Bourbon-making in 1870

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Bourbon-making in 1870

Unread postby cowdery » Mon Feb 11, 2008 4:13 pm

I'm posting the attached article at Gary Gillman's suggestion. He found it in the New York Times online archives. It is from 1870 and describes the bourbon-making techniques of the day.

If you want to go to the source, the New York Times web site requires registration but is free. This article is easily found by searching "bourbon whisky." (NOTE: no "e")
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Unread postby gillmang » Mon Feb 11, 2008 4:46 pm

Chuck, thanks.

This is a concentrated piece of writing which requires a certain amount of technical and historical knowledge of distilling to make sense of, but that said, it is nothing less than fascinating.

The log-and-copper still mentioned, or one such still, is still used I know in Guyana, to make rum. It is fashioned of wood and metal and packed with stones or some other type of packing to provide the function the plates do in a modern column still.

There is a picture of it on the website of a Guyana rum distiller, I'll try to find it. (It may have been posted here before).

Note the mingling of low wines with high wines when barreling under the first method described, double copper pot distillation. This would also have been done for sweet mashes distilled in such equipment. That must have made for some gutsy whiskeys since low wines - the first run in a wash still - would be dilute, congeneric spirit.

The "Bourbon steam" method seems quite close to what we know as bourbon today. I wonder if "Bourbon" perhaps described or came to describe the kind of whiskey made by the related technology in Bourbon County, which may explain why the term became renowned. Because, of all the methods described except the fourth, copper steam, it seems the only one that did not involve using or mixing singlings for the barreled whiskey. I read the log-and-copper method as using singlings because there is no reference in the description to a second run and this kind of primitive still would not have produced a very high proof. I exclude in this conjecture method 6, highwines, because albeit double-distilled it does not result in what we know today as bourbon, but rather just "whiskey". Note highwines is the only method mentioned where aging is in "unburnt" casks. And apart from that I would think highwines was whiskey produced at the highest proof of any method, like a modern grain whisky in Scotland, say.

The fourth method seems a variation of the fifth involving a first step of condensation and reboiling. It may have been a predecessor in Bourbon County of the Bourbon steam method, or perhaps was more generally used outside Bourbon County as it was in circa-1870. Even though condensate is produced in a doubler - I am speaking now of the fifth or Bourbon steam method - this approach seems to have been regarded as a more efficient way to distill than distilling successively in two stills. There is less wastage presumably when the spirit is condensed and re-vaporised within an enclosed vessel (doubler) than when it is condensed in the atmosphere through a coil and then re-boiled. This is what the article is getting at I think when it refers to the absence in the fifth method of condensing through a coil or worm before the doubling. So, method five was an efficient no-singlings method and I wonder if the fame of Bourbon whiskey can be attributed to that fact, to the point where that method became utilized everywhere in Kentucky and to this day.

On the other hand, we know the term Bourbon acquired cachet decades before 1870, before the all-metal "American still" (obviously a column still) existed. Perhaps though in Bourbon County but not elsewhere in Kentucky, no matter what still was used, the spirit was always barreled at a high enough proof to exclude the impurities contained in singlings but low enough to make what we know today as traditional whiskey. And this could have been so even when Bourbon County was a sight bigger than it was in 1870.

Alternatively, it may have been a coincidence that Bourbon steam whiskey happened in 1870 to be associated with an (indeed) shrunken Bourbon County.

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Unread postby gillmang » Wed Feb 13, 2008 3:14 pm

The website http://www.demrum.com shows a photograph of part of a wooden column still used in Guyana to make rum. Also pictured is a scale model of this still to show its full dimensions. The still, while antique and undoubtedly of 1800's manufacture, appears to be two stories high, so it is not a little piece of equipment!

The photo of the actual still appears to be of its lower portion and shows heavy wood planks bolted by rods and large caps or nuts of some kind.

You can find this on page 2 under the heading "Production Process".

The accompanying text states that this is the only wooden still of its kind still operating - and I believe it is similar to the "log-and-copper" stills referred to in the 1870 article from New York Times which made bourbon whiskey in Kentucky. The text also states that the rums made in the wooden still are neither light nor heavy - interpreting this statement, I think it means that the proof of the spirit from it is between neutral spirit stage and typical pot still levels - say around 150-160 or so - bourbon distilling territory as it happens, but extrapolations to 1800's U.S. practice are difficult since we don't know how high the log-and-copper stills were that made bourbon.

Also, the text states that the wood in the still helps to flavor the spirit - something that wouldn't occur with an all-metal still of course. Presumably there is metal of some kind though in the wooden still, maybe copper, to get the favorable effect of that metal on the spirit. The term "log-and-copper" suggests that bourbon makers knew that copper was beneficial to spirit quality in the 1800's. But my point being, the special taste imparted to whiskey white dog by a plank-lined still is one forever lost to history - unless someone decides to build a new wooden column still. An enterprising bourbon maker might consider renting the Guyana still (owned by Demerara Distillers Corporation of that country which makes a range of fine rums) to make a batch (as it were) of 1800's-style bourbon. But since bourbon must I think be distilled in the U.S. to be called that on the label, that won't work... I'd just build a new one!

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Unread postby cowdery » Wed Feb 13, 2008 9:44 pm

I've probably posted this before, but it is an illustration of a wooden still used in Canada in the late 19th century. The U.S. ones probably were very similar. I call it the box-o-rocks still.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Feb 14, 2008 8:11 am

The height of these would seem to be one story, lower than the Guyana still although I am not 100% sure of the latter's height.

The building in the illustration looks exactly like some of the structures still standing on Gooderham and Wort's historic property site about 3 miles from where I write, in fact I wonder if the depiction was taken from that very site and distillery. If you look inside one of those buildings today the view is similar to what you see in the illustration except the wood stills are long gone (odd pieces of other equipment are still standing, though).

The shape of these is rounded and the Guyana one is square, but otherwise they seem not that different. I am not sure if the Guyana one uses plates or packing of some kind. Stones would have added another flavor variable to the white dog.

It may be that the proof issuing from these Canadian stills was relatively low since I believe the spirit was leached through maple charcoal vats after distillation and later, subjected to further distillations (i.e., in a rectification tower or maybe a pot still or doubler in some cases).

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Unread postby cowdery » Thu Feb 14, 2008 2:07 pm

Yes, it is Gooderham and Wort's.

There is another picture on the same page, very similar, of the vessels used for rectifying the spirit by passing it through charcoal or bone dust. They look exactly like the stills, upside down, with the widest part at the top. I don't know if it was always maple charcoal, but charcoal leaching was common throughout North America, not just in Tennessee.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Feb 14, 2008 5:04 pm

"Yes, it is Gooderham and Wort's". [quote from Chuck's last post].

That's amazing, I honestly did not know that! That shows how little those buildings have changed!

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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Feb 14, 2008 5:11 pm

By the way when I said "later" the spirits were subjected to double-distillation, I meant, later in the 19th century, not later during the process when subjected to charcoal leaching. I obtained this information from Tanya MacKinnon's thesis on the historical geography of Canadian distilling in the 1800's, to which I've referred on the board before.

I believe Ms. MacKinnon did state that maple charcoal was used in the Canadian leaching vats.

She also said that the vats were dispensed with once distillers were able to rectify by further distilling the product (presumably in a second, rectification tower, she did as I recall refer to a second distillation after the first in a column still). What is called Bourbon steam, and probably more pertinently what is called highwines, in the 1870 NYT article probably corresponds to this later stage of the Canadian technology. Indeed, it is (more or less) the last stage, since it seems (per M. Jackson's studies and my own inferences) that the Canadian light whisky style was perfected by the later 1800's.

Keith Richards once said that upon the invention (or at least, last perfection) of the electric guitar in the early 1950's it was rendered complete, perfect, unimprovable.

One might say that of Canadian whisky - if one was a fan. I am, but only when it is at its best. :)

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Unread postby cowdery » Thu Feb 14, 2008 7:26 pm

American distillers use a column in which beer enters about three-fourths of the way up. Everything below the beer entry is stripping, everything above is rectification, then it goes to the doubler for additional, in effect, rectification.

Canadians, I'm pretty sure, use a two-column still in which the first is strictly for stripping and the second is for rectification. Beer enters at the top of the first column, then vapor from the first column enters the second column at the bottom. There is also reflux going on in the second column.

I saw a "Modern Marvels" on the History Channel the other night. They were showing the brandy distillery in California where Heaven Hill's Christian Brothers brandy is made. It is a two-column system such as I described above.

Aneas Coffey's original was also two columns. The American system is really a variation.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Feb 21, 2008 2:44 pm

Chuck and Gary,
Thanks for posting this information. It has been very informative. I have been busy and have not had time to comment before, but today, thanks to an ice storm and being home early from work I have had more time to catch up on reading the posts.

The American column is indeed a variation of the Coffey still. The American started changing the design as soon as they started using the still and continue to do so today. I think the big change is the use of stainless steel. The removal of the copper from the process has changed the taste of the product somewhat. The distillers still use copper either in the head or in the form of copper wool added to the still, but it is not the same as the 100% copper stills like the one at Stitzel-Weller.

The leeching process has indeed been around for a long time. The Beale-Booth Family papers at the Filson have an illustration and instructions for making such a devise on a smaller scale. Their device was made from a barrel and not a 10 foot column. This paper dates to about 1810 and was in Jefferson County, Kentucky.
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Unread postby tmckenzie » Thu Feb 21, 2008 4:14 pm

the log and copper still that they are talking about is a hollow log that would be stood up and filled with beer and had a copper cap on it that lead the vapor to the condenser.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Feb 21, 2008 4:51 pm

Would the wooden column not need to be filled with packing or divided by plates? (Mike in your research, have you come across wooden stills?). I assumed these were early column stills and multi-chambered or packed since the article states they employ steam to heat the beer. There must have been different types of wood still since the Gooderham & Worts one was rounded and the surviving rum still I mentioned is square-looking; I don't doubt logs were used to emulate columns, originally, probably, as a very artisan process. But how would the steam have been applied to vaporise the alcohol unless the logs were divided by perforated plates or filled with stones or other packing?

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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Feb 21, 2008 5:20 pm

Gary,
The most references I have seen to "running it off the log" were wooden pot still type stills. I have also seen (in the Filson museum in fact) a copper still with a wooden head.
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Feb 22, 2008 8:34 am

That's interesting. If there was no pack or plating, indeed this would seem a type of pot still. Maybe steam was applied indirectly somehow to boil the beer. If a pot still though (the one mentioned in the article), I wonder why a second distillation was not mentioned. Anyway, fascinating stuff.

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Unread postby cowdery » Fri Feb 22, 2008 1:23 pm

The wooden column stills such as the Canadian ones pictured were, I believe, packed stills as opposed to plate stills. Some were full of rocks, others with scrap copper. Anything solid can provide the necessary surface area where the steam can interact with the beer, but copper has additional benefits.

On the subject of copper, all American whiskey column stills today contain some copper but, as Mike indicates, it's often a copper mesh at the very top. There are still some that, like Stitzel, are all-copper on the inside or, like Heaven Hill, all copper in the rectification section.

Copper has to be cleaned regularly to keep it active and, because it is active, it will wear away over time and has to be replaced. The stills at Woodford, for example, have already been patched a few times and probably will have to be replaced within the next couple of years. Dave Scheurich says they actually have the order in to the manufacturer, with all the specifications. All they have to do is call them and say "go."
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