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.



7 thoughts on “Highwines, Neutral Spirits, Blending at Bourbon’s Dawn”

  1. It was very, very similar to Vodka but at a lower proof, my guess is 130-135. I will definitely be checking out Susannah Moodie’s book for those descriptors. Keep up the great work man, I read the blog every day on my lunch break. It’s nice to escape my stills to read about other peoples distilling and beer work from way back!

  2. Forgot to mention, I’ve never read tale of such a thing as this way back when but I did once see a fellow take a section of 1 1/2 inch copper piping and pack it as tight as possible with very fine charcoal, this was attached to the bottom of a bucket with a spigot that acted as a reserve. The bottom of the pipe was screened and a piece of felt placed over it. The bucket would drip distillate into the pipe which was packed as tight as possible and would eventually drain out the far end into a collection vessel. This was originally double pot distilled “moonshine” but once it got to the receiving end it had little if any indication of it’s base material.

  3. Hey Gary, I’m using “refined” to refer to the whiskey after charcoal vatting. A double pot distilled spirit that has been cut clean (granted that wasn’t common in those days) of the majority of heads and tails and then filtered through charcoal actually makes a tremendous base for Gin. When I worked previously at Copper and Kings we did something very similar with brandy (minus the filtration). I would double distill apple brandy, muscat grape, and columbard grape for our various Gin and Absinthe projects. The flavor of the brandy was apparent but we matched the botanicals to it in such a way that it wasn’t “jagged” or otherwise out of place or synch. I’ve done lots of this at home. Ironically you recently talked about oats in whiskey which is something I am a huge fan of and am working on a gin currently at Spirits of French lick who’s base proportion is 1/4 oats to 3/4 GNS.

    • Okay great, very interesting. M’Harry said that charcoal-filtered spirits made a good base for gin and brandy, sometimes it was by blending it with real gin and brandy, so it seems to make sense. Your mention earlier of barrelled charcoal and blankets is similar to period descriptions of filtering I’ve read by the way. But some of those vats were an industrial size and used in a linked system as in Gooderham & Worts in Toronto, 1850s.

      You might like the whisky/rum/spirits mentions in Susannah Moodie’s book Roughing It describing 1830s life in Ontario. It’s in my post of today where I speculate what the hierarchy was.

  4. The Hall book is one of my favorites. I don’t know of anyone who has built a true 19’th century charcoal leach but coming from a family of illicit distillers I have seen whiskey barrels with false bottoms lined with flannel and filled with charcoal for leaching. It is certainly not going to make a neutral product (just like the RC and Lincoln county processes don’t) it does “tidy” up the distillate and knock some edges off, not dissimilar to a modern day very light plate and frame filtration. The spirit after being refined would be ideal as a base for a botanical distillation such as Gin.

    • Alan thanks very much, when you say refined, do you mean a further distillation? White dog-post the charcoal vat but before barreling as you say is hardly neutral and that would be too strong surely for gin.

      I wonder what M’Harry’s “neutralized” spirit was, he speaks of the charcoal vat as taking out most of the whiskey taste, but I think again it’s all relative and this must have had quite a bit of flavour.


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