. His main concern seemed to be to kill microorganisms which could acetify or otherwize spoil a mash or fermentation; this is not really the same as charring barrels black to hold whiskey for years.

By mid-century though, long aging of Kentucky whiskey in wood became common. Even before the Civil War the red colour of James Crow’s whiskey made at Oscar Pepper Distillery was noted as a virtue. By the end of the 1800s, the aging of bourbon in new charred oak was considered necessary to lend the product its keynote flavour and e.g., the fine red colour of Jack Daniel’s whiskey was recorded in this period.

Many theories have been put forward for the use of the new charred barrel to age American whiskeys, everything from wood casks being charred accidentally from a fire onsite and used anyway to store whiskey, to charred barrels being a by-product of sanitizing of wood vessels and casks to prevent a soured or musty taste.

Some have suggested too that in heating staves to fashion barrels, which is necessary to make them pliable, some staves were burned accidentally but made into barrels anyway. Filled with whiskey and tasted years later, these barrels were found to have much improved the spirit. All these theories are a form of the accident explanation. The John Corlis explanation seems to be that early merchants who stored and sold whiskey hit on the idea, which IMO is a variant of the accident theory.


As brandy has been barrelled for centuries, this practice may have inspired the same idea for American whiskey, as it no doubt did for the oak storage of Irish and Scotch whisky and rum. From my reading though, Cognac barrels were never charred black like American bourbon barrels. They were and are toasted to varying degrees but not to the point of creating the famous “red layer” of a bourbon barrel, the part just under the char layer which imparts caramelized wood sugars to the whiskey. Still, old French practice may be part of the picture.

As we know from Scotch whisky and rum, fine flavour can result from long aging in uncharred oak wood (or reused charred barrels, whose red layer is considered exhausted). But the keynote flavour is quite different from that of bourbon: generally less sweet and charcoal-like. The peat flavour of some malt whisky is not really the same thing.

Against this background, it is useful to point out that scientists in Europe in the latter half of the 1700s and early 1800s were experimenting with the use of charcoal and charred barrels to improve the taste of various liquids, notably water but also wine and spirits. J.T. Lovitz, a Russian scientist, experimented with charcoal and charred casks to ensure water wouldn’t sour or “putrefy”, as explained in this modern text on water treatment.

The Russian navy adopted this practice with success, as did the British navy somewhat later. The French chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet (1748-1822) considered that wine would not spoil if held in charred barrels and is remembered for his work on charcoal filtration in general.

The suggested  application to alcohol drinks was a derivative of these experiments through the 1700s with charcoal and other materials, e.g., sand, to sanitize in particular water for municipal use. It was seen that charring the barrel creates a thin charcoal layer and it was felt this kept water and other products fresh for longer. Meats too were stored in charred barrels to retard premature spoilage. In 1806, a renowned British scientist and chemist, William Nicholson, advocated a similar system in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Volume 15but he extended it to distilled spirits:

Spirituous liquors likewise [like wine] dissolve the extractive part of wood, and receive qualities which are in some cases valued, but others detrimental. The charred casks would prevent this effect. In a word, the casks which have received this preparation may be used for all purposes in which liquids are to be preserved, without being affected by the extractive part of the wood, and they prevent the putrefaction to which some of them may be subject.

Nicholson earlier cites in his work the researches of Berthollet regarding charred barrels to store wine, and refers to the beneficial effect of charcoal on the liquid. The concern was to keep the good parts of wood storage – I would infer tannins and colour –  and exclude the bad parts which lent a fetid or bad taste to water or wine. I think they were driving at controlling wood saps, as these would be burned out by the charring and the charcoal layer would neutralize any residual effect on the liquid. I once tasted beer stored in a new oak barrel and it was virually undrinkable, piney and very off-flavoured.

In the end, the British used ex-sherry and reused American whiskey casks to store whisky, so charring perhaps was viewed as less significant than Nicholson thought, although it is interesting that 99% of the barrels the Scots, and the Canadians, use are charred, except re-used. But the point is, we have a scientist in a British journal advocating holding spirits in charred wood, and 20 years later, there is evidence charred barrels were being used to store Kentucky whiskey with the implication that for some years at least the practice had been ususal.

The British founded the main American settlements. British books in the sciences and other branches of knowledge circulated in the country. Americans were up on the latest developments in distillation as we know from their early adoption of steam distillation.

In my view, the American adoption of the new charred barrel may well have been inspired by these European developments – the 1700s ones referred to on charcoal filtration for water, the use of charred barrels to store water and wine on voyages, and finally specfic advice in 1806 to store spirits in charred barrels to prevent off-tastes and deterioration.

Is it possible Kentucky grocers or merchants hit on the idea independently? Certainly, but I regard the European background as too much coincidence: the knowledge likely had penetrated to America’s interior so that Kentucky distillers and indeed merchants applied it methodically, not by accident.

Note re images: the images above were sourced from the entries on “bourbon whiskey” and “William Nicholson” in Wikipedia, here and here. They are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, Reviewed

51Jt6gMS2GL._SX352_BO1,204,203,200_Robin LeBlanc and Jordan St. John have authored the The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, published by Dundurn publishers in Toronto. Reading the book reminds me that despite the great resources of the Internet, there is no substitute for a good beer book.

This tome is a comprehensive look at the contemporary brewing scene in Ontario. It focuses mostly on breweries including contract operations, but has a section on craft-oriented pubs as well, organized by city or town.

LeBlanc and St. John are experienced journalists and published authors, and the experience shows in the new book.

It is crisply-written and edited, with a logical flow.

The chapter on Ontario craft brewing history is particularly helpful. It is impossible truly to understand where we are at today without knowing what happened in the last 30 years. Jordan’s experience writing Ontario beer history must have come in handy here.

There are some nice touches too which will respond to the needs of many readers including the chapter at the outset called Top Breweries in Ontario. The authors know that many readers want to know which is “best” and so this summum, a distillation of their ratings, answers that need.  (I agree with their No. 1 choice, Side Launch!). Speaking of ratings, they use a simple 5-number system which is easy to follow.

The heart of the book is the alphabetical listing of breweries. It is very complete and even though ongoing developments in the form of new breweries, new beers from existing ones, closures, mean the book can’t be 100% complete when issued, it is still very useful again. Certainly 90% of the listings or more will remain relevant for a considerable time. Plus, I understand the authors will be issuing a second edition in good time.

Under each brewery the authors review various beers issued. The layout is easy to follow, clear and uncluttered. A line or two is used to review each beer. Their notes show considerable knowledge and experience and are excellent guides. E.g. of 10 Bitter Years they say, “dank with pine resin and brightened by clementine and tangerine citrus”. Right on. The style of going on and on, to which the law of diminishing returns applies IMO, is avoided in this book. The advantage of short-but-sweet reviews is the authors hone in on the essentials, and more room is left to include other beers.

Right now I’m sipping on a Kichesippi 1855. I’d rate this dark ale a 3/5 and would call the taste grainy, mildly hopped, not complex. Let’s see what Jordan and Robin say: “nutty body of toffee and toast … well balanced by an appropriate bitterness”. They give it a 4. Well, we are pretty close even though not saying it the same way.

Of course, as beer is a personal preference, this entails a large degree of subjectivity, and disagreement with others’ taste notes is the nature of the game. So if you peruse the book and think, gee they don’t agree with me on one or two beers, don’t let that stop you from buying it. There is a tremendous amount of excellent information in the book and it is a very good resource to have.

I have little to cavil with, my only suggestion would be to include Sleeman Brewery in the next edition. Apart from its historical importance, Sleeman brews some excellent beers – the all-malt Dark Ale is one of the best dunkels in Ontario*, and the ditto Upper Canada Lager is very good too. There is also a creditable porter and IPA. Numerous beers are reviewed in the book which aren’t half as good (IMO), so I’d put Sleeman in. (If Hop City or Creemore are in, too, I can’t see a reason to exclude Sleeman).

But a small point in the context of what is a first-rate book for which the authors deserve kudos indeed.


*Note added June 27, 2016:  I remembered after writing this that Upper Canada Dark Ale is presumably top-fermented, indeed The Beer Store entry describes it as a northern English brown ale. Nonetheless to me it evokes the taste of a good Munich-style dark lager (dunkel)…

A Principled Temperance Fighter, T. De Witt Talmage

Thomas_DeWitt_Talmage_c1870Even at this late stage in the social history of alcohol, some Temperance campaigning in the 1800s can’t fail to make an impression. In particular, never did the cause against drink have a more ardent or articulate spokesman than T. De Witt Talmage (1832-1902).

One doesn’t have to agree with the postulates of the movement to understand the good faith of many of its avatars. The human travails which moved them were often very real and it is bootless to deny them.

The roots of teetotalism were complex: society was shifting from a rural to an urban base; medicine increasingly viewed alcohol as having no place in the dispensary; the womens’ suffrage movement often saw gender equality and the alcohol ban as complementary; and there was a growing consensus in many Protestant churches that alcohol was incompatible with faith-based living.

T. De Witt Talmage was a star performer in the ranks of clergy who fulminated against drinking.

This interesting personality, as his writings reveal, was a highly intelligent and committed man of the cloth, from a deeply religious family in New Jersey of the Reformed Dutch church. His ancestry was Dutch and English, of plain stock as he proudly averred, but influential in early American history. He was well-educated and studied law before completing his D.D.

Talmage supported women’s rights, and spoke up for minorities in society at a time when social Darwinism was starting its malign rise or older pathologies were still full of power. He defended in particular the Jewish people from the growing persecutions in Russia, and foresaw the catastrophe Germany would visit upon the Jews. He was a supporter of renewing the ties of Jews to Palestine on biblical grounds and to palliate this risk.

Thus, Talmage was not the kind of Temperance man who was anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish. (Indeed he was remarked in his day for reaching out to both these faiths). He was a deeper thinker than that, whose rejection of drinking was based on its social toll and the damage he perceived it caused to family piety and solidarity.

The animus was life-long and probably inherited from his parents. Talmage was active in Brooklyn, NY where two churches were built as a platform for his ministrations and oratorical skills. He attracted thousands to his sermons. He had a rhythmic, ringing way of preaching and was something of a showman on stage.

12717855_10208387730120379_133025276733932156_n-1One of his tricks was to race from one end of the stage to another and leap in the air. Just as the adoring crowd thought he would vault into their ranks, he would crash down at the edge of the stage and cry out to youth to abjure alcohol and lead a straight life.

(One wonders if the showmanship of rock and roll didn’t come one way or another from the church).

This source contains what must be one of Talmage’s best speeches against drink where he riffs on the word crooked. It’s all crooked he says, not just moonshine liquor which doesn’t pay taxes, but all alcohol, crooked beer, crooked cognac, crooked wine, it puts man on a crooked path and leads him to certain ruin.

One needn’t share the views of Talmage on alcohol to be impressed by his commitment and energy. At a minimum, he is a reminder that alcohol has a dark side.

The solution of the Temperance crowd – a total ban – led ultimately to problems worse than they were designed to solve: organized bootlegging, associated criminalities, encouraging a disrespect for law.

Still, there can be no doubt Talmage’s heart was in the right place. We accept alcohol today on the view it can be used responsibly, but it is still salutary to read him. A lot of what he said was true and it’s a reminder to treat alcohol with respect.

Note re images: The images above are from Internet sources and believed in the public domain. Both are believed available for educational or cultural use. All feedback welcomed.

Moonshine’s Less Romantic Glow


When one reads about illicit liquor in the U.S. back country, cities and towns not always excepted, many accounts are wreathed in an indulgent, even romantic tone. Our Southern Highlanders, published in 1913 and iscussed in my last post, is a good example.

Generally, sociological and ethnological treatments post-1900 are more or less sympathetic, reflecting I think a more nuanced understanding of marginal cultures than existed earlier.

Before 1900, there was a tendency to speak more superficially of the mountain people, that they were primitive, impoverished, hidebound. This lead to a condemnation of their ways including the illicit distilling aspect.

To be sure, the romantic idea of the outlaw stillman has always existed but it’s more a literary or poetic device in contrast to narrative works dealing with sociology or culture. Robbie Burns’s classic line, “freedom and whisky gang together” is an illustration of the timeless poetic approach.

In the 1800s few public voices were understanding of the illegal whiskey culture. There were two types of anti-moonshine literature. One was temperance inspired while the other focused on law and how best to uproot defiance of authority and the legal writ.


The 1881 tome  After The Moonshiners is in the latter class and was written by a former Internal Revenue agent. He spent years in the south combatting illicit stills. Many of the conflicts were violent. Accounts of this type often stress that moonshiners frequently were petty criminals in general; counterfeiting and dealing in stolen goods were some of the other malfeasance they dealt in.

The book points out too the toll excessive alcohol use often meant for families, for example that men would trade corn meal with the stillmen for whiskey when their families were going hungry.

Some contests between moonshiners and the law developed into pitched battles that sound every bit like a modern firefight. Agents might be armed with the early Springfield rifle whose “ball” had a range of 1000 yards. They also used “Navy revolvers”, or Colts, valued for their butt-ends as much as their cartridge capacity. Agents tried to arrest their quarry peacefully but the resistance sometimes encountered could be fierce. Many agents were killed or wounded chasing the moonshine outlaws up and down a quite-literal hill and vale.

Oddly, acquiescence in arrest was sometimes a ‘shiner strategy. In one district moonshiners would serially inform on and testify against a peer, he would take the hit and spend some jail time. After release he would inform on another, and so on. A spell in jail sounds like something few would voluntarily incur but as one author put it the “hostage”, or convict, often ate better than he did at home and had a chance to see the town (where the court house was) before being imprisoned. Many arrested thought it a good deal!

The temperance books of course focused on the moral and physical ruin liquor often caused. While today there is tendency today to think this was exaggerated some of the lurid stories were obviously based in fact.

Alcohol always did exact a certain toll, and innocents were hurt by it and still are. That can’t be denied, but nonetheless the religious fervour of these books should factored. Some of the most interesting literature in this vein was written by ex-moonshiners who became true believers. Certainly from the latter source, one knows their accounts of whiskey-making should be trusted.

Note re images: The first image above was sourced here and is in the public domain. The second, sourced here, has the following attribution and permitted use: By Hmaag (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons. Both images are believed available for educational or cultural use. All feedback welcomed.

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


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.


* 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.


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.





Burgoo in Owensboro, Kentucky, 1887

In 1887, Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular had an item on Kentucky burgoo amongst all the trade news (typical fare: “light, perfect ventilation and dryness” are perfect to store whiskey).

To say humour was involved is an understatement, but that was the Kentucky style, and still is. Relaxed, down-home. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the state, and learned this.

Bonfort’s offered a tableau of town life that would vanish with Prohibition’s clanging door, the alcohol part anyway.

Burgoo, of distant English origin, survives in the South and Midwest to this day. As for many foods from afar, it evolved in a new direction once in the New World.

Burgoo is not a roasted or pit-cooked dish; as the article notes, it is a stew. The term BBQ as used in Bonfort’s appears simply to mean any outdoor gathering where food is served. Today, Kentucky would consider its specialty of mutton slathered BBQ more strictly a BBQ dish.

Here is what Bonfort’s had to say about burgoo:

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.

One of the best places to find burgoo outside a community event is the renowned Moonlite Bar-B-Q, in Owensboro. It is sold in a bowl to eat soup-style, and in gallon jugs for take away. You see Moonlight’s stand below amongst many food offerings at the Owensboro BBQ Festival in 2008. Appropriately, mutton is typically a component in Owensboro burgoo.




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 on burgoo in America’s premier bourbon forum, (“SB”). The discussion was Kentucky-centric since most who participated live in Kentucky like Bobby Cox, or Bettye-Jo, and others who participated are familiar with the Commonwealth, as it’s known, or similar traditions.

I first saw burgoo on a menu in Kentucky, and for the life of me could not 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 burgoo? It is a stew, usually involving different vegetables and meats, and often wild game. But also, there is always a starchy base to it, usually a cereal of some kind, corn or something else.  Okra can supply that part, or potatoes. It is a thinnish stew but not a soup. It is always cooked in large quantities and was, still is, served communally: at church functions, civic gatherings, barbecues, anything involving a large group and quite often in 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 do not need to write here the long story of its origin because I set it out earlier at SB as I mentioned, see here. Burgoo is British in origin, as so many traditional American foods prove to be if you look back 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 sources that mention burgoo, which have nothing to do with the U.S. The word is from bulgher – bulgher wheat. You may say, that doesn’t quite get us to “burgoo”. But this form of wheat has 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, and any vegetables still on hand. And so burgoo was a wheat-based gruel filled out with any vegetable or protein to hand – not fish though, as far as I can tell. Americans took it over and adapted it to their country-sides and traditions, but one can still see the link to the original dish, in how it’s made and that the service to a large group. Shipboard seamen originally, and now large community gatherings on land.

In a word burgoo was communal in origin, and still reflects this.

So, 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 burgoo with them. In turn. those people surely were English or at least, influenced by the foodways of ships that brought the British to North America.

Things have a way of moving around, migration is the story of man and cuisine no less. But essentially burgoo is one of those historical survivals, an oddity if you will.

The oldest annals of SB disclose an “atomic, bourbonic burgoo” a member and his wife once brought to “Gazebo”. A Gazebo in this sense is the twice-annual gathering of the SB membership, always in Bardstown, KY. I never tried that version of burgoo, I hadn’t joined the SB bourbonites crew yet.

But I’ve always been minded to make my own version. It had a good spicy note evidently – and a glug or five of bourbon, of that there is no doubt.

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 research and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Kentucky Whiskey-Making In The Wathens Over 100 Years


From 1790-1905, a History of Technology and Innovation

An article in 1905 in The Wine and Spirit Bulletin outlines the history of a famous distilling family, the Wathens, from c. 1790 until the year of writing. The article is, “The Manufacture Of Whisky In Kentucky” and starts at pg. 22 in the June 1 issue. Its focus is technological and on output. I won’t summarise too much because the article is clear and easy enough to read, but some salient points follow.

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

This is interesting as a natural ferment was achieved without “backset” (say, as lambic beer is fermented today). However, as soon as backset, or spent residue in the still, was available from the first boils, it was carried to each successive tub in four- gallon buckets, and used in mashing.

For fermentation, as soon as they had top yeast from the fermenter, they used that – this is yeasting-back, an alternate way to sour-mash.

Henry Wathen used all-corn mashing 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. The last is a kind of transition between a pot still and a continuous still that is divided by plates through which steam surges and 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. There is no external condensation and re-charging. In effect though, a triple distillation occurs. These were used into the 1900s but became obsolete after Prohibition.

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

And finally, a metal, multi-tiered column still, similar to those today, replaced the wood three-chamber still. The account implies the spirit improved with each such change. My only experience with pot stills and bourbon is Woodford Reserve’s bourbon. The pot still element of its bourbon is quite strong-tasting, at least at four or five years old, vs. a 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, the whiskey tasted better. This ties in to some other accounts, e.g., distiller Charlie Thomason from Willett of Bardstown, KY said c. 1960 that 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).



One 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.