Rye Whiskey and a Slow Boat to Bremen

In 1901 a Pennsylvania newspaper, the Pennsburg Town and Country, published a story about a successful liquor dealer named Mary Moll:


Mrs. MARY MOLL, of Green Lane, the only lady liquor dealer in the State, has successfully conducted that business for a period of ten years. The late NATHANIEL MOLL, her husband, started the business about twenty-six years ago and conducted the same until his death. Mrs. KNOLL then took entire charge of the business and through her careful business management has more than tripled the capacity of the business. Today Mrs. MOLL is considered to be the most successful liquor dealer in the vicinity. Most all her purchases are in carload lots, thus placing her in a position to sell liquor of the best quality at the lowest possible price. The history connected with this lady’s business career is most interesting. Mrs. MOLL, when she took possession of the business, had many obstacles to overcome but, being a woman of wonderful business tact, she bravely fought the many unpleasant features connected with business and successfully built up a trade far superior to any in this county. She deals directly with the leading liquor brokers in the United States, who are held in account for every action by the government. Mrs. MOLL’s first year’s sales amounted to ninety-six barrels of liquor. This she increased by giving the business on the road her personal attention. After three years careful work as a drummer she abandoned the road. During her trips on the road she kept a strict account of all her expenses and came to the conclusion that she could build up her trade much better by giving her customers the advantage of her expenses. She now sells her liquors 50 cents a gallon cheaper than when on the road. Mrs. MOLL during her business career has gained the reputation of selling nothing but high grade liquors. She supplies the leading doctors throughout this and adjoining counties with liquors for medicinal purposes. She carries a stock of pure rye whiskies ranging in age from 5 to 20 years. Her business has rapidly increased and now she handles over three hundred barrels every year. The success of her business is due largely to the manner in which Mrs. MOLL buys her whiskies. Her purchases are made generally in carload lots, not only being able to buy at a good reduction, but saving considerable on transportation. To give our readers some idea of the extent of this business, it is only necessary to say that a representative of the Star Union Railroad Company recently visited her at her home and tried to make arrangements to have her shipments over their lines. Last week she received five barrels of a twenty-year-old whiskey as a sample order. After testing the liquor she found it to be even a higher quality than what she had expected and immediately wired for twenty-five barrels more. This whiskey was made from pure rye in this State in 1881. In 1894 it was shipped to Bremen, Germany, where it remained till 1900. The high-grade whiskies are generally sent across the seas as it is claimed that the salt air and peculiar motion of the vessel increases the quality of the liquor. Liquor in the process of aging evaporates very rapidly and the greater the evaporation the more valuable the liquor. Of the five barrels received by Mrs. MOLL when first filled each contained 44 1/2 gallons. When Mrs. MOLL received them the barrels contained from 14 to 20 gallons a piece. Twenty-year-old whiskey is seldom found in liquor stores at the present day, but it is known that Mrs. MOLL always has in stock the choicest and most rare liquors, according to age, that can be found in the market.*

The story is interesting on numerous accounts, but here I will deal with the unusually long age of the whiskey in question and some connected matters.

The whiskey, described as “pure rye”, was undoubtedly a straight rye whiskey and almost certainly distilled in Pennsylvania. Corn-based whiskeys became the preserve of Kentucky and Tennesee and I have written of numerous types of these, e.g., sour mash and sweet mash bourbon, Lincoln County whiskey, Robertson County whiskey, white and yellow corn whiskeys.

RyeWhiskeyPennsylvania and to a lesser extent, Maryland, were producers primarily of rye-based whiskeys. Rye whiskey was the first type generally made, in Westmoreland County and elsewhere in Pennsylvania where Scots-Irish settlement predominated. With the departure in the 1790s of many farmer-distillers for Kentucky and southerly on the Appalachian Trail, corn became the primary distilling grain. It grows well in Kentucky and Tennessee and is a staple for foodstuffs as well. (Rye has never been a major food source in North America).

But Pennsylvania and Maryland never stopped making fine rye whiskey. Except for a handful of revivalists established in the last 10 years, the industry did not survive Prohibition. In truth, it was being eclipsed even before 1920 by the burgeoning growth of bourbon, but still the industry was well-established in Pennsylvania certainly. Some of the names were Overholt (still made, now in Kentucky by Beam Suntory), Large, Bridgeport, Sam Dillinger, Sam Thompson, Hannis, but there were many others.

1901 was the height of rye’s ascendancy in Pennsylvania and clearly Mary Moll was a top-notch dealer who offered an enviable range – five to 20 years old – and great prices. She probably dealt both in blended goods and straight whiskeys, as blends were a big part of the U.S. whiskey market then (and still are in a roundabout way, but it’s called Canadian whisky now).

But as I’ve said, a 20 year old whiskey was almost certainly a “straight”, an epicure’s drink if there was one.

Now, the question. Why did it go to Bremen, Germany for an extended sojourn?

There were two main reasons whiskey in bulk was sent from the United States to Bremen and elsewhere in Europe (Hamburg, Liverpool).

First, with short bonding periods – one year, later three yearsBremen_aerial_view_9 – from the Civil War until 1894, federal excise tax had to be paid when the whiskey was withdrawn from bond. Thus, say whiskey was removed from bond in 1878, when the bonding period was three years. The tax had to be paid to Internal Revenue unless the whiskey was not to be consumed in the U.S. If it was exported, the tax still had to be paid, but was subject to drawback (repayment) upon a U.S. Consul certifying the goods had landed in a foreign port.

In other words, the problem was, whiskey didn’t always have a ready market on exit from bond and three years anyway might be viewed as too young. It was cheaper to pay return freight and German insurance and storage costs than pay the U.S. excise tax on withdrawal from bond. Also, the tax was being paid in future dollars. There were agents in New York who handled all the details, international business is nothing new…

When the goods were brought back to the U.S. years later, quality had improved and market conditions were better: the tax was paid and the goods went into the domestic market.

So it was a way to defer the tax and improve the product. Some whiskey lounging in a German or English warehouse was sold in Europe and never came back, but a lot did, with the cachet of extra age and the ineffable effects of the “salt air and the peculiar motion of the vessel”.

Mary Moll’s whiskey though had to have been tax-paid before export since it was thirteen years old. Perhaps the market was soft and the owner felt the whiskey was better off getting even older in Europe while the market hopefully improved at home. At any rate, a rye whiskey of remarkable age was made available to connoisseurs via Mary Moll’s agency – not that older is always better as I have explained earlier, but there has always been a market for well-aged whiskey. Until recently straight rye of 15-20 years and more was commonly seen in the market.

The international shipment of liquors to improve them is an old gambit. Linie is a famous acquavit from Norway which crosses the equator in sherry barrels. Some Scotch whiskies in the past advertised long shipment to East Indies as part of their quality. Madeira wine basically was invented on this principle although methods were later devised on the island to emulate the benefits of ship travel. The rocking of the boat and changes in temperature worked oxidative and other effects which matured the product in a particular way.

Distillers and agents had favourite locales. Baker, a famous PA rye whiskey sold by the Walters agency out of Baltimore, was sent on clippers to Brazil to add a je ne sais quoi.

I’ll leave India Pale Ale out of this, as at best it is a quasi-example of transpontine amelioration. The very story of bourbon is connected though, as shipment downriver on flatboats from Kentucky river ports was seen to mature the drink faster than if the barrels were stationary.

With the change to an eight year bonding period in 1894, foreign shipments declined and today are unheard of for bourbon and rye with the exception of a few barrels carried on a voyage and bottled as a curiosity after their return. I recall reading about one which was felt to have a notable salt air quality, and when one thinks of Islay whisky in Scotland, it all kind of ties in. Not that new Islay whisky goes overseas today (if it goes anywhere it is to a Central Scotland warehouse), but residence in seaside warehouses does expose it to a lot of active North Atlantic weather.

Note re images: the images shown are from Internet sources, Wikipedia in the first instance, and a Bremen German tourist board for the second, and are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.


*The quoted story, from the Pennsburg Town and Country, March 23, 1901, is © copyright 2015 Nancy C Janyszeski for the Montgomery County PAGenWeb Project. All rights are reserved by the copyright holder. It was sourced here and is reproduced pursuant to following notice on the source linked: “Unless indicated otherwise in a particular page carrying this copyright notice, permission to use, copy, and distribute documents and related graphics delivered from (http://montgomery.pa-roots.com/) for non-commercial use is hereby granted, provided that the above copyright notice appears in all copies and that both the copyright notice and this permission notice appear. All other rights reserved. Nancy Janyszeski disclaims all warranties with regard to this information. The information described herein is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied”.