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.