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.

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Jacques Straub: Straight Whiskey Advocate”

  1. The illustration for that Herald column of the fat man with bags of money selling booze to the little guy marked “public” is hilarious. Nothing subtle there.

    Reply

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