Bourbon, Sour Mash, And E.H. Taylor

05_02_JimBeam_DAL_0Taylor Used Backset in Mashing And Did Not Add Yeast To His Ferments

In the 1896 Memorial History of Louisville (KY) by J. Stoddard Johnston (1833-1913), chapter 19 constitutes a 12-page mini-history of bourbon in Kentucky. It is an informative documentary source, on numerous areas: the original grain bills used; origins of the industry; the different types of bourbon manufacture; its economic importance and taxation/bonding; significance and origins of aging; onset of neutral spirits; and the sociological aspects of whiskey. In effect the article is a bird’s-eye view of the industry from the perch of the gaslight era.

Of the many impressions the account leaves even on an old hand at bourbon history, not least is the confident and entirely justified assertion of bourbon’s national and indeed international reputation by 1896. This is all the more astonishing since the first recorded advertisement for bourbon appeared in the 1820s and it was only on the eve of the Civil War that bourbon had a notable impact beyond Kentucky. This was due in particular due to the success of Old Crow, the “red crettur” whiskey developed by Scottish immigrant Dr. James Crow.

His pioneering work in the second quarter of the century on sour mashing and aging helped bourbon become what it is today. Even given Crow’s vital work, Johnston’s whiskey chapter notes that only after the Civil War did producers methodically age bourbon. This arose in good part due to the influence of the bonding laws which delayed payment of excise on whiskey until it was sold to the public. Slack periods resulted in whisky staying in bond longer than planned and showed distillers how additional aging improved the product.

Thus, it was only after 1864 that bourbon, a regional drink with pockets of influence, really had a chance to make its mark on the nation. This came through the settlement of the west, economic expansion after the Civil War despite the periodic busts, and probably Mark Twain; he liked bourbon and wrote about it in his books. But 1865-1896 is a mere 30 years! In 30 years something originally local had become an institution, a thing in our parlance – not that it wasn’t in the gunsights of the temperance campaigners, but that is another story.

And, whether sweet mash or sour and no matter (I would add) how distilled, all these types were viewed in the market as “bourbon” (see E.H. Taylor’s quoted remarks), a high-quality product on a par with the whiskeys of Great Britain and Ireland. In this fame must be included Pennsylvania and Maryland, as they specialized in the straight rye whiskey which preceded the corn-based form that became bourbon.

It’s hard to think today of a similar product which achieved acclaim and high professional respect in such a short time. Perhaps Ontario ice wine is an example. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is another, and Ken Grossman is surely the E.H. Taylor of his industry today, but that is also another story.

Johnston’s chapter on whisky, actually authored by Thomas Gilmore, a contributor to the book, quoted from or interviewed the said Edmund Haynes Taylor, banker, distiller, politician and one of the founders of the bourbon industry. Also quoted at length was a Yale-educated chemist who probably worked for one of Taylor’s distilleries. In Taylor’s detailed description of small-tub whiskey-making, he specifically states the mash was fermented spontaneously, with no yeast added (“The fermentation is spontaneous and unforced…”).  He noted that this produced a less “attenuated” (thorough) reduction of the grain sugars – thus was less efficient than adding yeast but resulted in a superior product.

Taylor also was a proponent of double pot-distillation. He noted that sour mash whiskey of this type needed long aging, he said eight to ten years at a minimum. His distilleries did not (then) use column stills even though they can be adapted to produce a “heavy” spirit by restricting distilling-out proof to under 160 (80% abv).

Thus, small-tub mashing used backset as sole fermenting agent in the 1800s. While various American whisky-making directions have been published since the early 1800s, some for sweet mash, some for sour, it has not generally been accepted, I believe, that backset can truly take the place of yeast. Given however the analogy to dunder I made yesterday and the plain statements in older (and there are newer) chemical texts that dunder is an innoculum, and given too Taylor’s specific comment quoted by Johnston’s book that whiskey fermentation using backset is spontaneous, there can be no doubt that backset alone caused a sufficient fermentation in bourbon-making in the 1800s.

Of course, yeast could still be added and probably was for stuck fermentations or in some distilleries. In fact, Gilmore gives a list of production techniques which are a “mix and match” set of various elements: where only water is used to mix the mash, where backset is used, where yeast is added from a previous ferment or freshly, where the newer column stills were used to produce the distillate, and so on. Many variations existed, most of which have died out over time. Today, the large distillers at any rate only use column distillation-plus-doubling except for Woodford Reserve with its triple pot still system, and all add yeast to cause a fermentation. All use some backset in the process.

The closest today to what Taylor described would be Woodford Reserve Straight Bourbon which uses three pot stills, but even there there are notable differences. I understand Woodford is aged 5-6 years at most. Taylor argued for longer aging, 8-10 years minimum. On the other hand, Woodford’s distilling-out proof is 159, much higher (cleaner) than what Taylor used (c. 100 proof), and with three stills vs. Taylor’s two, maybe it evens out…

Note re image above: The image above was sourced from this site of Jim Beam Bourbon. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



The Different Meaning Of Sour Mash In the 1800s


Making Fine Whiskey Without Adding Yeast

An 1881 insurance article described in some detail the production of whiskey in America (see pp. 137 et seq). It is a succinct and accurate account of the subject, necessitated by the importance of the industry and its evident risk of fire hazards. That risk, while lessened today, is always present: a good part of Heaven Hill Distillery burned to the ground 20 years in Bardstown, KY, a devastating fire whose origins were never determined.

Following some verbal play involving rosy-hued Bacchus, handmaidens, and the temperance man Gough, a clear but detailed description of whisky-making appears. In this period, there was sweet mash whisky, sour mash whiskey and “alcohol” (Cologne spirits aka neutral spirits aka plain spirit). Some producers, distilling and non-, blended whiskey and alcohol, and we have seen earlier how Ontario distillers created Canadian whisky in the process.

This was a time when sour mashing still held connotations from the early 1800s. As the author explains, sour mash meant, not even that yeast from an earlier ferment was used in the next, but that backset could create a fermentation on its own. Backset, for which there are many synonyms e.g., slops, setback, pot ale, is simply the spent beer from a distillation. It is the un-condensed liquid which drains away after the alcohol is extracted by the heat of distillation.

This liquid comprises acids, some alcohol, enzymes, proteins, dead yeast cells, maybe glucose, burned sugars, and a host of other organic and inorganic chemicals. It depends on the feedstock, and concentrations vary depending whether re-cycled process water is added: this analysis from Florida researchers is something to ponder. Adding backset to a mashing or fermentation vat was and remains a way to inhibit unwanted bacterial action. Its effects can be emulated today by acidifying mash water, yet some claim backset contributes positively to flavour – I’m not sure why since its elements were not volatile to begin with.

My understanding is Canadian distillers don’t usually do a backset sour mash, either they acidify with food-grade acids or they don’t use even these, relying on modern sterile plant conditions to ensure yeast dominance and a predictable result.

This part of the history of backset use is not controversial but another part is less well-understood. When you read, as in the 1881 article, that backset serves the function of yeast added to a ferment it seems a riddle. How can a boiled substance, one in which all live organisms are killed by high temperature, provide a source of yeast? For this reason some have thought that old books when referring to pot ale or backset as a fermenting mechanism must have meant the dregs of the cereal beer ferment, the stage just prior to distillation.

Callwood-DistilleryIn fact this is not so. The old books were correct and the key to understanding them is to examine the role of dunder in Caribbean rum distillation. As this Victorian chemical encyclopedia confirms at pg 114, fresh dunder contains no live yeast.

But the dunder used as backset in mashing or fermentation is not fresh. As the account explains, by exposure to air it acquired a new fermentative capability, a “regeneration”. Wild yeast sought the dead yeast as a nutrient source in addition to sugars and caramel in the backset. Dunder was stored in pits dug in the forest and became bioactive, indeed an innoculum; one can imagine that vegetation fell in and provided yet further material for wild yeast propagation. Use of dunder in a new ferment was enough to turn the grain sugars into alcohol without any yeast being added.

Obviously exactly the same thing happened with corn and rye liquor backset on the American frontier. The effect was noted as early as 1818 by Pennsylvania distiller Harrison Hall, see the footnote at pg. 125 where he wonders how Kentucky and Tennessee distillers achieved the results they did without adding yeast. He did not understand the causes but science gleaned them later in the same century.

This hand made way of fermenting was slower and less efficient – less attenuating in technical terms – than adding measured amounts of a fresh yeast of known properties. By the end of the 1800s, it is doubtful many distillers were sour-mashing in the old way, but one or two may have continued into the 1950s. The term “small tub distilling” may in some cases have pointed to the old method.

Thus, sour mashing today, practiced by all Kentucky and the large Tennessee distillers, is different from what it meant in the 1800s.

The old sour mash was said to produce a richly fruity whiskey, just as dunder is said to produce estery and complex heavy rums. Also, it required a different aging regimen, a couple of years longer to get optimum results.

The new Last Barrels Canadian whisky from Wiser, which I discussed a couple of posts ago, is a sour mash whiskey, apparently a little sour milk was used to impart the lactic acid needed. This would be a modern sour mashing – and it is very good.

I am not aware any modern distiller has made sour mash in the 19th century sense, any information to the contrary would be gratefully received.

Note re images above: the first image is from this distiller’s yeast supplier’s site. The second, from this resort’s website. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owners. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.