A Distiller Retires

Never was the change in public attitudes to alcohol in the 19th century shown as starkly as in this 1869 article from Yates County Chronicle in Penn Yann, NY. It recounts a story of grain production and distilling in an earlier period in the Finger Lakes region, as follows:

Grain, whiskey, and live stock, form the chief surplus of the population – mostly farmers – and quite as large a proportion of them sober and industrious men as could be expected in a population with nine whiskey mills, or “grain distilleries”, as was the case in 1823. William Babcock, as soon as the cause of temperance was energetically and squarely presented to his mind, although he owned and carried on a distillery, not only disposed of it, but took high ground in favor of total abstinence. He offered his distillery machinery for sale as fol­lows:


I have discontinued the distillery busi­ness, and have on hand for sale very low, for ready pay or approved credit, a full set of distillery apparatus, consisting of two worms, a copper boiler, and iron cyl­inder. The cylinder is large and uncom­monly powerful. I have no doubt but with skillful management, the whole es­tablishment at a moderate calculation would produce daily a sufficient quantity of whiskey to kill 50 men.

Sept. 23d, 1828.                                                   W. Babcock .”

And this was before whiskey was blue-vitrioled and aqua-fortised, and other­wise poisoned, as it is at the present time, so that a still like Mr. Babcock’s will kill now double his estimate in a day.

The temperance cause aroused violent passions at its height, and one wonders if Babcock’s notice was an invention of a Victorian editor with time on his hands. In any case it would have elicited a wry laugh (!) on the part of a presumably now-chastened, right-thinking population.

Yet, in sections – I’ve now adopted this quaint 1800s geographical term – where distilling was large-scale and important to the local economy, criticism of distillers was often muted or non-existent.

A good example is the importance of two rye distilleries in western Maryland, enterprises indeed only founded mid-century and that thrived until Prohibition.

It was one of those unusual cases, somewhat analogous to the successful two-distillery presence in Perth, Ontario in the same period. In fact, as we shall see, while the American distilleries mashed rye, there was a shared connection in terms of Scots and Irish distilling influence.

The Finger Lakes is a bucolic, thinly peopled region in western New York. In the 1800s it did not have good transport links to markets where whiskey could be transhipped or to modern sources of energy. No distillery was able to grow and survive the buffets of temperance there.

Distilleries in other sections sometimes fared better, and we shall look at the Maryland case soon.

(I am mindful that the Finger Lakes did much better with large-scale wine production, that’s another story).

Interestingly, distilling has returned to the Finger Lakes where an energetic small group make whiskey, including rye, and a wide range of spirits. Sometimes history matters, even distant history, something in the folk memory is tenacious and provides the spark for revival.

Distilling point: what was the “iron cylinder” in the 1869 story? It’s tempting to think this was more black humour, a reference to the iron lung used to treat paralysis, but I don’t think that existed in 1869.

It was probably a doubler, the batch-type still used to remove additional congeners from the first distillation and raise the final proof.

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