James E. Pepper’s Bourbon Methods in 1889


The above advertisement, from the 1889 Souvenir Programme of the Louisville Fall Celebration, shows the distillery then owned by James E. Pepper and William Barnes. E.H. Taylor bought out James Pepper’s family distillery in 1877, the original site of which is now Woodford Reserve Distillery in Versailles, KY. Pepper was able later to re-enter the business. He no longer had rights to the Old Crow name, which Taylor acquired in the 1860s, but produced fine whiskey again on the site of the former Henry Clay distillery in Lexington, KY.

The Pepper bourbon legacy was certainly indebted to James Crow who did his ground-breaking work there in the 1840s. We have seen how in 1884 Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Journal linked both Crow and Oscar Pepper to a small tub mashing and fermentation system. It relied on backset to set the mash with no added yeast. This produced by my calculation a fairly low-yielding distiller’s beer, about 4.5% abv, due to the relatively uncontrolled methods used. But the claim was, it made for a better taste once the longer maturation period needed was achieved.

When James Pepper started distilling again he made whiskey mashed and fermented in the style his family and Crow had. This is evident from the above advertisement which stresses to the public, “no yeast is employed to secure an unnatural fermentation or large yield”. And it adds that 1000 small tubs are used to mash, by hand. This means no mash yeast or back-yeast – barm selected from the last ferment – was added. Mother Nature did all the work.

This use of natural fermentation, one which recalls the rare, surviving production of lambic beer in Belgium, connects James Pepper to Oscar Pepper’s and James Crow’s use of the same technique. James just continued it, as had E.H. Taylor when he owned the Pepper distillery and for whiskey made at his other plants including OFC, which is now Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY.

The 1889 Programme is a kind of industrial and mercantile survey. It has an interesting chapter, “Kentucky Whiskies”, which repays close reading, see especially pp 51-54. Sour mash is referred to but no claim is made that any Pepper, or James Crow, devised it. The reason for this in my view is the writer knew that the technique predated Crow’s arrival at Oscar Pepper’s plant c. 1840. Sour mash is not ascribed in the article to any one figure, but rather is said to have emerged for “convenience and economy”. When and how, was not known to the author. But it is interesting that the Programme states the first bourbon whiskey made in the state was a sweet mash whiskey with added yeast – I referred earlier to Edgar Preyer’s 1901 book which said the same thing.

The modern bourbon historian Henry Crowgey has discussed two recipes from the 1820s, one entails sweet mash in the sense of yeast being added, the other is evidently an alternating sweet and sour mash system where you start with yeast, then backset alone is relied on for a few runs, then a sweet mash is started up to ensure the backset doesn’t get too harsh and “fiery”. In both these recipes backset is used to scald the mash, as today, but clearly a lot of sweet mash production was mashed just with water (per my earlier discussions). Crowgey’s account is here. Other recipes for sweet mash and sour mash have been uncovered dating back to the same period. So sour mash was not new, but I apprehend Crow applied it methodically in an early industrial setting for “convenience and economy”.

The 1889 Programme does ascribe an honour to Crow: “doubling” “on wood” by steam. Doubling is the second stage of distillation, to refine the product and raise the proof. I read this to refer to a wooden doubler, or small pot still, which was heated by steam, not on a wood fire. Whether Crow actually did this is hard to say. I incline to think he did because the account is quite detailed. It explains that Crow’s whiskey was very good, was carried west in Kentucky from Frankfort by politicians who liked it – Frankfort is the state capital – and thus influenced distillers in the west. Nelson County, where much distilling occurs in Kentucky today, is proximate to Louisville for example.

Why would steam heat for a pot still be better than the old wood fire? Perhaps because the mash didn’t burn, a risk always present in fire-heated metal. In any case, the reference in the 1889 Programme is clearly to the second or doubler still, not the first or wash still.


The Programme further states: “West of the Kentucky River [shown in the image above], the distillers, with very rare exception, copied after Crow, used the sour mash hand-made method, and doubled in wood”. Note the reference to sour mash, these other distillers, who “copied” Crow, were all sour-mashing. Obviously then, Crow did too as we know from Bonfort’s account in 1884.

Numerous improvements in bourbon manufacture have been ascribed to Crow, but I think it is reasonable at least to read both accounts as meaning that Crow sour-mashed with backset and no added yeast, and used a wood doubler heated with steam to bring his distillate to final proof. One always wishes for more information than there is, but we need to work with the information we have. These two sources, carefully examined, provide some very good information on James Crow’s role in bourbon history. Of course, he may have done more, methodical aging has often been mentioned, for example. Indeed his whiskey was noted for being red, it was called the “red cretur” – in effect the aged red/brown bourbon we have today vs. the white or very pale whiskey still common before the Civil War.

The innovation Bonfort’s ascribed in 1884 is undoubtedly true in my opinion. It was recorded, not just in a popular publication, but a specialist one, devoted to the distilling industry. And Bonfort’s mentioned not just Crow, but Oscar Pepper whose son was still living and active and a highly respected figure in Kentucky distilling. I don’t think Bonfort’s would misstate information with historical overtones under these circumstances.

Finally, the ad above confirms the account because it advertises prominently the same method used five years later by the son.

However, James Pepper’s ad also states, “we single and double through Copper Stills over open fires”. No reference to a wood doubler operated by steam! If James Pepper was following Crow’s method, why would he not use the wooden steam doubler Crow apparently did? This is hard to say. Maybe he didn’t stick with that part, certainly the industry had pretty much dispensed with wood for this purpose by the end of the 1800s. Gerald Carson’s bourbon history (1963) states that E.H. Taylor discarded the “uncleanly” wood still, so it makes sense James, who had had many dealings with Taylor, did too. In fact, James made Old Crow whiskey for Taylor after the brand name transferred over as mentioned above…

Certainly today all alcohol stills, of whatever type, are made of metal except for a wood column still and wood pot still, both 1800s vintage and still operating to make rum at El Dorado in Guyana. Peruse its website and look at them yourself. The column still is a frame of wood filled with packing or perforated plates. Steam shoots up through the column to vaporize the alcohol from the descending wash. The pot still is also a wood frame which holds a metal pot in which the wash is boiled.

Wood may have caused problems to an industry increasingly concerned with sanitation and probably was more costly to maintain than metal. So that part had to go, one infers.

The Mother Nature yeasting part did too, finally, by c. 1910.

What stayed? Backset to acidify the mash. All bourbon distilleries today use it. They could add a lactic acid culture and dispense with the backset, but it may contribute some flavour and perhaps also bacteria which create esters and/or more alcohol. And just perhaps, they do it because it is a way to hang on to some old tradition. Bourbon is nothing if it ain’t that. Why, travel down to Kentucky and visit the plants, chat with the people, see for yourself. It’s pretty country too, as you see in the image above.

Note re images above: The first is from the 1889 Programme linked in the first paragraph. The second, of Frankfort, KY and area, is from Wikipedia, here. Both are in the public domain and believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed. In addition, all trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized users.






Rating Wines and Spirits in America in 1940

The Prescience of Consumers Union Reports


The “Consumers Union of the United States” was founded in 1936 and began to issue its famed Consumer Reports magazine to test and rate consumer goods and services for buyers.

The group was the product of a new form of business thinking that focused on the interests of consumers and sought to discourage industrial and commercial deception. In a word, it promoted consumerism.

The idea developed steadily from the later-1800s, the period when the first laws came into force to regulate consumer products, especially food, and rein in egregious examples of consumer fraud or gouging.

The group continues its good work to this day but was reorganized in 2012. A separate company now publishes Consumer Reports and maintains an active web presence; the original Consumer Union now focuses on public advocacy and research.

In 1941 the Consumer’s Union issued its fourth Wines and Spirits report with content dating from November 1940. The publication, despite some inevitable period language, has a modern look and feel. The product comments are not as detailed as in today’s reviews (book, magazine, online rating service, etc.) but are clearly progenitors.

I think, too, one can see the influence on the Zagat restaurant review series. The signature was presenting a serial list of reviews, each short and impactful, and then providing a rating. James D. (“Jim”) Robertson’s 1978 The Connoisseur’s Guide To Beer, an early modern consumer beer book, also seems influenced by the Consumer Reports style.

Consumer Reports was always notable for not pulling punches and no-buy recommendations are included from the early reports.

The Wine and Spirits report is very interesting. First, there was the shadow albeit lessening of National Prohibition, which ended only eight years before. Second, the dampening effect of the Depression was still operating although it’s something to be intuited in the report vs. being clearly stated.

Then as now, New York City, where the Union was based, had the money to indulge the best but a prosperous middle class had continued through the Depression and one senses it was the main audience for the reports.

Perhaps the most important external factor was what the report termed the “war in Europe”, a literally true statement as the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was still in the future. America was thus at peace but the war had many effects.

These included the cessation of wine and brandy shipments from France, Italy, and Germany. Prewar stocks were going fast. The report stated this provided an opportunity for California vintners, who indeed finally got their due but probably much later than the report authors thought.

Yet, for the time, Consumer Reports was surprisingly bullish on California wine, calling the best of it “really good” although always placing Europe in the front rank for the topmost end. Some faith was placed in Argentina as an influential wine country. Indeed this happened also, finally.

Chile was not mentioned at all. The report bemoaned the shortage of French brandy and dismissed the California product as clearly inferior, in part because too young.


Each section is prefaced by a detailed and accurate summary of the product type. Whisky is given a full treatment, especially Scotch whose lustre was possibly at its apogee in America then, continuing a success enjoyed illicitly during the Volstead era.

Canadian whisky is given short shrift, basically. It is termed “extremely light” and its value questioned in relation to price; American blends were held up as better value. If there was a quality difference resulting from the fact that the neutral grain spirit element in Canada was aged in wood but unaged in the American blends, the report didn’t pick up on it.

In this regard, the report seemed unprophetic, as Canadian whisky continued to grow by leaps and bounds in the U.S. from the 1930s until today.

The report contains what may be, with other early Consumer Reports on the same subject, the only extant reviews of the Canadian straight whiskeys then on the market. One was Pedigree Rye from Seagram at 8 years old, the other was a 5-year-old rye also from Seagram, probably the same whisky but three years younger.

The reviews state that these were straight whiskeys, comparable to U.S. straight rye, and the light character of Canadian whisky really applied to the blended form, e.g., Seagram VO. But the report deprecated the price of these straights (“excellent – but overpriced”). It reflected, largely, the customs duty Canadian whisky had to pay to enter the U.S.

Clearly, the report liked the Canadian straights but felt they weren’t the value they had been when there was still a shortage of bonded U.S. whisky after Repeal. As seven years had elapsed since 1933 American rye and bourbon had time to regain their traditional character yet Pedigree was still more expensive.


The authors clearly were straight whiskey devotees who appreciated body and character, words that recur in their commentary.

Sometimes a taste note is included that could have been written yesterday. The panel grumbles that Old Overholt Straight Rye seemed changed in character, for example: “This brand has changed considerably during the past year. Although it is still well made, it lacks the characteristic brand flavor it once possessed, and is much lighter-bodied”.

Things are always getting lighter and not what they used to be, even in 1940! Certainly the report liked the (American) Finch’s Monticello Straight Rye, calling it “heavy” and well-made.

The report tartly observes that Mt. Vernon Straight Rye sometimes uses distillate from other than Mt. Vernon distillery and its rating should be considered applicable only to the genuine Mt. Vernon stuff. Quite modern-sounding, again.

Now we’ve got to find the beer report, but how? There was at least one, I know, issued c.1949, and the Union probably had dealt with beer much earlier. One can just imagine how some of it went: “Ballantine IPA has the character of the best pre-Prohibition “stock”, or India pale, beers. Expensive but worth it.”.

Or, “New York’s Trommer White Label lager retains the quality of German beer due to its all-malt construction; a high rating is in order”.

Or, “Eichler’s lager in the Bronx seems reduced in body from the straw-boater days, we rate it at par”. And so on.

Note re images: The early cover of a Consumer Reports magazine was sourced at this Consumer Reports website. The second image was sourced at this flickr site, here.  The third, hereAll trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized licencees. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

A Maven Of Intelligent Blending

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We Call It Vatting Today, Edgar

Back in 1901, a New Yorker of the name Edgar Reuben Preyer wrote a compelling book on distilled spirits. It covers “everything”, as its careful and intelligent author claims in the introduction: the science of distillation; mashing and grain; the different spirits; bonded whiskey; taxes; rye whiskey; prices and cost accounting; distribution; rectification and blending; and still more.

Here is a link to the book, via Hathitrust digitized library.

Preyer’s explanation of sweet mash and sour mashing is broadly similar to others I’ve discussed, but with a gloss on back-yeasting. He states that at the beginning of a distilling season a mash is left to ferment naturally in small tubs which he says (correctly) is sour mash. Once a fermentation is secured, the yeast, or barm, is used to seed the next one and so on. He calls that a sweet mash, which is correct as well because yeast is being added by the distiller.

Clearly some distillers operated in this way but some distillers never yeasted back and relied for all their fermentations on purely natural (spontaneous) fermentation as I’ve showed in the past.

Then too, sometimes you would start with a sweet mash and move to sour, in that once enough backset was produced, you would mash with that and add no further yeast. This was the system C.K. Gallagher laid down as I’ve also explained recently.

There are only three basic ways to yeast: naturally, back-yeasting, and with a yeast mash (“from jug to dona to vat”). But there can be variations in each method and differences in their order.

Preyer, relying on the memories of aged distillers who recalled farm-distilling days, states (see pg. 44) that the distilling seasons of spring and fall emerged in the days when distillers relied on natural organisms to ferment. This was because the natural yeasts were most propitious then to a good result. In the winter, the whiskeys were too light and “deficient in flavor”. In the summer, the wild yeasts produced too many fusel oils. There is an analogy here to lambic production in Belgium, which remains seasonal to this day.

Preyer doesn’t claim that ferments would sour in the summer, which seems to me a beer-brewing concept applied by some wrongfully in the whiskey context: he says the whiskeys were too oily from secondary constituents. He indicates with his typical thoroughness that as distilling became more sophisticted, it could take place year-round. The point being, the famous Kentucky distilling seasons have their origin in small tub natural (spontaneous) yeasting.

Preyer notes that Kentucky’s fame as a whiskey-centre was due in no small part to whiskey distribution becoming a sophisticated business and located mainly in Louisville. It is today too easy to forget that distilling was just part of the story. Getting the product to what became a national market was a separate endeavour in which Louisville commerce specialized. So was the practice of selling whiskey in bond to holders of warehouse receipts and the trading in these, which Preyer explains very clearly.

He makes some very interesting comments on rye whiskey. Contrary to some who say that Kentucky always made rye whiskey, he states that its whiskey was based on corn – bourbon. To compete with “Eastern” rye producers, i.e., in Maryland and Pennsylvania, Kentucky started to make rye later in the 1800s.

In most sources of this type, you rarely read any criticism. Industry members often advertised in the books to recompense the author and anyway people in business are not usually inclined to say bad things about others in a similar line. But Preyer states flat-out that the quality of Kentucky rye wasn’t very good for quite a while. He says Bluegrass distillers had little experience making rye and made mistakes, such as not choosing the grain carefully enough and aging the whiskey three years in “cold” (unheated) warehouses. Eastern ryes were emerging after three years with fine colour and maturity due to their sojourn in heated warehouses. The heating encourages more “cycles” for the whiskey in the barrel – expanding from and receding into the frame of the barrel as the temperature rises and cools – which accelerates maturation.

Preyer states though that Kentucky got better at making rye as time went on. Perhaps he didn’t really knock the industry as Kentucky’s fame then and now was based on straight bourbon, not rye. But it ties in to something I recall from early trips to Kentucky when some distillers would say, “we don’t know rye well or didn’t until we decided to make it”.

Straight rye was the great drink of Pennsylvania and Maryland, now lost although craft distilling has started to bring it back, e.g., Dad’s Hat in PA.

Regarding blending, a topic not unfamiliar to those who plumb whiskey history, Preyer has little time for blends which include neutral alcohol. He talks solely about combining straight whiskeys including rye and bourbon together, and was a great proponent of blending in this sense. We call it today vatting, a practice I advocated for years on straightbourbon.com, encountering not a little resistance at the beginning. I was using Scots practice as a template but had also read predecessors of Preyer such as his fellow New Yorker Joseph Fleischmann who wrote a similar book, but not as well, in 1885.

In our vernacular, Edgar Preyer would be thrilled to see the skill with which modern acolytes of vatting practice their art especially on straightbourbon.com. He probably never dreamed consumers would do it on their own, but then lots has changed since his time in the business. (And lot’s hasn’t). He’d get it totally though, I don’t doubt it. See below a page reproduced from the book on the topic.

A rough count of the distilleries listed in Preyer’s book for Kentucky is 400 – 400 distilleries! Today you can count them on two hands. And 400 was nothing really because since 1860 as Preyer explains so well again, the industry began to concentrate under the pressure of tight federal regulation. That era was introduced with the first tax on whiskey, levied by the Union to help win the Civil War. There were probably a thousand or more distilleries in the first half of the 1800s. The proliferation of distilling and yeasting methods is no surprise given how many producers there once were.

One wonders what happened to Mr. Preyer, an exemplar of his trade and no doubt very successful at it. I mean, what happened when the Volstead Act in 1919 put an end to beverage alcohol in America. He would have been nearing 60 and perhaps retired, or went into another business.

Tom M. Gilmore, who wrote the whiskey chapter in E. Stoddard Johnston’s 1896 history of Louisville and published Bonfort’s Wine and Spirits Circular, is cited, among numerous others, as a source in Preyer’s book. Whiskey was a small world then; in some ways it still is. According to a brief New York Times obituary, Tom Gilmore died in 1921, of Bright’s disease, hastened it suggested by the ruinations to his business of National Prohibition. Alcohol hurt a lot of people on its way up in commercial America (North America) in the 1800s. Prohibition hurt a lot of people, too.




The Revenue Men Explain Natural-Fermentation Sour-Mashing

“Jug to Dona, Dona to Yeast Mash, Yeast Mash To Fermenter” (How We Got There)

– Quotation from Bulletin Relative To Distilled Spirits, 1912

In 1912, the U.S. Bureau of Internal Revenue released its Bulletin Relative To Distilled Spirits. The introduction, by Commissioner Royal Cabell, expresses succinctly and clearly the object: to guide internal-revenue officers whose work brought them in the purview of distilleries. The text itself is as clear as one could hope for, intended for the educated general reader without requiring too much theory.

Scientific books, and books or journals written for the trade such as Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Circular (of which earlier-mentioned Thomas M. Gilmore was publisher, incidentally), inevitably cover topics only partially or from the writer’s perspective. They are most valuable if one reads enough of them – indeed there is no substitute for it – but sometimes you run into an authoritative summary, which is the Bulletin mentioned. You can’t hide from the government…

I append below a page from the Bulletin, which summarizes yeasting practice in distilleries in 1912. There were three types: the small tub one I have been elucidating in recent posts, where the mash ferments naturally without addition of any yeast (small tubs held about 50 gallons); fermentation in a large vessel (as today) where yeast was collected from a previous ferment and dumped in. This was often called yeasting-back and the form of yeast, barm; and the most modern method, where a selected yeast is grown in a special grain mash, stored in a metal dona and then cultured in a large quantity as needed to seed the next production. The last is today’s system except we also now have distiller’s dried yeast as an option.

As can be seen, the method of E.H. Taylor and Dr. James Crow, recorded by Internal Revenue in 1912, was on its last legs. The reason was inefficiency again, both the conversion from starch to sugar and the latter to alcohol could not compete in output and quality with the third system. The second system was middling in results, relying on an ever-diminishing yeast capability as the generations progressed and incurring a higher risk of bacterial contamination than method #3.

A different source from about the same period, when mentioning that backset is used to scald the mash for sour-mash whiskeys, stated that the “original” method was actually to use water. At first this surprised me, but when you think about it, farm-distillers would not have distilled continuously. Distilling would have been intermittent. They therefore would not have had a regular supply of backset from stilling to add to their new mashes. Therefore, they needed barm, which they made themselves from scratch or obtained from the lees of brewing or wine-making.

They may have used backset occasionally, out of expedient or for some other reason, which is why Oscar Pepper may have heard, perhaps in some mountain town or from an oldster, that you could make fine whiskey without yeast if you used backset to heat the mash. Enter the peripatetic Scottish physician, James Crow. His intervention is crucial here. Pepper was an operating commercial distillery, since 1776*. It had a steady supply of backset. Crow may well have been the first to adopt the use of backset and natural fermentation in an industrial setting. When it is said that James Crow perfected the use of sour mashing in whiskey, this in fact may have been his achievement. For this reason perhaps, the Bulletin calls the second or yeasting-back method, “old time”, not the one which relies solely on wild yeast, Crow’s method developed at Oscar Pepper Distillery before the Civil War.

Many other distilleries adopted the practice though which found its greatest proponent in Col. E.H. Taylor but it finally foundered in the first decade of the 1900s. The advent of modern science including the development of pure yeast cultures did it in.

Where are we today? Backset is still used, to acidify the mash mainly. I believe its dead yeast cells furnish additional nutrient. What about its bacteria count, to assist to produce some extra alcohol or (as one distiller told me) fruity esters from consuming the grain sugars? This may be part of the system today unless the backset is pasteurized first. I know Canadian distillers pasteurize backset where it is used, but I’m not sure if Kentucky or Tennessee does.

Of course today there is no yeasting-back much less any natural fermentation. What we have today is a blend of the old sweet mash and sour mash systems, more the former I’d say.

As Col. Tom Gilmore – he was a Kentucky Colonel too – noted in 1896 in J. Stoddard Johnston’s book I’ve mentioned, distilleries operated in different ways. Sour-mashing had variants and in some “fresh yeast” was added, as today, but not in others (read the full whiskey chapter which I’ve linked a number of times). The method which Col. Taylor promoted relied on natural fermentation, as Crow’s system did. That part has been completely lost in American distilling and even yeasting-back has unless a craft distiller is doing it somewhere.

Did it make for better-tasting whiskey? I think it probably did. I think the bacterial component produced special aromas which must have been estery and variously so, those E.H. Taylor with biz org hat on riffed as “tempting the gods”. Bacteria in dunder in pot still rum production produces a similar effect. Modern bourbon isn’t really strongly fruity, but it was at one time, some of it.  By the way, want to know why Kentucky distilling had, and some distillers still follow, two production seasons, Spring and Fall? Because those seasons favoured maximum results from airborne spores and microflora. It reflects a time when small tub natural yeast production became established in hundreds of small plants in Kentucky and Tennessee in the mid-1800s.

*Note added June 15, 2016: This date is probably too early, and there are contradictory statements when Elijah Pepper started to distill. It is known that Oscar his son built a distillery in the 1830s at which James Crow later worked. My interest is not with Pepper distilling family history as such but with the form of small tub sour mashing which relies on wild yeast solely to effect fermentation.


Col. E.H. Taylor’s Sour-Mashing Method Further Explained

“Aromas and Flavors That Would Tempt The Gods”

– E.H. Taylor, Jr., 1896

In discussing recently Col. E.H. Taylor’s sour-mash method of the 1800s, I will reproduce a salient portion of his remarks from the 1896 book I have referred to a number of times, Memorial History of Louisville by J. Stoddard Johnston. Its chapter XIX on the history of whiskey manufacture and sale in Kentucky was authored by contributor Thomas M. Gilmore.

Readers will recall I cited an earlier statement (1884) in Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit journal that Dr. James Crow originated this method – refined is a better word – with Oscar Pepper at his distillery before the Civil War. Taylor, together with partners, bought what was then called the James E. Pepper Distillery after the war (in 1877) and continued it and the methods Crow and his employer had evolved. Taylor sold the business in 1878 to Messrs. Labrot and Graham. The locale is now the site of Woodford Reserve Distillery, owned by Brown-Forman.

In 1870, Taylor founded the Old Fire Copper distillery near Frankfort, KY. It is now Buffalo Trace Distillery, owned by Sazerac Company. Buffalo Trace acquired ownership of the Taylor brand name some years ago from what is now Beam Suntory, to reconnect to a key figure in its history. Buffalo Trace has since issued various whiskeys under the Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. name.

Notable elements in Col. Taylor’s account include: use of spent beer (backset) to scald and sour the mash; slow mash cooling of 24-48 hours; no “artificial” yeast (cultured jug or dried); avoidance of high mashing and fermenting temperatures; a “spontaneous and unforced” fermentation leaving considerable sugar in the mash; and Taylor’s opinion that backset provided the function of yeast, as he states, “In sweet-mash process the substitution of water for spent beer in mashing necessitates an active yeast for fermenting purposes…”.

In my view, the backset together with other factors as discussed in my last post enabled wild yeast to ferment the mash to the degree of attenuation Taylor mentioned. If I read his numbers correctly, his 11 degrees original gravity of mash was in Plato. That equates to 1044 original gravity (OG) on the scale used typically today. He attenuated down three degrees (he said) to eight degrees Plato, which is 1032 final gravity (FG). That would leave only a little alcohol in the beer, about 1.5 per cent which doesn’t seem right. Assuming though Taylor meant final gravity was three degrees Plato, that would produce a beer of about 4.2 per cent abv, still low by modern standards but more reasonable in the context – maybe that is what he meant. While as Taylor said his process was inefficient, he felt it contributed to “flavor and quality”.

Readers should please note that I added two footnotes to my post of yesterday to address comments made by a reader of the blog.


How Exactly Did Dr. James Crow’s and E.H. Taylor’s Whisky Sour Mash Work With No Yeast Added?

OldTaylorBookCoverI’ve had the benefit now of discussing with two experienced distillers my recent posts on 19th century American whiskey fermentation achieved solely with backset (no addition of yeast).

One works for an American craft distillery, the other is a retired distiller who had worked in a number of large distilleries internationally including Canada.

First, just to resume a bit: the various sources I quoted in these posts make it clear a fermentation was achieved in three to five days using just backset to scald (heat) the mash in small tubs.

This was denominated a sour mash fermentation. Today, sour mash means using backset in the mashing liquid, often one part backset to three of water, but fresh yeast is always added whether jugged or a distiller’s dried yeast. In the 1800s, sour mash as developed by bourbon legends James Crow and E.H. Taylor involved no addition of yeast to the mash.

To be sure, there were variant ways to sour mash in the 1800s. Some descriptions call for yeast to be added, either fresh or collected from a prior ferment. But it is very notable that the Crow-Taylor sour mash whisky used no added yeast. This small tub method, also validated by C.K. Gallagher’s account of small tub production which I referred to earlier, was a low-yielding method, requiring longer aging than sweet mash whisky but prized for its fine flavour.

Modern bourbon writing has not referenced this aspect of a wild fermentation except for Gerald Carson’s 1963 The Social History Of Bourbon. Even then the reference was lapidary, almost in code unless one understood the background. At Page 88:

His beer was a  creamy liquid, rich in yeasting power. His fermentation was faultless.

Hence my interest to point it out and parse the details.

A question that arises when drilling down is, how did the backset actually do its work to ferment the mash, particularly as boiled spent beer can be presumed to be sterile?

In my discussions with the distilling experts, it became clear to me that in all likelihood, backset alone did not do the job. While it may have contained wild yeast in process of fermenting residual sugars in the spent beer, other sources of yeast – ambient air, wood vessels – probably assisted a natural fermentation. In addition, backset contributes certain bacteria that work with wild yeast to form alcohol. I wasn’t aware earlier that some bacteria can make ethanol. I knew of course they can produce lactic or acetic acid.

But some forms of bacteria are capable of converting simple sugars into ethanol. Zymomonas mobilis is one. (Some of these bacteria have been engineered in fact to boost ethanol production for industrial purposes). Dunder was a source of such bacteria, one distiller told me, and possibly the Crow-Taylor backset was too. Some accounts state that bananas and other things were thrown in the dunder to create sugars that would be fermented along with the converted grain starches. Since there is no evidence starch or sugar was added to cooled backset, the question arises if backset had any function as a yeasting agent or inoculum. Even if it didn’t, its role is still important as a source of the bacteria mentioned and to acidify the yeast.

But I think likely Crow’s and Taylor’s spent beer was in active fermentation when added to the mash. This would explain Carson’s use of “creamy” to describe it and its potent fermentative power he noted. Even dunder with yeast added can take eight weeks to ferment. If, as we know, the Crown-Taylor sour mash took three to five days,to my mind that could not have been achieved merely with atmospheric flora: the backset itself was probably an inoculum, as Carson’s account suggests.

All spent beer, even where you try to get every gram of sugar converted to alcohol, contains some residual sugar. One study I found shows that a mash for ethanol production – feedstock not clear, I think sugar beet – produced about 1.5 grams simple sugars per litre of spent beer. One can imagine the sugar content was much higher in Crow and Taylor’s spent beer since its fermentation was known to be under-attenuated, leaving in other words a rather sweet wort. Taylor specifically stated in the Bonfort’s article I cited earlier that his mashes contained considerable unfermented sugar. Needless to say, that sugar stayed in the mash after the boil in the still – it was a solid that couldn’t vaporize.

Let’s now think about why the Crow-Taylor method employed a series of small tubs. I think the reason may have been to maximize the wood-to-mash contact. The more wood in which lurked microbiota of the type we are discussing, the more likely a successful fermentation would occur. With a sweet mash for which only one large tub was used, it didn’t matter what wild yeast contribution there was since ample purpose-added yeast would ensure a good ferment.

Therefore, the main point I was concerned to show stands – Crow’s and Taylor’s classic sour mash bourbon used no added yeast in the process, which is significant unto itself. But it is also important to state that in all likelihood, the backset alone, and the same applies for dunder in heavy rum production, did not account for the fermentation. Rather, their acids and bacteria worked hand-in-glove with wild yeasts resident in the environment of these non-sterile distilleries.

One of the distillers told me yeast on malted barley in the mash might have been part of this yeast cocktail. He noted that unlike for beverage beer, the malt in a whiskey mash is not heated to a high temperature (vs. the corn and rye which need to be cooked)* and its resident wild yeast would be alive when the fermentation started. I pointed out that barley malt in a bourbon mash is today not more than approximately 5% of the mash. Even if it was more in the 1800s, and it was, generally, that source alone surely would not account for a vigorous – three to five day – wild fermentation. But it may have been an element in the total picture.

My conclusions are, the cooled backset:

i) probably contained fermentable sugar due to the low attenuation of the ferments;

ii) may have absorbed wild yeast from the environment which started to feed on that sugar and the dead yeast cells**;

iii) worked in tandem with natural yeast influence from wood vessels, ambient air, and possibly the barley malt in the mash; and

iv) provided some bacterial action to make alcohol,

which in sum achieved the fermentation in question, one which occurred naturally without addition of yeast by the distiller.

Note re image: the image shown above is from this fine early American antique bottle collection site. Image is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All trademarks shown belong to their owners or duly authorized licensees. All feedback welcomed.


*I want to clarify that the distiller I spoke to actually said, the corn must be cooked, the rye may be, and the malt must not be.

** A distiller reading these notes commented that if, as the historical literature states, hot slop was used to scald the mash, the heating of the slop to boiling temperatures would kill any yeast activity that had developed, therefore can we view the backset, assuming it had undergone fermentative activity, as an inoculum? Good point. My response would be, first, in the 24-48 hour or more cooling down phase (see C.K. Gallagher and other sources I’ve cited), the temperature would drop enough to permit inoculation by ambient wild yeasts which would feed on the nutrients in the slop. Second, even some modern sources, see e.g., Waymack and Harris’s The Book of Classic American Whiskeys, state that backset is sometimes added to the fermenter. It could not be added hot for this purpose, readers will appreciate. (E.H. Taylor did not do this apparently, but didnt’t need to, one could infer). Also, Gallagher seems to suggest slop was also used after the tubs had started setting to cool them down. Again this must have been stored or at any rate cooled slop. Therefore the point is taken but in light of numerous statements in 1800s literature that backset takes the place of yeast in sour mash distilling, and given the various times in the process it could be added, one of these explanations must I believe explain why backset was viewed, by Taylor and numerous others,  as having fermentative power.


Visiting The Toronto Distillery Co.

IMG_20160608_081323There is no substitute for visiting a distillery. Understanding distilling theory, and whole chunks of social history, greatly assists an appreciation of the different types of distilled liquors.

But visiting in situ brings the reality home. I’ve had the opportunity to visit distilleries, and former distilling sites from which much can be learned too, in Kentucky, Tennessee, Scotland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ontario.

Recently I visited Toronto Distillery in the Junction area, south and a touch east of St. Clair Avenue and Keele Street.

Mark Bylok of whsky.buzz kindly introduced me to Charles Benoit, one of the two principals. Charles explained the operations with great care and each product currently made. The still in use is a stainless pot still with a column extension which includes copper components which scrub sulphur from the spirit. Thus, it is a version of the so-called hybrid still frequently used in small-scale distilling plants. Charles and his business partner are dedicated to producing their own spirits on their own site, they do not buy or blend spirits from other sources.*

The nature of the still permits distilling-out at different proofs and with different “cuts” to separate out oils in the tails for example. Spirits are distilled separately from malted corn, rye, wheat and other grains, as well as organic beet root. The fermented mashes aren’t filtered for the boil, they go in as is and an agitator (stirrer) in the unit ensures no sticking or burning. In this sense the process is similar to American practice in bourbon country. In contrast, the Scots drain a wash from their mash and send that to the pot still, at least for malt whisky.

A range of white spirits is produced and some are laid away for aging. There is also a golden-coloured applejack, blended in this case, which has a lovely fresh apple nose.

A gin is also produced which offers soft floral/spicy notes. The rye spirit has a distinctive sharp, spicy quality that you can recognize in aged rye whisky as well. Of course aging in wood alters any spirit particularly when distilled in a traditional way to retain character from the mash, as all Toronto Distillery’s products are. Certainly none of the products I tried were anywhere near neutral! They all have a vigorous character which reflects the grains and other materials they issue from.

The organic beet spirit has a remarkable nose and flavour of fresh beet, and would make a perfect spirit to add to cold borsht and sour cream. Heads-up to the fashionable restaurants of Toronto. Incidentally, beet spirit was much produced in the 1800s and this is a welcome revival.

The white grain spirits would be very similar to whisky made in small distilleries in Ireland, Scotland, Ontario, Kentucky, and other places when distilling was an artisan craft, before methodical aging came in. Toronto Distillery has been in business three years and hasn’t had time to amass large stocks of aged spirit as there is a demand for its white spirits and gin, but as I said there is aged spirit in inventory and it will be interesting to see how the process affects the spirits. I believe if held long enough they will age into fine brown whiskeys.

Some of the barrels used are new-charred oak, some reused. I was interested to know at least one hickory barrel is onsite. Hickory, not an easy wood to fashion for casks, was used historically to age some spirits in America. The tradition was remembered in the name of the now-defunct brand, Old Hickory Straight Bourbon albeit the latter was aged in conventional new charred oak casks.

IMG_20160608_080942In trying these single-grain varietals, it reminded me that spirit distilled for whiskey but drunk new is really in its own category. The acids, esters, higher alcohols and residual oils of traditional grain distillate are so distinctive, and change so much by a few years in wood, that it is not right to compare them in the two states.

This ties in to how young spirit was consumed, say c. 1800 when oak aging was in its infancy including in Great Britain.

I have no doubt that some people always liked white whisky. But much of it probably was never drunk neat. When you read of early Irish whisky, you read concurrently and frequently of a compound of the whisky with sugar, spices, herbs, and other flavourings. When you read of early Canadian or Scotch whisky, you read often and concurrently of whisky toddy, or whisky, sugar, water, lemon. It starts to spell a pattern…

This is in fact the origin of drinks like Drambuie and Irish Mist. Had fully-aged malt whisky or the Irish equivalent always been available, I doubt those early compounds would have emerged. But vigorous young white or little-aged spirit marries extremely well with many kinds of flavouring. Some years ago in a gathering of lawyers to taste different kinds of historical spirits, we tasted a specially-made punch which employed a white rye spirit. The recipe involved fresh pineapple and lime and was based on a recipe from Saveur Magazine, here.

Numerous tasters said it was the best drink of the night and the other drinks were all well-aged, well-known brown spirits.

The Saveur punch recreated a typical early American punch, as pineapple has been grown in hothouses in the U.S. since the late 1700s and was prized for use in drinks such as these. It was notable how well the white rye married with these other elements. If you used vodka instead of white rye, it wouldn’t have been half as good. The marriage of congeneric whisky and fresh fruits of a certain kind created a third and very pleasing taste.

The use of Jamaican overproof and other white rums distilled at a low proof in punches of fruit juices and spices is a similar example. In fact if you use aged rum in lieu of the overproof it isn’t as good, the tannic acid doesn’t mix well with the citrus. I was in Saint Martin once and they favour there the ‘ti punch (or ponche), a feisty white rum with lime and sugar or syrup. Ditto in Martinique and Guadeloupe. I was told you can use dark rum, but most people prefer the white and I can see why, it tastes better with a clean, zingy fruity hit.

There is a particular chemistry, quite literally, some fruits and other punch ingredients have with non-neutral white spirit. I suggest to people who purchase white grain spirits to try traditional recipes of this sort. David Wondrich’s excellent study, Punch, is a good resource for traditional recipes. With one of the single-grains of Toronto Distillery, I plan next to make a whisky ‘ti punch (or cold toddy). I’ll use simple syrup, the 100% wheat spirit, lemon. Maybe a dash of bitters. Summer’s coming…

*Note: Excluded from this statement is the company’s gin. Per the website: “the base for [the gin] is neutral spirit (‘pure’ alcohol, 95% alc./vol.), which we source from Brampton’s GreenField Ethanol. Neutral spirit is best made in large continuous column stills, which run non-stop for most of the year and can produce neutral spirit with the most energy efficiency”.


A Doctor’s View Of (Fine) Spirits In The Gaslight Era


Famously, author William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. The past is not even past”.  A fellow-novelist, Briton L.P. Hartley, wrote around the same time, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”.

Which is true? They both are, it just depends what the topic is. In the 19th century, much – never quite all – of the medical profession viewed alcohol as a valuable aid. Hence we see an illustration of L.P. Hartley’s  thinking, since things are very different now.

But in the 1800s, whiskey was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia, the official compendium of drugs that may be prescribed and ingested for treatment. Whiskey, or Spiritus Frumenti (spirits of grain), remained there into the 1900s including during Prohibition when whiskey could be obtained under medical prescription. Doctors were not blind to the abuses of alcohol, and deprecated them in strong terms, but many nonetheless viewed alcohol as useful in the clinic, emergency room, and household. This was so even for children, it is not hard to find instructions to give babies a few drops of bourbon for various problems, and later, a teaspoon for tots. It seems insane now, but was a regular practice and it lived on in folklore. I recall being told by locals in Kentucky that their gums had been rubbed with whiskey in infancy. None of them was an abuser of alcohol, incidentally.


Today, alcohol is never prescribed or advised by doctors and its use by society in general is cautioned against constantly.

There has been some suggestion in the last generation that the moderate use of wine can assist heart health.

This is controversial: many doctors think the risks outweigh the benefits, a stance that would have puzzled most Victorian practitioners provided the consumption was moderate. Moderation was defined in different ways, but formulas such as a pint of beer with meals or a dram of diluted spirits were not uncommon. After all, this was a period when whiskey brands were advertised in medical journals.

The indulgence or credulity of physicians was assisted by a number of factors. First, there was no sulfa in this period. No aspirin.  Anaesthesia was in its infancy. Few effective drugs existed. Opiates existed, but they were highly addictive and often counter-productive. Life expectancy was short.

The quotes which follow are from an article in 1884 by Dr. John Octerlony, A.M., M.D. He was Professor of Obstetrics and Diseases of Women and Children at the Univerity of Louisville. The article was published in The American Practitioner: A Monthly Journal of Medicine and Surgery. Indeed, it shows that medicine was a different country then.

When the stimulant effect of alcohol is required, especially in cases of acute disease, or in sudden emergencies, good whisky or brandy is to be preferred….That form of alcohol which in our opinion is best suited for general administration to patients in this country is the so-called Bourbon whiskey….While all Kentucky whisky, made by honest distillers – and these are many – may in general terms be counted as good when of proper age, that known as “sour mash” Bourbon whiskey is esteemed by most persons as the best. It is claimed to be the softest and most purest – to continue to improve the longest, and as it ripens to develop all the better qualities of the old Cognac brandies. It is used medicinally in Kentucky to the exclusion of almost every form of alcohol, and it is so used because experience has taught that it is, both in flavour and digestibility, and as a stimulant, fully the equivalent of the finest, oldest and most expensive brandies.

IMG_0195Thus we have a highly-skilled doctor vaunting, not just the whiskey of Kentucky for medical purposes, but the merits of genuine sour mash. Its “flavor” and “digestibility” did not escape notice, and in another part of the article, Dr. Octerlony was careful to approve, not just any sour mash, but one aged 4-6 years. If you read him quickly, you could be forgiven for thinking he was a whiskey connoisseur with a sideline in writing for the retail market. Is it possible that the deep purses of distillers were used to buy favour from doctors? We can’t rule it out, but I don’t think that was the case here. Dr. Octerlony’s beliefs were shared by too many of the Faculty, both in North America and overseas, to suggest a general vitiation in this sense.

No, this was the zeitgeist, or rather its zenith, since the 1880s were the high-water mark of favourable medical opinion on alcohol. The license given doctors to prescribe small amounts to patients in the Volstead (Prohibition) era was a last gasp of the time when whiskey or brandy was thought useful in medicine.

Still, even our resolutely modern temper retains the old idea that alcohol can be good for you, or a quick-fix. The St. Bernard dog going to the rescue with his keg of something strong is still an instantly identifiable image of beneficence with a curative or therapeutic undertone.

In a future posting, I will draw attention to doctors of the time who were less robust whether the pint of aged sour-mash should be part of the doctor’s medical arsenal.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from this retail packaging design site. The second, from this ebay listing.  The third, from this vintage ads site. All trademarks shown are the sole property of their owners or duly authorized licensees. Images shown are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Bourbon Bunkers Now And Then


I was talking the other day of J. Stoddard Johnston’s 1896 Memorial History of Louisvilleits Chapter XIX which is a mini-history of the bourbon industry. It was actually written by Thomas M. Gilmore, a contributor to the book.

Gilmore was clearly a devotee of bourbon which assisted his work in the sense that he set out the full history as he understood it, or at least as much as space allowed. He wasn’t crimped by a temperance view which might have impelled, not just an undue criticism, but an elision or even ignoring of the story of whiskey in Kentucky.

Modern bourbon historians have made the point that in the 1800s and for some time after, the whiskey trade was viewed in many quarters of the state as an unsavoury part of its past. The result is important parts of its history were not recorded when the facts were still known, and are now lost. While considerable information has still been documented, information from the formative years, 1775-1850, is relatively scant. The problem was exacerbated in that some established families discarded or withheld information on the whiskey-distilling of their ancestors, to preserve an image of utmost propriety.

Chapter XIX of the book mentioned is, to my knowledge, the first reasonably detailed look at the history of distilling in Kentucky, and broke the earlier pattern of reticence or silence.

I myself have contributed to bourbon history, mostly in posts over the years at www.straightbourbon.com and www.bourbonenthusiast.com. Areas I have looked at include the origin of the charred barrel, the use of hay to fire the barrels, the different ways (still types, processes) to produce bourbon and rye in the 1800s, rectification techniques, blending and vatting, and the vexed question of bourbon’s name. Of course I posted product reviews and general comments too. In the course of participation over the years in these forums, and many visits to Kentucky, I picked up a lot of information from others. Some of it was in the area of nomenclature.

best-western-generalI learned the terms “bunker”, “Gazebo”,  and “vitamins”, for example. The first was devised by Bobby Cox of Bardstown, KY, he originally called it “bourbo-bunker”, meaning one’s current bourbon collection. Bardstown is “bourbon central” in the state, it is where Heaven Hill, Maker’s Mark, Jim Beam, and Barton 1792 Distillery are located. It is also the home of the Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Gazebo, a term devised I believe by bourbon collector and blogger John Lipman, meant a gathering of bourbon fans in the wood gazebo behind the Best Western General Nelson Motel in Bardstown. Members of straightbourbon.com, which is run by Californian Jim Butler, meet twice a year in Bardstown and stay at this motel. In the evening they gather in the gazebo behind the motel to discuss the day’s touring in bourbon country and to taste bourbon. Food and cigars come out too. I haven’t attended in some years now but the tradition carries on. Straightbourbon.com in particular is an important part of the bourbon renaissance.

Vitamins is a term used by some to describe the taste of George Dickel Tennessee Whiskey: the whiskey reminds them of the crunchy coating of a vitamin pill. Another term, which I devised (in a bourbon context), is funky, to describe the signature flavour of Jim Beam which may derive from the house yeast.

I also came up with “vatting”, based on Scots blending practice, to describe the combining of American whiskeys to achieve a different palate, Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam 3:1, say. (Try it).


But Bobby Cox came up with the term bourbon bunker and it is now a stand-by on straightbourbon.com. Bourbon for this purpose includes straight rye and Canadian whiskeys, really any whiskeys.

Thomas M. Gilmore, to return to him, had a prized bourbon bunker in 1896. He didn’t use that term, but that’s exactly what he meant. He explains it in ornate Victorian prose which conveys not a little humour, too. Kentucky oratory in this period has to rank with the best anywhere with its echoes of 18th century (and earlier) literary or expository English.

To advocate the sale of whiskey is to place yourself, in many portions of our country, without [outside] the pale of polite society, but to venture the assertion that you possess a garret shelf groaning beneath a load of bottles, all filled with Kentucky whisky, now a quarter century old, and which was full fifteen years in the wood, to assert such a thing, we say, is to insure you friends and visitors galore in any community from Maine to California in which you may reside, and in any circle of society in which you may be thrown, whether it be among the millionaires, in our centers of wealth, or among the brawny handed sons of toil, who delve in mother earth for a livelihood. Then if prompted by generosity you give a bottle of this old whisky away, rest assured that you have loaded the recipient with a debt of obligation that he will feelingly refer to as long as he may live.

Gilmore’s bunker was quite astounding: he had a collection of whiskeys in his possession for 25 years, which were 15 years old when put in the bottle. This would mean the bottles were filled about 1870 and distilled in 1855. I suspect that the whiskey was the legendary Old Crow straight bourbon. Dr. James Crow was known to be a proponent of methodical aging and stories have been handed down of well-aged bottles hoarded from his tenure at Oscar Pepper Distillery prior to the Civil War.

IMG_20160526_190203From 1820-1850 bourbon became known in large areas in the U.S. By the end of the century, it had an international reputation. As Gilmore put it in his inimitable fashion, bourbon is “the beverage that has carried the fame of this Commonwealth to the uttermost parts of the earth”.

I wonder what a 15-year-old bourbon distilled in 1855 tasted like. Perhaps like the richly-flavoured Last Barrels from Wiser in Canada.

Last Barrels is aged 14 years and made pretty much to a bourbon formula. It doesn’t use new charred barrels, but not all bourbon did in the 1800s, and anyway it has a fine bourbon-like palate, probably due to its extra-long sojourn in reused wood.

A scant 24 years after Gilmore was writing, the curtain of National Prohibition descended in America. A similar system existed for a time in parts of Canada. If Gilmore was “the man” at parties in the 1890s, imagine how popular he would have been in the Jazz Age.

His description of booze in the gas-lamp period shows the Janus-face it had then. Polite society felt constrained to look balefully on alcohol, even its occasional or otherwise responsible use, but private America often expressed a different view. The failure to resolve this schizoid sociology led to Prohibition (1920-1933), some of whose repercussions last to this day. The problems and toll of alcohol in society are undeniable, but the attempt to ban drink nation-wide only led to newer problems.

And so, some people had “bunkers” in the 1800s, particularly in Kentucky, centre then and now of America’s whiskey terroir. And some bourbon fans have a bunker today. (To be sure I like a glass of bourbon or other whiskey once in a while, but beer is my regular drink).

The best place to drink bourbon is Kentucky, it just is. Anyone reading who is thinking of going should visit the Kentucky Bourbon Festival which takes place in September each year. It’s a great opportunity to learn about the drink, visit distilleries, eat Kentucky specialties like chess pie and hot browns, and take in Celtic-tinged bluegrass music. Bardstown, where the KBF takes place, is a particularly attractive town, as is the surrounding area. It’s all stone-built or red brick towns, meadows, and green hollows. The rolling hills are also called knobs, whence the bourbon name, Knob Creek. It’s current single barrel bottling at LCBO is said to contain whiskey around 14 years old, so that is another candidate for a Gilmore bunker equivalent.

If you go at festival time, drop by the gazebo behind the Best Western General Nelson. Introduce yourself, and make friends. They are some of the nicest people in the world.

Note #1: This post is dedicated as follows. First, to the memory of straightbourbon.com members Tim Sousley and Paul Elliott Schroder whose untimely passing was rued by all who knew them. Second, to James (Jim) Butler of Healdsburg, CA, founder and sure helmsman of the best bourbon site anywhere, www.straightbourbon.com which debuted in 1999. When it comes to pioneers of the bourbon renaissance, Jim Butler stands in the front rank. Why his picture hasn’t been on the cover of one of the whiskey or food and drink magazines is a mystery to me. Maybe a whiskey scribe reading will remedy that.

Note #2 re images: the first image is from this tourism website for Bardstown, KY. The second is from this TripAdvisor site. The third is from Wikipedia Commons, here. All are believed available for historical and educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Bourbon Sour Mash: From E.H. Taylor to Dr. James Crow


James Crow’s Sour Mashing

It seems clear, not just that legendary bourbon man E.H. Taylor used backset, the spent beer of a previous distillation, to yeast his mash, but that this originated with Dr. James Crow. And further, that adding backset improved flavour and quality.

Crow was a Scottish physician who came to America in 1823, and worked for the Pepper distilling family. Th Peppers were long-established distillers in Kentucky, claiming origins from 1776 in pre-Kentucky Virginia. They built stone buildings that now house Woodford Reserve  where Brown-Forman makes bourbon that incorporates some pot still whiskey.

Modern whisky-writing has not omitted to notice that E.H. Taylor did not add actual yeast to his mashes. Gerald Carson, in his 1963 The Social History of Bourbon, wrote at pg. 88:

[Taylor’s] beer was a creamy liquid, rich in yeasting power. His fermentation was faultless.

This elliptical statement is nonetheless clear. The spent beer or backset that Taylor used had “yeasting power” and was “creamy”, from evident biological activity. Carson saw the significance of this part of Taylor’s remarks, quoted in E. Stoddard Johnston’s history of Louisville I linked yesterday.

But where did Taylor get the idea? According to the January 10, 1884 issue of Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Circular, a trade magazine, Dr. Crow had perfected the technique when working with Oscar Pepper. In Bonfort’s words:

While Oscar Pepper was carrying on the business, James Crow came to this country and applied to him for employment and got a position in the business. Mr. Pepper noticed the fermenting capacity of spent beer, and mentioned one day to Crow his belief that a mash could be fermented by its use without yeast. They commenced a series of experiments, and the result was the discovery of sour mash whiskey.

It makes sense Oscar Pepper would know about backset, as recipes from the frontier for sour and sweet mash whisky had been known since the early 1800s, see e.g. these recipes in Henry G. Crowgey’s Kentucky BourbonThe Early Years Of Whiskeymaking (1971). By starting in distilling in 1776*, perhaps the family had used the technique, or discussed it with neighbours who used it. To say Crow or even Pepper “discovered” sour mash would not be correct but as Crow was a trained scientist, he used scientific methods to approve and refine the technique.

Taylor was primarily a business figure, and he worked with practical distillers and chemists but there is no cause for thinking he came up with the notion. Bonfort’s explanation makes good sense, but what is the link between Crow-Pepper and Taylor? Chuck Cowdery, in his excellent Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (2004) explains that Taylor’s first distilling venture, W.A. Gaines & Co., bought the Pepper/Crow distillery in 1867. Taylor had known Crow, and was close to the Pepper family (see Cowdery again on this).

It seems obvious that Taylor’s knowledge and respect for sour mashing all derived from James Crow’s work at the historic Pepper distillery (near Versailles, KY) which Taylor’s business interest acquired.

Understanding that Crow and Taylor used backset, not just as mashing liquid, but to stand in for yeast, answers a question that has long puzzled me. It has often been written, indeed ever since the later 1800s, that the sour mash method was less efficient than sweet mash bourbon production: it made less alcohol but better whiskey. But if a sterile spent beer substituted for part or all of the water in mashing, it is hard to see why inefficiency would result. Whatever mashing liquid is used, yeast must still be added and it will consume the grain sugars the same way. If anything, one would expect sour mashing to be more efficient. Its well-known control of unwanted bacteria ensures the yeast can do its job of making alcohol unhindered. Bacteria love consuming sugar, but they don’t excrete alcohol as a result.

The answer lies in the fact that Crow’s sour-mashing had the backset doing the fermenting, via the action of wild yeast or a cocktail of them. That yeasting capability was never as strong and reliable as a selected, jug-stored, uncorrupted yeast. This is why the yield in alcohol fell a gallon or more under what people could achieve with a carefully-selected jug yeast.  In conventional beer-brewing, you would call the result under-attenuated.

The flipside was, in Taylor’s explanation, that the unusually high level of unfermented sugars remaining in the mash contributed positively to flavour, i.e., when put through the still. Whether sour mashing in this old way had the taste results claimed by Taylor, I can’t say, but generations of whiskey-makers seemed convinced of it in the 19th century.

Also notable is Taylor’s explanation, in J. Stoddard Johnston’s whisky chapter again, that a slow fermentation with backset produces less fusel oils than a faster, hearty ferment from freshly-added yeast. It would be interesting to hear the views of modern fermentation science on this.

Final point: when distilling began anew each season (Spring and Fall), the first tubs were set with added yeast unless backset was obtained from another working distillery. But after a few fermentations and distillations, you had enough backset to use only that going forward. This is made clear in C.K. Gallagher’s impressive article from 1883 in The Pharmacist And The Chemist on the Kentucky sour mash method.

By the 1900s, considerations of yield became primary and/or people felt sour mashing a la Crow and Taylor didn’t produce special effects on palate. No large distiller today uses backset to ferment. Few if any craft distillers would, either. If one has tried it, I’d like to know.

The upshot: today’s sour mash is quite different from the 19th century’s. Quite possibly, no whiskey palate achieved today can approximate James Crow’s and E.H. Taylor’s finest bourbon.

*Note added June 15, 2016: this date is probably too early. There is contradictory information about when Elijah started to distill, and it is known that his son Oscar built a distillery in the 1830s where Crow was ultimately employed. I am not concerned here with the specifics of Pepper family distilling history except to note that Bonfort’s, a reputed industry journal of the 1800s, associated Oscar Pepper and James Crow with the sour mash method which eschews use of added yeast.

Note re image: the image above, of the still room at Woodford Reserve Distillery, Versailles, KY, is in the public domain and was sourced here. Believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.