Woodford Reserve Bourbon – 19th Century Flavour in 2016


What’s Old Is New Again

In a series of posts in the last couple of months, I have been exploring the roots of Kentucky whiskey, especially Bourbon, known around the world today as America’s premier form of whiskey.

Whether one factors a nostalgia element or not, there seemed consensus towards 1900 that the best whiskey in this class was small tub, copper-distilled whiskey. This was whiskey which in some cases used no added yeast but relied on use of setback (residue of last distillation) and natural fermentation and in other cases was produced by yeasting-back, which meant scooping yeast from the last ferment and adding it to the next. In either case, the whiskey was distilled twice in copper pot stills heated by a wood furnace.

In contrast, modern plants c.1900 were using “steam distillation” which could mean a number of things but generally that live steam separated the alcohol from the mash in a column still. This is the form of distillation prevailing today in Bourbon country, setting aside different techniques which may be used by the emergent craft distillers.

All column stills today are made from stainless steel although some copper is usually incorporated as the metal is felt to improve the whiskey, notably by cleaning up sulphur compounds in the new-make spirit.*

One exception to the column-still norm is Woodford Reserve Bourbon, which retains an older element in its production: copper pot stills. Brown-Forman, known for the Old Forester and Jack Daniel’s brands, acquired a site near Versailles, KY about 20 years ago where distilling had an old pedigree. It was the site where Oscar Pepper had made great whiskey with the help of Dr. James Crow before the Civil War. The site was operated by Messrs. Labrot and Graham from the 1880s until the onset of war in America in 1941.

The restoration of distilling by Brown-Forman involved installing a triple pot still system, so three stills instead of two. They are housed in an old fieldstone structure on the property. The matured spirit is, for regular Woodford Reserve, blended with Bourbon produced from new-make spirit made in Brown-Forman’s plant outside Louisville (where Old Forester issues from). Both distillates – the pot still and column – are aged at Woodford Reserve and then mingled to a formula to achieve a specific profile.

The mash bills for Woodford Reserve and Old Forester are the same. The triple pot still produces a spirit at 159 proof, as high as you can go and still call the matured whiskey Bourbon. Setback is used in the mash, but of course fresh cultured yeast is added to ferment the mash as for all distilleries today.

Despite the relatively high proof at which the pot still element is distilled, when matured it is rather different to the whiskey which results from the column still spirit. It is heavier and has a distinctive, oily element. This is the mark of the copper pot still and it is there even after three distillations and a relatively high proof. One can imagine that distilling only in two copper stills at a much lower proof (c. 100), as was common in the 1800s, would produce an even heavier spirit, but the pot still element of Woodford is quite heavy as it is. Indeed it shines through even when blended with a goodly amount of column-still whiskey.

Woodford Reserve is aged, from latest checks, six to seven years, which is right in the ballpark of the five-to-eight year maturation felt appropriate for pot still sour mash in the 1800s. I think current Woodford Reserve is better than 10-12 years ago, it seems generally older in character while back then it could be astringent with a petrol tang.

Setting aside any pot still Bourbon of comparable age coming from craft distillers, Woodford Reserve represents your chance to see what old-fashioned Bourbon in the 19th century was like, as close we can get. And it is good, those familiar with pot still Irish whiskey will see a connection, that oily note again which results from a primarily raw grains grist + use of pot stills. But as with matured Irish, the oils are well-integrated in a complex matrix of flavours which also discloses wood, creosote, and fruity notes.

I’ve tasted various iterations of the Woodford pot still, i.e., on its own, in the form of the Woodford Reserve Master’s Collection series. The effect is even more intense than in regular Woodford Reserve. I prefer regular Woodford, the column-still bourbon moderates the heavy pot still notes in the right away.

An analogy in rum is the rums of the Caribbean which blend pot-stilled heavy rum with lighter column-still spirit – the rums say of El Dorado in Guyana.

Finally, how do we know a traditional bourbon could taste oily in the 1800s? Because some ads of the time said so. See this one from 1877 in The Bolivar Bulletin in Tennessee, vaunting “pure oily old Bourbon just [in] from Kentucky”.


*Note added later on July 21, 2016: Please see below Jay Erisman’s comment indicating that some column stills are all-copper construction and in use for whiskey production. Thanks to Jay for setting the record straight.





The Paris-to-Cynthiana Connection and Bourbon History


In 1862, a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Garrett Davis, declared in the house that Bourbon whiskey was named after Bourbon County: see page 35 of Gerald Carson’s The Social History Of Bourbon (1963). Davis was a lawyer in Paris, the chief town of Bourbon County. Carson considered him a credible source and properly so.

The 1860s and next decade is the time when people start to reflect on where the whiskey, by then of national and even larger repute, originated including not least its name.

In 1866 this news story appeared in the euphoniously named Baton Rouge Tri-Weekly Gazette & Comet. Datelined May 8, it was captioned “Bourbon County Distilleries of ‘Old Bourbon'”. “Old Bourbon” as used in this story clearly means the whiskey, not the original boundaries of Bourbon County.

The account is of particular interest because it appeared in the heart of the Bluegrass, and addressed forthrightly what had become a parlous topic. As Henry Crowgey noted in his 1971 The Early Years of Whiskeymaking, the history of distilling was treated scantily by 19th century historians of Kentucky. The reason: burgeoning Temperance attitudes. Whiskey’s heyday in terms of social acceptance had passed by about 1850. Due to pressure from Protestant denomination and other temperance advocates, whiskey had become an off-colour topic in approved circles. This was so even in its centres of production.

19th century Kentucky histories, both state and local, written by people such as Lewis Collins, Richard Collins, and William Henry Perrin are not without interest for the whiskey sleuth, but they are incomplete or omit key early data now presumably lost. For this reason, newspaper accounts are valuable especially those in or near the areas where Bourbon whiskey started. The press was more attuned to the needs of industry and local affairs than establishment writers. By nature too, the coverage was topical, and ephemeral. A story on distilling might cause knashing of some local tongues, but would be forgotten with the next days’ news.


The value of news stories’ reliability is also shown, as I discussed recently, in an 1872 story which claimed a German-American “genealogy” for bourbon. It seemingly was adapted by Richard Collins in 1874 for an expanded edition of his father’s 1850s-era state history.

The Baton Rouge story of 1866 is notable, first because it affirms that Bourbon took its name from Bourbon County, still the best explanation of bourbon’s name. But it does more than confirm Garrett Davis’s account, as it links the bourbon heritage of Harrison County to the fact that part of the County once formed part of Bourbon County.

This is, I believe, the first time in the context of bourbon history that a story references that Bourbon County was once a larger area. Garrett Davis’s account four years earlier isn’t specific in that sense and in my view, while important, is partly a “favourite son” explanation.

The Baton Rouge story also locates the origins of Bourbon in a specifically defined area of Bourbon and Harrison Counties, between Paris and Cynthiana. This is a distance of only some 15 miles. It mentions families associated with the origins of Bourbon in that stretch surnamed Shawhan, Keller, Ewalt, Cook, and also later figures named White and Magebbin.

A Keller clearly was involved in early Bourbon distilling, as the 1872 story mentioned above stated. He was one of the German-Americans credited in that account with devising Bourbon. Other research suggests to me his full name was Isaac Keller.

The Licking River flows through Cynthiana, and this river was a key early avenue to get corn whiskey to the Ohio River and downriver to New Orleans, which the 1872 story also recounted.

The  1866 account, taken with the 1872 one, doesn’t “prove” bourbon originated in a small section of what now straddles Bourbon County and Harrison County. But it is good evidence of a strong connection between the Paris-Cynthiana axis and bourbon’s development.

Let’s recall that 1866 is only 45 years after bourbon whiskey is first named in a news ad, in 1821 in nearby Maysville, KY. 45 years isn’t that long, it is like someone in Ontario remembering the origins of ice wine.

Note re image: the first image shown was obtained from the website of Cynthiana Main Street, a historical association, hereThe second image is from the Town of Cynthiana’s website, hereImages are the sole property of their owner or duly authorized licensee as may be mentioned therein or otherwise. They are used for educational and historical purposes only, all feedback welcomed.

“Put Your New Spirit In A Charred Cask” – Advice from Englishman James Smith, 1815

5a2def54-ca7d-11e5-8356-1895fbbc5b64I have mentioned the history of the charred barrel for bourbon in a number of respects, including advice by English scientist William Nicholson in 1806 that new spirits be stored in charred barrels. Nicholson’s theory was that the charring would prevent the wood from imparting undesirable flavours.

Nicholson’s work followed upon that of numerous scientists and investigators in the 1700s who were looking at charcoal and charred barrels to help keep water sweet on board ship and to sanitize water for municipal purposes. The principal names were Lovitz and Berthollet (see my earlier post), but there were others.

In 1815, James Smith (English again, b. 1759, d. 1828) advised in his two-volume Panorama of Science and Art to place new spirits in “charred casks for some weeks” where the liquor was burned. He was referring to parts of the boiling wash (in England) sticking to the pot still due to hot spots on the metal from the fire underneath. This was a constant problem with which American distillers were also concerned. Hot spots would communicate a burnt taste to the spirit, and this was regarded as a fault unless minimal in effect. Indeed at the end of the 19th century, what bourbon historian Gerald Carson termed the “nostalgia” distillers were selling this “haut goût” (my term) as a mark of tradition.

Those interested in brewing history may recall that Detroit brewer Stroh once bruited its “fire-brewed” system – an echo of the same issue. In our vernacular today, it is turning a negative into a positive.

Various mechanisms were employed by brewers and distillers to keep the mash, or unstrained fermented mix of grains (in America) from sticking, generally by agitating it with paddles or chains. This was never a perfect solution. One reason for the later adoption of the steam-heated, multi-chambered still, and finally the columnar still segmented by perforated plates, was to avoid this burned vegetable taste in the matured spirit.

And so, with charcoal and charred casks in Georgians’ minds as something to cleanse and keep stable water and various liquors, it makes sense British science hit on the charred cask to address the burned-spot problem.

To be sure, James Smith wasn’t saying the charred barrel should be used for years, after all in 1815 the long aging of spirits in Britain and America was in its infancy. But the pot still system was still the norm to distill whiskey then. Some distillers reading the Panorama would have tried charred casks to palliate the burned spot problem, and would have noticed beneficial effects particularly when the liquor was kept longer than a month or so.

It is interesting too that a few weeks in charred wood will qualify a spirit distilled under 160 proof, made from a majority corn grist, entered in barrel at not >125 proof, for the name Bourbon under United States law. Think about it…

The charred barrel to store whiskey is first documented in American distilling in 1826, this is 11 years after James Smith wrote and 20 years after William Nicholson wrote. After, not before.

In my opinion, unquestionably James Smith’s book would have circulated in the United States. It was one of those protean 1800s efforts, covering a huge range of mechanical, scientific and technical areas and geared to practical matters, taking in everything from building to brewing to agriculture, engraving, painting and more. The Panorama, published in Liverpool, came out in further editions as well even after Smith’s death.

Henry Crowgey wrote his still-unequalled history of the early years of American whisky-making in 1971. He noted that in the first 20 years of the 1800s, no reference to colour can be found in hundreds of references to whiskey. He looked at sales notices, government specifications for whiskey (it was common then to buy it for medical and military purposes), probate records, and other sources. No one refers to colour or the charred barrel. This doesn’t mean some whiskey wasn’t long-aged – it is known some was – or that the charred barrel hadn’t been in some use. But these practices, one can conclude, were not methodically followed by distillers of American straight whiskey until later.

I infer that William Nicholson’s advice in 1806 to place spirits in a charred cask and James Smith’s advice in 1815 to do so to remove the burned vegetable matter taste contributed or even caused the American practice of using (ultimately new) charred barrels to store what became called Bourbon. The stories of the Spears’s, Shawhans and others taking whiskey on flatboats downriver to New Orleans before 1800 are undoubtedly correct in my view. The whiskey that resulted would have been preferable to new double-distilled corn spirit even if stored in uncharred casks, as much of it had to be.

Whiskey from the large geographic area in north and central-eastern Kentucky originally called “Bourbon” probably acquired cachet early on due to the improvement of the spirit on the long trip down the rivers. But the story of Bourbon is evolutionary. The role of British science and the technical arts between 1806 and 1815 is in my view important in the story of how Bourbon acquired its definitive character, something which took place between 1826 and the onset of the Civil War.

Note re image: the image above was sourced at this auction site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Addendum added July 20, 2016: Implicit in my account above is a suggested rejection, or at least a more nuanced view, of the traditional explanations for the use of the charred barrel to age Bourbon. Most of these are reviewed at pg. 36 of Gerald Carson’s The Social History of Bourbon (1963), here. The explanations include the attempt to remove offensive smells from a barrel previously used to hold fish, or the accidental burning of the staves by coopers when using heat to make the wood pliable to fashion for staves. Another hoary explanation is that empty barrels in a barn, awaiting filling from a distillation, became burned in a fire on the premises but were used anyway to hold new spirit with consequent benefits noted.

In my view, these are all likely what historians call a “heroic” explanation, one based on myth which satisfies the popular need to understand history. It seems more likely to me that science explains the adoption of the practice by Americans. The usually thorough Carson omitted completely (presumably was not aware of) the developments I have referenced in the 1700s and early 1800s regarding suggested use of a charred barrel to hold various liquors including whisky. Nor have I read any reference to them in any other modern book or other resource on bourbon or whisky. I found them by researching in Google Books some years ago.

Lager Lessons

I’ve always enjoyed good lager. Properly made it is unquestionably one of the great styles and deserves its world fame.

Unfortunately, the mass market in recent decades has turned largely to thin starchy beers, i.e., with high adjunct, low hops, and low attenuations – c. 1008 I’m told. I’m sure this pleases many, while leaving fans of a more traditional palate looking for something else.

But there are still many good beers, both within the mass market and certainly the craft field. Also, sometimes a particular recipe just pleases, it may be down to the yeast used, a particular hop or malt, or some other indefinable attribute of brewing. In this sense, brewing is still an art and can’t be reduced to formulas objectively deciphered.


IMG_20160619_130828Cool Lager

This beer is made in a small brewery in Etobicoke in the GTA, its main line is not craft-oriented but it makes a lot of beer under contract, which is.

If you get it very fresh, Cool Lager, draft or bottle, is an excellent beer in the traditional Canadian style. It’s got decent malt and hop notes with a snappy finish. I like it after long walks or bike rides. The glass shown was ordered in a small bar out on Danforth quite a bit east, I had been on foot for a few hours and happened to stop there. Excellent choice for those who like the established Canadian lager profile.



Ace Hill Pilsner

This beer is very German in taste. I had very similar beers in Germany a few years ago. It’s got a mineral note from the Noble hops and a dryish malt characteristic. The yeast too is obviously European and is said to derive from Augustiner (see the company’s website). I drink this half-chilled as this brings out its best qualities.

I like it too because there is no sulphide flavour, the yeast is German but does not have the over-boiled egg taste so many European lagers have. (This is sometimes called hay-like or grassy in reviews, even skunky where the taste is misconstrued for damage by light). It’s a beer that goes well with food.


IMG_20160612_142902Estrella Damm

This tastes different to me at different times. Sometimes I get DMS in it, sometimes not. This one didn’t have any, so yay. It’s a little sweet with the adjunct in place but not obtrusive. Like Cool it’s well-made and while many other beers use similar materials, they just don’t taste as good. As I’ve often said, equal flavour intensities don’t mean the sensory qualities are equal. Something medium in palate impact can taste great, or not, same thing for something with high palate impact or mild impact.


IMG_20160715_232404Flying Monkeys Mythology Canadian Golden Pilsner

This is good, lightly sweet, light honey-gold in hue, firm hopping which the label indicates is Noble hops. There is a citric note though that seems North American. I wonder if the hop bill includes an American hop, or maybe an American variety grown in Germany. But it’s everything a craft lager should be while not tasting like any others out there.


IMG_20160625_163128Polly Want A Pilsner

This is a newish release from Hop City, the craft brewing arm of Moosehead. It’s got a firm grainy taste, on the dry side but with plenty of flavour and traditional lager hopping (cutting but neutral, what I call mineral in these notes). I feel I can taste wheat in the finish though and it’s not a taste that recommends itself to me. Wheat is an ingredient according to the label and I tend to puzzle over this as traditional lager – by which I mean blonde lager in its inception in Bavaria and Bohemia – was all-barley malt. I don’t think the wheat is needed, myself, and prefer the profile of all-malt beer.


Beck’s Beer

I didn’t include an image because everyone knows what Beck’s looks like. Body light but gains from all-malt, hops are surprisingly strong and well-interleaved in the taste. That German minerality again. But the aftertaste goes awry IMO, a cooked or veg note (not DMS). Perhaps it’s the pasteurization as I notice a similar effect in other imports.

The Coopers Confirm


Following-up my post of earlier today, here is a May 1913 article from The National Coopers’ Journal on second-hand barrels. It confirms the essential points in the news stories of 1889 and 1899 cited earlier.

This shows, too, that popular literature is often a reliable source.

Reading this interesting, modern-sounding document, one reflects how the coopering trade was still vital on the eve of World War I. The arrival of Prohibition by 1920 must have dealt it a huge blow.

Presumably, the trade recovered with the revival of distilling and brewing in 1933. Yet within 20 years, all brewing kegs changed over to metal in North America. (The pattern of technological change may recur with replacement of metal containers by plastic: think Brewlock from Heineken, or KeyKeg).

While distilling continues use of wood barrels, changes in other areas of packaging and further mechanization in coopering itself ultimately largely rendered the ancient coopers’ craft irrelevant.




Note re first image above: the image of barrels and coopers was obtained from this Scottish museum site, here.  The second image is from the 1913 article linked in my first paragraph above. Both are believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All trade marks and images shown belong to their respective owners or authorized licensees. All feedback welcomed.





The New Charred Barrel – Always Essential for American Whiskey

firing (1)

The new charred barrel is key to the character of American straight whiskey. The type takes in straight bourbon whiskey, for which a majority of the grist must be corn and the rest may be other grains. Also, the spirit must be distilled under 160 proof, entered in barrel at not >125 proof, and aged at least two years. There is also straight rye, similar except rye forms at least 51% of the mash (the rest is typically corn and barley). There are variations on these types, but all straights must be aged in new charred oak.

The requirement for a new charred container, or “package” in the old terminology, dates from the 1930s. Some argue the decision to require new barrels reflected the politics of lumber-producing districts, but there was more to it than that.

Before Prohibition there was no law I am aware of to prohibit re-using barrels (charred or other) to age bourbon or rye whiskey. However, as this August 17, 1889 article in the Pittsburg Dispatch made clear, the government did make an attempt to ban reuse of barrels for whiskey. The obvious reason would seem, to maintain a quality standard. According to the story though, the reason was to ensure the government could gauge the whiskey accurately, its volume and strength. Use of old barrels meant the bung hole and staves might deform which could affect Internal Revenue’s measurements – and therefore the tax revenues collected.

Still, here is the important point: most distillers used new barrels anyway, as the article makes clear. The only reasonable inference is that they were felt essential to the character of the product. The article dealt with Pennsylvania distilling, but the same would have applied to Kentucky. The article stated only a few small distillers were re-using barrels, and they did so for cost reasons.

(A new charred barrel costs significantly more than an old one, in part because the “red layer” behind the char, which gives straight whiskey its signature taste, is exhausted by the first use. Re-charring does not restore the same effect).

Interestingly, Michter’s distillery in Lancaster County, PA – not the contemporary Michter’s in Louisville, KY – used both new and reused barrels for its Original Sour Mash whiskey, produced into the 1990s. This was probably again for cost reasons, but in any case the product still retained a straight whiskey character. I had the original Michter’s Sour Mash many times, and it was very good.

But surely the great Penn State rye distillers such John Gibson, Large, and Dillinger, used new barrels only, and I have never read a suggestion of the contrary.  To my mind then, the 1889 article confirms what had to be a longstanding practice, certainly pre-dating the Civil War, in American whiskey country.

An article in the Omaha Daily Bee on August 16, 1899 but originating in Roanoke, VA – whiskey country – confirms the takeaway of the 1889 article. The Roanoke piece was not specific to any distilling district, but makes clear that American whiskey distillers used new barrels. This is shown by the statement that once emptied of whiskey, the barrel was used for other purposes, to hold foods was one.

The only time according to the Daily Bee that barrels were re-used for (American) whiskey was by dealers occasionally to make a batch of blended whiskey. In its words:

Whisky barrels of the best grade used to cost from $4 to $5. Machinery has been brought more and more into use in making them, with the result that they are now cheaper than ever before. Those barrels are likely to be filled with whisky and stored for three years or more before they are shipped. When a barrel has found its way to this market and into the hands of the final distributor, and has been emptied, it is brought to a dealer in reused barrels. There are coopers and dealers in new and second hand barrels who buy all the barrels that offer, and send out and gather up barrels, which they buy and sell in great numbers. Bought in this manner, the whisky barrel is inspected and put in order, if it requires any repair, and sold, it may be, to a wholesale dealer in liquors, to be used for blended liquors; but it is much more likely not again to be used as a liquor package, but to be sold for a vinegar or a cider barrel.

It is possible the intermediaries mixed neutral spirits, aged or new, with matured straight whiskey in some cases. The result, though, by definition wasn’t straight whiskey and use of old barrels made sense in this context.  Where all-straight whiskeys were combined, a practice known to have occurred, by definition the whiskeys were finished and ready for consumption, so an active barrel, to put it that way, wasn’t essential to their character.

The Bee article offers interesting detail on the afterlife of American whiskey barrels: if not shipped to Scotland (for its whisky needs), they were used to hold cider or vinegar; after that, pickles or sauerkraut went in. The envoi was steaming black tar, after which the barrels were broken up and sold off.


These stories support, in my view, that bourbon’s essential character was long reliant on the new charred barrel, probably from the Antebellum days when bourbon first became a thing in national life.

Despite this great attention to the barrel package, distillers didn’t particularly care where the whiskey was matured. My recent posts, see for example this one, discussed the sending of filled barrels to Germany or England for aging and return in seven years or more.

Distillers are good marketers. Today, emphasis is placed on how Kentucky warehouses are constructed, their location, how the windows work in the scented Bluegrass climate, etc. In the late 1800s, aging in dank Bremen or Hamburg, and any associated influences of the North Sea coastal micro-climate, didn’t discomfit distillers at all.

I recall discussions years ago on www.straightbourbon.com whether the D.S.P. (Distilled Spirits Producer) number on a bonded whiskey bottle meant it had to be distilled and aged there, or just distilled, meaning it could be tanked to another part of the state for aging. Some rued the latter prospect, as if the distiller wasn’t being straight with us (sorry), and what were we really drinking?

The whiskey business of the 1800s would have dismissed any such concern, as after the Civil War what consumers got may have spent most of its production life in a strange land 5000 miles away. There was terroir in those barrels, but not all of it was old Kentucky or even American.

But some things don’t change. The new charred barrel, likely inaugurated in the early 1800s, is a leitmotif of bourbon whiskey.

Note re images: the first image is from McGinnis Wood Products, a barrel producer, sourced here, the second from this tourist site on Hamburg, here. All images and trademarks belong to their respective owners or duly authorized licensees. Images are believed available for educational or historical use. All feedback welcomed.


The Swellest bar in the West


Set ’em up, Pardner

Many interested in beer and whiskey history gaze at old pictures of saloons and pubs and wonder, what could you buy inside? Sometimes there’s a clue, a beer sign on the wall, a readable label on the backbar, a distiller’s name on a barrelhead.

Rarely has a document survived listing all the offerings. Numerous sites offer digitized, historic restaurant menus. Wine, beer and spirits brands often appear on these. It’s helpful up to a point, but few pertain to old saloons and pubs in British and American towns, there is very little.



The menu above is an exception. Its full text can be seen herea full-page ad in the Wibaux Pioneer of Montana, July 25, 1907. The building where the saloon was located is today Wibaux’ library. Many features of the original construction survive.

The menu of the Exchange Saloon is the counterpart to today’s online menus, except it appeared in a newspaper. Given we are talking about Montana and a small locality, it made sense for the saloon to trumpet its wares this way. Inbound rail passengers would have picked up the Pioneer as they left the train.

The same for departing salesmen, cowboys, and miners. And just as today, it is one thing to see an establishment up close, another to know what you can buy when you walk in.

And look at the offerings: six whiskeys available from the barrel. Five straights and two blends. Of the straights, three appear to be ryes, and two bourbon. The prices  are per gallon, so whiskey was available to take away, as beer is again today in growlers.

The Exchange Saloon also functioned as an off-license or dealer, in other words. No less than 13 bottled brands of American whiskey were carried, most probably blends. Canadian Club was available as well, and Seagram Canadian whisky – “Seegrains” was a misspelling.

White Horse (“House” is probably an error) and Andrew Usher were, still are, Scotch whiskies. Perhaps they were imported through Canada – one hopes not made in Canada with a false label slapped on. In fact, by including these two in the Canada section, I wonder if Mr. Rucker was telling us something.


85386bfa1c91c0-1024x767 (1)


There were two types of gin: Hollands, which is the original Dutch genever, and a London dry, Gordon’s, still a big name. Bass Ale and Guinness Stout were the imported beers.

There was a Cognac too, Hennessey, bigger than ever today, a California brandy, and a few fruit spirits.

For beer, Minnesota-based Hamm was the name of the game, whether one kind or more was on offer is not stated. Hamm’s was a major brand in the 20th century Midwest, and further west. A beer of the name is still sold.

You can see that a boilermaker, or beer and a shot, was no trouble in this bar – or should I take that back.

“Lunch goods” were the famous free lunch of the old saloon, salty foods to whet the appetite for drink and lure in the crowd. We have good detail on what was offered: sardines, potted (minced and spiced) meats, sausage, cheese and crackers, and a seeming outlier, lobster.

I suspect at this time lobster was not the high echelon dish it is now. Fishermen used to toss them back, they say… The shrimp were probably pickled, maybe the lobster too.




The brand or source names in the whiskey section, certainly for the straight and Canadian whiskeys, all denoted top goods. This is assuming the whiskeys weren’t diluted or otherwise adulterated. I suspect they weren’t, though, as the ad is careful to note compliance with the Pure Food law, an early consumer measure.

Gibson was a major rye distillery in Pennsylvania founded by an Ulster immigrant, John Gibson. Old Crow needs no introduction to those who know whiskey. Maryland rye was famous in its day, etc.

Finally, there is the wine list, for which the word eclectic comes to mind.

Men then didn’t drink much wine, and the saloon was the preserve of men except for any dancing girls permitted on premises. Maybe the wines were consumed by them, courtesy their gentlemen friends.

Thus did Bacchus roam in old Montana, from Catawba to St-Julien.


Wibaux, Montana depot


Note re images: the menu of the Exchange Saloon was sourced from the digitized newspaper linked in the text. The Hamm’s label is from the MillerCoors’ website, here. The image of Wibaux’ Public Library, that formerly housed The Exchange Saloon, is from the Wibaux County genealogy website, hereThe Gibson whiskey label was sourced at Pinterest hereand Wibaux’ railroad depot, here. All images and trademarks belong solely to their respective owners, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Mint Juleps Of The Old South

EA0917_Mint-Julep_s4x3.jpg.rend.sni12col.landscapeThe weather yesterday was upwards of 35 C, about the level when mint julep was typically served in the old South, the “cordial” as it was called then. Many odd customs attended its preparation and serving.

One was to present it to the house at sunrise. This is one of those practices which convince you the past truly is a foreign nation, it’s akin to reading about soothing cholic in babies with teaspoons of bourbon.

All this and more is attested in a vibrant article by Martha McCulloch Williams in the Topeka State Journal of January 31, 1914.

It was reprinted from The Sun in New York City, where she was based as a writer. I can’t recall any other article of the time written by a woman discussing the merits of drink (versus supporting Carrie Nation, say, or Prohibition in general). A short extract:

Harking back to mint julep, I wish my critic might have the luck once to see and smell and sip juleps such as were served to us upon rising at the most hospitable house in hospitable Robertson county. Mint for them grew in very rich soil, partly shaded; thus it sprang quickly, almost magially, but was never coarse.

It was cut at dawn in midsummer, drenched with dew, snipped off at three inches or less, and set dew-gemmed around the goblet edges, half sunk in sugared water and broken ice. Washing would have been profanation; it had grown too quickly to have even a trace of dust. After it was duly placed the whisky was poured very gently, very steadily, until it stood level with the rim. Such whisky! Robertson county’s best! Wilson Pitt was a favorite brand, so was Silver Spring. Made from sound flint corn, after the old honest fashion, aged in wood, colored very faintly by charred barrels, and kept at least four years, it was fit for the gods. “Not a headache in a hogshead of it” unless you overdrank.The pity of it that prohibition has conquered such an Eden! That, however, is beside the mark.

Our Juleps came to us about sunrise. A tinkle of ice and spoons outside our doors was a mighty pleasant reveille. One maid fetched the tray of juleps. Behind came another with a bigger tray full of dewy flowers, roses, carnations, heliotrope, scented and scarlet geraniums. It was the law of the house that you came to breakfast beautifully, with flowers in your hair, at your throat, in your belt; thus only were you in harmony with a table heaped high with dew-wet blossoms all down its length.

Who was this extraordinary woman of the Wilsonian era? Williams was a food and domestic writer, and probably a working journalist. She authored amongst other books, Dishes and Beverages Of The Old South. Rather oddly, she declares in this book to be an “ardent” follower of Temperance (page 12) but insists on including recipes for drinks and where whiskey is used as an ingredient. Her detailed mint julep recipe appears at pg. 39.

I can’t account for the contradiction. Maybe she told a white lie in the book to encourage sales amongst its presumed market (women, then generally against drink), or meant to profess Temperance ironically.

Anyway she seemed someone of unusual spirit for the time, and her encomium on the julep is engaging and well-written. It presages the kind of food journalism and writing now quite common.

First, it tells us a bit about Tennessee’s Robertson County’s famous whiskey, of which I wrote earlier. Despite that it was aged four years, the whiskey only had a “very faint” tint from the wood.

This seems hard to parse. Four years for any straight whiskey usually imparts a decided brown-to-red, think for example of Maker’s Mark or Jim Beam.

It might be that the producers she mentioned, who indeed were famous for quality, selected whiskey from a part of the warehouse where it matured slowly and took only a little colour from the wood.

I’ve seen images in fact of old Tennessee brands which were only light yellow, so that may tie in.

Or, the barrel may have been charred in a way to minimize extraction of colour. Today, we tend to think of dark whiskey as the best. In a former time, deep colour was not always preferred. For example, pale brandy (Cognac) and dark brandy were marketed as separate items in the 1800s.

Given that Roberston County whiskey underwent the charcoal leaching process just as Jack Daniel’s did, it makes sense to me some distillers sold the whiskey only with a light hue. They may have meant the subsequent aging to be restrained so as not to leach remaining character from the whiskey.

The other striking thing from Williams’ article: mint juleps were served at breakfast. Indeed it was an old southern custom, now obsolete one might say.

Many things do sound odd from the past, although I suppose they would regard some things we do with consternation.

Reading how William’s ideal julep was constructed, it makes me think how hard it would be to emulate. Not because of the whiskey – many types could be chosen and indeed many craft distillations would be ideal  – but how to get that mint? It was grown outdoors in a hot climate, harvested quickly so nature’s dust hadn’t time to settle, and used within an hour of being cut.

As to the hothouse flowers scent in the non-air-conditioned breakfast parlour, you’ll have to use your imagination to conjure that…

I guess if any time is apt to find the mint, it is now with the Southern-like heat and the market gardens in full swing.

If you find the mint, let me know. I’ll bring the whiskey.

(Read the rest of William’s article via the link given, it is very interesting and she drops the name of O. Henry amongst other tidbits).

Note re image: the image of the mint julep was sourced from the Food Network site, here. Alton Brown’s recipe given there is highly recommended. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Antebellum Bourbon was Little Aged? Not.



An article  appeared on August 1, 1886 in New York’s The Sun entitled simply “Bourbon and Rye”. The author, uncredited, billed himself as an expert. The article shows every sign he was, e.g., his deft explanation how exporting whiskey could reduce the cost of aging.

Not least interesting is the account of bourbon’s character before the imposition of the whiskey tax, first levied in 1862 to help pay for the Civil War and sharply increased later in the war. For convenience, I’ll speak of bourbon before and after simply the war.

The writer posits the pre-war, or Antebellum, period as the golden age, when bourbon was long-aged, especially on the distilling estates of the Bluegrass:

Then the theory was that Bourbon never reached its rich maturity “until half the contents of the barrel had evaporated”. Nothing short of six-year-old bourbon was accounted fit for use, and many a hospitable Kentucky mansion contained in its cellar mellow and aromatic Bourbon of from ten to twenty years old.

Although the author doesn’t mention it, some commercial distillers such as Oscar Pepper also aged their product well. Oscar Pepper’s product, made by legendary Scots-born physician James Crow, was noted for its red colour and was probably at least seven years old. As early as 1818 some Kentucky whiskey is documented at seven years of age, and some was available at higher ages.

Still, some bourbon historians state that most bourbon before the Civil War was young, a year or two at most. Gerald Carson appeared to hold this view in his landmark The Social History Of Bourbon (1963).

The Sun explained that aging liquor was no great burden before the war or while the new tax was still low. Annual shrinkage, the angel’s share to which all aging spirits are subject, adds to the cost as tax was paid on new spirit and the producer was not credited for shrinkage. Still, the extra cost to age whiskey (warehousing, insurance, interest, etc.) was considered acceptable. When the tax rose however to $2.00/gal. it became uneconomic to age whiskey for as long as before. The writer was a little inaccurate on his recollection of the tax rates, this U.S. government source gives the true picture, but there is no reason to question his general argument.

The result of the Civil War tax was, it appears, that bourbon became much younger. Sold at two or three years’ age, it was half the minimum age stated as acceptable before the war. This created an opportunity for blenders, who added a few gallons of expensive old whiskey to a much larger amount of neutral spirits to create an acceptable drink. Indeed, blending manuals start to appear about 1860 although the commercial practice probably started earlier. This blending is the origin of modern American blended whisky, taking in brands such as Seagram Seven Crown. Scotch and Canadian whisky also became largely blended articles in the 19th century.


By 1886 the increase in the bonding period, during which whiskey could be stored tax-deferred, as well as new rules that relieved distillers from paying tax on the angel’s share, made it economic to keep whiskey for longer again. When these stocks were supplemented by American whiskey brought home from a seven-years plus sojourn in Bremen or Liverpool, that created a market where bourbon and rye could be offered at seven years vs. the earlier four year average.

It’s interesting that again today, four years’ aging is the norm for straight whiskey. Jim Beam White, Four Roses Yellow Label, Maker’s Mark, and Jack Daniel’s, say, are likely not much older. A sharp spike in bourbon sales evaporated the “whiskey glut” of 15 and 30 years ago and has reduced the amount of extra-aged whiskey to a trickle, however.

There is a tendency in bourbon country, among many who know, to consider bourbon over-aged at more than eight or 10 years old. Former distiller Charlie Thomasson, in a c. 1960 article on old-time distilling at Willett Distillery in Bardstown, KY (now in operation again), wrote that the best bourbon was about six years of age. Yet The Sun in 1886 stated that Kentucky grandees prized bourbon aged two to three times longer than that before the Civil War. Thomasson felt that prolonged aging would impart a “punky” taste, a degraded flavour from a break-down of the barrel wood, yet old Kentucky must have liked that taste.*

Despite Carson’s view, there is good reason historically in my view to consider that “bourbon” – vs. that is “common whiskey”, always meant a well-aged whiskey, brown or red with a sweet taste from caramelized wood sugars. In contrast, common whiskey including corn whiskey, un-aged or little-aged until the Civil War, had an unrefined, more congeneric palate.

Of course, terminology was never precise. “Old whiskey” could mean bourbon, or straight rye, and conversely examples can probably be shown of early bourbon advertised at two or three years age. But in general, bourbon, or the quality end of it, always meant arguably a long-aged drink of rich palate, comparable to fine brandy, say. The Sun’s account supports that.

The takeaway: good bourbon was expected to be long-aged before the war. Perhaps due to its extra-congeneric character resulting from use of pot stills or crude column stills, those extra years were needed. The bourbon or rye mash of today’s distilleries, apart perhaps some craft producers, is likely much cleaner, and hence needs less time in wood to mature.

At day’s end, I like six- to eight-year-old bourbon, although some extra-old bourbon is exceptional, yes (George Stagg comes to mind). But Thomasson –  a teetotaller, by the way – had it right in general terms, imo.

Note re images: the labels shown above were sourced here and here. Both are believed available for educational or historical use, all feedback welcomed. All trademarks shown belong exclusively to their owners or authorized licensees.


*[Note added January 27, 2020].  Needless to say different tastes have always existed, some people just like the taste of very aged whiskey, others less so. See also further in the text my remark that new spirit in the period quite possibly was considerably more congeneric than today’s, resulting from still technology of the time. This alone would encourage longer aging periods than today is likely necessary.

A New Brewing Venture In Ontario – Cowbell Brewing

IMG_20160709_143648Ring Them Bells

In June and earlier this month, a spate of stories appeared on a new brewing venture, Blyth Cowbell Brewing Company, in Blyth, ON. Blyth, off the shore of Lake Huron in the southeast part, is about a three-hour drive from Toronto.

The Canadian Beer News has an informative account of the brewery, here. Further details on the origin and development of the project, including the founding Sparling family, are in this story from the North Huron.

The project is carefully thought through and impressive in scope. The Sparlings are building an ethically responsible, “closed-loop” plant on a sizeable farm which will grow barley, hops, and other inputs for the beers. There will also be a 100-seat restaurant overlooking the brewhouse.

Part of the business plan is the theme set out on the label of the first beer, the fact that in 1855 a rich landowner in England bought the town lock and stock but never visited his property.

It’s cool branding but there is much more to the brewery’s plans as the linked stories make clear.

Grant Sparling trained recently at Sunderland’s brewing school in England. Stephen Rich, with stints at Sweetwater Brewing and the former Beer Academy in Toronto, will help Sparling create a range of beers the first of which is Absent Landlord. Since the brewery is still being built, Absent Landlord is currently brewed under contract, in Hamilton, ON (I’d think at Collective Arts).

IMG_20160708_151004The beer is first-rate with a fresh and appealing flavour, quite yeasty but in a good way: there are no sulphide notes or that type of flavour. It’s not just a gateway beer, a term that tends to have a left-handed connotation, but a tasty and moreish one that stands on its own merits.

Kolsch yeast is used and the beer is described as a “country Kolsch”. Unlike modern beers in Cologne, Absent Landlord is fermented warm with the goal to extract maximum flavour. It has a faint apple note, a touch of earthiness, and the flavour of fresh grains.

I plan to keep some cans for while to see if the yeast drops somewhat as I do tend to prefer a clear glass of beer, setting aside weizen and other styles which should be turbid.

Still, tumbling out of the glass after a bouncing trip from Stratford, ON where I found it at a LCBO, it was as tasty as could be. Perhaps this beer will be an example where it needs its full charge of yeast to have maximum effect.