Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky


The words “Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky” titled a story appearing on April 26, 1872 in the Public Ledger of Memphis, Tennessee. The article was a reprint of a story that appeared, presumably the same year, in the St. Louis Republican. See the Memphis article here.

The story is important for treating bourbon not just as a commodity, to analyze chemically, or in a social setting, but as something worthy of academic/historical appraisal.

In the last 20 years of the 1800s books on distilling, state histories and trade journals gave useful information on bourbon, but you don’t see much of this before 1880. The 1872 article was prescient to understand the importance bourbon had already achieved in American social life. [See Addendum below].

What makes the piece, reproduced below, especially noteworthy is that bourbon as a name for whiskey had first appeared in print only 51 years earlier, in 1821. Just enough time had gone by for someone to look at the subject sociologically, essentially.

Genealogy of Bourbon Whisky

Prof. S. Williams in St. Louis Republican.

It is not generally known that the genealogy of Bourbon whisky is as purely German as a “Pennsylvania Dutch” descent in a direct line can make it. Look in the State Department at the papers relating to the Pennsylvania whisky rebellion against the federal excise tax in 1780. The names of the compromised parties will be found to be Shankweller, or Schwartz, or some other addition pronounced with the “sweet German accent.” These Teutons, the pioneer immigrants from Germany, were as stiffnecked anti-muckers on the liquor question in the infancy of our republic as they are now and resented all government interference with their glorious old Monongahela whisky as stoutly as modern Germans do the puritanic attempts to deprive them of their Sunday lager. And thus “old Bourbon” became the first-born of ” old Monongahela.” The blessed old patriots who invented Bourbon whisky, and whose names can still be found branded by their descendants on any bona fide ante-bellum barrel  – alas! how few and hard to find – were the Spearses, the Kellers, the Kizers, the Kleisers, the Lydicks, the Hoffmans and others, who found it healthy to light out from Pennsylvania about the time that United States marshals with writs in their pockets were hunting for Hugh Henry Breckinridge, the author of “Modern Chivalry”

They were a florid, ponderous, stalwart and manly race, and the tourist is astonished at the percentage of heavy weights visible even now among their descendants at any Bourbon court-day gathering. They embarked on broad-horns with their wives and children and copper stills, floated down the Ohio to Limestone, crossed the Licking hills and built their cabins and set up their stills in the cane-brakes of Bourbon, free from the molestation of United States marshals. Soon the excise tax was repealed. There was no market for produce in Kentucky. Stock had to be driven through hundreds of miles of wilderness, and across the Alleghanies to be sold. But by converting the corn and rye into whisky and bacon, tbey could flatboat it out of Licking, sell boat and cargo in the Spanish port of New Orleans, and walk home through the wilderness with their Spanish doubloons swung over their shoulders in canvas bags. Such is the origin of Bourbon whisky, which owes its reputation to the same honest process which made Old Monongahela famous in its day.

Some points. The professor’s first or Christian name is absent, he states just an initial. Why? Perhaps because that was just the style of the day.

Famed American journalist and author Henry L. Mencken, who was born about the time the article appeared, called himself “H.L. Mencken” professionally. And there was that fellow, T.S. Eliot. Will Rogers, the humorist, is kind of an example too.  Or S.J. Perelman. It was a style.

Alternatively, perhaps Williams didn’t want his full name used. Increasingly after the Civil War, to speak in polite circles about whiskey or any beverage alcohol was not “meet”. The climate against alcohol was growing. While liquor was tolerated until, finally, Prohibition ended its manufacture and sale nationwide in 1920, speaking of booze in an establishment setting became verboten. Bonfort’s Wine and Spirit Journal and other trade media didn’t follow this path of course, but they had a product to sell.


And so S. William’s article was a departure from societal norm. Perhaps St. Louis, Missouri at the time was quite “open” in regard to liquor. Certainly from the 1870s on bourbon and other alcohol were extensively advertised in its media.

In Memphis too in the 1870s the whiskey culture, being native to the area and important to the economy, was still viewed with tolerance or even indulgence by established circles.

But what of the “1780” date for the whiskey tax? The excise tax on liquor became law in March of 1791, and collection started in July of the same year. How could Williams get it wrong?

I don’t know, perhaps the St. Louis paper had got it right and the Memphis paper misprinted it. Or maybe the St. Louis article stated 1780 too, and Williams got it wrong for some reason. (I tried to locate the original article from the St. Louis Republican, but could not).

Still, the rest of the article is so specific, naming many names associated with bourbon or Kentucky history to this day, that even an egregious error should not mislead us as to the article’s general significance.

What axe would Williams have to grind? The article recites no current bourbon brands so it doesn’t seem in other words a marketer’s invented history, an exotic gloss on a stock product.

People with the surnames Lydick and Kiser did live in north-central Kentucky in the 1800s (I checked). And Jacob Spears is a legendary name in bourbon studies, he is one of the bruited makers of the “first” bourbon. I found a Solomon Kellar in early whiskey history, he is probably the Keller referred to by Williams, or of that family.

Hoffman was the name of a well-known distillery in Bluegrass Kentucky, in Anderson County where distilling began around 1775, as confirmed e.g., here. 

I couldn’t find anything on Kleisers or Shankwellers, but the names seem too specific not to have a connection to bourbon’s early history.

Was Williams’ thesis of significant German origins to bourbon correct? He was a lot closer to bourbon’s origins than we are, certainly. He was right that German names are connected to Pennsylvania rye whiskey history, and that form of liquor (“Monongahela”) preceded Kentucky bourbon.

Bomberger is an example – of the distillery later called Michter’s – but there were many others. But the Scots-Irish were also ardent whiskey-makers in Pennsylvania and down the Appalachian trail and there were many who settled western Pennsylvania. Still, they had not worked with a rye mash at home, it’s not commonly used for whiskey, or for food, in Ulster, Scotland, or England.

Could German-Americans have shown Scots-Irish immigrants how to mash and work rye? It’s possible. In fact in Germany and Holland today rye is still used to make a hard liquor, generally not aged as moonshine in America wasn’t.

Dutch genever (gin) is an example, as is some of the korn, a white vodka-like drink, from Germany.

Henry Crowgey’s Kentucky Bourbon – The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (1971) documents distilling in “old Bourbon”. This was the part of Virginia, and later Kentucky after it was formed, where settlers arrived from Pennsylvania and other states well before Kentucky acquired statehood in 1791. The settlers were of numerous ethnicities including Scots-Irish and German.

Crowgey doesn’t explore the German angle but writes that rye was used for liquor in North Carolina before Kentucky was founded. Both Scots-Irish and German communities had settled parts of North Carolina just as in Pennsylvania and Maryland, so a German role can’t be excluded even there.

In sum, the 1872 article is too specific on numerous points to be disregarded. At a minimum it suggests a not insignificant role that German-Americans played to develop bourbon.

The whiskey that people made in the earliest years, 1780s-1800, probably was unaged or kept in the barrel only a short time. Bourbon emerged as a form of whiskey aged in charred casks. It was brought downriver to New Orleans as Williams states, a subset of the frontier moonshine, concentrated in north-central Kentucky.

The area bourbon developed from now includes Bourbon County (smaller than its original boundaries), Mason County, Anderson County, Fayette County, and Nelson County. This regional form of the whiskey became finally the norm for aged American whiskey.

The only difference with Pennsylvania was that rye whiskey tended to dominate there in the 1800s – rye formed the majority of the mash whereas in Kentucky corn did. But both drinks are close cousins.

Bourbon probably therefore does have a German Monongahela bloodline, as Williams said. Packhorses carrying kegs of rye whiskey over the Allegheny hills may have provided the first proof to Pennsylvania distillers that keeping whiskey in wood improves the taste, and colour. This would have encouraged the practice to ship whiskey long distances by water transport.

Since New Orleans was Spanish from 1763-1803, and if Williams was right, this would argue against the view that bourbon is named after the royal family of France to emulate Cognac brandy. Some Pennsylvanians came to Kentucky even before the whiskey tax, Jacob Spears did.

As they, with later emigrants, evolved bourbon whiskey, they would have sent it to New Orleans well before 1803, hence Williams’ reference to payment in Spanish doubloons. In other words, the term probably was used for the whiskey before the French took over in Louisiana.

The next time you sample bourbon raise the glass to Professor S. Williams of St. Louis, Missouri. You can tell from the article he liked the product. He was one of us.

Addendum added July 10, 2016: I note that in Richard Collins’ Historical Sketches of Kentucky (1874), an update of a work from the 1840s by the author’s father, Lewis, a short account is given of Joseph Shawhan (1781-1871), an early Kentucky pioneer from Pennsylvania. Collins writes, see pg. 217, that Shawhan was an early producer of bourbon and brought it downriver to New Orleans, walking all the way back with those Spanish doubloons. Perhaps Collins had read Williams’ article before writing his own. Apart from the two-year time difference, the significance of Williams’ account is that he looks at bourbon’s history from a broader perspective, a pedagogic one, essentially.

First, he links bourbon to an earlier product, Pennsylvania rye whiskey, then relates both drinks to an ethnic group, Pennsylvania Germans, whom he considers largely responsible for both. As far as I know, these were novel claims at the time. The name Shawhan sounds Celtic, probably Scots-Irish, but that is neither here nor there as emigrants of multiple ethnicities departed western Pennsylvania for Kentucky. Shawhan was just one distiller… Williams is making a claim for a predominant German influence on the American whiskey heritage. Indeed, in 1872, he is making a claim for the bourbon heritage as such, novel certainly for the time.

Note on the images above: the images, of the Licking River in Kentucky and a flatboat (broad-horn) bound for New Orleans, are sourced from from Wikipedia, here and here.  Attribution for the image of the Licking River in Kentucky is as follows: “I, ChristopherM [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons”.

These images are believed available for educational and historical use. All intellectual property in them lies in their sole owner, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

Some Beer Reviews

A Pot Pourri of Brands and Tastes

IMG_20160625_163128Polly Want A Pilsner

From Hop City Brewing in Brampton, ON, a unit of Moosehead but as LeBlanc and St. John note in The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, its brewer started with the predecessor craft operation, Niagara Falls Brewing. Good pedigree. Still, I’d like to enjoy the beers more than I do.

They are well-made technically but tend to have flavours I don’t cotton to.

The pilsner has good stability and authentic German hop flavour but I get a drying, wheaty finish that doesn’t seem right for a blonde lager, in my view again.

Perhaps this is from the wheat in the recipe, or the carastan malt: the company commendably lists the ingredients on its website. I think the beer would be much better just with German lager malt.

IMG_20160708_135927The Range at The Black Swan, Stratford

I was in Stratford again, today in fact, and tried the TBS range in a “paddle” (flight).  I thought the IPA and Galaxy were first-rate, textbook in fact: rich but perfectly balanced and lotsa hops. The porter was well-brewed too but it has that very dry acerbic finish many stouts and porters have in Ontario, e.g., Keefe Stout from Granite Brewery, Black Katt Stout, the new Collective Arts porter.

To my mind, a porter or stout should have a rich roasted flavour with good residual sweetness. The brewery informed me no raw grains are used. I’d assume chocolate malt and perhaps the target attenuation result in the dry, somewhat harsh style mentioned.

Just my opinion, the ubiquity of the style means many like it of course.

The pale ale didn’t work for me, with a dry milk chocolate or Postum-like palate.

The raspberry weisse (Berlin-style) was back to form, full of lactic character and very drinkable. The house pointed out that in a style like this the special culture tends to overpower the wheat, but that’s fine. Excellent brew and the weather outside was perfect for it when I was there, over 90 F.

Kudos to TBS for not air-conditioning the brewery excessively. Summertime beer drinking should be just that.

IMG_20160706_170649_editBurdock I.P.A.

Every brew I’ve had from Burdock Brewing is excellent despite the relative newness of this Bloor West brewery and pub. They are all true to style and stable in the glass (by which I mean, they don’t break down half-way as some neophyte beers do).

The IPA, pictured at Bar Volo in Toronto, had all the right flavours with a peach-like finish, and in this regard reminded me of Hill Farmstead’s Edward, the Vermont classic. To try to give some context, the Black Swan’s IPA was not dissimilar but the latter had a more “dank” quality, which I like too.

IMG_20160620_195201Henderson’s Best

This Toronto-based brewery has impressed the GTA beer community with this English-style effort which has proved its flagship.

The house calls it an ESB type, I’d say perhaps more “best bitter”, the way Courage Best Bitter was 20 years ago. It’s the fruity, flowery type of bitter, not golden but also not toffeeish from caramel malt.

The beer needs to be very fresh to really show its stuff. I had a pint mid-town recently that seemed a bit oxidized, although it was still good. But at its freshest, the flowery, English style is hard to beat. On cask this should be extremely good.

Strongbow Cider

I remember this cider as having a distinct taste of English apples. That taste is perfumed, winy, complex, a quality North American apples don’t have. However, recent glasses of Strongbow (the regular one) seem more indistinct in character, as if you blended North American (or New Zealand?) apples with English ones to get the must from which the ferment was prepared. Also, the taste seems less upfront than I remember, blander.

I have no issues with use of concentrates or sugars, I used to like Strongbow but at the present time, no.










Rye Whiskey and a Slow Boat to Bremen

In 1901 a Pennsylvania newspaper, the Pennsburg Town and Country, published a story about a successful liquor dealer named Mary Moll:


Mrs. MARY MOLL, of Green Lane, the only lady liquor dealer in the State, has successfully conducted that business for a period of ten years. The late NATHANIEL MOLL, her husband, started the business about twenty-six years ago and conducted the same until his death. Mrs. KNOLL then took entire charge of the business and through her careful business management has more than tripled the capacity of the business. Today Mrs. MOLL is considered to be the most successful liquor dealer in the vicinity. Most all her purchases are in carload lots, thus placing her in a position to sell liquor of the best quality at the lowest possible price. The history connected with this lady’s business career is most interesting. Mrs. MOLL, when she took possession of the business, had many obstacles to overcome but, being a woman of wonderful business tact, she bravely fought the many unpleasant features connected with business and successfully built up a trade far superior to any in this county. She deals directly with the leading liquor brokers in the United States, who are held in account for every action by the government. Mrs. MOLL’s first year’s sales amounted to ninety-six barrels of liquor. This she increased by giving the business on the road her personal attention. After three years careful work as a drummer she abandoned the road. During her trips on the road she kept a strict account of all her expenses and came to the conclusion that she could build up her trade much better by giving her customers the advantage of her expenses. She now sells her liquors 50 cents a gallon cheaper than when on the road. Mrs. MOLL during her business career has gained the reputation of selling nothing but high grade liquors. She supplies the leading doctors throughout this and adjoining counties with liquors for medicinal purposes. She carries a stock of pure rye whiskies ranging in age from 5 to 20 years. Her business has rapidly increased and now she handles over three hundred barrels every year. The success of her business is due largely to the manner in which Mrs. MOLL buys her whiskies. Her purchases are made generally in carload lots, not only being able to buy at a good reduction, but saving considerable on transportation. To give our readers some idea of the extent of this business, it is only necessary to say that a representative of the Star Union Railroad Company recently visited her at her home and tried to make arrangements to have her shipments over their lines. Last week she received five barrels of a twenty-year-old whiskey as a sample order. After testing the liquor she found it to be even a higher quality than what she had expected and immediately wired for twenty-five barrels more. This whiskey was made from pure rye in this State in 1881. In 1894 it was shipped to Bremen, Germany, where it remained till 1900. The high-grade whiskies are generally sent across the seas as it is claimed that the salt air and peculiar motion of the vessel increases the quality of the liquor. Liquor in the process of aging evaporates very rapidly and the greater the evaporation the more valuable the liquor. Of the five barrels received by Mrs. MOLL when first filled each contained 44 1/2 gallons. When Mrs. MOLL received them the barrels contained from 14 to 20 gallons a piece. Twenty-year-old whiskey is seldom found in liquor stores at the present day, but it is known that Mrs. MOLL always has in stock the choicest and most rare liquors, according to age, that can be found in the market.*

The story is interesting on numerous accounts, but here I will deal with the unusually long age of the whiskey in question and some connected matters.

The whiskey, described as “pure rye”, was undoubtedly a straight rye whiskey and almost certainly distilled in Pennsylvania. Corn-based whiskeys became the preserve of Kentucky and Tennesee and I have written of numerous types of these, e.g., sour mash and sweet mash bourbon, Lincoln County whiskey, Robertson County whiskey, white and yellow corn whiskeys.

RyeWhiskeyPennsylvania and to a lesser extent, Maryland, were producers primarily of rye-based whiskeys. Rye whiskey was the first type generally made, in Westmoreland County and elsewhere in Pennsylvania where Scots-Irish settlement predominated. With the departure in the 1790s of many farmer-distillers for Kentucky and southerly on the Appalachian Trail, corn became the primary distilling grain. It grows well in Kentucky and Tennessee and is a staple for foodstuffs as well. (Rye has never been a major food source in North America).

But Pennsylvania and Maryland never stopped making fine rye whiskey. Except for a handful of revivalists established in the last 10 years, the industry did not survive Prohibition. In truth, it was being eclipsed even before 1920 by the burgeoning growth of bourbon, but still the industry was well-established in Pennsylvania certainly. Some of the names were Overholt (still made, now in Kentucky by Beam Suntory), Large, Bridgeport, Sam Dillinger, Sam Thompson, Hannis, but there were many others.

1901 was the height of rye’s ascendancy in Pennsylvania and clearly Mary Moll was a top-notch dealer who offered an enviable range – five to 20 years old – and great prices. She probably dealt both in blended goods and straight whiskeys, as blends were a big part of the U.S. whiskey market then (and still are in a roundabout way, but it’s called Canadian whisky now).

But as I’ve said, a 20 year old whiskey was almost certainly a “straight”, an epicure’s drink if there was one.

Now, the question. Why did it go to Bremen, Germany for an extended sojourn?

There were two main reasons whiskey in bulk was sent from the United States to Bremen and elsewhere in Europe (Hamburg, Liverpool).

First, with short bonding periods – one year, later three yearsBremen_aerial_view_9 – from the Civil War until 1894, federal excise tax had to be paid when the whiskey was withdrawn from bond. Thus, say whiskey was removed from bond in 1878, when the bonding period was three years. The tax had to be paid to Internal Revenue unless the whiskey was not to be consumed in the U.S. If it was exported, the tax still had to be paid, but was subject to drawback (repayment) upon a U.S. Consul certifying the goods had landed in a foreign port.

In other words, the problem was, whiskey didn’t always have a ready market on exit from bond and three years anyway might be viewed as too young. It was cheaper to pay return freight and German insurance and storage costs than pay the U.S. excise tax on withdrawal from bond. Also, the tax was being paid in future dollars. There were agents in New York who handled all the details, international business is nothing new…

When the goods were brought back to the U.S. years later, quality had improved and market conditions were better: the tax was paid and the goods went into the domestic market.

So it was a way to defer the tax and improve the product. Some whiskey lounging in a German or English warehouse was sold in Europe and never came back, but a lot did, with the cachet of extra age and the ineffable effects of the “salt air and the peculiar motion of the vessel”.

Mary Moll’s whiskey though had to have been tax-paid before export since it was thirteen years old. Perhaps the market was soft and the owner felt the whiskey was better off getting even older in Europe while the market hopefully improved at home. At any rate, a rye whiskey of remarkable age was made available to connoisseurs via Mary Moll’s agency – not that older is always better as I have explained earlier, but there has always been a market for well-aged whiskey. Until recently straight rye of 15-20 years and more was commonly seen in the market.

The international shipment of liquors to improve them is an old gambit. Linie is a famous acquavit from Norway which crosses the equator in sherry barrels. Some Scotch whiskies in the past advertised long shipment to East Indies as part of their quality. Madeira wine basically was invented on this principle although methods were later devised on the island to emulate the benefits of ship travel. The rocking of the boat and changes in temperature worked oxidative and other effects which matured the product in a particular way.

Distillers and agents had favourite locales. Baker, a famous PA rye whiskey sold by the Walters agency out of Baltimore, was sent on clippers to Brazil to add a je ne sais quoi.

I’ll leave India Pale Ale out of this, as at best it is a quasi-example of transpontine amelioration. The very story of bourbon is connected though, as shipment downriver on flatboats from Kentucky river ports was seen to mature the drink faster than if the barrels were stationary.

With the change to an eight year bonding period in 1894, foreign shipments declined and today are unheard of for bourbon and rye with the exception of a few barrels carried on a voyage and bottled as a curiosity after their return. I recall reading about one which was felt to have a notable salt air quality, and when one thinks of Islay whisky in Scotland, it all kind of ties in. Not that new Islay whisky goes overseas today (if it goes anywhere it is to a Central Scotland warehouse), but residence in seaside warehouses does expose it to a lot of active North Atlantic weather.

Note re images: the images shown are from Internet sources, Wikipedia in the first instance, and a Bremen German tourist board for the second, and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*The quoted story, from the Pennsburg Town and Country, March 23, 1901, is © copyright 2015 Nancy C Janyszeski for the Montgomery County PAGenWeb Project. All rights are reserved by the copyright holder. It was sourced here and is reproduced pursuant to following notice on the source linked: “Unless indicated otherwise in a particular page carrying this copyright notice, permission to use, copy, and distribute documents and related graphics delivered from ( for non-commercial use is hereby granted, provided that the above copyright notice appears in all copies and that both the copyright notice and this permission notice appear. All other rights reserved. Nancy Janyszeski disclaims all warranties with regard to this information. The information described herein is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied”.



I Like Beer In The Summer

IMG_20160705_194841In many countries, an essential part of the beer experience is to “use” the drink, as the Victorians would have put it, in summer. “I like beer in the summer”, the old left-handed compliment, is an idea not quite past its due-date. That is, while beer is an all-season matter for those dedicated to the malty way, many still associate the drink with summer and the outdoors, especially baseball and barbecues.

And in truth, a cold one in hot summertime has an undeniable charm – that is if actually consumed outdoors at an event such as mentioned or in your own backyard.

Enter, A/C. I think it was in Commentary magazine recently that an economist, using an arresting image, said he asked his mom who lived in Florida how much money she would accept to give up A/C. He said, would you take $9,000,000? She said no. He was explaining that in measuring the successes of the modern economy, one shouldn’t look at it strictly in linear, wealth-accumulation terms – some achievements have a worth hard to estimate in money. A/C in North America and many parts of the world is an example, the Internet is another example that occurs to me.

No one can gainsay the importance of A/C. In my own lifetime I recall working in hot offices indoors when we relied on windows for airflow and fans were used to move air inside. The same applied at home, where people sat outdoors more in the evening.

Somehow we survived it, and of course people still do in many parts of the world where the climate is much hotter than ours and A/C is absent or a luxury.

So is there a downside to A/C, setting side the energy cost and that part of the equation? I would say yes, it has lessened the beer experience. Beer tastes best in the open air, which is why Germans invented the beer garden and the English lounge outside the pub, or in a yard behind, to sip their pint. There is a natural affinity between a cool beer and sunshine or a natural breeze.


There is something, well, not wrong, but inapposite, about drinking a fine beer with the wind of A/C on your neck when it is 80 F outside, breezy and glorious.

To be sure, at 90 F + and with no shade, many will prefer the dank interior of an air-conditioned bar or restaurant. But at least in our climate, the norm is for less intense Hades than that.

Still, most will go indoors where it is colder. It becomes a habit, but the beer won’t taste as good. (The flip side is drinking beer ice-cold when it is freezing outside in January, but people still do that too). Nonetheless, some bar-restaurants have a roof deck or patio and if the weather is just right, you will find people there enjoying a drink. There are fewer than before, in part because you can’t smoke in Toronto in those areas now.

Last night I met some friends after work for a drink. We met at an off-piste place, Cloak and Dagger, on College Street near Bathurst. By the name and fascia it looks like an Irish or U.K.-type pub. It isn’t though, it is a small dark room with wooden banquette seating which must be generations old. The bar is in the back and has an excellent craft beer choice, usually with a cask ale on offer. It attracts a neighbourhood crowd, many from Kensington Market, and has a bohemian feel to it.

The Cloak has a very pleasant yard in the back surrounded by high brick walls of various faded hues and foliage covers a good part of the murs. If one of the surrounding roofs had a chimney-pot or two you would think you were in England, given too the wood trestle tables and the pint glasses of brown stuff on the tables.


It’s a quiet escape for an hour and is rarely crowded, a plus when the weather is at its best here.

Last night, it had cooled somewhat by 7:00 p.m. but apart from our group only a couple lounged outside, most of the customers preferred the air-conditioned interior.

Another example of outdoor drinking, in another part of town, is at the Drake Hotel and a scene is shown of my recent visit there. It’s the rooftop bar during a brunch there this past Sunday. The other scene is the patio area along the hotel north from Queen Street.

The Drake is one of Toronto’s great restorations, it’s an old commercial travellers hotel (near a former railway junction) which was restored 12 years ago retaining many of the original fittings. It looks like some of the old provincial hotels in England and the surrounding area also has an early suburban English look. You see that a lot in Toronto, the parts which survive the developers’ gaze.

Use Of Wheat In Modern Craft Lagers

Wheat_harvestThe use of wheat in a beer not traditionally associated with the grain seems to be on the increase, in ales but particularly blonde lagers including those styled pilsners. Wheat can be added in a variety of forms, but in a lager context, often it is treated in some way, flaked or torrified, to ensure rapid access to its starches by the diastase in the barley malt.

My recollection of the history is, this practice became notable in England for ales and later was extended to lagers. I am speaking of a craft brewing context, so not situations where adjunct is 30-40% of the mash bill, but where relatively small amounts are used, 5-10%, say. I remember first seeing wheat listed as an ingredient on some English craft ales, but now many lagers feature the ingredient as well.

I won’t discuss it here in the context of “adjunct”, a loaded term which can obfuscate more than enlighten. I am concerned simply with flavour in other words, not “philosophy”.

On numerous Ontario lagers today wheat is listed as an ingredient, or on the “tents” at a brewpub for draft lager. The other day I bought one, not checking the label, and found the taste oddly dry and somehow “wrong”. When I checked the label, it listed wheat. I feel I can taste it, it is a dry grainy/starchy note, and I’ve never enjoyed the effect it gives to lagers, or ales for that matter.

I’ve asked brewers about it over the years and the explanations seem to come down to better head formation, contribution to yeast health or stability, and promotion of clarity. Yet to my mind use of wheat, even in small amounts, alters the true flavour of blonde lager and the same for ale. To be sure minute percentages may avoid this effect on a practical basis, but where the taste is detectable as it often is IMO, I avoid beers of this type.

In the classic era when dark and blond lagers became a byword for quality, say 1842-1914, the avatars were all-malt. Carlsberg’s first lager was all-malt, as Tuborg’s, so was Heineken’s (it is again today), Pilsner Urquell’s (still is), and all the German lagers.

Sam Adams Boston Lager, which helped kickstart the modern craft brewing movement, was and is all-barley malt. So is Ontario’s Upper Canada Lager, still an excellent beer when you can find it. Creemore Lager too. Side Launch Mountain Lager too, which presents the profile of blonde lager at its highest quality. So are well-known American flagship lagers such as Victory Prima Pils, or Anchor Steam Beer which is technically a lager.

These beers never had problems with head formation, or clarity. Some brewers today don’t mind a light veil to the beer anyway, but since so many lagers which are all-malt pour clear the clarity issue seems a red herring.

In my view, all-malt lagers have a characteristic richness and clean taste, which made the category famous to begin with. It isn’t a question of dry vs. sweet as attenuation limit can vary with each brand and the brewer’s preference. Heineken is fairly dry, for example, as are a number of German lagers, but I’d wager if you add 5%-10% flaked wheat to them they wouldn’t taste the same.

In a word, and expressing one sub-set of consumer preferences, I’d say wheat is not necessary for lagers or Anglo-American ales and there is the danger of altering their essential characteristics. In wheat beers and other styles which traditionally use the grain, the Belgian wit, say, or saison, by all means go for it. They are by definition a different kind of beer.

The success of craft brewing was based on all-barley malt, the wheat styles mentioned apart (always a small part of it). The more this is chipped away at, the fewer beers will be available which were the raison d’être of craft brewing and largely explain its success.

Note re image, it is from Wikipedia, here, and in the public domain. Believed available for educational and cultural purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Maturity in Strong Stout

IMG_20160704_172158Aging was an important component of porter in its English heyday. It was stressed that maturity didn’t mean sourness, although in practice some stale beer as it was termed did attain that quality.

The beer pictured is a good illustration of a strong porter which aging improves without leading to a vinegar palate. It is Alchimiste’s Imperial Stout, the well-known Quebec craft brewery, from Joliette. This has been in the fridge for about six months.

The result is a much more knitted beer than when new, with good malt sweetness and it lacks the rough edges I recall when purchased. I believe some raw barley was used and am reminded of a Victorian writer who said while he prefers roasted or brown malt to roasted (unmalted) barley, if you age the product long enough the result can be very good.  I have seen the proof of it, so to speak. This is a 7.9% Impy, by no means in the classic alcohol territory for the drink, but strong enough, more than strong enough.

It is, too, upwards of 90F outside…

The long sojourn au frigo also reduced the carbonation somewhat, a plus in this case.

Withal a fine example of traditional brewing which shows the merits of long aging.

Jack’s Drink



Did Jack Daniel drink his own whiskey? The question is not a non-sens. Some makers of famous drinks never touched the liquid.

E.H. Taylor, Jr., who wrote, and testified, expansively on the real old sour mash, never took a sip. As bourbon historian Gerald Carson memorably wrote, “he was a hedonist for others”.

Charlie Thomasson, a long-time distiller for Willett’s, a small, traditional house, wrote an essay c. 1960 on traditional bourbon-making. He didn’t drink, either. Yet, his article is full of good sense. He says that old-time bourbon smells like a ripe apple – very true – and the essay (not online) has much more.

It’s natural, of course, that some people in the liquor industry don’t drink, given especially the temptation of being around the stuff all the time.

Still, I’d think most in the alcohol industry like a tipple. Samuel Bronfman did, who founded Seagram Distillery in Canada. He liked his rye whisky with water. I’ve enjoyed a drink with Bill Samuels, Jr., who used to run Maker’s Mark, the bourbon distillery.

Jack Daniel liked his own product, too. In the early 1950s a couple of magazine articles kickstarted the haute reputation of Jack Daniel’s, which has never waned.

Before that, Jack Daniel’s was a smallish Tennessee distillery trying to regain its form after lengthy shut-downs mandated by Tennessee and National Prohibition.

WW II interrupted its progress again but the distillery carried on, ultimately to great success. You can read more in this interesting, memorabilia website.

It states there the founder, Jack Daniel, drank his whiskey with tansy. He would put a bunch of fresh-picked tansy in a glass, add water and sugar, and fill with whiskey.

Tansy is one of those little-understood herbs, a name that evokes a former time.

It is native to Europe and was brought to America long ago. A 1930s book, Old-time Herbs For Northern Gardens by Minnie Watson Kamm, offers good detail on Tancetum vulgare.

Tansy is a bitter, fairly aromatic plant. Other accounts describe the taste as spicy or peppermint-like.

It was used initially for religious purposes, e.g., in Easter cakes, apparently an echo of the Jews’ use of bitter herbs at Passover.

This lead to an irregular use in cookery, eggs and puddings, especially. Tansy was also a “medicinal” herb, used in teas and as a general “specific” for colds, ague, fever, that kind of thing. There is much else interesting about tansy lore, easy to find online.

Before the long push to control beverage alcohol gained traction tansy featured in numerous drinks. Cocktail manuals of the 19th century feature a whiskey-and-tansy, or gin-and-tansy, among other mixtures.

The Scots-Irish of southwestern Pennsylvania were particular fans of tansy, it seems, and brought it down the Appalachian trail as they moved south.

Tansy has a little thujone in it, like wormwood. In large amounts thujone can be dangerous. Maybe this explains why tansy in drinks has disappeared, not just faded, while a mint julep, say, retains its allure as a classic mixed drink.

Be this as it may, if I could find tansy, I’d give Jack’s drink a try. One glass can’t hurt, we think. Despite yeoman efforts though, I’ve never found it!

Mid-summer too is the special time of its appearance. It likes roadsides, ditches, culverts, of that order. Maybe it’s in the Toronto ravine near where I live, I’ll have to take a look.

But we come back to it: what was Jack’s mixture like? I always wonder. Maybe a whiskey mint julep with a shot of absinthe comes close?

Note re image above: The illustration of tansy is from Wikipedia, here, and indicated as in the public domain. Believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Jack Daniel: a Personal and Business Evolution

Jack Daniel, the historical figure, famously founded the Jack Daniel Distillery in Lynchburg, TN. He sold it to a nephew, Lem Motlow, and a cousin before he died in 1911. Motlow became sole owner after buying the cousin’s interest.

State liquor prohibition was looming, which finally shut the distillery on January 1, 1910. Slow but steadily the states were going dry, presaging National Prohibition 10 years later. Jack Daniel’s personal story was also evolving. According to this account on April 29, 1909 in the Sequachee Valley News, Sequatchie, TN Jack, not having professed religion earlier, was baptized by immersion in Mulberry Creek.

The story:


Once Proprietor of Famous
Distillery, Maker of No. 7,
Becomes Baptist.

SHELBYVILLE, Tenn., April 27.

Elder A. J. Willis, an ex-Primitive
Baptist preacher of South Pittsburg,
who has charge of two or three church
es in this county, was here yesterday
and told the Banner correspondent an
interesting story of the conversion of
Maj. Jack Daniel, the noted distiller
and former proprietor of that famous
whisky brand, “Jack Daniel, No. 7.”
Mr. Daniel made a profession of relig
ion several days ago and was baptized
by immersion in Mulberry Creek Sun
day by Elder Willis. The Elder says
that Maj. Daniel’s conversion was one
if the most earnest he has ever known.
Maj. Daniel is one of the wealthiest
men of Middle Tennessee and has long
been noted for his kindness of heart
and unbounded liberality. He is no
longer interested in the whiskey busi-
ness and has, it is stated, forbidded
the use of his name on whisky brands,
and in the future his large capital will
be differently employed. His famous
distillery at Lynchburg has passed in
to other hands.

The military title – 1890s news accounts term him a captain – was presumably for a militia post, or was perhaps an honorary title as for today’s Kentucky Colonels.

The reference to his kindness and “unbounded liberality” is notable. It seems the “hard-hearted executive” is not invariably the model to achieve lofty business success. It ties in, too, to the recent news stories showing Daniel pictured next to an evidently valued African-American employee. Clearly he wasn’t intimidated by social norms of the day, at least to that extent.

Tennessee had introduced liquor prohibition in stages before WW I. Finally, even making alcoholic beverages for shipment out of state was banned. Under its new ownership Jack Daniel’s relocated outside the state including to Hopkinsville, KY just over the state line.

The Lynchburg distillery clearly was able to ship a large amount of inventory to Kentucky before Tennessee’s full manufacturing ban took effect. As well, it seems the distillery could sell what was left in inventory in some parts of Tennessee. The ad below, from February 1910 in The Comet, a newspaper of Johnson City, TN states:

“Jack Daniel’s Old-Time Distillery, No. 7,
Ceased operation on December 31, 1909, in accordance with the law which
became effective on that date. This famous old Distillery, which has
been in uninterrupted operation since 1866, and is the oldest in the United
States, has earned and won the gold medals offored in the greatest Exposi-
tions of the earth. The quality, purity and general excellence of “Jack
Daniel’s Old No. 7” Whiskey is appreciated wherever whiskey is known,
and recommended by physicians everywhere.

16 YEARS OLD – I have a few barrels of Extra Fine Old Lincoln County
Whiskey. This is nearly 17 years old, at $3.00 per Gallon.
BRANDIES – My Own Make – Apple and Peach Brandles, can’t be beat.
ALL MY OWN GOODS – I do not buy anything from jobbers, and I han-
dle only the whiskies and brandies I make myself, so I know they
are always pure, properly aged, and my reputation for making
high grade whiskies and brandies is safe.

I Prepay All Express Charges – PRICES

White Lincoln County Whiskey, 75 proof, per gallon………………… $2.75
White Lincoln County Whiskey, 100 proof, per gallon……………….   3.25
Red Lincoln County Whiskey, 70 proof, per gallon……………………   2.75
Old Whiskey, 80 proof, per gallon………………………………………….. 3.25
Jack Daniel’s No. 7, age and proof considered, per gal…..     $3.00 to 5.00
Fine Old Blue Ribbon Whiskey, per gallon……………………………….. 6.00
Apple Brandy, 75 proof, per gallon…………………………………             2.75
Pure Brandy, 90 proof, per gallon……………………………………            3.75
Pure Apple and Peach Brandy, old 100 proof, per gallon…………..   5.00
Best Apricot Brandy, per gallon……………………………………………… 3.25
White Corn Whiskey, 75 proof, per gallon…………………………            2.75
White Corn Whiskey, 90 proof, per gallon………………………………..  3.00
White Corn Whiskey, 100 proof, per gallon………………………………  3.25
The Yellow Corn at the same prices as the White Corn Whiskey

4 Full Quarts No. 7, prepaid…………………………..                                $6.00
Case Goods 12 Full Quarts No. 7, prepaid……………………………..    15.50
No case goods guaranteed genuine unless corks branded “Jack Daniel’s
Old No. 7.”.

DRUM GOODS-100 pints, 200 1/2 pints, $27.00 F.O.B. You want the best,
then give my own goods a trial order.

                                Old Time

Jack Daniel       Distillery  Hopkinsville, Ky”.


Listed first under the appellation Lincoln County, setting aside the eye-catching 16-year-old whiskey, is the white whiskey. This was the original Kentucky type, as I explained earlier. However, a Red Lincoln County Whiskey is also listed, and various old whiskeys that would have been dark from barrel age. The 16-year-old fetched only $3.00 per gallon, not much more than the white and corn whiskeys. It is difficult to explain the absence of a meaningful premium for long age.

Maybe people thought such very old whiskey more a curio than something prime to drink. Alternatively, if the distillery had a window of time to sell remaining inventory perhaps pricing was set to unload the goods posthaste, hence the near parity in price with unaged, white whiskey.

I think all the aged whiskey shown was directly or indirectly influenced by the reputation of Kentucky bourbon, as discussed earlier. White Lincoln County whiskey was evidently still respected locally in Tennessee, as we saw too from Tennessee banker T.J. Latham’s high praise of a similar form in 1895. In Kentucky though, high praise at least since the Civil War was not assigned to white lightning or the not dissimilar corn whiskey, it was reserved for fine, aged bourbon.

Indeed “bourbon” meant a whiskey well-aged in new oak barrels, that was the essence of it. Note that corn whiskey in the ad is distinguished from White Lincoln County Whiskey. Differences in type and time of storage probably explain this, or in mash bill. The corn whiskey probably was aged for a time in re-used oak barrels, as some is today, which even if charred on the interior do not lend the distinctive, Kentucky-style flavour.

Yet further, we have Yellow Corn and White Corn whiskey – each offering a distinct flavour, presumably. Going by price the finest quality offered was not today’s world-famous Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, then available in different ages and proofs, but an Old Blue Ribbon Whiskey at an impressive $6.00/gal.

The 16-year-old whiskey, at half the price and perhaps double the age, was likely more a collectible curio. Not that there is so much super-aged whiskey in our market today, but this 1910 pricing might cause those willing to pay big sums for very old whiskey to reflect. A frankly woody mint julep doesn’t sound so good, come to think on it, Sire.

Coda: the story of Jack taking religion stated his name would no longer appear on the distillery’s brands. But in ads appearing through 1910 for the whiskeys as shipped from Hopkinsville, KY his name is still prominent – as it is today.


*The prices in the advertisement above were listed in the original source more neatly than I was able to reproduce. The original ad can be viewed here in the issue of The Comet mentioned above. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Material is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.





Robertson County Whiskey of Tennessee, or how Bourbon Became King



Bourbon whiskey has emerged as the internationally-known whiskey style of America. It is both a type of whiskey, whose characteristics are regulated by law, and largely, but not exclusively, a geographical one. Bourbon can be made anywhere in the U.S., but is traditionally associated with the State of Kentucky where most and the largest of the surviving producers are located.

Straight rye whiskey is the second major type that has survived from the 19th century. Formerly associated mainly with Pennsylvania and Maryland, almost all production today is in Kentucky save the rye made by MGPI, a long-established distillery in Indiana formerly owned by (the former Canadian distiller) Seagram’s. But rye whiskey is a much smaller category than bourbon, almost insignificant next to it.

There is also Tennessee Whiskey, whose main practitioners today are the famous Jack Daniel’s (Brown-Forman) and George Dickel (Diageo), both about an hour’s drive from Nashville in north-central Tennessee. This type is characterized by a lengthy charcoal-leaching of the new spirit which lightens it by removing fusel oils. Then, it is placed in new charred barrels, as for Kentucky bourbon, and left to mature for four or five years. The style was originally called Lincoln County because most  of thedistillers in that county used the process to “cleanse” their whiskey after distillation.

Lincoln County whiskey is now considered the defining type for the entire state. Indeed by state law, to make “Tennessee” whiskey you must apply the charcoal leaching. But at one time, Tennessee had another major style of whiskey, called Robertson County whiskey (“RC whiskey”).

The county of that name, highlighted in red on the map above, was named for James Robertson. He had migrated from North Carolina and is a founding father of Tennessee. Robertson County was in existence by 1800 and early acquired a reputation for quality whiskey. RC whiskey was distinctive enough that in Internal Revenue reports of the late 1800s, it appears under that name in tables of production and other data. While always part of a miscellaneous category (especially for non-bourbon, non-rye), which could include Lincoln County whiskey, this shows that enough producers thought “Robertson County” whiskey distinctive to apply that description, and the government followed suit.

As this 1886 history of Tennessee shows, while most of the counties in Tennessee made whiskey for the first 100 years of state history, Robertson County and Lincoln County’s whiskeys were pre-eminent in reputation both in and outside the state.

This 1869 debate in Congress dealt with Internal Revenue’s approach to the charcoal filtration of new whiskey. It shows that RC whiskey, like Lincoln County whiskey, was filtered through “coal” or “charcoal”. While no further description is offered the reference to tub charcoal rectification can’t be clearer. The Internal Revenue and its Congressional supporters were trying to eliminate the filtration step as they felt it encouraged excise tax avoidance. They wanted the whiskey taxed as soon as it poured clear from the still.

If it was taxed at a later stage there was a risk not all the whiskey would be captured. The thinking was probably that charcoal filtration meant some untaxed, useable ethanol remained in the charcoal. As well, taxing the liquor after filtration gave distillers the opportunity to divert whiskey from the tubs to escape a portion of the tax.

The objection was not to rectification as such, as it could be conducted by separate, licensed businesses, but to distillers performing the step once the whiskey had condensed from its last distillation. In essence, the government was saying that registered distillers should pay tax on what they actually distilled and not engage in a separate business.

As you see from the page linked Representative Golladay – he was Jacob S. Golladay of Allensville, KY – argued that Robertson County whiskey needed charcoal filtration to become what the makers called “finished whiskey”. (Lincoln County whiskey was in the same position but it seems it had no legislative defenders as did Roberston County whiskey). The tenor of Representative Golladay’s remarks was that RC whiskey needed charcoal filtration because it was sold to customers straight from the filter. If you deprived distillers of the right to put the whiskey through the charcoal vats you were putting them at a business disadvantage.* New white whiskey was, in the Representative’s colourful words, something a dog wouldn’t drink.

map_of_allensville_kyWhy would a Kentucky Congressional representative lobby for a group of distillers in Tennessee? Because, as Golladay noted, one-third of Kentucky distillers used the same process. Golladay’s district was the Third Congressional District of Kentucky which included the town he resided in, Allensville, KY.

Allensville is on the Tennessee-Kentucky boundary. In other words, it is clear that RC whiskey was a regional type and that the one-third of Kentucky’s distillers who used the method in 1869 were in the southern part of the state, adjacent to Tennessee’s premier whiskey-distilling district.

By speaking up for RC whiskey-makers from whom he had received specific petitions, Golladay was speaking up as well for a tradition of Kentucky whiskey-making.

Lincoln County whiskey, as I showed in my previous post, also was originally sold new, i.e., after its long bath in maple charcoal. And ca. 1870 one third of Kentucky distillers used a similar method, undoubtedly in the southern tier.

This may suggest that Bourbon whiskey emerged in distinction to these other types. In lieu of charcoal leaching and quick sale, a method not far out of the Appalachian hills as I showed earlier by reference to the early ethnological study Our Southern Highlanders, distillers in the original Bourbon County, KY used long-aging in charred oak barrels to give corn-based whiskey its highest quality.

Kentucky was carved out of Virginia, and Bourbon County, KY once comprised a much larger area than now, most of northeastern Kentucky in fact. Today, over 30 counties, including a much-shrunken Bourbon County, comprise what was once Bourbon County.

Jacob_Shall_Golladay-1Bourbon whiskey probably has its name because the aging of whiskey in charred barrels developed in many parts of the original Bourbon County. The process was probably underway by c.1800, and was generalized in a good part of Kentucky by the eve of the Civil War. In contrast, RC whiskey, Lincoln County whiskey, and the whiskeys of south-central Kentucky were the older type, not quite moonshine, but reliant on the quick-maturing method of the charcoal tub.

While the tub was a technique at one time used in many places including Pennsylvania and the Province of Ontario in Canada, it seems not to have characterized the kind of whiskey that became bourbon. No modern bourbon producer uses a pre-barrel aging charcoal leaching. In late-1800s descriptions of bourbon manufacture, none that I could find called for such charcoal leaching. Long-aging in new charred barrels was a method that distillers in the original Bourbon County, KY evolved. (There are other theories as to the origin of bourbon’s name, but none are as persuasive as that it took the name of the geographic area,  Bourbon County, KY, it was birthed).

Golladay referred to the newer bourbon whiskey by his reference to whiskeys stored “in bond” for two years and more. The discussion in the house made it clear this was a high-class whiskey different in character from RC whiskey. This was the whiskey of James Crow, the Pepper Family, EH Taylor, Jr., Rev. Elijah Craig, Evan Williams, the Beams, and many other distillers in or near the original Bourbon County.

RC whiskey, or this form of it at any rate, and similar Kentucky whiskeys, did not survive Prohibition. Lincoln County whiskey so-called did survive after some peregrinations, but only after adopting Bourbon County barrel aging. RC whiskey, seemingly a cleansed white lightening as Lincoln County whiskey originally was, is part of history now except for any revivalist (craft) distilleries who use charcoal leaching for its original purpose, a first rectification.

I should add that in 2014 George Dickel released its regular corn mash whisky in unaged form – unaged but having undergone maple leaching. Generally, any “whisky” in the U.S. must spend some time in wood, but corn whisky is excepted. Because George Dickel’s regular mash exceeds 80% in corn, its white spirit off the still and out of the charcoal tub can be called “corn whisky”.

You can read Geoff Kleinman’s review at his site. It sounds like a cross between vodka and regular white dog. This may well resemble much RC whiskey and the original Lincoln County whiskey. Kleinman liked the drink but preferred the regular, aged George Dickel.

This is a clue I think to why the bourbon-style became dominant and the others disappeared. In 1896 the Tennessee banker I mentioned earlier, T.J. Latham, lauded unaged Lincoln County whiskey over Kentucky bourbon. His was a tribute more of sentiment and history, though.

His oratory, warm as southern honey, did not foretell the future in American whiskey. Bourbon gained the upper hand and became finally not just Kentucky’s but also Tennessee’s style, given again that the main producers, Jack Daniel and George Dickel, both age their whisky for years in new charred barrels after the initial charcoal leaching step.

Note re images: The maps shown above were drawn from Wikipedia sources. The image of Jacob Shall Golladay was sourced from this website on the family’s history. All are believed available for educational or historical use. All feedback welcomed.


*For more evidence that RC whiskey was subjected to charcoal rectification, see at pg. 79 from a modern history of Robertson County, TN authored by Yolanda Reid and Rick Gregory. The authors suggest that RC whiskey (or at least much of it, inferentially) was twice distilled – similar here to Kentucky practise – and run through charcoal to rid it of its “headache” and “fighting mania”.





The Evolution of Lincoln County Whiskey


The Lincoln County Process is, today, a slow leaching of new-make whiskey through a tall vat of ground maple charcoal. Its leading practitioners, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel, barrel the new spirit in virgin charred oak barrels for between four and five years, similar to how Kentucky bourbon is made.

Since Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel otherwise mash and ferment in a way similar to Kentucky distillers, the difference from bourbon is the maple charcoal treatment. This is a multi-day process that has the effect of removing some fusel oil and other compounds from the whiskey. The burned wood might contribute some flavour as well, this is controversial.

Earlier, I discussed a 1908 description of the Lincoln County Process, which shows essentially that the same process is followed today. The 1908 account states that after the charcoal treatment the spirit is barrelled and put away to age. Implication: from that point on the whiskey was aged similar to a Kentucky bourbon.

However, something must have changed between about 1860 and 1908. It is almost certain that the Lincoln County method originally meant the whiskey was sold right after the charcoal filtering or any short barreling period that followed. There are a number of reasons to conclude this.

First, charcoal leaching was a 19th century technique used in many places to rectify whiskey for immediate sale. It was a quick way to cleanse rough new spirit, imperfect viz. the goal of tasteless neutral spirits, but satisfying the whiskey market. The whiskey so treated was distilled either in a pot still or the transitional, multi-chambered still known as the two- and three-chambered still.

It produced spirit at a relatively low proof, often under 160 proof as for straight whiskey today (or tequila, heavy rum, or brandy). The relatively heavy congener content of such spirit meant there were two ways to modify the taste: long aging in barrels, or intensive filtration by wood charcoal. Tiny apertures in the charcoal fragments would capture oils and other impurities in the spirit, rendering it more neutral in taste.

Kentucky increasingly was known for multi-year barrel aging, indeed this became a hallmark of “Kentucky whiskey”, or bourbon, as we know it today. But elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada, such aging was in its infancy. The “red cretur” bourbon of Oscar Pepper near Frankfort, KY, devised with the help of Dr. James Crow, was probably 4-7 years old on the eve of the Civil War. But in many places, straight whiskey was sold off the still or following the aforementioned charcoal treatment.

In an engineering publication in Pennsylvania in 1866 the writer gave a condensed but accurate description of whiskey-making. Sweet and sour mashing are described in a way familiar to Kentucky distilleries. But in regard to aging, the matter was simple: there wasn’t any. The spirit was filtered in wood charcoal and wool blankets in a way similar to the Lincoln County Process, then “colored” and sold. A variant of the Lincoln County Process used wool layers with the charcoal, George Dickel does it to this day. Caramel generally was used to impart colour, or burned raw wheat. Most whiskey in the mid-1800s was sold this way but Kentucky pioneered laying the product away in new charred barrels in warehouses for years.

In a speech by a Memphis banker, T.J. Latham, at a convention of the American Bankers Association in 1896, his reference to Lincoln County whiskey makes clear that it wasn’t aged, or very long. The dose of southern humour comes as a bonus:

… when you come down to the matter referred to by our friends from Kentucky, I think anyone who has tasted that beverage will concede great superiority to Lincoln County whiskey. (Laughter and applause). And, moreover, people down our way don’t fool time away by allowing it to age, either. (Laughter). We know a good thing when we see it.

A gentleman asked me just now if I had anything with me. It was a leading question, for you know the Tennesseans like the Kentuckians, always have something with them. (Laughter). When a man travelling in a railroad car asked if any gentlemen had a corkscrew two or three jumped up and said yes, and they were all from Kentucky.

The banker’s joshing reference to Kentucky whiskey was meant to vaunt his own state’s produce – or the Lincoln County version – despite its lack of aging in comparison.

This doesn’t mean Jack Daniel’s, which dates from 1876*, followed that procedure as about the time the banker spoke it was recorded Jack Daniel’s was red in colour. But clearly a lot of Lincoln County Process whiskey was still unaged in the 1890s, or not held in barrel very long, to give any meaning to the banker’s remarks.

In 1862 in Toronto at Gooderham & Worts, the famous distillery that later merged with Hiram Walker in Windsor, ON, new whiskey was filtered through vats of charcoal that appear similar to Lincoln County’s. Tanya MacKinnon, in her classic (2000) economic geography of early Ontario distilling, included an illustration of the vats from the forerunner to the Toronto Globe & Mail. She stated the whisky was distilled in a column still newly-installed in the 1850s, and brought to “50 OP”.


50 OP is about 85% abv or 170 U.S. proof, 20 points under that for neutral spirits. It was aged between two months and a year, not very long by the emerging standards of Kentucky, but then the spirit in Canada is cleaner to begin with; 170 U.S. proof is outside the range today to distill Kentucky bourbon, 10 points outside.

By the later 1880s Gooderham and Worts were able to dispense with charcoal filtering, as they had the capacity to distill spirit to “alcohol” or 95% abv. The newer stills provided the flexibility that the rough-and-ready charcoal vat never achieved.

We can infer Latham’s Lincoln County whiskey was similarly little-aged in 1896 and probably was under 160 proof to boot.

But today, Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel whiskey are taken from the filtering tubs, put in new charred casks and aged 4-5 years (Dickel has a somewhat wider range). It isn’t clear when the surviving makers of Lincoln County whiskey in Tennessee, until that is prohibition became state-wide in 1910, combined their method with Kentucky’s, in effect.

Lincoln County whiskey always had a high reputation though, from the Civil War until the adoption of full aging. One can assume it was always particularly good – neutral-like, perhaps, as the 1908 article implied. In contrast most whiskey elsewhere in Tennessee was likely simple white dog, sold new and congeneric.

The only other whiskey type I am aware of in Tennessee with a similar cachet between the Civil War and 1910 was Robertson County whiskey. Little information is available on its exact characteristics, it may have been wheat-based.

Why did the leaching become associated with Lincoln County and not many other places in Tennessee?** (I am ignoring here the 1870s boundary changes that meant Jack Daniel’s distillery is now in Moore County). Perhaps it was a time when methods took root locally for whatever reason and didn’t travel due to poor roads and communications. Or perhaps loyalty to local methods trumped all else.

Whatever the explanation, charcoal leaching by “Jack”, and by what became “George”, is now regarded as a surviving Tennessee practice of distinction. Yet the method was widely used at one time although not apparently to any great extent in Kentucky, at least. Perhaps the method was brought to Lincoln County from the Northeast or even the U.K., took root and never penetrated much elsewhere in Tennessee, or Kentucky. I incline to this after much reading.

Still, Lincoln County whiskey is less distinctive today since its main exemplars, Jack and George, receive full Kentucky-style aging.

But there is probably a craft distiller in Tennessee making whiskey cleansed in maple charcoal and sold right away.*** Pritchard’s, an early craft distiller in Tennessee, makes a whiskey called Tennessee whiskey but the Lincoln County process is not used. Pritchard’s received an exemption under the recently adopted state law that requires the Lincoln County Process be used in order to label the whiskey Tennessee whiskey.


*According to the biographical entry for Jack Daniel in History of Tennessee published in Nashville in 1886, Jack Daniel was born in 1848, was “always … a farmer”, erected his distillery in 1876, and began operating it in 1878 under the name Daniel & Call. The distillery is noted as producing “some of the finest brands” of Lincoln County whiskey, which suggests (to me) some was aged and some not. There is no reference, in this account, to Jack Daniel conducting or learning any distilling prior to 1876, which does not mean he did not, of course.

** It appears in fact charcoal was used to rectify Robertson County whiskey, no less than Lincoln County’s. For what it is worth, Roberston is the older county, founded in the 1790s, while Lincoln County was founded in 1809.

***Jack Daniel released in 2012 an unaged (white) rye spirit distilled under 140 proof. Images of the brand as well as other iterations of Jack Daniel’s rye can be viewed at this liquor retailer’s site. I tasted the white rye and found it very “white dog” or congeneric, i.e., despite that it was subjected to the maple charcoal leaching system.