Highwines, Neutral Spirits, Blending at Bourbon’s Dawn

Below I’ve appended pages from Harrison Hall’s 1818 The Distiller. Despite the letter to the Sun in 1908 that claimed it was printed at New York, the title page states Philadelphia. Hall seems to have been familiar with distilling in the northeast in general. I’m not sure where he was actually based but it appears to have been in Philadelphia. (There were two editions of this book, one from five years earlier, but both printed in Philadelphia as far as I know).

The “western” territories are clearly Kentucky and Tennessee, not Ohio. This western whiskey was made mostly from corn. It was also aged to some degree and improved by boat shipment. One can assume that a combination of inventory storage and subsequent boat shipment resulted in a product somewhat similar to modern two-year-old bourbon although whether new charred barrels were used, or always used, seems doubtful (too early).

Either way, this whiskey so liked in eastern markets was a proto-bourbon, clearly.

What was “fourth proof spirits”? The definitions varied according to state regulation. I have seen numbers between 100 U.S. proof (50% abv) and 120 (60% abv). This definition is helpful, from 1857, which pegs the proof number at 120 and also because it states fourth proof spirits are highwines. That ties in to the 1908 letter, and 120 proof is a typical range for whiskey-mash, 1800s or today.

However, even 90% highwines, let alone 94%, are not 60% highwines and the writer of the letter misses this, IMO. As I’ve shown, the highwines definition changed as stills improved over the 1800s. Hall admired double-distilled spirits – first run in a wash still, then doubling in the spirits still – because the foreshots were removed as were the feints. These are the impure fractions that correspond broadly to methanol and other low-boiling by-products and the higher alcohols generally called fusel oils, the high-boilers. But even white dog spirit of this type, or as results from a modern bourbon distillation in the column still, is very far from neutral in taste.

Once again everything is relative. Hall was contrasting double-distilled spirits, perhaps subsequently leached through charcoal, either with “singlings”, the first run from the pot still containing all the fractions of distillation, or double-distilled spirits tainted by addition of feints. But there is a reason white dog is called what it is…

Among various advances in distilling discussed by Hall in the volume, he mentions early steam distillation techniques. He also pumps up “neutralized” spirit, which he terms, in addition, “tasteless”. He states this is useful to blend with other distillates – gin, brandy – to form imitations. This was a frequent early-1800s practice, Canadian distillers did it too.

He states with rum there is so much oil in it such blending is actually helpful, it improves the product. Here we see an early glimmer of the blending rationale of the later-1800s.

A better analogy for 90%-94% abv highwines would be Hall’s neutralized spirits, not fourth proof whiskey. But how neutral was it? “Tasteless” seems pretty clear, mind you, and Hall had great trust in charcoal rectification. Yet, I’ve tasted Jack Daniel’s white dog after its run through the maple charcoal vat. Neutral it’s not.

It’s difficult to parse these sources over such a long period. Has any craft distiller, or any distiller, for that matter, built a 19th century charcoal leaching vat to see what it can do for white dog? Maybe Jack Daniel and George Dickel, the great Tennessee whiskey names, haven’t exhausted its possibilities.



From Highwines to Neutral Spirits to Vodka

On December 13, 1908 a letter appeared in the Sun in New York giving the writer’s opinion on neutral spirits and highwines. It followed an earlier correspondence involving at least two letters, from the appropriately pseudonymous I. Ball and Hy Hyams. I haven’t traced the earlier letters, but the one found reads as follows:

Mr. “I. Ball” and Mr. “Hy Hyams” both misunderstand what neutral or silent spirits really are. Neutral or silent spirits is the name of high proof double distilled rectified grain spirits. High proof means about 90 per cent. by volume of ethyl alcohol The corresponding name for high proof unrectified grain spirits is “high wines”.

The only difference between silent or neutral spirits and high wines that the former are made comparatively pure by fractional distillation of the mash, while the latter contain amyl, propyl, and butyl alcohols commonly called fusel oil or higher alcohol in addition to the pure spirit.

Whiskey is made from both silent spirits and high wines by reduction of these high proof articles to potable proof by the addition of distilled water. The whiskey made by reducing high wines has a raw, acrid taste due to the impurities, and that may be covered up by aging such whiskey in charred wood barrels. Such whiskeys have to the average drinker on impossibly heavy flavor. Whiskey made by reducing the pure spirits more nearly resembles the whiskey of our grandfathers.

Harrison Hall in a book entitled “The American Distiller” published at New York in 1818, says that the deservedly popular whiskey of that day was a “pure spirit” which was brought over the mountains from the Western distilleries at high proof. Hall says that the whiskey from this source was much less harmful than the high wine whisky then made in the Eastern States, in which the impurities were allowed to remain.


Washington, D.C., December 13.

I will return later to the assertion that a pure whiskey from “Western” distilleries, meaning probably from Ohio, was appreciated earlier.

The writer was probably a bureaucrat or lawyer in Washington. No doubt he or she was involved in the “pure whiskey” debate of the time, where President Taft finally decided that grain-derived neutral spirits could qualify as whiskey, not just the traditional type distilled at a low proof and aged in wood.

The statements of “Spiritus” accord with my earlier citations, the essential being that highwines changed over time by reaching a higher proof and yet still contained fusel oils evident to the palate. They are here named in the form of various higher alcohols produced in fermentation and which have a high boiling point.

The statement  that the assertive flavours of highwines can be “covered up” by charred barrel aging seems perhaps delphic unless you know that a year or two earlier, a new U.S. study suggested that fusel oil content in aged whiskey does not decline, contrary to earlier assumptions that it is altered by the effects of oxidation and interaction with barrel compounds. The new opinion therefore was that charred barrel aging – especially new charred barrel aging – simply added new flavours to the whiskey which disguised the white dog taste.

(I believe today the position is more nuanced. No doubt some of our readers know and should feel free to comment).

Now, what about his statement that GNS and highwines reach around 90% abv? Clearly Canadian distillers, see my earlier posts, were getting to 94% for highwines many years earlier. Indeed still today this 94% spirit, or between 94 and 95%, is used for aging as the base whisky in most of our large distilleries.

Well, Spiritus either simply was wrong, was rounding a bit liberally, or was relying on information of years past especially if he was a non-distilling functionary. A 90% abv or 180 proof U.S. product is well within the current U.S. definition to be whiskey… Or perhaps he meant that 90% abv highwines was redistilled to make 94% GNS. Anyway, not all North American distilleries probably followed identical procedures to make highwines and GNS. In toto their products probably showed variation of taste, salutary from a market standpoint.

16 years earlier hearings were held by a Royal Commission in Canada looking at the liquor traffic and prohibition issues. I’ve referred to it a number of times here. A John Wiser’s agent in Quebec, Louis Morin, also head of the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, testified. Morin stated that high wines were sold by distillers at 50 overproof (150 British proof, or 85.6% abv). That was still the case in 1917 as we have seen.

He also said 65 overproof was also sold (94% abv) but for industry or scientific use only. He said the 50 overproof spirits was cut with equal parts of water for drinking purposes. Sometimes an extra part of water was thrown in if the vendor wanted to make “more money”.

Morin also thought the highwines of the three major distilleries supplying him were rather similar, he said he could not tell them apart in tasting. This suggests the variety in the Canadian market which one presumes existed resulted from blending expertise. See his testimony in 1892, here.

Where equal quantities of water and highwines were used to produce a potable drink, that produces when rounding 43% abv, a standard bottling strength for many years in Britain and its possessions and Dominions. That’s where the 43% comes from, it was the distillery bulk inventory standard of 150 OP proofed down 50% for the retail market.

This whiskey was drunk new or little aged unless the barroom stored the barrels for many years. Of course some may have, just as we inferred that the “aristocracy” in Port Hope, ON who were shipped the product in the same era by “rig” did so. Some of that white whiskey probably ended in their punch bowls too, cut glass not chipped ceramic, surely.

And so this highwines was the so-called raw, acrid new whiskey Spiritus thought inferior to plain neutral spirits. But many whiskey drinkers surely expected the whiskey taste. At 90-94% abv albeit unrectified, the highwines of the bar or drawing room punch bowl must have been more palatable at any rate than the common whiskey/high wines of old, anywhere from 50-80% abv off the still. Everything is relative.

This part of the market died out once the aging law came into force in the 1890s. The reason is obvious: distilleries couldn’t sell and barrooms couldn’t resell the highwines as “whisky”. Hence the taking over of the market by whisky showing some colour and wood taste.

When you think about the vodka craze launched in the 1950s and wildly popular ever since, it makes sense that people returned to an older tradition of drinking white spirits. Observers in the 1950s-70s were struck by the seeming novelty of a white spirit challenging the “traditional” brown goods whisky market. This was especially so since vodka was associated with Communist Russia and its hostility to western values, not least the consumer society.

Yet, it was one of those off-kilter situations perfect for Madison Avenue. In the early 1970s a Canadian vodka, the Alberta brand, advertised a Russian soldier being impressed with our vodka except for the tomato juice and other stuff we put in it. It made for good humour, advertising and sales.

But in fact, that brown whisky tradition was relatively new, assisted by aging laws that here, in the U.S., and Britain were only about 50 years old. The taste for vodka arguably reclaimed the older Anglo-American tradition of drinking white whisky, something never dislodged from the folk memory.

There was an important difference: the new vodka was clean and neutral in taste, no amyls or butyls left in it, or to speak of. But that was marketed as a plus. In effect, from the 1950s the neutral spirits refinement on the highwines took over a good chunk of the spirits market under another name. Neutral spirits had never been sold as whisky unflavoured/unmixed/unaged before WW II, but that was then.

Putting it another way, a negative was made into a positive, as often happens in the business of pitching our food and drink.

There is nothing left of the high wines tradition with the important exception of various products produced by our craft distillers. If you take them all together, Canuck and U.S., you will find a range that corresponds to the historical arc described in these posts. Some large distillers have released various white spirits of flavour too such as Buffalo Trace.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the original newspaper article linked in the text, via the New York Historical Newspapers digital resource. The second was sourced from this Alberta history site. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All intellectual property therein or thereto resides solely in their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.





Mr. Greenhut Explains Highwines

The extract below (via HathiTrust) is from testimony in Congress by Joseph Greenhut, who headed a conglomerate of distilleries in the late-1800s in the U.S. It was known informally as the Whiskey Trust, based in Cincinnati. Greenhut was an early “raider”, in the 1970s sense, buying up and consolidating often-inefficient distilleries to rationalize production and raise profits.

By 1900, its power declined in the wake of financial and legal issues. It went into Prohibition insolvent but some of its brands later formed the core of National Distillers, one of four main liquor companies to emerge after Prohibition. That company later merged with Jim Beam, adding storied brands such as Old Gran-dad Bourbon and Old Overholt rye.

In 1893, Greenhut was testifying on the activities of the trust and his comments on highwines are a good capsule of how the term evolved. He explains that highwines at the highest strength formed “alcohol”, used in industry to “cut oils” due to its high strength but still retaining some fusel oils.

This was the same substance used to make Florida waters or perfumes as discussed in the 1870s Canadian engineering article linked in my previous post. Another term for this alcohol was, appropriately, cologne spirits.

Despite the modern (2017) sense of the term alcohol, this 1893 alcohol aka highwines aka cologne spirits didn’t mean completely neutral spirits. Greenhut explains that to make “spirits”, the alcohol was subject to further distillation and charcoal filtering. The engineering article said the same thing but called the spirits “whisky”.

Greenhut said 95% of his production was this alcohol and spirits. He doesn’t state expressly what the 5% was, but it was probably whiskey-mash distillate (under 160 proof U.S.) aged to make bourbon or straight rye. He calls it “some little stuff” and “highwines in olden times”.

To Cincinnati whiskey-makers c. 1900, whiskey was the product of blending “spirits” – neutral spirits with no detectable odour – with straight bourbon or rye. Elsewhere in the same volume (search under “highwines” to find it) it is explained that often the blend was 4:1 neutral spirits to straight whiskey. This was felt to make a superior whiskey since the straight whiskey on its own was too strong in character. Modern American blended whiskey is often composed in exactly this way, sometimes with added flavouring which is also mentioned in the testimony.

The Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania whiskey distillers still made their whiskey the older way: distilling whiskey-mash spirits under 160 proof U.S. and putting them away for years in the warehouse. Tennessee added as well the old technique of charcoal filtering before barreling and warehousing. The end result was a heavier, more emphatic flavour than the blender achieved but it was all a question of the different “classes” of whiskey, different markets and prices.

Canadian distillers used highwines as the basis for their blends, but fully aged once the aging requirements became law. I infer as well that once the first aging law was passed (1890s), any use of odourless neutral spirits by our distillers ceased in favour of using aged highwines (as the base), because little improvement to the spirit would derive from oak aging if it was vodka-like in quality.  The account in the engineering journal of the visit to Gooderham’s suggests it was using neutral spirits to make whisky, at least for the base (no reference is made in the article to addition of flavouring whisky). But that was years before the aging law came into force.

I should add too that procedures at the Big 5 Canadian distillers c. 1900 (Corby, G&H, Seagram, Hiram Walker, Wiser) may not have been identical in all respects.

The Scots distill their their base whisky for Scotch blends much as the Canadians have since the late 1800s save for some differences in mashing grains. The American highwines Greenhut was speaking of was made from corn, the Canadian mostly ditto. The Canadians also added flavourings sometimes to the blends, and some brands still do. It goes back to this time when blending was a rising technique in the international whiskey industry.

The point is, highwines originally meant the spirit from a whisky-mash before rectification with charcoal/redistillation or warehousing in oak. When pot stills and other primitive stills were used before steam-distillation in columns and rectifiers, this highwines was between 50% and 80% abv off the stills. But once column stills came in, the strongest highwines rose to 188 proof U.S. or 94.1% abv. It was this strongest highwines which was advertised, I apprehend, in the 1917 Moquin ad discussed in the last post except proofed down for sale to 85.6% abv.

Greenhut confirms in effect that the meaning of highwines changed, but what didn’t change was that highwines was never a perfectly pure product. Thus, it could be aged for whisky as some buyers surely did (gentry, maybe grocers, bars). The highwines could also be used for some industrial purposes, and to mix with wine for the Caribou-type product also mentioned yesterday, or punches. It was a white whiskey, broadly speaking.

Anyone who wants to know what it was like should try to find the Global alcool I mentioned. It is sold in Quebec in 94% and 40% abv versions and the latter must be simply the former diluted to 40% abv. Ontario for many years sold a similar “alcohol” (not vodka) but I can’t find it on the listings currently. The Global one was interesting, like a vodka but with traits of white dog whisky. No doubt some craft distillers produce a similar drink but unless aged for the requisite time it cannot be called whisky on the label.

Note re image: the image above of a fountain in 1870s Cincinnati was sourced from Wikipedia, here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes.  All copyright therein resides solely in its lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. All feedback welcomed.

High Wines and High Society (Part II)

I stand by everything I said in my Part I, except I think it is likely that the highwines advertised in the 1917 ad by the Montreal merchant, Moquin, probably were not distilled at 150 OP (85.6% abv) but rather were simply sold at (diluted to) that proof.

I think they were probably distilled at 94.1% abv, based on this October 17, 1879 Canadian engineering article describing a visit to Gooderham & Worts, see pg. 298. The article states that the highwines were 165 OP, which is 94.1% abv. Now, was the article wrong and it confused the proof off the stills of what became the whisky sold with the highwines proof? It is possible, but taking the record as we find it, it sounds like Canadian highwines of large distillers in this period, i.e., post-Civil War to 1917 at least, were 94% abv.

Now, that does not quite meet the neutral spirits definition, generally taken as 95% abv and over today. Distillers know that a 94% spirit can have detectable odour and taste. I know it myself as the Global Alcool I discussed in Part I is sold in two versions, 94% abv and 40% abv (presumably just proofed down). I bought the 40% and can say it is not a neutral taste. I called it “gamey” in fact…

Spirit for vodka would generally be distilled at 95% abv or higher, and anyway for Canada is treated with charcoal or other methods to refine the taste to blandness. I doubt the Global product was so treated.

94% abv grain spirit is known in the distilling business as an intermediate product.

Therefore, I now believe that what was advertised as highwines in 1917 by a number of prominent Canadian distillers, was this intermediate distillate. It would still be capable of aging in wood as it contained detectable fermentation by-products (congeners) which would alter in aging.

Also, 94% abv aged grain distillate falls within the American whiskey definition. It is 188 proof, under that is the 190 U.S. proof ceiling to call aged grain spirit whiskey. This shows again the product was not completely bland.

On the other hand, it cannot be said the 1917 highwines, under this definition, was the same as white dog spirit used to make bourbon, straight rye, single malt, or Canadian flavouring whiskey. This post will modify my earlier statements to that effect.

Nonetheless I still believe that between 1860 and 1900 not every distiller’s highwines were so high in alcohol. Especially surviving smaller distillers may have produced highwines distillate at a lower proof, in the range of bourbon or straight rye or near enough.

Needless to say, anyone interested in commenting is invited to do so.

High Wines and High Society (Part I)

Of Patricians and Polloi Too

In this October, 1845 ad in the Canadian newspaper British Whig distiller James Morton of Kingston appealed for grain. Kingston was then in the United Province of Canada, now Ontario.

Morton asked for rye, barley, buckwheat, and oats. He also accepted Indian corn, but only starting from January following. There was surely a reason for this scheduling but at this juncture it is difficult to discern.

He addresses price, but for rye only. He explains he has “redeemed” an earlier promise to buy it at a named cost for 1844’s crop. He renews the promise for 1845 and 1846.

It is evident rye was vital in his distillery, as why mention its price and no other? It was, as discussed in my last post, used by him (the inferred distiller) in a mashbill of blended grains in 1851. The 1851 mashbill was rye, corn, and sometimes peas – and surely some malt for saccharification. Canadian distillers today usually mash from a single grain to make different distillates that are blended after or before aging. For much of the 1800s, the industry operated in a different fashion. It was similar to contemporary still house practice in Kentucky and Pennsylvania – and Scotland and Ireland too for the part of their production called malt whisky (see below).

There are many ads in Ontario newspapers from the 1820s on (at least) calling for rye and corn by distillers. This is not just in Kingston, but in southwest Ontario too as you see in this 1842 ad in the Western Herald by distiller George Elliott in Windsor. Sometimes other grains were added, wheat or oats usually.

Barley was used to make a Canadian version of malt whisky. Into the early 1920s one sees ads for such whisky next to those for Canadian, or rye, whisky. I discussed earlier that the McDougall Distillery in Halifax made both types but many Canadian distillers did.

Before the 1860s when Gooderham’s in Toronto and Walker in Windsor adopted the column still which permitted rectification of pure alcohol, these Ontario distillers were producing essentially a white dog spirit, something quite similar to what Kentucky and Scots distilleries made.

Often, they rectified it by using charcoal vat filtration, a version of what Jack Daniel still uses today. The product might then receive some aging, or often none. Two years was considered very old. In fact, ponder this ad from 1872 in Newmarket, ON. The merchant Henderson advertised the splendidly-named Gum Swamp Whisky at two years old but cautioned to order soon before the whisky “loses its flavour”.

Loses its flavour? Today we start at two years for almost any kind of whisky. This showed that many people still expected the traditional or “common” whisky taste, full of zest and oily grain notes. If you aged it too long, the wood taste and oxidation would rub out the taste. Today, it’s the opposite effect we want.

Nor can we think the 1872 ad was talking of neutral spirits becoming too woody and brown. Gum Swamp Whisky evidently was a local, down-home product, not the result of those newfangled stills in Windsor and the Big Smoke Toronto.

A modern craft distiller couldn’t come up with a more folksy, “country” name if he tried. You can’t beat the old days at being … the old days. Later, probably the inevitable gentility of better living resulted in Gum Swamp, an area near Barrie, ON, being renamed. The new name: Elmgrove. Somehow Elmgrove Whisky doesn’t have the same oomph.

Such spirit when new had the chemical-like notes, of pine, oils, flowers, characteristic of what was called high wines or highwines, a term still used in Canadian distilleries.

Indeed up to the 1940s some ads listed such highwines next to the usual lines of branded Canadian whisky. What was the highwines? This sumptuous 1917 ad from the Montreal dealer Moquin states clearly what it was, 50 OP spirits which is 85.6% abv. This is not significantly higher than the maximum distilling-out strength to call spirit when aged bourbon under U.S. law. 85% is 170 U.S. proof, 20 points under the maximum proof allowable to call the aged spirit whisky.

The difference between 85% abv and 94% is quite significant in terms of relative congeneric character. It may not sound like a lot, but it is. Also, the 50 OP level was probably lower 50-60 years earlier, more in the typical range for bourbon and straight rye.

By 1917, Canadian whisky had to be aged at least two years. The highwines mentioned, which are not termed whisky in the ad, were essentially unaged white dog. I don’t think this white whisky was meant to be drunk new, at least in Ontario, but rather aged by the buyer.

Some gentry bought highwines for this purpose following a practice of the lairds in Scotland whence many of them came. In a folksy 1958 reminiscence published in the Canadian Statesman, Melville Rae recalled all too briefly the hotel and tavern life of his grandfather’s era. This must have been in the latter half of the 1800s. Among the liquors sent out by “rig” to local aristocracy, “highwines” was included. Rae charmingly opined that this meant champagne but that is not so. They were buying kegged white dog to lay down in their cellars.

Ads for such highwines appear in the Ontario and Quebec press from the later 1800s until around WW I. See e.g., this 1866 ad in the British Whig.

Rae’s article originated in a Port Hope, ON newspaper, the Evening Guide (it still exists today via a couple of amalgamations under another name). In another article, Rae, something of a local historian and humorist, discussed the many Scottish families in the area. Port Hope was settled by United Empire Loyalists but acquired a British admixture after 1812. It reinforced and refreshed the Anglo-Saxon character, no doubt a Crown strategy to ensure Canada did not go the way Americans did, 1776 and all that.

As a further index of this self-aging practice, I recall reading another account some years ago where a Canadian squire kept his spirits in wood in the cellar for decades until they turned black.  I cannot find it again quickly but it will pop up sooner or later and I’ll cite it here.

In the 1917 Moquin ad, the many branded whiskies of G&H, Corby, Seagram, and Wiser are sometimes described as so much “UP”, say 25 which allowing for tolerance is 43% abv. This now disused standard was based on 100 proof being 57 % abv, not 50% as in the more logical American system.

The UP numbers are simply the bottling or kegging proof of whisky which, as I’ve discussed many times, was blended from a base of aged high-proof spirits and perhaps a little whisky of the older, straight type. The underproof number is not the distilling-out number, that is. But in the case of the highwines I believe it was, as the term is commonly understood to mean spirits meant to be aged for bourbon, straight rye, single malt, and Canadian flavouring whisky. It was not, I think, despite the word pure, neutral spirits let down to 85% abv. (Even if it was though, highwines 50 years earlier had to be what it generally means in distilling: the secondary distillation of a whiskey mash ready for aging).*

In 1917 and for some considerable time before, this vestigial, apprehended highwines tradition represented the tail end of the earlier, straight whisky tradition based as it was on low-proof distillation, crude rectification, and a little aging. All countries making whisky evolved and commercialized – Scotland big time – a more refined, blended whisky. But from the latter quarter of the 1800s, Canada finally sold just the blended type which became its national style for 100 years. However, in the last 20 years or so a few products, Lot 40 from Corby and Canadian Club single rye grain, say, have been released. These are a long-aged highwines, or at least have a significant component of that in the blend, and hearken back to the older tradition.

The only other inference from selling high wines – unaged spirit – is that it was meant for a downscale market. See for example its price in the Moquin ad, generally below that of the kegged and bottled whiskies. But Rae’s story belies the downmarket image as he was talking of highwines shipped to the carriage trade. No stinting needed there of course.

Still, some highwines may have been used by a mass market. Quebec has a tradition of drinking spiced and sweetened red wine with white alcohol added for winter celebrations, for example. A commercial brand well-liked is Caribou, pictured. Alcool is still sold today for this purpose which to my taste is an unrefined vodka, but the 1917 highwines would have had a more pungent taste yet, not to mention the 1860s’, probably.

An alcool I reviewed a few months ago, Global Alcool, appears to be prepared from 94% abv spirits but probably receives no treatment to make “vodka”. Hence the slightly “gamey” taste, a bit like overproof white rum perhaps. 85% abv spirits would have far more taste impact on the palate.

So with highwines I conclude there was an upstairs-downstairs effect. As far as I know, after the 1940s highwines was not commercially sold. Up to then, the “governors” of our town and country –  colloquial and apposite British connotation intended – made their own bourbon, straight rye, and malt whisky. What did it taste like after seven years or so? Like a lot of what you can buy by that description off the retail shelf today.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from the 1917 article linked in the text. The second, from the April 16, 1859 issue of the Atlas in Port Hope, ON as found here, the website of www.PortHopeHistory.com, a site devoted to history of the Port Hope area. The third image is from the website of the Société des Alcools du Quebec, www.saq.com.  All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*[See Part II of this article, here, in which, among additional points, I modify my conclusions in regard to the distilling-out proof of the highwines. In fact I believe that proof was 94.1% abv and the spirit was diluted to 85.6% abv for sale].




Canadian Whisky Mashes Circa 1850 and More

James Morton, an early Ontario industrialist, is well-profiled by historian M.L. Magill in Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Morton’s interest for us is due to his twin activities of brewer and distiller in Upper Canada, as Ontario was called during his career.

Distilling and brewing sometimes occurred under the same roof. Other examples are the early Molsons in Montreal and Kingston, the Walkers in Windsor, and the Harts in Trois-Rivières.

Morton had a complex financial and business career which did not end well, as Magill profiles. But he is remembered as a pioneering industrialist and capitalist who faltered at least in part due to an inadequate credit system.

In terms of whisky, “Morton Family Proof” achieved a high regard in Canada into the 1860s, on a par of quality with George Gooderham’s whisky in Toronto and Hiram Walker’s in Windsor. Despite Morton’s death before Confederation (1867) the distillery continued until about 1900. The site, which includes original buildings, is now a heritage centre. On the period map below it is, as far as we can tell, the no. “1” on the recessed land point on the left, about middle of the picture.

Morton learned the whisky business from Thomas Molson (of the Molsons in Montreal) who operated an early distillery in Kingston. It was later taken over by Morton and a partner and finally operated solely by Morton.

Morton was Irish-born, an Ulsterman, as some other distilling families, e.g., Meagher. A few had English roots, e.g., Seagram, Molson, Corby, Gooderham, Worts. Some I presume were of Scots ethnicity such as the head of McDougall Distillery in Halifax, N.S. Some were, I believe, Loyalist, say Smith Sherman Halliday* of Maitland, ON (Borst, Halliday & Co. Distillery)**. John P. Wiser in Prescott and Hiram Walker in Windsor were American-born.

Today, whisky-distilling in Britain is thought of as Scots or Irish, but the English drank whisky too in the 1800s and before, indeed the tradition has returned in recent years.

We must remember also that styles such as gin only became well-defined from the mid-1700s. Dutch gin was and is, in its most authentic form, a young whisky. It stimulated finally the creation of London gin, but only after a time.

Jan Melcher was a Dutch immigrant who set up a distillery in Quebec in the 19th century. Against this background, his non-British origins are not that significant.

The British cultural acceptance of whisky was abetted by an apt market in south-central Ontario, formed as it was to a large degree by the Loyalist influx. How many Loyalist and American immigrant distillers there were proper is unknown. I’ve seen no definitive data considering that the United Province of Canada had a couple of hundred distilleries into the 1840s and probably many illicit ones. But that the Loyalist settlers formed a ready market for whisky is a reasonable inference given whisky had a correlative rise in the U.S. across the border whence they came.

Rum was the favoured hard drink in northern U.S. and Canada before the American Revolution but it declined steadily, as against whisky, from the early 1800s. I have noted earlier how the enduring taste for rum in Quebec was ousted in part by illicit whisky made in northern New York State along the St. Lawrence River.

Morton’s beers would have been barley-based as for all ale and porter in the early years of brewing in North America, i.e., beer of British inspiration. His whisky was not, though, despite the presumed inclination of a British distiller to use barley malt or at least all-barley in the mash.

We can conclude this from an interesting statement in the 1851 Notes on North America by James Johnston. In the book, Johnston quotes an unnamed, prominent distiller in Kingston whom I’d guess was Morton. The comment is of interest as showing the mash bill at the time of a prominent Ontario distiller. The account states that Morton used “chiefly rye and Indian corn, but sometimes pease also – all ground up together”. There is a somewhat unclear reference to barley malt, which I think meant that distillers got a greater rendering from rye and corn than barley. Some malt was probably used in an unmalted rye/corn mash to convert the starches to fermentable sugar, hence the “chiefly”.

Peas have a long albeit minor history in brewing. Its transfer to the distillery is not surprising.

The fact of contributing an ill-taste means two things: first, flavour was important, the market, at least for a certain quality, didn’t accept a spirit from any old grains. Second, the very fact the peas gave a taste shows the distilling did not in this period produce a neutral product. If it did, no taste of consequence, bad or otherwise, would derive from the feedstock used regardless of type.

This reflected the type of stills in use prior to technological sophistication of the industry, either a wood or all-metal pot still or the three-chambered steam-operated still (a kind of linked pot still system). The column still, where the steam came in direct contact with the wash, and related abandonment of charcoal leaching tubs, came later although not much later. Tanya Lynn MacKinnon records the history in her masterful economic study (2000) of the early Ontario whisky industry.

A mixed rye and corn mash was being used contemporaneously in Kentucky distilling. It was probably the case too for some Pennsylvania and Maryland distilling albeit primarily rye is associated with whiskey in those states. Samuel M’Harry, an early writer (1809) of a distilling text, was a Pennsylvania native. He recorded whisky mashes from all-corn to all-rye with various percentage mixes in between. So did fellow-American Harrison Hall (1818) who mentioned wheat as a good feedstock for the still except for its high cost. These distillers clearly were looking for the best yield (alcohol) at the best cost, with an eye to quality at the higher end.

There seems no reason to think it was different in Quebec and Ontario but grain supply and prices must have varied in different localities, hence different practices.

From 1850 at least, corn generally formed the majority of the Canadian mash with rye in minority, as was typical for bourbon. This ties in to improved boat and increasing rail transport for these commodities. E.g., almost all the corn used in Canadian distilleries in the 1800s came from the U.S. Use of various wheat-based middlings or “shorts” by some distilleries in Canada is documented especially in the first decades of the 1800s, but rye and corn emerged as the standard mash by 1850, or so I infer e.g., from MacKinnon’s description of the mashbills at Gooderham & Worts and Hiram Walker in the 1850s.

Rye even in small amount gives a definable taste to whisky. We see that today even from the Canadian standard blends. Ergo “rye” became the name attributed to such whisky. Possibly too some of those 200 early central Canadian distillers used all-rye, but that evidence is not necessary for a reasonable supposition as to the origin of the term rye whisky.

Oats occasionally were used in Canada in lieu of rye for this purpose. Small amounts were also characteristic of Irish distilling practice although this was later abandoned in favour of malted and unmalted barley only. Oats are mentioned in the American books too but its flavour was not always liked.

The Canadian whisky industry has evolved in its practice. Today, typically grains only of one variety are mashed and distilled. Different distillates are blended before or after aging, although exceptions exist, e.g., for the “bourbon” made in house by Seagram in Gimli for blending. Some bourbon mash whiskey has been made in Ontario as well, Last Barrels is an example. Change is ongoing, indeed today’s industry is not quite what it was 25 years ago.***

A product such as Corby’s Lot 40 with its very forward flavour deriving from distillation at a low proof was unknown in the market then. Its introduction, and the introduction since its launch of a few similar products (the Canadian Club green label, Dark Horse, Masterson’s, etc.) was the result of calls for change by enthusiasts and the industry’s perception that it should offer a product comparable to a bourbon, straight rye, or single malt.

I believe the Canadian industry over time will introduce more products of a straight character. It is possible it can retain and even grow its present share of the market with products whose base is largely composed of aged neutral spirits. But even if so, a greater number of straight-type products will offer a better bulwark against the raft of bourbon and straight U.S. ryes now available, not to mention single malts, Japanese whiskies, and some Irish whiskies. As well, it has its own gastronomic justification.


*[Update May 11, 2020]: see the Comment just received from a descendant of an employee of Borst, Halliday indicating its principals resided in Lockport, NY and went back and forth to Ontario to manage the distillery. Hence they were not Loyalists (UEL).

** Later, I saw that a Halliday distillery (under that single name) existed on the Toronto waterfront at least between 1849 and 1851. It is marked on a number of drawings of the area, to the west of Gooderham’s site. Whether it is connected to the Maitland one I cannot say, but I’d guess there is a connection because Halliday also had some kind of depot or presence in Montreal.

*** I should add I am addressing here the large industrial producers, not artisan distillers.

Note re image: the image above was sourced here from Toronto Public Library. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



George R. Washburne Profiled in New Article

Article Examines an Important Figure in Kentucky Whiskey History

Donna Russell is Town Historian of Pewee Valley, KY, a town about 16 miles from Louisville. She is authoring a website for the Pewee Valley Historical Society. It is still in progress, but great strides were made in the last year. One of the area’s past notable residents was George R. Washburne, of whom I have written numerous times in connection with the “Wine and Spirits Bulletin”. This was a trade journal he published and edited from 1887 until National Prohibition ended the work in 1919.

The people behind the stories are not the least of the many facets of beverage alcohol history… You can read Donna Russell’s detailed profile of George Washburne’s origins and career at this linkhttp://www.peweevalleyhistory.org/washburne-waterfill-house.html

Most interesting it is, and I recommend it to any one interested in the heritage of Kentucky whiskey and the state in general.

It is too easy to forget that the production of drinks of various sorts is just the beginning of a complex process of getting them to the consumer whether in bar, restaurant, beverage store, etc. Washburne provided a key service to the alcohol trade by advertising wine and spirits and industry comings and goings. But the “Bulletin” was a respected and successful journal that had an impact beyond the production and vending of wine and spirits. It also contained ads and articles of interest pertaining to the multifarious suppliers of these industries including grain dealers, equipment makers, architects and engineers, and ad agencies.

It is good to see Washburne remembered for his role in the “Bulletin” and the other aspects of his life. Some further family history is detailed as well.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Helps the Medicine Go Down

A quote from Victorian writer Abraham Hayward’s Art of Dining:

Canning used to say that any sane person who affected to prefer dry Champagne to sweet, lied.

The range of sugar, residual or added as grape must or sucrose, in today’s Champagne was tellingly illustrated by wine writer Madeline Puckette a few years ago at her Wine Folly site. The amount of dry sugar that represented the liquid quantity in each type of Champagne, so Brut Nature, Brut, Dry, Extra-Dry, etc., was placed in an otherwise empty flute glass.

The sweetest contained the equivalent of two teaspoons of sugar per glass. By my calculation, this is about two-thirds as sweet as a standard Coke – fairly sugary.

Brut contains half a teaspoon sugar, almost at the other end of the spectrum.

Was Charles Canning’s sweet Champagne on the sweetest end of this range, and the dry probably like the Brut or Brut Nature? If so his dictum has died, as Brut is the type most widely consumed today at least in English-speaking countries.

Yet, perhaps the register hasn’t moved quite so far: this would depend on the sugar levels of 19th century Champagne, something I’m sure has been documented.

The original French type, or at least the style favoured by Continentals, was decidedly sweet. The same was true in Britain, as Canning noted, but Hayward explained that a coterie of English wine connoisseurs bruited the dry style (dry in the general sense today vs. that on a Champagne label, confusingly).

As often happens, the predelictions of a small group ended as general writ. It is the story of craft beer too: from the pages of the seminal beer author Michael Jackson Belgian beer sprang to beer bars around the world. It is the story of Starbucks, and much more.

Henry Jeffreys, in his recent Empire of Booze, investigated the sweet-to-dry change in Champagne in-depth. He mentions it as notable for another reason: it contradicted the general British pattern which was to make Continental drinks sweeter – e.g., sherry, port, Madeira.

Envoi: “Remember gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s Champagne!” – Winston Churchill

Note re image: the image above was sourced from Wikipedia’s entry on Charles Canning. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.




Beer on the English Table

Droit and Dining

The Original was a periodical issued by the English writer Thomas Walker (1784-1836). It was reprinted numerous times including in 1850. Walker was a lawyer and magistrate who wrote on diverse topics outside his profession including health and gastronomy.

His comments on beer with meals are of some interest. They are preceded by some deft remarks on wine, still applicable today in the main.

On beer, Walker showed a decided Georgian sensibility by considering table-beer suitable for dining. This was provided it was of high quality, which probably meant not sour or stale. This type of beer, also called small beer and small ale, went out of fashion after Walker’s death. Perhaps the increasing use of tea, and wines of all types, caused the decline.

Then, too, customs just change, finally, for some reason.



Table-beer was weak in alcohol, from 1 to 3% abv. From Elizabethan times until the early 1800s it had importance in domestic and social life, one hard to appreciate today. Shakespeare dismissed small beer in a quip* but it was no less important for that.

(It occurs to me that the penchant of Americans to drink cold water at meals may be an adaptation of a custom popular when the Mayflower sailed).

Walker thought such light beer suitable to accompany food, with two or three glasses of “first-rate ale” taken after. This was strong ale, Burton, Dorchester, Kennett, Scotch, etc. This approach to the liquid side of dining is quite different to anything today.

The strong ale probably served as a kind of dessert, or in lieu of post-meal fortified wines such as port and Madeira.

Walker was writing too early for India Pale Ale, which was still new in England, and anyway its strong hop quality would not have recommended itself for meals, except in India (tiffin and dinner).

Walker’s advice to have an occasional “malt-liquor day” prefigures modern gastronomic beer appreciation. That he felt confident enough to suggest this shows dry wine hadn’t yet ousted beer completely on the English table.

Thomas Hardy wrote that the minor Dorset gentry loved strong ale more than wine. Yet, by the time the Trumpet Major appeared and until recently, beer on the damask was uncommon despite periodic claims for its place. Andrew Campbell’s The Book of Beer in 1956 took its place in this slim history (e.g. brown ale with apple pie), but he had no great influence until the 1970s, when consumer beer writing really took off.

Another lawyer interested in the table, Abraham Hayward (1801-1884), gave Thomas Walker a fillip by incorporating extracts of The Original in his Art of Dining; or, gastronomy and gastronomers (1853). An example:

The figure shown is advocate Hayward, withal ascetic-looking for a gastronomic student. Apparently he was nonplussed by the success of his food and wine writing. Like many authors, he felt the public overly appreciated writing he felt lesser.

Note re images: the first image above was sourced from Anchor Brewery’s website, the second via HathiTrust, and the third in Wikipedia’s entry on Abraham Hayward. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to their lawful owner, as applicable. Images used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


* “… I will make it a felony to drink small beer.”, Henry VI, Part II.


The Higher End of the “Beefsteak”

Although tending to the popular in America, beefsteak dinners could attract the striving middle class, or intelligentsia such as writers or artists. These dinners could assume a more elaborate aspect than the usual raucous Beefsteak, a stripped down affair that focused on beef albeit top-quality, bread, and beer.

I mentioned earlier the refined, 1878 menu of the New York Beefsteak Society, preserved at the Museum of the City of New York. The venue was not specified but may have been a hotel, restaurant, or member’s mansion. Since the location is not known, perhaps the dinner was never held although the menu bears a specific date, May 11, 1878.

I mentioned also the Washington, D.C. journalists’ club, the Gridiron Society. This group was only loosely connected to the beefsteak tradition inaugurated by English clubs of the 1700s, but the name suggests an overseas inspiration.

The Gridiron Society occasionally dined with other fraternal groups including, once, a New York beefsteak society. In a Gridiron Club memoir published in the 1890s, the Washington Post editor Henry Litchfield West described the evening, noting that “plain, plebeian beer” was served.

The patrician West was a little discomfited at the New York club’s informality, but seems to have enjoyed the dinner. He lauded its amber ale as if “brewed by Gambrinus” and “refreshing” (i.e., it wasn’t his go-to).

Below, we see the menu for a dinner given by the Chicago Piano and Organ Association, a few years ahead of WW I. Maybe Chicago with its striving ethos felt “steak and ale” was too simple. It mounted a luxury affair featuring caviar and fine wine.

Indeed, beer, generally a stand-by at the Beesfteak, made no appearance at all but the event was still billed as a Beefsteak.

Making musical instruments was an established business in North America then. The leading piano merchants were local gentry. Since their customers were presumably a refined lot, maybe it was felt the Beefsteak template could stand embellishment.

Moving further west, a Beefsteak in Bisbee, Arizona in 1903 hewed more to the traditional pattern although attended by a prosperous young business class vs., say, the pressmen, conductors, and fraternal organizations more typical of New York Beefsteaks.

The Arizona fete took place on the roof of a private home. An account in a Bisbee newspaper is telling in a number of ways. First, women were admitted. Indeed the dinner was thought a boon for them due to the minimalist serving arrangements (less work to set up and clean).

There were music and singing, the notes drifting over silent blocks nearby, which the journalist thought an odd effect. So it must have seemed in a proto-Sinclair Lewis period.

The essential Bohemian spirit was preserved, in other words. The writer stated:

… [a beefsteak] doesn’t sound dignified, nor is it. Who would think of preserving dignity at a beefsteak dinner? It would be like weeping at a circus. Dignity and a beefsteak dinner would be a sad combination. Conservatism cannot exist on a roof top with champagne boxes in front of it and the entire atmosphere permeated with bohemianism. If you are not spry you are likely to go hungry. The beefsteak is piping hot when you get it and you must exercise a bit of ingenuity in eating.

At bottom, the Beefsteak was enjoying downtime with birds of a feather and simple, but good food. The writer Joseph Mitchell understood this in 1939, for his famous New Yorker sketch of the Beefsteak I noted earlier. Still, the upwardly-mobile enhanced a popular event to their purpose. Fair enough.



Note re image: The image above was sourced from the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org, see here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner, as applicable. Image is  used for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.