Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

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Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Mar 15, 2009 11:38 am

Here is a link to an 1880 newspaper article transcribed by Darcy O'Neil from a book he found in the Seagram Collection in the library of the University of Waterloo in Ontario. The Collection represents the cumulation of distilling-related texts and other writings that had been used by Seagram when it operated its famed distilling companies. (I would suspect that the collection formed part of the now defunct Seagram Whisky Museum in Waterloo and when the latter was closed the books were donated to the local University).

http://www.artofdrink.com/2008/10/bourb ... e-1880.php

This article is very interesting and Darcy O'Neil is to be commended for finding and transcribing it. (There seems the odd transcribing glitch or error but the article is easy to understand and I would think Darcy O'Neil has a copy of the original. He runs an excellent, cocktails-oriented website called http://www.artofdrink.com which I have consulted numerous times in the past but I hadn't noticed until now this article.

The article raises a number of questions for those here interested in bourbon distilling history. It seems to suggest that as late as the 1880's, sour mashing meant literally using the yeast of the immediate previous fermentation (not dried distiller's yeast or a jug yeast cultured from a slant in a dona tub whose qualities would be maintained in a consistent fashion). This reminds me of that early 1800's letter you once posted, Mike (Veach), suggesting this literal application of a sour mashing method (or as I recall it was one of two suggested methods of sour mashing). In the 1880 article, sour mashing evidently is not considered adding slop (spent distillers' beer) to the mash because the use of slop is described as part of the SWEET mash method of mashing. Hmmm. Did distillers at some point devise a short-cut way of sour mashing and use the old terminology as a marketing technique? Because, even though the word "sour" today is sometimes considered to have negative connotations, at one time evidently this was not so or certainly in the bourbon world. Or were there always two recognised ways of sour mashing in commercial bourbon making?

The numerous references to legal requirements are also noteworthy and I do not recall reading about these before.

Finally, the Davies County/Owensboro reference as the origin of the sour mash process - in 1808 specifically - is interesting. Did the individual mentioned in the article in that year simply adapt a sour mash technique that had been used by home distillers and which again was referred to in that letter Mike found of approximately the same time?

The small tub method of mashing sounds very interesting in general, of course we have heard about that before here, but one wonders about the repeated use of yeast in the manner described. Would the yeast not get corrupted, literally sour, if not refreshed from a culture maintained in the distillery or in a yeast bank? Maybe this sourness, as in some traditional breads (sourdough) was regarded as contributing something special to the ferment and therefore to the distillate. But usually such repetition of use would be regarded as a negative, e.g., in brewing. The article states that less whiskey was produced with such sour mashing. One can see why, because a corrupted yeast (in a brewing sense anyway) would have less fermentative power than a clean, vigourous yeast. Yet, the bourbon produced with this method was said to be non-pareil.

Today it is often said that all distillers use sour mashing.

Here is a good description of the jug yeast method currently used by Heaven Hill:

http://www.bardstownbourbonsociety.com/ ... ZXQ5OTY%3D

Is taking the yeast literally from a previous ferment and dumping it into a new mash the same thing as keeping a specific yeast culture in a jug and regularly growing with fresh nutrient via the dona tub enough to seed the next fermentation? I would think not and that the jug yeast method is used to ensure a consistent supply of the same yeast strain, as explained in the article about Heaven Hill. With a literal sour mashing from one ferment to the next, how could such quality control be maintained? The yeast would evolve and alter especially considering that, as the article states, fermentation occurred at ambient temperatures which were between 70 and 80 F. How could the results be regarded as superior?

Also, the 1880 article speaks of sweet mashing being reliant on "artificial yeast". Did that mean dried yeast (which was certainly available then)? Or did it mean enzymes chemically manufactured? Circa-1880 seems a little early for that.

Putting it another way: are there four fermentation processes, i.e., using jug yeast; literal sour mash per the 1880's article; dried distillers' yeast; and artificial enzyme?

Or are there only three, i.e., jug yeast-literal sourmash; dried yeast; and artificial enzyme?

Comments?

Gary
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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby bourbonv » Sun Mar 15, 2009 4:42 pm

Gary,
Good Post. I think you can eliminate the artificial enzyme process because the enzymes convert starch to sugar, but not sugar to alcohol, which is what the yeast does. I think the 1880 reference is probably more toward mass produced yeast versus jug yeast grown on site when they mention "artificial yeast".

I agree that early on Sour Mash was more like the "sour dough bread" process and that it did change. I think the change is one of the contributions of Dr. Crow in the 1830's and 40's. Using the backset to sour the mash and then adding fresh yeast has the benefits you mentioned, but takes more effort. That is why I believe it was not made the standard method until the larger producers started doing it in the mid to late 19th century.
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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Mar 15, 2009 6:35 pm

Good points, Mike, thanks, and for the correction re the use of diastase enzyme, of course you are right about that. And I like what you said about Dr. Crow coming and encouraging the use of backset in the next mash, which clearly became the norm because the 1880 article stresses that even sweet mashing sometimes used backset. And while consistency of flavour surely was encouraged by keeping a yeast strain in a jug and keeping it cool, still I have to wonder what was so special about this 1808-era Owensboro small tub bourbon. Why was it so good?

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby bourbonv » Sun Mar 15, 2009 7:23 pm

Gary,
I would say the answer to your question about Owensboro is that M J Monarch was paying the bill for this "reporter". It worked that way quite often in the 19th century - if you wanted to give your product or company a boost, you would pay for a reporter from the big papers to come visit you. This is the first time I have read the claim about Monarch creating sour mash and that includes in histories of Daviess County. For that reason I place this claim in the same category as Even Williams being Kentucky's first distiller or Elijah Craig being the inventor of bourbon - story made up for some reason or another and used to sell whiskey.

It is known that Crow changed and improved the sour mash method by using scientific methods to study the process. It was his method of making whiskey that people like W A Gaines, Oscar Pepper and E H Taylor, Jr. used to make their whiskey, only on a larger scale. It is more economical to use just set back and fresh yeast than to take part of a batch to start a new batch. If you use 5% of a batch to start the new batch, then you are loosing 5% of your yield automatically. Since tradition has sour mash being about 25% and as much as 50%, then you would loose even more by using this over sweetmash.

I think the common use of sour mash is really a big distiller process. When you have a small farmer distiller, he does not have the luxury to be constantly in the distillery and it may be weeks between batches distilled, making the sour mash process impossible. Take Don Outerson as a modern example. It takes him 4 weeks of distilling to fill a barrel. His is all sweetmash whiskey as a result. He is making his next beer while distilling the present one, not waiting for the backset. To keep backset you have to invest in a storage container for the backset and the space to keep the container.
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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Sun Mar 15, 2009 8:23 pm

How do you lose 5% yield in your example, Mike? Yeast is a by-product of a ferment, unless it can be recycled it would be thrown away. Isn't the difference that constantly reusing the same yeast source can degrade and exhaust the yeast vs. keeping a culture from which a consistent new supply can be generated?

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Mon Mar 16, 2009 4:15 pm

Here is a book, published around 1908, which includes a list of the different ways to make sour mash, sweet mash, pure rye whiskey and rye whiskey.

First, one thing is cleared up: pure rye meant no corn.

Second, under the sour mash enumeration, at least two ways of making whiskey also described in the 1880's article in the New Haven newpaper discussed above are mentioned. These clearly involve using a portion of the actual yeast generated by the previous fermentation and is called in a phrase which indicates exactly how it worked, dipping back. Adding slop is described as another way to sour mash.

What is striking is how many different ways there were to make traditional whiskey. (Some of these ways are mentioned in a newspaper article I posted some time ago on the other board from around 1870).

http://books.google.com/books?id=unM_Uq ... #PPA476,M1
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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Tue Mar 17, 2009 6:54 am

Thanks, Jeff. Google Books is a fecund source for further research here. Look at this, from 1877 Internal Revenue regulations (pgs. 12-13):

http://books.google.com/books?id=6eotAA ... A2-IA14,M1

Under this reading of it, sour mashing is using spent beer to mix with grain to make a mash for the next batch, but where no yeast is added, the fermentation seems truly `wild`. As I recall, this was one of the two ways of sour mashing in Mike`s early 1800`s letter (the other was dipping back but this from memory). The acidic environment created by the low pH spent beer would have assisted to control an otherwise unruly wild ferment.

I am not sure about HH`s current practice, I would think they still use jug yeast.

Truly there were many ways to make bourbon over 100 years ago.

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Mar 17, 2009 11:19 am

At one time Bernheim did have jug yeast capability, but moved to dry yeast. Heaven Hill is talking about reversing this, but I am not sure they have done so yet. I do know they have jug yeast that has been used for their shadow distilled products after the fire.
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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Tue Mar 17, 2009 12:11 pm

By the way that other article I mentioned that I posted on SB a while back, circa 1860 or 1870, is devoted to a description of the numerous different distillation techniques of the time. (Some used wooden, chambered stills, some pots of copper, some bigger continuous patent stills, etc.).

So that article, together with these current references found, are a useful compendium of distilling and mashing methods of the time. And there were many if the perms and combs are worked through, especially when one factors different mash bills. (Generally corn and rye were used, as today, but sometimes only one or the other, and sometimes with wheat or oats. One recipe called for just unmalted and malted corn. So the small distillery in New Paltz, NY which used all corn for its first bourbon was on the money).

One early source I found said whiskey was "fruity" - which not a lot of it is today, IMO. All that wild and wild-influenced yeast, perhaps. There are some amusing terms for the rectified output of the larger industrial column stills: rifle-whiskey; prison-whiskey; patent Bourbon are some that I found.

I like that one, rifle-whiskey.

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby cowdery » Tue Mar 17, 2009 5:30 pm

bourbonv wrote:At one time Bernheim did have jug yeast capability, but moved to dry yeast. Heaven Hill is talking about reversing this, but I am not sure they have done so yet. I do know they have jug yeast that has been used for their shadow distilled products after the fire.


The last time I talked to Craig Beam about this he said he would like to go back to jug yeast, but it would be too expensive to add the necessary facilities at Bernheim.
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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 19, 2009 8:19 am

From 1884, a chemist, Chas Gallagher, delivered a paper which describes an artisan way to make bourbon:

http://books.google.com/books?id=v3ACAA ... ashing&lr=

Note his insistence on copper distilling using "furnace heat" and not steam; his culturing of a fresh batch of yeast to start tubs which will produce initially sweet mash whiskey; the use of backset and yeasting-back so that subsequently sour mash whiskey is produced; a distilling off on the second boiling at 100 proof; a suggested aging period of only two years to produce a quality product; a produce of from 2 - 3 1/2 gallons of spirit per bushel of grain; and his claim that the distillations only had "trace" fusel oils. This is a traditional, small-tub process and what is interesting is it is adumbrated by one with a concurrent interest in chemistry and traditional, practical distilling.

Now, what did his bourbon taste like?

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 19, 2009 10:29 am

I am finding it hard to parse the exact yeasting technique used by Gallagher. He seems to have started with any baker's or brewer's yeast, to make a starter yeast culture. From that he makes up a larger quantity to start the first few mash tubs. Once those are going, some the original yeast cultured up (from the "yeast barrel") - two gallons - is added to the mash tubs of sweet mash. Then, a quantity of those tubs is removed to ferment the tub mashes that will become sour mash. So, in this procedure, it seems a portion of the actual sweet mash is in fact taken (not just yeast) to help start the next ferments. I assume that some fermentable extract in the part removed is lost. Maybe this is what Mike was referring to when he said a certain percentage of the mash is used up when dipping back. (That is assuming dipping back and yeasting back are the same thing).

If I am not mistaken, bourbon is not at least by the big distilleries - everyone but the handful of artisan distillers - made this way today. Today, either dried distiller's yeast is used or a jug yeast is used. I believe (correct me if I am wrong) that jug yeast is not replenished continually from the yeast generated in each fermentation. It is an original culture, kept under temperature- and other- controlled conditions. When a batch of yeast is needed for the next ferment it is generated anew I understand from the culture kept in the jug.

But how is the culture in the jug kept alive? I would like to know more about this. Do they add some yeast from each fermentation "back" to the jug to keep it going? Do they simply keep adding nutrient to the jug to allow the yeast to continue to live? Maybe they add to the jug some of the larger quantity generated to ferment a batch before it goes into the fermentation vessels.

If yeast is added from the fermenting vessels to the jug, this would seem a variation on yeasting back and in this sense, those using jug yeast today would seem to be working in an old tradition, at least for that part of the process.

I am particularly interested in the relationship if any between dipping back, yeasting back and using a jug yeast. One thing which makes me think that freshly generated yeast (in the fermenting vats) is never added back to the jug is, the jug is kept cold to protect the integrity of the yeast culture. If you added to the jug yeast from a fermenting vessel, this would seem to me possibly to affect the characteristics of the jug yeast. For one thing, fermentation generates a lot of heat, so that fermenting yeast in each batch probably would be viewed as possibly affecting the house culture if the two are mixed "back" as it were. But I don't know.

Any comments?

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 19, 2009 12:39 pm

I saw that about potassium permanganate, not sure what that it all about, I'll check into it.

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 19, 2009 12:58 pm

Pottasium permanganate is an oxidising agent. It is used in disinfectants to help decompose organic matter if I read the sources right, for example. It is still widely used in industry. One of its uses is to test for alcohol purity. I think this is the sense in which Gallagher used it, ie., you filter the doubled spirit through the chemical and depending on the colours produced, you will know whether to redistill for further purity (to remove methanol and other objectionable or dangerous compounds). I don't think it was used to chemically alter the spirit itself.

Fusel oils are oxidised through reactions occurring over time via storage in oak containers. Was Gallagher talking about a kind of quick process to oxidise fusel oils in bourbon? This is possible, since he speaks of his two year old bourbon being excellent and equivalent to the best commercial production whereas opinion at the time was that sour mash whiskey needed at least 5 years aging (see Atherton's Congressional testimony to which I've referred, easily found on Google Books).

So I am not 100% sure, but since he was talking about a filtration of some kind I thought he might have used the substance simply to test for fusels that should be removed by further distillation.

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Re: Did Sour Mash Originally Mean Something Different?

Unread postby cowdery » Thu Mar 19, 2009 4:13 pm

Many people wrongly compare sour mash to sour dough, probably because of the common use of the word "sour," whereas both methods use a continuously propagated yeast strain, so the same yeast is used batch to batch. Souring the mash merely adjusts its pH so the yeast behave identically. If you don't control the medium in some way, you can use the same yeast but get wildly different results since yeast respond differently to different environments. Sanitation is another aspect of medium control, as it reduces the opportunity for competitive organisms to grow.

What I have trouble explaining is why the term "sour mash" passed into the vocabulary as describing a type of whiskey. The fact that it is so often misused arises directly from the fact that it is so often used.
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