Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part IV.

[Continuing from Part III].

The old American Saloon and Christmas

Another column of Edgar S. Van Olinda, the Albany Times-Union‘s long-serving scribe (via Fulton History), chronicled Christmases of old in Albany, New York, which meant before National Prohibition (1920-1933).

The time of writing was 1963, late in Van Olinda’s career. He had written similar columns for other Christmases, reworking the earlier material.

Notable in the extracts below, but it is characteristic of his writing in any period, is the absence of censure in regard to the saloon. He does not even acknowledge that a proportion of public opinion was against the saloon and plumped for National Prohibition.

If anything, he posits an opposite notion: saloons were regarded by society as respectable, just as the “clubs” of Albany were in 1963. And while on this occasion he calls the saloon (see below) the “poor man’s club”, as we saw earlier a professional and business class patronized some Albany saloons, or at least an aspirant class did, as described by Van Olinda himself.

Some Van Olinda columns make clear that many saloons were resorts of ethnic groups, Irish and German as I discussed earlier but also a British coterie – I’ll address the latter in time. The saloon also attracted other groups, e.g. the Mendelssohn choir, which counted Van Olinda among its members.

I would argue such sub-groups so to speak were not primarily class-driven in their attachment to the pub; cultural and social factors trumped in other words the purely economic, or so I have concluded from years of studying pub history.

Some readers will recall my examination of the British-style tavern or “inn” in America. Contrary to the popular image of a saloon, these often attracted an upscale clientele. “Musty ale” with its British associations was served in Ivy League taverns with mullioned windows, or big city lobster houses.

Manhattan chop houses might feature India Pale and the mutton chop. These places were not typically the workman’s home away from home.

These are extracts from van Olinda’s article:

One of the manifestations of the holiday season which is missing from the local scene is the great number of “sample rooms” which nestled so sweet in a little side street: “Saloons,” I think they used to be called, but they were as respectable in their generation as the clubs of the city are today. The Christmas season was always a gay time , a half-century ago , and somehow, the cordial relations which existed between the white-coated gentlemen who conducted these “poor men’ s clubs” and the regular customers were quite heart-warming. One thing missing is the great mirror which stood behind the mahogany on which some budding Michelangelo had decorated with loving care . A paste composed of old ale and rochelle salts was spread on the surface, lending the effect of a frosted window. With more or less skill, the words : “Merry Christmas “ were evolved, creating the proper Yuletide spirit….

A few days before Christmas, all these cozy places were busy, catering to the anticipated holiday rush. There were boxes of Van Slyke and Horton cigars, pints of rye for the regular customers, and a generous tureen of eggnog or a goodly supply of Tom and Jerry, with a kettle of hot water on the nearby stove to mix up hot toddies against the cold on the outside . Some of the establishments had raffles for suckling pigs, turkeys, chickens and geese. It was not an uncommon sight to see one of the lucky drawers, weaving his way homeward with a bottle under one arm and a live fowl gasping for breath as the winner dragged the victim through the streets by a convenient grip around the Christmas dinner treat’s stretched neck.

A happy, if at times graphic picture, one that seems quite foreign to the mentality that foisted Prohibition on the country for 14 long years.



It seems in this light quite remarkable that the 18th Amendment to the American Constitution got passed.

Sometimes a popular cause gets momentum while not enjoying the favour of the majority. This can result from a well-motivated and organized lobby group, or network of them: the American Prohibition movement certainly was that.

An example when I was younger was the death penalty for murder. For years a clear majority in Canada supported it (perhaps even today, I don’t know), but the death penalty still was abolished and has remained so to this day.

No doubt many issues of our time could be cited as examples, depending where you stand on the political spectrum. The liquor question in early 20th century America was perhaps singular in that many persons known to support or at least not oppose Prohibition were privately still drinking and patronizing the speakeasy or bootleggers.

There was a Janus-face about the issue in other words, a public-private morality that resulted in a public policy being adopted quite at odds with the benign popular history detailed by Van Olinda.

N.B. Van Slyke & Horton was an Albany cigar manufacturer, a local hero just as the city’s breweries were. A sample ad is shown, from a 1903 issue of the newspaper mentioned.

See our Final Part.

Note re image: source of image above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in source belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part III.

[Continues from Part II].

A Brew so Rich it Could…

The Pike and Capron saloon, formerly at State and Lodge streets in Albany, New York, was another old-time resort recalled by Edgar S. Van Olinda, long-time columnist for the city’s Times-Union. He mentions it in many columns, sometimes reworking an older piece, but often adding new details.

The saloon was across the street from today’s Hilton Hotel in the city. I stayed at the Hilton many times on visits to Albany 40 years ago. The Hudson is behind the hotel on the other side, and we often got a room with a view of that broad river, vital to city commerce, especially in the past.

Van Olinda’s story of January 12, 1942 recalled particulars of four or five old-time saloons including Pike and Capron’s. He was actually quoting the memories of a reader who wrote in to recall the fine old days.

As adverted to earlier, Van Olinda was engaging in a form of social or popular history. The tone is warm, indulgent, forgiving – light but revealing of many details, some to ponder.

His correspondent was prompted by Van Olinda having written of the improvising tendencies of jazz music. (Music was one of Van Olinda’s beats). The reader noted that around 1900 “Hungarian” bands in saloons did something similar, so the same gas-lamp era I have been discussing.

The letter included this remark:

“And of course we remembered Pike and Capron’s; the casks ranged in rows behind the bar; the wholesome smell of malt and hops that seemed to permeate the atmosphere more pungently there than anywhere else—and the rich porter, for which the place was noted—so black and syrupy that it would float nails…”.

The currently popular “dry Irish stout” of craft and mass market brewing doesn’t sound very close, but that was then, this is now.

The passage reminds us too that porter was popular in some Albany saloons, not just the better known ale, or the lager that finally got the better of both.

Van Olinda’s correspondent conveyed other interesting memories, including eating a “famous” ground beef sandwich. As so often in this history, one finds a blend of British and Central European influences. The sandwich is explained this way:

“Speaking of Grandpre’s—did you ever eat one of their famous raw beef sandwiches? It was the grandpappy of the modern sissified cooked hamburger so popular nowadays. Consisting of about a quarter of a pound of ground raw meat, topped with a layer of sliced Spanish onion plentifully sprinkled with salt and pepper and packed between thick slices of rye bread full of caraway seeds”.

The statement that the hamburger derived from (the often German) steak tartare is very interesting from a culinary historical standpoint, and might well be correct. Plumbing memory further, the correspondent added:

“…[There] was a tiny saloon (not a ‘Tavern’ or ‘Grill’, Bacchus forbid!) located opposite the Union station, called Dockendorf’s, where we used to pause for refreshment while waiting for a trolley to take us home after a hot, stuffy day at the office. [No A/C then]. At one end of the Lilliputian bar was a huge copper roaster from the cover of which a chain ran up through a ring in the ceiling and down again within convenient reach of the gent in shirtsleeves whose sole duty it was to make FREE sandwiches for the customers. With one’s appetite whetted by a tall, frosty glass of beer with a creamy collar intact it was a fascinating experience to watch the cover of this roaster go up, exposing a huge side of steaming beef—to see the rare slices curl under the big carving knife, and the pure gravy poured over the completed sandwich which came skimming down in its saucer over the polished mahogany to stop under one’s very nose. Never since has a snack or a drink tasted so good to us”.

He had that right, surely.

Another piece of Van Olinda’s, on April 17, 1946, remembered the “still ale” of Pike and Capron, a beer type I discussed earlier in these pages. He also eulogized the long-time owner of Pike and Capron’s, Peter De Groot, who died that year at 88.

In yet a further column, a late one of May 31,1970 when Van Olinda himself had to be close to 88, he recalled the “musty ale” of Carey’s in the nearby Colonie. Van Olinda linked its offering of the unusually-named beer, and its roast beef sandwiches, to the English origins of the owners.

I chronicled American musty ale in this article of issue #169, Journal of the Brewery History Society. I won’t quarrel very far with Van Olinda as to its British origins, as my article attests.

Porter, still ale, musty ale – some of the drinks of the pre-Prohibition American Northeast. And the toothsome beef “snacks” to go with it, sometimes coming without charge.

Emblems of a past, irrecoverable time, save through the evocative words of an American regional journalist, Edgar S. Van Olinda.

We continue with Part IV.


















Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part II.

Saloon, Saloon, Saloon

[This series began with Part I].

In 1941 on January 30 in the Albany (NY) Times-Union, longtime columnist Edgar S. Van Olinda memorialized another old-time tavern of Albany, Irish Lord’s (source: Fulton History as linked).

The references to ale need no introduction to students of beer history. Ale and porter brewing long held sway in the Upper Hudson Valley and beyond in New York as chronicled in recent years by Craig Gravina and Alan McLeod in their (2014) Upper Hudson Valley Beer.

I covered further aspects of the story in my 2019 research paper “Fleming’s Golden Ale“, issue #178, Journal of the Brewery History Society.* Van Olinda’s account adds a granular level that just about brings aromas of sawdust and seeping hogsheads to the nostrils.

He explains Irish Lord’s was held by Thomas McKeon, its glory days being the late 19th century. Popular culture still associates the period with Gibson Girls, barbershop quartets, striped awnings, and ornamented bold lettering.

Deeper, less benign currents have been identified by historians but my images serve better to complement the perspective in Van Olinda’s account.

Irish Lord’s was located at Second Street and North Swan in Arbor Hill, then a prosperous enclave, especially the triangular Ten Broeck section which Irish Lord’s bordered. At the time a strong Irish component prevailed in the quarter. St Joseph’s Church was its lodestone, still standing but now abandoned and forlorn.

The beer Irish Lord’s served was from the storied Quinn & Nolan, later called Beverwyck, also in north Albany.** It closed finally in 1972 after 22 years of ownership by F & M Schaefer Brewery of Brooklyn, NY. While the 1941 article doesn’t specify the brewery, a 1968 column of Van Olinda that reworked the earlier piece confirms Quinn & Nolan as source of the beer.

Today Arbor Hill is a low-income community, predominantly African-American, a long-term shift that has characterized many urban centres across America. At Second and Swan a structure stands that even in 1941 had replaced the old saloon. Van Olinda knew it as St. Joseph’s Parochial School.

No longer a school, the building is currently a residence and atelier for artists, a worthy urban renewal project. It is pictured below (source Google Maps).



That is the site where at the turn of the gaslit century, Arbor Hillers, as Van Olinda called them, settled the world’s problems and assuaged personal ones. In his words:

There used to be a song currently popular during the arid days of the prohibition era which went as follows:

“Saloon, saloon, saloon. Have you forgotten so soon?
You nestled so sweet in a little
side street.
So respected, protected by cops
on the beat.
Since you left us, the world’s
been in darkness
Like a cloud passing over the moon.
With a bar and a rail, a dime and a pail,
Saloon, saloon, saloon”.

Today, those thirst emporiums are known as grills, and somehow lack the atmosphere of sawdust and spilt beer that had a peculiar attraction to the nostrils of a former generation. Such an oasis was the “Irish Lord’s” which “nestled so sweet on old Second street” and Swan during the last century and conducted with great decorum by the late Thomas McKeon. Today the place is just a fragrant memory, and only to a choice few survivors of that time who are still able to bend the elbow occasionally.

Today, the magnificent parochial school of St Joseph’s has erased the spot where so many “Arbor Hillers” were wont to go of an evening to discuss affairs of state and nation or speculate on the chances of “Gentleman Jim” Corbett staying five rounds with the great John L. Sullivan. Tom McKeon owned considerable property in the neighborhood and it is on the site of these houses that the school now stands. No fancy frills to “The Irish Lord”…

And further:

Sure, there was sawdust on the floor, but only for the purpose of allowing the boys to draw typographical maps of the battles of the Boer or Spanish-American Wars with the canes that some of the bloods used to help them up the steep ascent of Second street.

Van Olinda then lists a series of men, later prominent evidently in Albany affairs, who used to hoist ale of a night at Irish Lord’s. Their occupations and business activities are consistent with the known socio-economic status of the quarter then, especially its core of Ten Broeck as mentioned.

His words remind us the American saloon was not the resort solely of wage-earning workmen, spending money they could ill afford to the detriment of their households, but was frequented also by the aspirant middle classes.

A last flavour of old times at Irish Lord’s:

And here’s the payoff. “The Irish Lord” instituted the system of collective bargaining, and under the persuasive arguments of the boys sitting around the tables, or feet tilted on the rail, he [McKeon] has been known to charge only 25 cents a round. but “come and get it.” When the hogshead was getting low, and the genial proprietor has made his profits. the rest of the brew was “on the house”.

Now there’s a system worth reviving. Given the aura of “collective bargaining”, I’m sure our current generation of craft bars and taprooms will welcome the idea!

N.B. The American Bill Edwards, aka “The Professor”, is a musician, singer, and American music historian. His website contains the full lyrics of the song remembered by Van Olinda, with a bonus: Edwards performs in a fine tenor the song himself, to a plaintive piano. The full title as shown is “Saloon: a Mock Ballad”.

Part III follows.

Note re image: source of image above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in source belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*The “Gilman” in the author credit is a typo, it should read “Gillman”.

**Quinn & Nolan, an ale brewery from its origins, was later complemented (starting before 1900) by nearby Beverwyck, a lager brewery from inception. Both were owned by the magnate and Albany politician Michael Nolan. After repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Beverwyck resumed operations, producing both ale and lager.










2021 Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Stout

Last night Goose Island Toronto, the downtown brewpub of the international chain, held a tasting of 2021 Bourbon County Brand Stout (BCBS) and two older examples. It is hard to believe the annual release is almost 30 years running.

“Goose” put bourbon barrel-aged “impy” on the map. The annual release still commands much interest. For me, attending is more an obeisance to tradition, or sign of respect, than seeking extraordinary flavours.



That is, while BCBS is the exemplar, most whiskey barrel-aged imperial stout tastes largely the same, unless flavoured or spiced (as some Goose BCBS is)* or made off-piste in some other way. At least I think so, and I’ve had a few, since the genre began.

The whiskey barrel has such an overwhelming influence that most examples taste of worn leather, heady liquor, vanilla, and tar/roast grain/coffee.**

That said, ritual has its place even in the ever-changing, multi-faceted beer world of 2021, and I was glad to attend. The profile of the beers matched well to the pretzel, cheese, and chocolate served, so that was a nice fillip.



The older BCBS were a little different to the 2021, with extra notes of soy and old leather, but that will be true for most extra-aged imperial stout. The 2019 had a fruity note that was interesting, but I preferred the current release, which after all is already aged, in a matrix of bourbon barrels.

At my sitting, the first of two that night, no introduction was made of the beers which I thought odd. The servers certainly were knowledgeable but as a guest at my table noted, one had to make the point to ask.



Even a video presentation out of Chicago, with a historical précis and run-down of the new release, would have been helpful.

Still, I have always been a fan of Goose Island Toronto. The c. 1900 wood-and-brick building has lots of charm. The glass and gleaming German brew kit somehow fit well, or maybe the years have made it so.

The regular beers are always good or superlative, and change from time to time. Goose Island Toronto adds its stamp to the beer scene here, and I always drop by when I can.

*See Ashok Selvam’s 2021 BCBS canvass in Chicago Eater.

**I would never claim each is identical. Some will have more vanillin, more oak, more roast, etc. But the differences are comparatively minor imo.






Van Olinda on the American Tavern. Part I.

Edgar S. Van Olinda was a long-lived journalist for the Times-Union in Albany, New York. His regular beat was arts and culture, especially music and film. From the 1940s his city column increasingly looked to old-time Albany in diverse ways: its Dutch roots (his own), Limerick-Irish history, German heritage, notable architecture, and more.

Breweries and beer were a particular interest, and recurred regularly in his columns.  I have not been able to determine his birth year and date of passing but he was still writing in 1970. He had to be about 85 judging also by archival photos.*

In his column of March 29, 1943 he chronicled the passing of the “free lunch” at a local hostelry, Kalkbrenner’s. The bar had been set up by the owner’s father ca. 1900. It was originally called Schlitz – perhaps financed by the famous brewer although this is uncertain.



The permit system to buy food after Pearl Harbor finally put paid to a rare survival of the free saloon lunch.

Van Olinda’s commentary gains further interest for its insight into the city’s German-American tavern culture:

Although the “free lunch” counter is now one of many cherished memories, there still is food to be had [at Kalkbrenner] even if a slight tariff is placed on the check; delicacies such as ham hockies and sauerkraut, roast fresh ham, corned and smoked beef, great big frankfurters, bologna, pickled lambs’ tongues, home baked beans, Liederkranz cheese and pickled limes. And for the piece de resistance a great, shining roast turkey for sandwiches, and the carcass for delicious turkey soup. Of course, if you insist, the waiter will take your order for some of the draught bock beer which is seasonable at this time of the year.


Charlie’s place is one of the last of the old hotels with the real Bavarian atmosphere. Even the architecture on the front of the building—great spaces of stippled stucco, criss-crossed with solid, weather-beaten timbers, crowned by a peaked roof—carries out the simulation.

In the same issue of the paper, inches from Van Olinda’s column, war news of great import was reported icluding how to disarm Germany and end its militarism after anticipated victory.

The disjunction is notable: a benign picture is offered of German ethnicity via its transplanted, only lightly Americanized food and beer (the turkey, beans). Yet the country was in a civilizational struggle with the ruthless Nazis then in powerin Germany.

Van Olinda makes no effort to reconcile these opposites, in tune with American society generally then. Maybe German culture was long enough established not to seem foreign anymore.

World War I was different, as the German immigrations of the 19th century were more recent and a cultural divide still existed. This was exemplified by the writing of the  journalist and author H.L. Mencken who argued against America entering the war. It finally did, in 1917.

In a famous jibe, Mencken called the war proponents “Anglomaniacs”. While there was certainly a pro-Nazi element in ethnic German America in the 1930s it was largely silenced or neutralized once the next war began.

Mencken himself, not pro-Nazi but against American involvement in another European war, withdrew from active involvement at the Baltimore Sun.

We can conclude, or so I view it, that by 1943 Kalkbrenner’s and its like had become American institutions. Its hallmarks of food, beer, and decor might seem suggest otherwise, but note Van Olinda’s term “simulation”.

Kalkbrenner’s saloon, when Pearl Harbor brought America into the war, was an echo of Germanness in America, not its reality.

Part II continues the series.

Note re image: source of image above is identified and linked in the text. All intellectual property in source belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

*Note added December 1, 2021: I later determined Van Olinda was born in 1884, son a church organist. I elaborate in the Final Part.


The Beer Pony

Two years ago the New York-based beverage writer Joshua Bernstein wrote a good article in SevenFiftyDaily on a seeming trend in craft beer: the eight-ounce can. The logic makes perfect sense, which I needn’t elaborate on as it’s well-explained in the article, and evident I think to anyone familiar with the craft scene.

After decades of infatuation with the glass bottle finally craft brewing embraced the can, and the 16-oz format became almost standard. Yet in many ways, the old mass market 12-oz format* suited better India Pale Ale and the other impactful styles in efflorescence. This was due to their strength, especially the stronger stouts, and/or their distinctive flavours.

Many like myself might like to try a sour style, say, but don’t wish to power through 16 ounces. Yes, and as I’ve argued before, you can just put the can in the fridge and drink the rest later. Many don’t like to do this though, and the beer is always affected to a degree.

In my view, the 16-oz. can is best suited to medium- or low-strength beer. The format in this context is not a new idea. Rusty Cans’ history timeline has Schlitz issuing one in 1954. The ubiquitous shaker glass, or U.S. 16-oz. pint, seems to have grown in use over the same period.

Well before the craft beer era again, marketers were also thinking in the opposite direction: to sell beer in smaller than twelve ounces. This occurred both in America and in Britain, where the self-explanatory “nip” was long-used for strong beer including imperial stout.

Marketers perceived some people did not want more than seven or eight ounces of beer. Likely in their sights were women, increasingly a focus of beer advertising after World War II. I cited an instance recently via the consulting work of the Vienna-trained psychologist Dr. Ernest Dichter.

Below we see Rolling Rock in Latrobe, Pennsylvania advertising its pony bottle in 1952 (Washington, D.C. Evening Star), note the didactic tone:



A similar bottle had appeared in the 1930s for Michigan’s Albert Brewing as a former eBay listing shows. The term pony had emerged yet earlier to describe a measure for beer, in 1877, as shown by a lawyer’s argument for the State of Pennsylvania in a murder case.

Evincing some surprise which suggests the practice was new, the counsel explained that a wholesale liquor merchant opened a pint bottle of porter and served four “pony” measures. As he dealt in spirits, plausibly once again the idea was borrowed from cocktails usage.

Pony as a serving measure for beer was known in Victorian Britain. See in Notes & Queries, 1896 (“pony of bitter”). Australian beer culture was long known for its 5-oz pony glass, in some cities that is.

An Australian beer glass template states further details. It is tempting to think in a time before air conditioning a five-ounce beer glass was popular as keeping the beer colder, yet this appears not so judging by the table and other evidence I’ve seen.

Many Australian cities used larger formats, in other words, up to the pint – 20 oz. in the British Anglosphere. This works against the idea the pony was meant to keep the beer cold until consumed.

Possibly local legislation affected this, or any of a hundred other factors not immediately obvious, or perhaps not knowable at all. As to why we don’t see more small cans and bottles in Ontario, I am not sure either.

The situation is is complicated by listing requirements of our monopoly liquor distribution system, controlled by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, a Crown corporation. Apart that matrix, there is some flexibility, e.g. bottle shops of breweries can sell beer in non-standard containers.

But investing in new or modified apparatus to can or bottle beer in small measures can be problematic, especially in straitened times as currently with Covid-19.

Returning to the Rolling Rock example, the pony format continued in the mass beer market. A 1976 industry report in a Utica, NY newspaper claimed until Miller High Life was marketed in the pony bottle starting in 1972, the format had not been successful, i.e., in the hands of regional brewers.

Rolling Rock, of Latrobe, PA was such an independent, then. Today, Coronita, the small bottle of Corona (7 oz.), is well-known internationally, ideal for the “bucket” presentation. In the market too for some years in Canada is Molson Canadian Cold Shot, in 7.5 oz. bottles.

Note the latter is 6%, against the standard 5% abv for regular Molson Canadian, so Molson-Coors is selling a stronger brew partly on the basis the consumer will down a smaller measure.

All of Nothing Brewery in Oakville, Ontario issued a 10-ounce “mini” can some years ago. LeftField Brewery in Toronto tends to focus on the 12-oz can (355 ml.), see its line here, a positive sign in itself. Other local breweries do similar now, e.g. Godspeed Brewery, also Indie Ale House.

There are other examples of can “downsizing”, but widespread adoption of an eight- or seven-ounce format would boost the industry further.**

*I use Imperial measure in this post but the metric equivalent is known by most or easily calculated.

**See additional notes in Comments.











Jacques Straub: Straight Whiskey Advocate

[The post below is a revised and extended version of an earlier post on Jacques Straub].

Jacques Straub was an American wine steward and bar manager who in 1913 authored Straub’s Manual of Mixed Drinks. Biographical information, see WikiTender, indicates he managed the wine and spirits department of the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. It is pictured further below in 1912 (source: Wikipedia as linked).

Earlier he ran the bar at the famed Pendennis Club in Kentucky, for some 20 years.  On May 11, 1913 the Washington Herald gave Straub column space to explain “what is whiskey”, this even though regulators and finally President Taft had settled the question a few years earlier.

Straub was of the clan that believed a straight whiskey, meaning a grain mash distilled at a low proof and aged in new charred barrels, was the only true whiskey. He argued that highly rectified spirits – a kind of vodka – with added colour and essences, sometimes mixed with a little real whiskey, was at best an imitation.

Taft had decided that provided it was distilled from a grain mash, spirit could be called whiskey even though distilled to near neutrality by reduction notably of its fusel oils. Distillers had to indicate the type of whiskey it was though, say “grain neutral spirits”.

Therefore, makers of the older or straight whiskey type, distilled to a lower proof and containing extra character from the fusel oils (various acids, aldehydes, etc.), could not claim a monopoly on use of the term whiskey. Straub was really upholding their view of the matter from the standpoint of what to buy.

A similar result occurred in Britain in the same period, allowing near-neutral “column spirit” or, as commonly termed, “patent whisky” to be labeled as whisky. Makers of the older single malt whisky, ever popular today, lost the labeling battle just as straight whiskey makers did in the U.S.

(I should add, the convention is to omit the “e” in “whisky” for British and Canadian whisky. American and Irish whiskeys generally take the “e”).



Since by 1913 the American regulatory and labelling issue had been decided, and especially with temperance sentiment peaking, it was odd to see a newspaper devote so much (friendly) time to whiskey. True, the article was framed as advice to wine stewards, but the average reader would take it as a suggestion to buy “the real thing”.

Straub identified this more specifically as bonded whiskey. Bonded whiskey was straight whiskey from a warehouse under federal control guaranteed as aged four years, the produce of one distillery, made in one season, by one distiller.

The bonding law, passed in the closing years of the 1800s, did not guarantee high quality as such, but rather that the product was not blended or compounded, in particular with neutral grain spirits. A green stamp on the bottle in practice assured buyers of a pure article, even though blended or compounded whiskey was sold widely, some with good reputations.

Straub quoted distiller Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. of Kentucky on the merits of, in their view, real whiskey. I spoke earlier of Col. Taylor, an ardent proponent of straight whiskey who fought the good fight against rectifiers and blenders. Indeed he played a large role in getting the bonding law passed.

No less interesting than Straub’s 1913 print sally is that he was a teetotaler. Yes, a non-drinker. So was E.H. Taylor, his tutor to learn the grammar of whiskey.

When one  contemplates the sizeable book Straub wrote on drinks, this comes as a slight shock. He worked by sense of smell and colour alone. Can someone understand a subject as intricate and sensory-driven as beverage alcohol and still master the subject?

Perhaps. Many in the hospitality field abjure alcohol, some former imbibers who took the interest too far. Whether Straub started off by drinking and then left off, I am not aware.

Either way, to give detailed procedures and ingredients for hundreds of drinks with nary a taste seems like teaching how to drive while never taking the wheel. Yet, as noted E.H. Taylor never drank his whiskey either, which had no impact on a highly successful career as distiller and whiskey expert.

Straub died in 1920, having lost his job when Prohibition closed the bars. He had became ill before the law came into effect, and one wonders if its prospect harmed his health. In my researches, many figures associated with the alcohol trade died around the time Prohibition came into force. That some were struck down literally by the law seems undoubted; Straub may have been one.

A few lines from Straub’s article pinpoints the preference for straight whiskey (typically today in North America, bourbon or straight rye whiskey. Some whisky sold in Canada is made on these lines as well):

Prior to the revenue raising period of the civil war, before the urgent need of federal finance conferred upon the rectifier the anomalous prerogative to counterfeit whisky, all brands of whisky came from an actual whiskey distillery. Goods were sold according to their true age and maturity. This genuine whisky has always had a distinctive character both when it leaves the still, new and white in color, and again after it has aged in a charred oak barrel and acquired an indicative color varying from a light straw shade in the early days of maturation until, later along, it deepens to a reddish brown. Now this color becomes an index of age.

The “distinctive character” is sometimes called today “distillery character”, which can be a grainy, often chemical-like note. It derives from fractions of the spirits distilled at a low proof, traditionally in the age-old pot still or alembic, but steam distillation in the newer column apparatus can achieve a similar result. (The reverse is not the case, in practice).

When aged, the feisty taste of new spirit meant for straight whiskey is partly modified by slow oxidation – the breathing of the barrel. This alters the chemistry of the spirit. The spirit absorbs as well tannins and other flavours from the barrel frame, wood gums in an older terminology.

In contrast, blended whisky, which constitutes the bulk of the typical bottle of Canadian whisky (the rest being a straight type), is fairly neutral in taste when new, like or close to vodka. In Canada, all components of the blend are aged at least three years, which emulates traditional whisky to a degree. Still, aged straight whisky and aged grain neutral spirits, blended or not, never taste the same.

The American definition of vodka changed recently but the base of all vodka must still be “grain neutral spirits”, or GNS. GNS as defined today must be distilled at or above 190 proof, or 95% alcohol (when new that is, not diluted for bottling).

This spirit, while often not quite tasteless, has a substantially neutral character compared to straight whiskey when new. It’s top distillation limit is 160 proof or 80% alcohol, and in practice usually less.

The greater amount of water in the latter carries more of the by-products of distillation that give the whiskey flavour and body, ditto for Scottish single malt and Irish pure pot still whiskey.

That said, even a spirit distilled, say, at U.S. 180 U.S. proof or 90% pure alcohol, while technically whiskey, cannot be used to produce straight whiskey, viz. the traditional bourbon or straight rye, as it too lacks enough character by comparison to the spirit needed for a “straight”.

Some whisky in Canada is touted as made from all-rye. This means the grain mash in the still is from rye and no other grain is used such as corn, wheat or barley. Where, as usually the case, the rye mash is distilled at a high proof – at or near the alcohol percentage to make vodka – the rye element loses significance as its character has been “stripped out” in the distillation.

A spirit distilled as thoroughly from a corn or wheat mash will taste very similar, for practical purposes anyway. Certainly this is so in my experience, and is asserted by many specialists.

Pre-Prohibition drinks expert albeit non-drinker Jacques Straub touted the older form, straight whiskey, as superior to these others. Whether he was right or not is a matter of taste, one’s pocketbook, and whether whisk(e)y is preferred neat or in mixed form.*


*The merits of straight whiskey vs. blended are less evident when mixed with six ounces, say, of seltzer or ginger ale.




Red Alert

Examples of Irish Red Ale

Spearhead Brewing Co. in the old Loyalist town of Kingston, Ontario is a standard-bearer for all that is best in craft brewing. Its CEO Josh Hayter, whom I have met, is as committed as they come. Heading their brewing team is Czech-trained veteran Tomas Schmidt, styled Brewmaster while Jacob Schmidt is the Head Brewer.

That they love hops, as evidently Josh and the team, is made clear in their recent Amber of the North, an Irish red type. The terms “Amber” and “British red ale” appear on the label and really this could be a British pale ale or English bitter style too.



The Cashmere hop provides an insistent skein of bitterness on a malty caramelized base. You can read more about Cashmere at Yakima Chief in this link, but as used by Spearhead there is no evident citric or tropical effect, no grapefruit either despite the Cascade lineage.

I suspect the Cashmere was used here more for bitterness than aroma or flavour, which would accentuate the steely alpha note. The effect therefore is as in many British beers where an emphatic but neutral bitter plays off a malty base.

Numerous malts are used, so is roasted barley, perhaps a trademark of “Irish red” if trademark there be. Malty sweetness abounds but the hops have more of a say as the beer goes down.

The beer drinks cold to perfection, vs. some actual Irish and British ale that benefit from a warmer serving temperature due to a lower hop rate. Generally too these offshore beers are lower in gravity, which suits a lower hop profile.

Even most craft fans want beer cold here and fizzy too, which means hops and malt accents need gain so to speak to ensure the right palate impact.

Here is an actual Irish Red Ale, from Carlow Brewing in Carlow, Ireland, a long-established craft brewer in the Emerald Isle:



It too is excellent but its gravity is lower than Spearhead’s and a warmer temperature shows the beer to best advantage. A straight cellar temperature – temperature of a cool room – is good.

O’Hara’s Red has a fairly neutral bitterness like the other beer, so again no strong flavours such as woodsy, geranial or tropical fruit. O’Hara’s uses, see its website, Mt. Hood hops in a late addition to the boil. Mt. Hood is a Washington State hop but its German ancestry (Hallertau) prevents any obvious American character.

The malt base is lightly sweet with caramel notes as the Spearhead has, a hallmark of the Red style. O’Hara’s is somewhat darker but both are in the range for Irish red as understood today.

By contrast to both these, the locus classicus for Irish Red, Smithwick’s Ale from the giant Guinness-Diageo, has a woodsy/flowery note of (probably) English Fuggles, or Fuggles + Golding. I like that taste in the Smithwick’s, and would enjoy a craft example that boosts the effect.



The beeriness in general of Smithwick’s is fairly restrained, but its many fans like it that way, evidently.

A good Irish Red tasting would be, in this order, Smithwick’s, O’Hara’s, and Spearhead. Readers can suggest the music and cheese to go with it.


Old Whiskey, Old Money

[A version of this appeared earlier but am re-posting as it is substantially revised].

A news story published in distant Williamstown, Victoria in 1898 concerned an American country lawyer, Henry Sherwood. A young counsellor just getting started, Sherwood took a fee in whiskey. Not just any whiskey, but prime Kentucky bourbon.

The story reaches back to the 1850s in Corning, Steuben County, New York. North of the county line, more or less in parallel, are the storied Finger Lakes with a portion of Keuka Lake peeking into Steuben.

Many readers will know of Steuben Glass, formerly a prime production of Corning. The factory closed about ten years ago but the Corning Glass Museum continues the tradition via its exhibitions and educational mission.

Below Corning is shown in 1852, rendered by an unknown artist (source: Wikipedia Commons).


Having received a barrel of Kentucky whiskey for this efforts Sherwood, an abstemious man himself, rolled it into in his basement, where it stayed for five years. At a euchre game in the local courthouse – after hours – with Judge Constant Cook, the subject of whiskey came up.

Hearing the justice slag the whiskey made in Corning, Sherwood fetched two gallons from his barrel for the judge. It was a courtesy easy for Sherwood to do, but it never hurts of course to curry favour with the man sitting in judgment against your clients!

The judge evidently was highly pleased with the gift and promised young Sherwood a “lift”, a help or advantage in other words. In time this materialized when Judge Constant included Sherwood in lucrative coal and railway contracts.

But how did Sherwood come to receive such an unusual emolument? His client was a wandering youth, a ne’er do well who got in a fix in Sherwood’s quarter of New York. Sherwood took the case without fee just for the experience, but the lad promised if he made it home to Kentucky his father, a prosperous distiller, would ship fine whiskey to the lawyer in payment.

Sherwood deployed enough skill that his client was acquitted. Some time later, when the lawyer had forgotten about the case, the Corning station agent notified him a cask of old Kentucky bourbon lay in the rail yard for him. He needed just to take delivery.

As numerous bourbon histories tell us and my own research confirms, bourbon was already nationally known in the 1850s. It was not always called bourbon, sometimes just whiskey, or Kentucky whiskey. It was distilled by different apparatus, and aged for varying periods, but it was the darkened, corn-based bourbon we know today.

In a colourful phrase especially before the Civil War the term “red cretur” was used to describe it. The phrase is an importation, as partly the whiskey tradition itself, from Scotland. Cretur is a Scots (and maybe Ulster) dialectical term for “creature” and has long been applied to whiskey. Maybe people who took too much whiskey dubbed it so for its baleful effects.

The press account doesn’t say how old was the whiskey sent to Sherwood. Bourbon was available in a variety of ages before the Civil War. Likely I think Sherwood’s whiskey was one or two years old when he received it. Two years then certainly could mean old, because it took some colour from the barrel, and had some flavour from the wood gums.

At six or seven years aged in his cellar it would be just right if stored, as likely it was, in new charred oak. But if he received it at five years and it was ten when laving a parched judge’s lips, the further years would have done no harm.

And on to about 12-15 years, depending what you think of old whiskey.

So particular are names and details in the article that it seems unlikely the Sherwood whiskey story was made up. Indeed a Constant Cook did exist, tied to land and railway development in New York, see a reference in this biographical sketch from the Fall Brook Railway historical site.

A passage in an official New York State history confirms that a Sherwood practiced law in Steuben County and was involved in similar investments to Cook, in the right period. It all has the smack of real people and events. There is no reason to discount the whiskey part of it.

Given how his land investments worked out Sherwood’s barrel proved finally of $1,000,000 value at the time. That was a lot of money then, today adjusted for inflation it is about $30,000,000.

Today too, prime old bourbon, say 12-20 years old – if you can find it – goes for good money, although not the millions, not yet anyway. In Sherwood’s basement, to one indifferent to liquor prime or otherwise, Kentucky whiskey had little value. But to someone who valued liquor differently it meant much more.

In turn this translated finally to immense riches for an abstemious country lawyer. Of course it is all a question of time and place. I was there – Kentucky too, many times – when the whiskey renaissance took root about 20 years ago.

And then, you could buy old whiskey for a song, practically. I speak here of American whiskey, not Scotch or Irish whiskey but that too went for much less than nowadays.

Of course, old whiskey is not necessarily better than younger, but as ever carries the imprimatur of fashion. So if you want it old today, be prepared to open that wallet, real or electronic.