Historian David Wondrich explains how today’s American whiskey has evolved from a narrow bloodline. What few records there are of the US’s distilling past reveal a far more diverse set of practices.
In the United States, as in most places, tradition and history sell whiskey. They’re not the only things that do, of course, but you don’t have to go far to find a brand of bourbon or rye that bears the name of some family of subsistence farmers from 250 years ago; that uses bottles straight out of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; that invites you to sit a spell and have a sip of something from a time when life wasn’t so gol-darned complicated.
The implication is that the whiskey being sold is made in basically the same way whiskeys were made back before TV and jet planes and corporate efficiency experts; that it’s not just aged, but old. But is it? This is one of those situations where it’s easy to make claims of historical authenticity because it’s hard to figure out what the actual history is (the craft distillers, it should be pointed out, take advantage of this just as much as the big legacy ones).
It might be useful, therefore, to look at just how American whiskey was made in the years between the Civil War and Prohibition (1865-1919), when it reached its peak of development, based on actual documents from the time.
These documents are scarce and rather enigmatic – the drinks press of the day assumed that anyone reading it was an industry insider and knew this stuff, while on the rare occasion a general-interest publication would look in on a distillery the writer tended to throw his hands up at the complexity of it all.
But there are still a few documents that let us into what distillers were actually doing.
Let’s start with bourbon—I’m going to talk about rye and bourbon separately from each other, because although they shared much of the same DNA, there were still real differences in how they were made. In 1870 the Louisville, Kentucky Commercial published an article proclaiming that “there are six modes of distillation practiced in this state,” which it then detailed. The two most important were “sour mash – pure copper” and “bourbon steam”.
The first was made by hand-stirring the grain – mostly corn/ maize, with “a very small quantity” of rye and barley malt – together with spent or “sour” mash from a previous distillation in a whole bunch of “small tubs” (ie, old whiskey barrels). It was then yeasted with already-fermenting mash and eventually distilled twice in wood-fired copper pot stills.
The final distillate reduced to barreling proof by adding some of the “singlings” from the first run. This was as close to the old Scotch-Irish uisge baugh as American distillers generally came, with corn replacing the raw barley used in Ireland and Scotland (when they weren’t using pure malt) and, of course, the added sour mashing, a trick pinched from British West Indies rum-making.
For bourbon steam whiskey, the mashing was done in large, steam-stirred tanks, using hot water instead of the sour mash and 20-25% rye along with the corn and the customary bit of barley (to start the fermentation). Liquid yeast, infused with hops (a preservative) and kept in special copper “dona” jugs, was poured in and the fermented mash was then run through a big wooden “chamber still”, coopered from staves.
Steam was fed in the bottom and slowly cooked off the alcohol from the wash as it was cycled through a series of three or four vertically stacked, interconnected chambers. From the still, the alcohol-rich vapour went to a wooden “thumper” chamber, where it shed some of its impurities, and then to a condenser. Sometimes the vapour was condensed right off the still and run through a wood-fired copper pot still or “doubler”, rather than the thumper. That was “steam copper” whiskey.
By the 1880s, many of the sour mash pure copper distillers had replaced the pot stills used for the first distillation with wooden chamber stills, although they still clung to the small-tub mashing and the fire-copper doubling. Within a decade, though, most bourbon distillers would replace the chamber stills with modern copper column stills, which were much easier to use and turned out a far greater volume of whiskey, and switch to steam heat for the doublers.
Nonetheless, as late as 1913, Old Fitzgerald – widely regarded as the best bourbon on the market – and a few others were still making hand-mashed small-tub whiskey with a wooden beer still and a fire-copper doubler. As Bonfort’s Wine & Spirit Circular, the Drinks International of its day, noted, there were many high-end whiskey dealers who believed that “the best quality in sour mash whiskey [was] to be secured by manufacturing only along the lines [used] at the Old Fitzgerald distillery”.
In Pennsylvania, they thought differently. The stiff-necked German-Americans who had been growing rye and turning it into spirit there for well over a century and a half – decades before anybody fired up a still in Kentucky – had their own priorities and procedures. Sour mash? No. Small tub? Nonsense. Fire copper? Nix, nix, nix.
Distillers such as Jacob ‘Daddy’ Meyer, who ran the stills at Abraham Overholt & Co from 1868 until the 1890s, made a spirit that was remarkably like the “korn’ that accompanied the Germans to the New World back in the early 1700s. Some were so serious about their rye that they even eschewed the malted barley generally used to boost fermentation, and used rye malt instead – thus making their mashbill simply “rye”.
That’s not to say they didn’t change: they were the first to switch to steam distillation and the cheaper, larger wooden stills it allowed, back in the 1810s and 1820s. Like a few of the Kentuckians, they were happy to feed the beer still right into a thumper, without condensing the vapours in between (more than a few Pennsylvania Germans had gone to Kentucky, of course, including the Böhm – er, Beam – family).
As long as they could still give it that rich, funky pure-rye flavour, they sought to make their whiskey as simply, cheaply and efficiently as possible. (That meant copper three chamber beer stills were okay, but copper column stills weren’t: the few rye distillers who tried them, back in the 1890s, had switched back by the 1910s.)
The Pennsylvanians also wanted their whiskey to age as quickly as possible, and that meant storing it in heated, brickwalled warehouses, which kept the ageing going through the winter, rather than the thin-walled, unheated rickhouses preferred in Kentucky, which didn’t.
There are other idiosyncrasies to old rye and bourbon, such as charcoal filtration (not just a Tennessee thing) and mixed old and new cooperage, that we’ll have to leave for another time.
Old vs new
If we consider today’s bourbon and rye in the light of these old practices, it’s clear that they don’t track so well together. We have column-still distilleries and pot-still ones, just like they did then. But in most distilleries, the only place you’ll see a dona jug is in a display case, and things that were defining – fire-copper doubling, wooden chamber stills – are nowhere to be seen (well, except in Denver, where the Leopold Bros has been running a chamber still since 2015, albeit in copper).
Procedures that were linked are now not, so that, eg, you’ll find George Dickel, one sour-mash distillery, condensing its whiskey before doubling it, in the old way, while Heaven Hill, another, runs the whiskey-vapour straight into a thumper.
Both those distilleries make excellent whiskey; I’m not saying that whiskey before Prohibition was better than it is now. That would be ridiculous. But today’s American whiskey, in all its abundance, does spring from a very narrow gene-pool: the small handful of large Kentucky distilleries that survived the 20th century and the equally small handful of craft distilleries who resurrected pot-still bourbon and rye-making decades after any living traditions had died out.
This can lead to a certain sameness in the whiskey. One has but to taste the Leopold Bros three chamber still rye, deeply-flavoured, floral and, well, exotic, to see the advantages of expanding that gene pool.