S.S. Brumbaugh’s Pure Rye Whiskey of Pennsylvania, Part I

I have, over the summer, written numerous posts which establish (IMO) that the taste for whiskey and basic template of its manufacture were introduced to Ontario by United Empire Loyalists and later American arrivals.

But what was that American whiskey like, its characteristics? If we can know, that will help us understand what Canadian whisky was like in the 1800s. Of course, whiskey in that period had to vary among producers. It depended on the grains used, the type of still, any aging given, and other factors (yeast, whether flavouring was used, water, etc.).

There was probably every type of cereal whisky, from raw white dog, to grain mash whiskey aged in new charred oak, to pure spirit. In Pennsylvania, Monongahela rye ended as straight, aged in virgin, charred wood – the rye version of bourbon. Ontario must have offered such whiskey occasionally into the 1860s. See this 1857 listing for a distiller in St. Catherines, Ontario, Francis Stinson, who sold “monongahela”, which was probably this type. Stinson is not listed as an importer or dealer and clearly offered the straight style among his range.

Probably due to the consolidation of Ontario distilling in the second half of the 1800s, straight rye in the American sense disappeared here. Blended whisky (spurred by economics, newer and costly still technology) became the typical style for Canada in the last 30 years of the 19th century.

Still, there is little detailed information as to what specific distilleries, of any size, in the U.S. or here, actually made. Certain things are known for some of them: aging length, whether charcoal was used to filter, and still types over time. But as to how the whiskey was actually made, in reasonable detail I mean from which we might deduce taste characteristics, information is sparse.

Enter S. S. Brumbaugh distillery. I have found a detailed set of notes that described the rye whiskey made by this pre-Prohibition, central Pennsylvania distillery in the final stages before Prohibition.

The first Christian name of S.S. was Simon, who was active in the late 1800s. His son Oscar ran the distillery until closing due to National Prohibition.

The notes are set out in the four pages constituting Appendix C in a book of local history entitled Bible, Axe, and Plow, by Ben F. Van Horn in 1985. Van Horn was a longstanding educator in Bedford County, PA.

Van Horn included the Appendix with the permission of a local newspaper that printed a fuller version in a special edition in 1971. As that paper, the Morrison Cove Herald, still exists, I won’t set out Appendix C here but you can read it in the book, see the first four of the last seven pages. They are not numbered, but scroll to the end and they are easy to see.

The notes must have been prepared from a memorandum in the possession of a Brumbaugh descendant. The data is too detailed to have been reconstructed casually from general historical records such as historical news accounts and business directories.

For example, the capacity of the aging vats, there were three, is given. Thus, it seems the whiskey was not aged in small barrels, probably because most of it was sold locally in jugs from the distillery.

The whiskey was generally given two years age. Some was sold older though, for example, six years old.

There is a rough parallel to Canadian Club of the time, sold at approximately seven years of age (it varied) with Walker’s regular rye whisky sold at two and later three years of age. In Hiram Walker’s case, the deluxe “CC” became the flagship, but Brumbaugh’s whiskey was mostly sold at two years old. After all, unlike for CC the market was local and people didn’t tarry over distinctions of age with associated variations of price.

The distilling-out proof of Brumbaugh rye was 180, or 90% abv, a very interesting and specific piece of information. This is within the current U.S. definition for whiskey, but higher than is stipulated for bourbon or rye whiskey (maximum 160 proof). So it was a kind of light whiskey and its reputation may have been due in part to this. The vats had to be reused many times, so the wood probably didn’t do much for the whiskey. A less congeneric product would have been greeted favourably by the customers.

The still types are explained too, there was a copper still which was probably a pot still, and two wood two-chambered stills. These were clearly a variant of the three-chambered, steam-driven still which a number of Ontario distilleries were using c. 1860. A two-chambered still would have resulted in a more congeneric white dog than the three-chambered still. No charcoal filtering process, a la Tennessee or otherwise, is mentioned for Brumbaugh rye.

Bedford County was settled by different ethnicities. A prominent group was the Germans, many of the famed Palatinate immigration of the 1700s. The Brumbaugh name was originally Brumbach. The first ancestor to arrive of Simon Brumbaugh was Johannes Henrich Brumbach. He came to Maryland in 1754 with his wife and children. The family later relocated to central Pennsylvania.

Johannes sailed, according to genealogical works I consulted written by Brumbaugh descendants, from “south Germany”. The Brumbaughs were, and no doubt still are, a sizeable group in the U.S. Numerous persons of this surname or related spellings came to America, Johannes was simply one. The descendants spread through the country, and even before WW I some had become doctors, judges, and politicians.

The S.S. Brumbaugh distillery never opened after Repeal and the building was razed around 1960. It was solid brick, three stories, with older wooden structures appurtenant.

Brumbaugh’s rye likely was a fairly pronounced whisky. It may not have had the full oily character of bourbon or straight rye, but being nine points in proof under the maximum for whisky (189), it had to have whisky-mash character. This was especially so given the generally short aging in reused vats vs. “small wood” such as the typical bourbon barrel.

And so, I feel some Ontario old rye was probably very similar to Brumbaugh whiskey. After all, many Germans came to Ontario from Pennsylvania, and of course Loyalists in general. Some were Mennonites and Amish, some were not, some of the Germans were technically Loyalists, some not. But the early Ontario rye whisky has to be related to the kind of rye whisky made in Pennsylvania. While rye whiskey was distilled in other parts of the northeast such as New York and New Jersey, or say in North Carolina, it in turn had to be related to the Pennsylvania type.

I wrote earlier that one of the Davis clan of North Carolina who settled in Long Point, Upper Canada made rye whisky on arrival here, and the clan were known to have distilled in North Carolina. “Davis” sounds Scots-Irish or Scottish to me, not German. Even still it is possible all distilling down the Appalachian range was inspired by an original German form (Pennsylvania’s) or at least German input via notably the use of rye.

But before we conclude Pennsylvania and maybe U.S. rye in general was German-origin, it should be noted that Simon commenced distilling by buying the distillery in the later 1800s from one Aaron Reed – of his origins I am unaware. He might have been Scots-Irish, or other Anglo-Saxon, or possibly German as the names were often changed.

The label shown was included in the book mentioned. Some whisky evidently was bottled but the account referenced makes it clear most was sold locally in bulk to the people. S.S. Brumbaugh was the quintessential, pre-Prohibition country distillery, which had its counterpart throughout early Ontario.

Note re image: the image above is from a label contained in the book linked in the text. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to its lawful owner or authorized users, as applicable. Image is used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.