The Salad Days of King Rye

As early as the 1850s, a wines and liquors catalogue in New York, Cozzen’s Wine Press, lauded Monongahela whiskey as “famous”. It listed Bourbon whiskey too, offering both these in festive hampers with the finest wines of Europe and old Scotch and Irish whiskeys. The market for Cozzen’s wares was the carriage trade and arts circles, and the flower of Pennsylvania and Kentucky whiskey had their favour.

Strange it is in many ways, as these whiskies had only come to maturity as it were in the last 30 years. 1821 marks the first time bourbon is mentioned in print, in an ad in Maysville, KY by a local merchant. In 30 years both these whiskeys had become bywords for quality in liquor, and soon the reputation reached around the world.

It’s hard to think of an exact analogy, but Ontario ice wine furnishes an example of a sort. It grew from a standing start 30 years ago to a secure place in the pantheon of sweet wines. India Pale Ale, over approximately the same period as bourbon and Monongahela rye, also came to major prominence.

IPA as understood today, meaning with the American hop smack, hardly has more than a generation behind it.

The high water mark of rye whiskey appreciation was the eve of World War I. Whiskey, need it be said, had a Janus-face. One side was the smooth, equable visage of the gastronome. He spoke in dulcet tones – for refined taste, quality, tradition. The other side was contorted, angry, shouting for a shut-down of the liquor trade. We know which side prevailed.

The long years of the Volstead era permanently altered the quality image of whiskey. Rye came back, bourbon and gin and the rest, too. But they were never regarded with the same epicurean delight as before the Kaiser’s war. The Depression and a new system of liquor regulation put paid to that. Anyone bruiting the merits of whiskey did so almost furtively, apologetically. There was the odd exception, Bernard De Voto’s celebration of bourbon, circa 1950, is well-known.

Finally, a change occurred, with hundreds of writers since the 1980s elucidating the many gradations of palate in good whiskey. All to the good, but somehow it seems, at least to me, that whiskey’s golden age has been irretrievably lost.

Partly this was due to loss of artisan methods and the disappearance of most regional styles of whiskey.

Even in Kentucky it was said the various counties had different flavours of whiskey. Something in the air may have particularized the yeast used in some counties. Or, a particular way of working or style of equipment made the whiskey of a district different from all others’.

Maybe something new will replace what was lost. The craft distilling industry together with the revived big distillers may in time produce something to rival the choice and quality that used to exist.

(I don’t exclude Canada here except that the industry consolidated much earlier than in the U.S. with a resultant narrowing of whisky styles).

So, to evoke the high point of whiskey appreciation in America, read the words below from 1914. They are from a valentine to the industry published by George Washburne, a Kentucky trade publisher I’ve discussed a number of times.

The Hamburger Distillery was in South Brownsville, PA, a famous whiskey town watered by the Monongahela River.

Whiskey historian Jack Sullivan has profiled its owner at the turn of the 19th century, Philip Hamburger. He had taken over the place from the founder, surnamed Jones. As Sullivan notes, Hamburger contributed to the national perception that Monongahela whiskey was a choice product. Nonetheless that aura had existed long before, certainly for the high end of the category.

In my view too, what “made” Monongahela rye was its aging, initially noticed (we can infer) from shipping the whiskey from afar. A similar quality was finally achieved methodically by warehouse aging at the distillery itself.

It’s interesting that the Hamburger distillery and no doubt many others in the “Mon” valley used artificial heating in the warehouse, seeking to accelerate aging and maturity.

This aspect clearly lifted Pennsylvania rye to another level. Perhaps it was the key to emulating the whiskey when shipped by barge and ship to distant markets. If Mon whiskey had remained the country white rye made in countless sections of Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it would never have achieved world renown.

Anyway, enjoy the modulated tones of A.M. Hanauer below. His style, typical of the period, combines literary flair with American down home. It is the precise obverse of the declaiming Carrie Nation with her axe.



Note re images: the images above are sourced, via HathiTrust, from the volumes linked in the text. All intellectual property therein or thereto belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.