Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

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Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Jul 06, 2010 10:38 am

Darren Reid (whiskygalore) sent me the following email and I thought it might be of interest to the readers here:
Hey Mike




How are things going in my favourite common wealth? Not sure if you've come across this but I just found it in a source I was reading and thought you should have it. It is a quote from a former settler (she was a school girl, circa 1781) in Kentucky who was interviewed by man named John Shane (like Lyman Draper, Shane collected interviews and first hand accounts from elderly Kentucky settlers. Interestingly, not only does she claim that her father made the first still in Kentucky, but she even attributes the suicides of fourteen people to it - though I'm not sure how far that was true - she says to Shane that the idea only occurred to her as he interviewed her. The interview took place in 1844. Anyhow, I this is of some use to you,



All best,



Darren








"I went to school to Thos: Threkeld right be where they were at work. Began it in March—and many a drink of beer I got there, 1781, this. They sold their whiskey for $8 a gallon; and the people got it & got drunk on it; neither being in Ky., nor a high price, co[ul]’d prevents its use. 14 persons, that I knew their faces, committed suicide, and I never tho’t before, it might have been this still.

1.Anthony Garrett
2.Old Seaman. Had a bottle of whiskey tied up (with him) in a h[an]dk[erchie]f
3.His w[ ife ]
4.Old Billy Buford’s Son
5.Nelly Rends
6.Edwin Ballinger: her son
7.Jas Nourse
8.Mrs Foley
9.Mrs Cox
10.Wm Paulin
11.Harry Jeffrys
12.–
13.–
14.–
[Thomas] Threkeld’s was the 1st school ever about in that section. Elias Barber, a northern man, taught a year in a school-house my f[ather] built, almost himself. He then took sick, & an Irishman taught there. This at the Forks of Dick’s River." John D. Shane "Interview with Sarah Graham, 1844" Draper Manuscripts 12CC45-53, p.
Mike Veach
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby bourbonv » Tue Jul 06, 2010 10:44 am

It looks to me that the her father did not know how to make good whiskey and was not cutting the heads and tails. As a result people were died after drinking the whiskey. It should be noted that in the 19th century and I presume the same is true in the 18th century, when you died while doing self destructive behavior such as a drug overdose, it was called a suicide.
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby delaware_phoenix » Tue Jul 06, 2010 5:25 pm

Tails taste bad, but usually aren't noted for killing people.

Heads contain methanol but usually not in sufficient quantities to kill people, make you go blind though. Most deaths are from people that add wood alcohol to make the alcohol "stronger". Wood alcohol wasn't well known I don't think in that era. In later times, in the post Civil War era, there were acid factories for making acetate of lime, wood alcohol and charcoal from the burning of wood in the abscence of oxygen. These factories were common here. The first in Delaware county was 1876. Here's some links:

http://www.udrrhs.org/html/flyer-winter1999.htm
http://www.dcnyhistory.org/beerstonteed.html
http://townoftompkins.org/history/

It could be those folks just plain drank themselves to death, but I suspect it might have been copper acetate that got them. It's a theory I have. Some of the old books (Harrison Hall, The Distiller, 1819) mention verdigris on the inside of stills, and how they have to be tinned to prevent this. But if verdigris is forming on the inside of the still, that means their wash had a good quantity of vinegar in it. I'm not going to sacrifice a copper still to determine this, but the old methods of making verdigris was basically to expose copper to heated vinegar. I don't quite trust the old method of removing it by running your distillate through a white felt hat.

There may well have been other ways the people inadvertently were poisoning themselves from their whiskey due to the level of scientific knowledge of that era.
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby Mike » Tue Jul 06, 2010 5:40 pm

Lord knows, y'all, had we been there we might not have been there long..............you'll go blind!, you'll go bald!, you'll go crazy!.........wait a minute, am I thinking of another cursed practice that once could cause all these horrible things to happen?

BTW, for those of us are not in the know, what are heads and tails, not to mention vertiwhatsit?
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Jul 07, 2010 9:32 am

The heads and tails are what the Scots call the "foreshots and feints" - the first alcohol off the still are the heads. They can contain alcohols that will make you go blind or even kill you. I disagree with Cheryl here in that it really depends upon the yeast you are using as to how fatal the heads can be as different yeast make different alcohols including wood alcohol. The tails are the last alcohols off the still with a high water content.

In early Kentucky using captured yeast could very well lead to a very bad alcohol if the distiller did not discard a bad yeast. John Lipman once said and I think he is right, that the distillers that had the best reputation on the frontier, were the ones that could tell good yeast from bad. They also knew how to preserve that yeast for future use.

Another problem that I thought of last night was the fact that these early stills were often sealed with lead. It is possible that these suicides had lead poisoning that can have an affect on the brain that leads to strange behavior and lack of judgement. Extreme cases could be the cause of suicide.
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby delaware_phoenix » Wed Jul 07, 2010 2:02 pm

Well it's certainly true that different yeast will produce different profiles of the congeners, the things that produce flavor (good and bad), as well as headaches in excess quantities.

Certainly lead is another possible source of bad stuff leading to a short life span. I don't think there are single answers, and the late 18th century probably had a number of sources. But not all stills were made with solder. I have a still from Portugal that simply riveted. And apparently this was a very traditional still construction. And it didn't leak vapor until I dropped it into the sink one day by accident. Now it's all silver soldered.

Verdigris is the green on copper, like when exposed to the sea. It was used for a pigment in oil paints for many years. But it's not something you want to eat or ingest. The reason I asked about this, is I have all copper stills and I've never had this green on the inside of my stills, nor have I seen any discolored distillate. But a couple of these old books definitely talk about this as a real problem. So the question becomes, why? Why does it happen? Under what conditions? We won't ever know if it was a common problem unless someone finds the forgotten cache of the Old Dr. Crow's Whiskey Museum.

The way alcohol and whiskey has been demonized leads me to think that maybe there was something other than just whiskey in the bottles (or barrels/jugs) in the early days. That's certainly true for absinthe. It was totally demonized and yet actual GC/MS analysis of old pre-Ban absinthe shows nothing dangerous. (These were samples of good brands, not of the cheap stuff came down to us.)

I'm not as up on my yeast microbiology as I should be, but all the ones used in making spirits and wine work as Lavoisier described, by converting sugar into 99.9% ethanol and CO2. I think what they called a "bad ferment" probably was from something other than yeast (remember they didn't know of bacteria or fungi back then). A Lactobacillus perhaps. Normally your wouldn't think to distill something that had been fermented by C. butrysis (spellings wrong, but it producing vomit aroma in a big way). That's my guess. But maybe Mike can point me to some specific yeasts that produce methanol rather than ethanol. I think some bacteria are used to produce methanol and acetone; read that somewhere recently. But they certainly couldn't be common.

Sometimes yeast is fine, but if you give it poor living conditions it's going to produce more undesirable congeners. But still not in large quantities. Because if it's still not producing much alcohol, when you run it you're not going to get much out. It'll be mostly water, or your yield will be really low. But they expected low yields back then.

I think you may be right Mike that the fellow made some dangerous whiskey. But the folks drank plenty enough of it.

Any way of finding out the cemetery where their buried, or maybe how long they lived, maybe from some church records? Did these folks move from the East to KY? If so, maybe there's some birth records. Did these people die over long periods of time? Or all close together in time?

btw, are there other records like this, of people dying from poison whiskey? I mean real documented events. I know in modern times you read about it but it's always from someone adding something to the spirit, not from the ferment.

If it was just heads and tails, distilling would be much more regulated, and even our whiskies would have to be analyzed. But US distillers aren't even required to to submit a formula for whiskey let alone a lab analysis.

Sorry if I'm just showing how poorly read I am. It wouldn't be the first time! :geek:
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Jul 07, 2010 2:43 pm

Cheryl,
I have been in email contact with Darren and we also have decided that maybe lead was the main culprit here. Maybe I should google search poison moonshine because I know sometimes moonshiners use a car radiator as a condenser and give their customers lead poisoning. It would be interesting to see what the symptoms are in those cases.

To my knowledge there was not other cases of "suicides" mentioned in early Kentucky and it should be noted this woman was describing something 50 years or so after the fact so this could be just her opinion as to what killed these people.
Mike Veach
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Jul 07, 2010 5:27 pm

Cheryl (or Todd or any of the microdistillers), what in your view causes the varnish-like scents and tastes in some whiskey mash spirit aged below 4 years or even above in some cases? E.g., Anchor's rye always had the taste to me, so does the pot still element of Woodford Reserve (where however mingling with column still bourbon modifies the taste). I can see it too in some rums that are pot-stilled where it is an oily or rubber-like note. Sometimes people call it grassy or grainy. Are these heads, tails, both? Does long barrel aging change those tastes, or do they endure despite that?

Gary
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby delaware_phoenix » Wed Jul 07, 2010 6:58 pm

Someone like Todd probably has a better (and more knowledgeable) answers, but I'll pass along what I've learned from my reading. Some of my info comes from Origins of Flavour in Whiskies and a Revised Flavour Wheel, K-Y Lee, A. Paterson and J. R. Piggott, 2001. It's freely available online. Some whisky nosing sites have made versions of this and may have more non-technical descriptions.

Solvent notes, oily notes, grassy notes, and grainy notes are all different and fall into different categories in the tasting wheels.

According to the above article (and this is fairly common now) grassy notes relate to aldehydes. Typically grassy isn't considered a flaw, but perhaps if you're sensitive to it, it could be overpowering. Some aldehydes have cardboard like flavors, so you don't want those. Or they can be sour and pungent. The precursors to the aldehydes are from barley (maybe not all, but that's one source).

Esters are another source of some of the kinds of flavor/aroma. Some ester are solventy, and these can be from the heads. The paper lists a lot of esters and their origins with links to many papers I haven't begun to read. Esters are also formed during maturation. Ethyl acetate is the ester most listed as being perceived as solvent-like.

The esters from the tails/feints are often perceived as you note them: oily, grainy. They would age out. It's also dependent on how far into the tails the distiller went.

I'd have to read deeper to be able to explain things better. Hopefully that helps?
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Jul 07, 2010 9:33 pm

Yes indeed, and thanks, I'll check that online reference. I find something in common in all pot-stilled spirits, it is a kind of pronounced flavour and oily might best describe it. I think raw barley may produce it more than malted, which may explain the strong linseed-like taste of Irish pure pot still whiskey, even when well-aged (although this is not invariable, but I am thinking of Redbreast, say, which is 12 years old). Yet some pot still rums I have had, from Guyana or Trinidad, have something similar. It may be that you need those tastes in young spirit for it to age in a specific way. When I say pot still, I include column still spirit distilled at a proof traditional for pot still spirit albeit I understand some congeners just don't get created in a live steam process. I find (just personal preference) that a product like, say, Lot 40, which Mike from Conyers mentioned in another thread, is best for cocktails. It makes a great Manhattan, as does Anchor rye, say, but I was just curious where those tastes come from. I know they are often described under the generic "congeners" but that doesn't say all that much. By the way if those old mashes were very acid (vinegar-like), I think they were soured by lactic acid bacteria, which a warm ferment would have encouraged. The concept is still used to make certain beverage beers.

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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby Leopold » Wed Jul 07, 2010 11:45 pm

gillmang wrote:Cheryl (or Todd or any of the microdistillers), what in your view causes the varnish-like scents and tastes in some whiskey mash spirit aged below 4 years or even above in some cases? E.g., Anchor's rye always had the taste to me, so does the pot still element of Woodford Reserve (where however mingling with column still bourbon modifies the taste). I can see it too in some rums that are pot-stilled where it is an oily or rubber-like note. Sometimes people call it grassy or grainy. Are these heads, tails, both? Does long barrel aging change those tastes, or do they endure despite that?

Gary


There's a few things at play here, and I can only speak in generalities. 1st, high fermentation temperatures are the start. The higher the temp, the more ester and fusel oils you'll produce.

2nd, many of the whiskies out there, as well as specifically rums, are produced at a very high starting gravity. Most/all of the big whiskey distillers avoid this practice, but, again, this stresses yeast, and produces more esters and aldehydes.

The third thing that you'll see, particularly with rum , are plates or other gizmos in the mash/wash still that leads to over-rectification of the fermented molasses, leading to a higher proof of your low wines. Without getting overly geeky....this can lead to your heads bleeding into your hearts, leaving unwanted ethyl acetate and other solvent like esters in your hearts after the second distillation.

The oily flavor you get comes from the carryover of boiling the non-fermented materials in a mash or wash for 6 or so hours. Lignocellulose comes to mind. The germ from grains, too. I really like the mouthfeel of pot distilled spirits for this very reason. Column stills strip the mashes/washes with live steam in a matter of seconds.
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby gillmang » Thu Jul 08, 2010 6:41 am

Very interesting, thanks Todd for this. The mouthfeel is a key attribute of such distillations, I agree.

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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby Mike » Fri Jul 09, 2010 4:46 pm

I really enjoyed this post...............very interesting stuff.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby Burbonsipper » Tue Jul 27, 2010 11:57 am

bourbonv wrote:
I know sometimes moonshiners use a car radiator as a condenser and give their customers lead poisoning. It would be interesting to see what the symptoms are in those cases.


This was a problem in Eastern KY back in the 80's.

I don't know all the symptoms that happen to folks that's been drinking bad shine every day, but it's easy to tell just by looking at their smile. Their face turns ashy pale, and they get gray teeth, and purple/black gums around their teeth.
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Re: Not all Kentucky whiskey was good whiskey

Unread postby cowdery » Tue Jul 27, 2010 2:40 pm

With those symptoms, it sounds like they might be chasing their shine with methamphetamine.
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