Hoosier Apple Brandy Certification

Indiana has a long history with the production of seasonal farm-distiller produced apple brandy from the pre-prohibition era. In fact the state was once the largest producer of apple brandy globally. With the rise in craft spirits distilleries in the state it becomes more important than ever that we as distillers secure our distilling legacy and future by creating a cooperative “mark” and set of identity standards based on historic production protocol in order to create a category of spirit that is distinctly and completely representative of our distilling heritage and prowess. Creating this category also gives rice to the opportunity for existing farmers and aspiring farmers to diversify and introduce much needed horicultural diversity into the state.

This is a rough draft that I created on my own sitting on my porch. I hope to work with other interested Indiana distillers to further refine, edit, and subsequently create an independent and voluntary logo and certification for said category similar in nature to New York States Empire Rye Designation Input is welcome via:


I will be uploading some definitions, history and explanations/thoughts on individual sections in coming days.
Stay tuned, this should be fun and get plenty of reactions.

Hoosier Apple Brandy Category
Requirements for participation:

Adulteration: Nothing but pure Indiana water may be added to the spirit post distillation. No coloring agents, sweeteners or ageing alternatives (Bois, oak chips, or spirals) may be used
Maturation Statement: No minimum age statement is required. Spirit may be aged or unaged as both forms remained historically popular up to prohibition.

Cask Type:. No casks smaller than the historically appropriate 30 gallon. None larger than 68 gallon hogshead. Construction of oak species of producers preference. Re-charred or re-toasted barrels or dry barrels from Indiana only beer, wine, spirits, or syrup producers may be used.

Distillation Location: Must be fermented and distilled in the state of Indiana by a licensed distillery. Product of one distiller (who must reside in state), in one distillery, in a single year (between Jan. 1 and December 31’st).

Method of Distillation: Must be distilled via pot still or three chamber still as was the Historical method. Still may make use of retorts, thump barrels, doublers, or forced reflux mechanisms (dephlegmator). Continuous columns are disallowed as they are non reflective of the traditional apple brandy production practices of the state of Indiana.
Average proof of hearts collected not to exceed 170 proof. No lower than 100 proof.

Raw Materials: A 10 year grace period shall be adopted for sourcing apples from within the state as the historic orchards were destroyed by Prohibition, this will hopefully spur the planting of new trees within the state.
Juice/Fruit may be sourced from any state contiguous of Indiana to maintain regionality and teroir. After ten years 50% of all fruit must come from within the state of Indiana. Apples of all types are allowed but must be a blend of no less than three types if sourced from out of state. Single varietal apple brandy may only use the Hoosier Apple Brandy designation if the fruit is sourced entirely within the state of Indiana.

Fermentation: Fermented material can be from juice or fruit mash. Mash can be strained of solids if desired. Any water additions to fermenting materials must come from an Indiana water source.
No less than 1.5 lbs fruit per gallon may be used
Wine or mash may be chaptalized to no more than 1.075 Specific Gravity or 18.5 Brix

Yeast: Must be sourced within Indiana to promote regionality and teroir. Can include natural yeast on fruit or strain originating out of state but maintained and propagated by the distiller.

Ageing/Maturation:. Must be 100% aged in Indiana. No finishing is allowed.

Bottling: Must be bottled exclusively by and for the distillery who fermented, distilled and matured the apple brandy.
To be called “Estate” Hoosier Apple Brandy the fruit must be sourced 100% from a farm associated with or owned by the distillery or an employee thereof.

To be called a Blended Hoosier Apple Brandy and to encourage collaborative efforts each Independent component of the blend must meet the standards set out above. Bottling requirement of participating collaborators is waved and bottling happens at one of the distilleries involved in the project.

A love letter to the simple pot still

A love letter to Pot Still Distillation
Simple Alembic

The humble pot still has existed in some form since the advent of distilling. Starting with the simple alquatar and moving forward to complex hybrid systems complete with gin baskets, columns, bubble plates, jacketed cooling systems and more. The pot still, although not widely understood by the general public, nor even by a lot of modern column still distillery “operators” is probably the single most recognizable symbol of distilling in the eye of the general public and has been incorporated by many distilling companies or spirits related companies due to this recognition.
Spirit Still
Pot with rectification lenses

Although the pot still is one of the oldest forms of distilling equipment it’s place in the modern distilling industry, despite myriad technical advances, is very secure and for most of the world pot distilled spirits are the mark of quality and craftsmanship. Pot stills are widely recognized by producers and imbibers because of their built-in inefficiencies which when well executed can produce superior products which require the trained senses of an experienced distiller in the process of distillation.
If one thinks of the humble moonshiner, they think of the pot still. If one thinks of Single Malt Scotch they think of the pot still, if one thinks of Cognac they think of the pot still, and if one delves into the history of any potable spirit with the exception of high proof ethanol the pot still will have no doubt have shaped the history and the taste profile of each of those spirits. Yes doubters, this includes Bourbon and Rye.
waterringFettercairn water Cascade for forced reflux

It isn’t my intent in this short introduction to get into technicalities but instead to confess my love of pot stills and all their eccentricates. Here I will focus on all those things that for me make pot stills special in a way that no other system could ever be.
Lomond still. Similar to a modern hybrid or old fashioned Saville still with three plates all independently cooled and capable of tilting.

Pot Stills at their core are most simply about the retention and concentration of flavor and more importantly aroma derived from the raw material of fermentation. Pot stills in their most basic form are agricultural and traditional cultural tools and the distilling carried out on such systems is reflective of the regional agriculture and cultural culinary norms of the community within which they are operated. The operation of pot stills is always agricultural in nature, even when industry is involved. From the earliest time the pot still was looked at and understood to be yet another farm implement, albeit an important one capable of transmuting raw beer (for whiskey) or wine (for brandy) or botanicals (absinthe, gin, aquavit) into a more portable and value added product that in itself offered psychoactive relaxation and the opportunity to experience the aroma of a time and place at a later time and place often removed by the cold weather seasons or by miles traveled. Pot stills are Alchemy, pot stills are sexy.
PureS1 Double retort rum still.

Pot stills are batch systems meaning that their industrialization and therefore bastardization is limited. A pot still can never handle anymore beer or wine than the capacity the boiler (or pot) has to hold or than what time has provided to distill correctly. Over the centuries many have tried to “hack” the pot still system in order to speed up the process and in every case the system failed. Often these trends focused on using shallow stills that could rapidly distill and be refilled from pre-heaters and generally the patents for these apparatus were and their invention was spurned on by the ignorance of government tax collectors who themselves wanted to gather the maximum amount of profit possible with little to no effort on their own behalf. Where I’m from we call this Carpetbagging. In every instance the “Improvements” would fail to meet the quality expected by the drinking public and in every instance the one who truly profited was either the legal distiller who stuck with the tried and true principals of the pot still or the illicit distiller who could not be pressured to give up his or her trade and dedication to the old ways handed down from generation to generation.
Tennessee Thumper Still Rev. Thomas Green model with bypass and two independent vapor paths containing four retorts each.

Pot stills are reflective and percussive instruments. The operation thereof is a simple mimicry of natures processes of evaporation and condensation as well as other atmospheric conditions and subsequently many variables can affect the distillation process in these systems. All manner of variables has profound effects on simple pot still distillation. Barometric pressure changes from storm fronts and high-pressure fronts can slow distillation the same as turning down the fuel used to heat the system. Because the “head” of the still heats slower and cools quicker than the pot more reflux is created during cold weather or in cool environments than in hot weather or warm environments. This reflux raises proof and purity and drops out heavier and more aromatic and flavorful components meaning that a pot still subsequently makes a lighter style in cool weather than in warm weather. The set-up of the lyne arm itself and the subsequent angle of the vapor leaving the still for the condenser can create vast differences in natural reflux as well. The very mood of the distiller as well as physical or spiritual ailments can affect pot stills as well. A true pot still is always operated by a true distiller using their senses to determine what fractions of alcohol and wherein the distillation of that alcohol that “cuts” or the removal of unwanted components (Fores, Heads, Hearts, Tails) are made. If a distiller walks into work in a great mood and with plenty of sleep as well as a palate clean of heavy foods he or she will make an entirely different cut to the product than a distiller who comes to work in a bad mood, little sleep, and having made poor dietary choices for the job at hand (spicy foods, smoking, etc.). The distiller will use every sense that they have to make those cuts. Every system has a sound, every fraction of alcohol a distinct aroma, taste, and feel (dry, oily), and the simple observation by sight of the speed of distillation or the quick read of a hydrometer even inaccurate will tell the tale (or tails!).

Moon phases greatly effect distillation on pot still systems. Just as the moon has a pronounced effect in the atmosphere of the earth such as high tide and low tide or the high turnout of medical emergencies during full moons so too does the moon have an effect on the liquid and vapor contained in the enclosed system. Full Moons produce quicker distillations with all variables otherwise remaining the same than do new moons. So called “super” moons have their effects as well.

Pot stills are individuals. Each has its own set of quirks. Even stills made by the same manufacturer, of the same design, and run by the same parameters turn out different distillates from one another. You could have five stills produced by the same builder to the same specifications, run in the same building, run by the same distiller, and running the same product and each of those five stills will produce a slightly different flavor profile. Pot still distillation is a LIVING and DYNAMIC art that can not be mimicked by other systems. By the variables above you can see that consistency is not created by pot stills, it is instead managed over time by the distiller or blender testing their stocks and making blends that fit a “profile” for a product. In fact, we want variation, we pot still distillers love the ability to create unique one-off products and see the diversity of a single grain bill or varietal with far more variation than the simple placement of a barrel in different locations during ageing to create individual expressions.

Due to the stated individuality of the pot still and because of old school superstition every pot still should have a name. The still should be run a time or two and evaluated by the distiller for the unique properties it presents and named appropriately thereafter. Myself, I tend to name my pots after goddesses of antiquity or Biblical characters, but always, always, of the feminine persuasion, pot stills do after all have curves, dints and dings, but also present perfection just like the feminine form.

Although the batch size and industrial efficiency of the pot still is limited the production of a myriad of diverse spirits is not at all limited by a well-designed pot still and the many options that can be added to them. Simple cooling coils or jackets on the head or line arm or the placement of a dephlegmator can allow for the production of amazing, light bodied and subtle spirits or the elimination of unwanted congeners. The implementation of a bubble plate column can raise proof and purity for the production of single pass style spirits or high proof spirits. The addition of multiple vapor paths can allow for the implementation of “gin baskets” holding botanicals of great quality and can create spirits unlike any that ever existed before. Simple “retorts” or thump barrels can allow for the raising of proof and purity, the addition of unique and beautiful flavor compounds, the building of unique acids for esterification, and so much more. To boot these many additions and the flavorful spirits that they create can be blended in many proportions to create an entirely different style of spirit. Heavy bodied whiskies or brandies can also be used to make unique botanical creations and develop flavor bridges between otherwise unrelated components. The sky is not the limit, there is no limit, and despite our heritage of pot still distillation we are nowhere near the apex of the possibilities!

The old-fashioned pot still is in fact still the best option for true artists, true farmers, true lovers of an ancient by not outmoded heritage.

Of Distilling and Agriculture.

This past weekend I was invited by Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky as well as my historian and reenactor friend Brian Cushing to visit the on site farm distillery and demonstrate the mashing in of a 100% malt corn mashbill. We chose this mashbill as it was a bit of a progenerator of Bourbon and would have been a common product of Farm-distillers of the time period. I was also asked by Brian to present a small speech about the connections between distilling and agriculture which I thought I would also publish at The Alchemist Cabinet.
If you have never visited Locust Grove please make plans to do as such, it is a beautiful location with a deep, rich, and fastenating history! I will be back at the farm-distiller on September 7’th this year for another demonstration.
Also, a huge shout-out to my amazing wife Kimberly Marie Bishop as well as my brother/videographer D.J. Henderson; without their help we would have struggled to keep the operation moving!

LG speech:
Distillation and agriculture; Two human driven and nature reliant halves of one similar endeavor. The endeavor to create a human existence not based merely on survival but also on the ability to thrive in and enjoy our primal experience when, if, and where possible. Responsibly obviously.

In Kentucky and Hoosier Occupied Northern Kentucky (Indiana) we are all very familiar with the distilling side of this equation as the great American Spirit Bourbon and her older sister rye thrive in our markets as well as in the foreign market. Everywhere we turn we see the distilled spirit industry permeating the mainstream culture and we reap the benefit, both in quality, but also in economy. We are to a much lesser extent however in modern times directly connected to the agriculture side of the same equation unfortunately.

But the root of distilling is always in contact with the soil, the sun, and the water and it has always been as such. The fermentative arts of wine, mead, and beer making were the direct catalyst of agricultural endeavor and the great builder of our societies and it is directly from these traditions which we can attribute the traditional farm-distiller, or in many cases the gardener-distiller.

As distilling entered the underground in Europe in the 12 century and subsequently joined the mainstream by the 14 century the old copper kettle or pot still as we know it became an indispensable tool of the commoner. In the earliest of times it was looked on with reverence, as an almost magical gift of the gods, and the approach to distilling so reflected such thoughts, but as the device became more commonplace it was looked upon as an implement of preservation, medication, and recreation. If one were to ask a farm-distiller of the 18’th century what he thought of a copper still, I wouldn’t say it were unexpected for him or her to think of it the same way they would a plow, harrow, or even a mule. It was a means to an end, yet another farm implement that made an otherwise hardscrabble life far more efficient and enjoyable, sometimes even profitable.

Throughout Europe every culture had particular tenants of their local region. Staple crops, dishes, and subsequently distilled spirits reflective of the terroir of their region and the palate of the people who lived there. The art of distilling itself was based on localized knowledge and available ingredients as well as some of the old Alchemical tenants. Even the word “Spirit” was derived directly from the produce of field as to capture the spirit was to capture the very “essence” of what made a crop what it was. Apple brandy was as much about capturing and preserving the aroma of the apple as it was at the peak of ripeness in order to enjoy it on a dreary mid-winter day as it was about intoxication. The preservative effect of alcohol was as much respected for stopping the spoilage of fresh herbs and extracting the elixir like qualities inherent in those ingredients as it was for the the elation it caused on the human mind and body. Not that anything is wrong indeed with intoxication or elation as part of the prize of this new art was an ability to loosen social structure, wind down, and enjoy yourself after your agricultural labors.

In modern times we can often name off a long list of “master” distillers. But how many fans of spirits can name a single farmer also responsible for that spirit? How many “masters” distillers are experienced farmers today? Truly, and perhaps sadly, something about our beloved distilling art has been lost to time in the way of experience and regionality, although the growth of craft spirits producers and the continuing experimentation of large firms gives rise to hope that the integral link between yesterdays commonality and todays and industry isn’t completely broken.

The types of spirits produced during distillation have always relied exclusively on both the person crafting those spirits as well as the available agricultural ingredients. Every region had its spirit or even spirits, and the expertise to craft those spirits was handed down, either within the family, or amongst masters and apprentice. Eastern Europe is well known for their fruit brandies; Slivovitz, Palinka, and others. Still backyard farm/garden distillers ply their trade seasonally, making wine from fruit collected from the commons or their own backyard to be distilled in small Alembics, either owned or rented, or sometimes at a communal distillery. Often these acts, carried out in the fall, are accompanied by great celebration, feasting, and the butchering of farm animals or other acts of family and community. The spirits produced are to be used throughout the year in celebrations of life, including weddings and funerals, and as aperitif or digestiefs during holiday meals. In France three well known brandy styles based on geography and cuisine. In Gascony Armagnac is still produced by mostly untrained folk distillers by way of a single pass distillation. Every estate sets aside some production for the Distillatuer Ambulant or traveling distiller, who often hitches a small mobile distillery to his tractor and travels the country roads from estate to estate. The brandy produced is often described as “rustic” in nature, and the producers will tell you that they do not make this brandy for themselves, or their children, they make it for their grandchildren. Even the ageing is carried out in small outbuildings around the farm.

Cognac of course is the most industrial of the three, but even here the big producers buy a vast majority of their double pot distilled stocks for blending from farm-distillers running tiny operations on small acreages.

To the North is Normandy. Too cold in general for grape production they long ago focused their agrarian efforts on the production of Pome fruits such as apple and pears and found that cider and cheese were very worth their time and passion. The byproduct Calvados (apple brandy) stands as one of the most elegant spirits available. No one should live and die on this planet without a good glass of true Calvados.

Of course you can’t skip over Germany, particularly the Black Forrest region from which so many Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana distilling families can trace their ancestry. No one understands fruit brandies and rye whiskies better historically. The production of fruit schnapps from mash brandy has been happening here since time immemorial and the quality of the brandy is a direct reflection of both time, tradition, and subsequently the quality of the fruit and knowledge of the farmers.

In Italy Grappa was a natural reaction to an abundant agricultural/alcohol resource. The skins, seeds, and residue of grape wine production.

Ireland and Scotland owe their distilling heritage to well educated monks who understood that the gift of seed to grow into life giving sustenance could also enhance such life by way of Uisquebetha or Aquavit, the miraculous and sometimes healing herb infused water of life. Even in the far northern parts of Scotland the growing of Beire barley was central to the illicit farm distillers who held out until the 1830’s. Plying their trade for the thirsty townsfolk who were unimpressed by the gargantuan commercial distillers who were removed from the agricultural fields and using cheap methods of rapid distillation. Distilling was Value Added agriculture long before the modern food movement made farmers markets and home canning trendy reflections of long-gone quaint traditions.

The Dutch made use of the many botanicals they had access to from their trade routes and thus gin became a phenomenon of agricultural and horticultural diversity. Now distillers look at Gin and think “how can I use local agriculture to put a “sense of place” in the bottle”? In the swiss Alps sugar beets, wormwood, anise, and fennel became the base for “La Blue” or later “la Clandestine” style absinthe. Even the Nordic countries adopted something similar to early Irish or Scottish spirit, something they called directly Aquavit, derived from caraway, coriander, and dill.

The eastern world gave us Baijiu (the most popular spirit in the world) and Scochu. Both originally from rice and later both adopted Sorghum and Sweet potatoes.

In the English Countryside in the 16’th and 17’th centuries most homes had a garden house and most of those garden houses had a section laid out for the distillation of potable alcohol and strong elixirs made from the produce of the home, often by the wife or the housemaid of the home. Indeed, women have often been the “master” distillers of their domain. I long for a day when the law allows every garden shed to have a 10-gallon copper pot to produce essential oils and medicines again…. alas, death and taxes.

Of course, not everything in the history of agriculture or distilling is ever completely rosy and romantic. By the 1600s sugar cane was imported into the Caribbean and large sugar plantations arose and eventually gave way to distilleries employing slave labor and expanding the market for such agriculture derived labor exploitation across the Caribbean and southlands of the United States. Thus, rose the unfortunate Triangle Trade. Molasses for Rum, Rum for Slaves, Slaves for Molasses.

The new world though brought many new agricultural possibilities. Maize or Native Corn was unlike any crop seen in the old world. Grain on a handle, easy to grow, easy to cultivate, and very easy to ferment and distill. The yield of such a crop was outstanding at harvest time just as it was at the end of distillation. Corn and the culture of mill building and flat boating created entirely new agrarian based economic structures.

Isolation from markets and commodities gave rise to desperation which so often leads to inspiration. The frontier was always home to berries and wild fruits. Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio certainly saw the domestication, cultivation, and distillation of their fair share of paw paw’s, persimmons, and mulberry cultivars. Distillers in Switzerland county Indiana even created their own Hoosier take on Absinthe by using wild relatives of wormwood and cultivated botanicals in the 1830’s.

Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson hoped that the United States would become and maintain and agricultural society of Yeomen farmers. When we were British in name, we consumed rum, but as the spirit of independence grew in the hearts of farmers and gave them the bravery to fight for freedom despite their lack of military training, we began looking for a spirit to call our own, one we could grow ourselves. We ended up with two initially, both old world staples but made uniquely American by the terroir of our land; Apple Brandy and Rye Whiskey.

Throughout distilling history in the United States, the still has often been the piece of equipment that kept the farm in family hands. Illegally and legally. Even George Washington NEEDED a distillery to make his estate profitable, and it took a Scottish farm manager with distilling experience to convince him as such.

As frontiers opened up so did grist mills and subsequently distillation as a farm service. People think of mills as simply tools for creating grist for cornmeal or flour but they would be very wrong. Often in the frontier there was little or no money for the average farm family to trade with but grain and fruit were both common. Of their own accord not worth much but when transformed by the natural power of fire and copper to evaporate and condense their value sky rocketed. The mills would grind grain on shares and keep some of the farmers grain as payment, some of this extra corn, wheat, etc. was ground and shipped south on flat boats but the fast majority was distilled on site and traded locally, still more was put in barrels and shipped alongside the grist on those same flatboats. The waste from the distilling operation was used to feed cattle and hogs onsite and as such the mills main exports where whiskey/brandy, pork, and flour or cornmeal, most generally in that order.

The Ohio Valley gave birth to two types of spirits. One is Bourbon, based quite obviously on corn, but the second, the lesser well known of the two is Applejack (of course pear and peach brandy were common as well). A cultural reminder of the number of descendants in northern Kentucky and southern Indiana that can trace their families back to the Black Forrest. In many ways this was the last hurrah of the olden times farm distillers locally. An entire culture grew around the production of this now virtually unknown spirit, made from the pomace of the fruit, skin, seeds, and all and fermented with the miraculous limestone water of the region. Agriculturally speaking the Ohio Valley became the fruit basket of the United States. By the late 1800’s most counties had upwards of 125,000 apple trees and multiple part time distilleries making anywhere from three barrels a year to upwards of 1200 barrels a year. To put that in perspective it takes one to three bushels of apples to make a single barrel. That’s a lot of orchardists and a lot of nursery men. One distillery in the region fed two distilleries and consisted of 1,100 acres of fruit trees. This culture gave rise to myriad cultivars of apple trees as the old methodology stood the test of time. Though trees were occasionally grafted and cloned they were more often grown from the pips or seeds of the fruit, giving rise to various hybrids, some good eating, some terrible, but all were selected for the production of fine applejack brandy. Old favorites like the Turley Winesap come from this culture and who knowns how many hundreds or thousands of others came and went.
The Fleenor Peach, a peach of much home gardening repute and commercial recognition in the 1800’s shares a similar background. It was carried to Southern Indiana by Abraham Fleenor and put into distillation in the earliest known Hoosier Distillery in the year 1806. It had made the distant journey from Tidewater Virginia and was known to come true from seed reliably. It also grew quickly. Fields of these trees were planted from seed just as any annual crop would have been. They were grown on 12 year rotations. The year after the first field was planted the one adjacent would be, the next year the next field and so on. At the end of the cycle the first field was cut clean for firewood for the home or the still and the field was replanted. So pervasive did this little seedling tree become that they can still be found growing around old still sites all over the Ohio Valley.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and the introduction of prohibition as well as fire blight brought this chapter of agrarian distilling to a close. Many families attempted to continue in the old farm distiller traditions throughout prohibition but if they were caught running illicit stills using the raw material, they grew themselves the excise would often cut the orchards down themselves. Of course, the commercial utility of these apples was questionable outside of distillation as well as they were never selected for hand eating and subsequently no market existed. As such the farmer often cut his own orchard down and replaced it with something more sensible, usually something like corn, and that corn like the apples before it eventually found its way into a copper still on some clear spring on the farm. FB_IMG_1557752119811
With Brian Cushing and Shawn Stevens (of Vendome) and my Dona Jug Maria.

Capturing and culturing the Daisy Spring Distillery yeast strain

If you have been reading for a while you probably remember me posting last year about capturing the yeast strain used at the now infamous McCoy Distillery in Orange County Indiana. I ended up employing that strain last fall in a practical demonstration at Locust Grove farm Distillery (the mash was later distilled by my brother Jade Peterson at Kentucky Artisan Distillery) last fall where we were filmed by Townsend’s making historic apple mash/apple jack brandy. The video is below:

In the meantime I’ve been doing a lot of research on the old Daisy Spring Distillery located in Lawrence County Indiana at Spring Mill State Park. I started wondering about the feasibility of capturing the strain used here by Johnathan Turley at the end of the 19’th century after speaking about the history of Distilling in Southern Indiana at the mill there this last Saturday and finding out that the logs (as well as the remaining hogshead and scrap staves) are original to the building. I decided that the chances of catching yeast from the site were pretty damn good, particularly given the luck I had at the McCoy Distillery.
On Monday i prepped two quart jars of mash at home. Corn malt, Marris Otter, and just a tiny bit of sweet corn and placed one jar inside a rebuilt hogshead and another next to an original hogshead designed to look like a flake stand for a worm. Near this was an old hollowed out log that used to be a storage bin for Distillery grain that is now filled with old hogshead/fermentation barrel staves. Tuesday evening I picked up the sample jars and by Tuesday night they were running fast and hard!

The aroma of the yeast is unlike any I have ever captured before, it’s cinnamon, but not cinnamon alone, in fact the closest thing that comes to mind is Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I have no doubt this will be a great Distilling yeast as it finished Fermentation by Friday morning and I’m now propigation it with plans to incorporate it into Distilling at several permitted historic sites.
I have no way to prove or verify this is the strain used by the Distillery but given it’s unique quality aromatics and ability to synthesize sugar to alcohol quickly and efficiently I have no reason to believe otherwise and I look forward to seeing what she can do!IMG_20190429_163910237.jpg

The Blue Flame Revisited

A couple of years back I published a copy of The Blue Flame, a pamphlet written possibly internally by ARAMCO employees stationed in Saudi Arabia explaining the simple distillation of ethanol on small home built pot stills. At that time, for some reason and I’m still not entirely sure why, I was thinking ARAMCO was a British company, but it was most certainly not as it was composed primarily of American Expatriates. Here is what I wrote for the intro at that time:

A recent conversation on social media between renowned spirits writers Fred Minnick (Bourbon Women, Bourbon Curious, Rum Curious) and Matthew Rowley (Rowley’s Whiskey Forge) brought up an interesting comment from Mathew Rowley about a document titled “The Blue Flame”.

“The Blue Flame” is a pamphlet that was apparently an in-house document issued by Brittish oil giant Aramco in the 70’s and given to British ex-Pats living in the company owned compounds in Saudi Arabia before the Saudi Royal Family took ownership of the oil reserves. Saudi Arabia has strict laws against drinking, production, or ownership of alcohol that the company knew would not set well with their hard-drinking British employees who would live in walled compounds with all the amenities of a working upper end middle class neighborhood, all but alcohol that is.

I have spent some time studying the history of this document and these clandestine still builders and distillers, there are many message boards and stories out there for those willing to look. I have seen multiple accounts as to the wide availability of this document as well as to the availability of stills to workers who wanted them, the addition of block re enforced rooms off of company built houses which feature only a door from the outside, an air conditioner and water hookup (so as to spare the neighborhood should someone blow up a still), and the availability of large amounts of sugar, grape juice, yeast, and all the materials necessary for spirits production at the commissaries in the compounds. One fellow even remarked that probably half of the people he knew at the compound were distilling.

Since then I have been in contact with a number or ARAMCO Brats (children of employees who lived and potentially distilled in the compounds) as they are called, by way of e-mail and comments on the blog. I’m always glad to hear from folks with first hand experience and also glad to correct any mistakes on my behalf. Here are two of the comments left on the blog which shine a new light on the situation.


and ARAMCO Brat says: Robert is correct and I order to get a still you put your name on a list and when Aramco was finished manufacturing it would be distributed to those on the list. They stalled doing this in late 70’s not sure of time frame I was 8. But I do remember when it was the weekend for dad to make his hooch and mom her wine

I have also made contact with Brian Reed who has been a huge help and who is helping put me into contact with some former ARAMCO brats with experience. Brian has added a lot of information to the conversation via e-mail:

Blue Flame – A couple of gentle corrections on your reposting of the Blue Flame. “ARAMCO” is Arabian American Oil Company and was formed between American oil companies and the government of Arabia. It’s now called Saudi Aramco and is wholly owned by the Saudi government. While the British were all over the Middle East (and the world for that matter), they were not an involved interest in ARAMCO. And the Blue Flame was not a British publication/paper/notebook. Yes, there were mad dogs and Englishmen who were bent on finding spirits in the desert. The colloquial name for homemade hootch was (and probably still is) “Siddiqui” an Arab word meaning “my friend.” Here’s a link: https://www.siddiquirums.com/history-2/

Thanks for your post. It is making the rounds on ARAMCO expat social media.

When I was growing up in Arabia, the distance – both physical and cultural – between the ARAMCO employees and the Saudis was greater than it is today. Making booze was illegal but somewhat tolerated as long as no one did stupid things. There was a lot at stake, the least of which was the loss of a job. Today, it’s a bit more nuanced and perhaps dangerous. There is no physical fence surrounding the company compounds and the tolerance for bad behavior is very, very low.

There was a lot of chatter about your post – with an inordinate amount of boo/hiss when it came to the reference to all things British. This FB group is comprised of all the children of ARAMCO employees starting as early as 40s. We are the “brats,” a name coined by the armed forces kids originally. ARAMCO formed a few towns that made up our universe – Dhahran, Abqaiq, Ras Tanura. Other locations were added in the late 70s. Each town or district served a primary function. Dhahran, where I grew up, was the administrative hub. My dad worked for the aviation department originally as a mechanic and then as a pilot. The company had a small fleet of planes used to move people and supplies around the country, and executives around the world. Abqaiq was exploration and drilling. Ras Tanura was refining and shipping. So while there were a lot of engineering types in each location, there were also folks who just kept the places going – school teachers, doctors, administrators, etc. Schools only went up to the 9th grade. After that, the vast majority of the students went to boarding schools around the globe.

During school breaks in 10th through the end of college, students return to these towns and the population swells a little with teens ready to not be too bored. There are myriad stories of returning students doing funny/stupid/incredible/thoughtful things. Just like any other place. However, it wasn’t like any other place so stories can be slightly more incredulous. For example, many of us made booze. We’d arrive home for the summer, find some 55 gallon drums (usually used for trash bins), make some mash and then distill. Even if your household was “dry,” you could be encouraged to help friends run the process. My group would run an 8-gallon still 24 hrs. a day to produce enough for parties, etc.

If you are looking for someone who is currently running their still (lots of equipment made it back to the U.S. when people retired), I’ll keep looking.

Needless to say I’m excited to speak with his contact. Also I’ve included the rest of my commentary from the earlier post and the full text below. You can also find the full text and a kind of alternate text called white lightning here:


The document has no copyright nor claim of ownership although it clearly reads as though it were written by someone with a good, clear, and sophisticated understanding of chemistry and distillation and I think it does likely trace it’s roots back to the company itself, although at the time obviously given the illegality of alcohol they would never have laid claim to it. It is easy to read and fairly sound in its methodology. It is not catered to those interested in making traditional pot distilled whiskey and brandies as the theory behind the document is to explain the simplest possible methods of fermentation and distillation that will yield acceptable and nearly neutral alcohol for flavoring which also would allow these working men to more readily avoid hangovers from the congeners (flavor) produced during distillation (however the recipes for finishing spirits call ubiquitously for sugar which is notorious for its effects on a hangover). All of the cuts are made simply by observing the temperature of the distillation on a simple pot still and the protocol calls for four distillations which the book claims will produce 180 proof or better alcohol of a neutral character. The base wine is essentially just a refined sugar wash so the flavor (short of that from yeast) would be minimal at best and a quadruple distillation would easily drop any leftover congeners. My only dispute (short of the ascertation that Bourbon distillers were doctoring their drinks at this time which is flat wrong) is in the proof of the finished spirits being as high as 180-190, a pot still simply cannot produce a spirit with that high of a proof without the addition of a reflux condenser.

I am republishing the document below, it is a good primer for those interested in distillation, although for those who want true involvement in what they do this is simply a “foot in the door”. I can not and will not encourage illicit distillation, but I will say that had I known of the existence of this document when I first started distilling then it would have been my “starting point”.


Appendix A: Alcoholic Beverage Chart
Appendix B: Strength and Source of Fermented Alcoholic beverages
Appendix C: Strength and Source of Distilled Alcoholic Beverages
Appendix D: Strength and Source of Compounded Alcoholic Beverages
Appendix E: Recipes

Those of us who have spent time in Saudi Arabia discovered that there is a generous quantity and wide variety of alcohol available even though it is absolutely forbidden to possess, sell, carry, drink or manufacture. Moreover, we have discovered, it is of excellent quality, nearly hangover-proof, and every ounce manufactured in almost any household kitchen! The preparation of such alcohol, Sadiki Juice, as we call it, is a respected secret, yet always eagerly shared with good friends.

Historically, alcoholic distillation began with the Arabs who, however, did not invent, but greatly improved the cumbersome methods used by the Greeks in distilling turpentine from rosin. The Arabs were the first to distill wine, and our wood alcohol is plainly Arabic in origin. The present prohibitions in Saudi Arabia is sternly enforced; especially by adherents of the Islam (Moslem) religion; hence, take care of this booklet and remember discreet handling is mandatory, particularly in Saudi Arabia.

These pages are a condensation of material written by countless investigators. We take little credit for them, other than providing you with this copy. All credit for the technical data and methodology outlined herein belongs to some gracious hosts “on the hill” and to the authors of the Encyclopedia Britannica published by William Benton, 1959; Colliers Encyclopedia published by P.F. Collier and Son, 1955; and Grossman’s Guide to Wine, Spirits and Beer by Harold J. Grossman.


Liquor includes all alcoholic beverages made by distillation, as distinguished from those made by fermentation such as beer and wine but even distilled liquors begin with a fermented alcoholic solution.

Any carbohydrate source, such as sugar, properly fermented and distilled, can produce a potable spirit, i.e. ETHYL ALCOHOL, more or less diluted with water and carrying volatile essences which give it a characteristic flavor.

If distillation is done efficiently and the distillate re-distilled, the final product is colorless, flavorless, pure ethyl alcohol and no testing analysis can reveal whether its source was wine, beets, potatoes, fruit, grain, or sugar. It is chemically the same, no matter what its source. Pure ETHYL ALCOHOL is a colorless liquid having a mild agreeable odor and a burning taste. It very easily mixes with water, thereby reducing its strength, and will absorb moisture from the air.

It should be noted that when alcohol is mixed with water, heat is evolved and a slight contraction of volume results. Thus, if a volume of 100 per cent alcohol were mixed with an equal volume of pure water the result would not be exactly 50 per cent alcohol but about 43 per cent alcohol by volume.

Many names are applied to ETHYL ALCOHOL, such as grain alcohol, ethanol, spirit-of-wine, or cologne spirits.

Pure ethyl alcohol boils at 172.9 deg. F. (78.3degC) It readily burns in air with an almost colourless, smokeless flame producing water and carbon dioxide at a heat a little over half as hot as burning gasoline.

Alcohol vapours form explosive mixtures with air when the concentration of alcohol vapour is greater than 4.3 per cent, but less than 19.0 per cent by volume. The flash point of 190 proof alcohol is 63 deg. F. (17.2degC); bourbon or 90 proof alcohol is 78 deg. F. (25.6degC) A liquid alcohol at above these temperatures is highly flammable.


Alcohol is toxic to man because it is absorbed rapidly within the body directly into the blood stream but is converted only slowly to carbon dioxide and water. The reported rates of conversion vary from 3.5 to 15 cc/hour. If alcohol is absorbed at a faster rate than the rate at which it is metabolised (converted), the alcohol content of the body fluids builds up and acts as a depressant on the central nervous system. The effect is relaxing rather than stimulating.

A concentration of about 0.2 per cent results in moderate (high) intoxication; 0.3 per cent results in severe (stoned) intoxication; and 0.4 per cent in deep anaesthesia which may be fatal.

Theoretically, a large man can drink more than a small man because the effects of alcohol are directly proportional to the per cent of alcohol present in the body. The key is the metabolic rate of each person, not entirely his weight or size. If your body can convert alcohol to harmless carbon dioxide and water faster than the next man, you can “hold” more alcohol. However, emotional and physical factors tend to change the metabolic rate from day to day and even from hour to hour so that “no one” can say with any certainty that it takes a specific number of drinks to make him drunk.

Alcohol is the most efficient and practical relaxer of the driving force in the brain. We do not advocate that anyone ever drink for the KICK – drinking should only be done for pleasure, relaxation and the release to which the beverage contributes; it should be made a part of the good life.

Just as prohibition is bad, so is excess, and in no case is this truer than in the use of alcoholic beverages. There is no better word of advice on this point than that which Lord Chesterfield gave to his son, in the letter dated London, March 27, 1747.

“Were I to begin the world again with the experience I now have of it , I would lead a life of real, not imaginary pleasures. I would enjoy the pleasures of the table, and of wine; but stop short of the pains inseparably annexed to an excess of either.”


The usual commercial liquor contains 95 per cent ethyl alcohol by volume and is called 190 U.S. proof spirit. U.S. proof is two times the per cent alcohol by volume at 60 deg. F. For example, 100 proof alcohol is 50 per cent alcohol by volume (British proof spirit is 57.1 per cent alcohol by volume).

Specially designated hydrometers are used to determine the alcoholic strength of watery solutions. They are graduated to indicate “0” for no alcohol, “100” for 50 per cent alcohol, and “200” for absolute or 100 per cent alcohol by volume at the standard temperature of 60 deg. F.

When you have distilled a volume of high proof alcohol, it is necessary to dilute (cut) it to the desired commercial strength. Do this simply by adding pure, clean water. If you want to exclude the flavour peculiar to some tap waters, then use distilled water. Distil your own water by running ordinary tap water through your still at a temperature in excess of 212 deg. F, (100degC) which is the boiling temperature of water.

To accurately cut the alcohol to a specific proof number, you need a thermometer, as well as a hydrometer. Slowly add water at 60 deg. F. to the alcohol, also at 60 deg. F., and check the proof number with the hydrometer as you proceed.


When yeast, a living fungi, grows in sugary solutions in the virtual absence of air, most of the sugar is converted into ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. The alcohol and carbon dioxide formed almost equals, in total weight and in quantity of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, the sugar consumed.

Common baker’s yeast is a mass of tiny plants akin to bacteria that reproduce by budding. The living bodies of the yeast produce enzymes (sucrose and zymase) which, in turn, break up sugar (or starch) into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The chemical reaction is expressed as:

C12H22O11 + H2O ——–>
Sucrose C6H12O6 + C6H12O6

Sucrose or Table Sugar
H2O ——–>
Yeast Glucose and frucrose
or simple sugars

C6H12O6 ——–>
Zymese 2 C2H5CH + 2 CO2

Glucose or Frucrose ——–>
Yeast Ethyl Alcohol
Carbon Dioxide gas
The formation of ethyl alcohol and carbon dioxide uses up almost 95 per cent of the sugar present and are the chief products of fermentation. However, the remaining 5 per cent of the sugar contributes to a simultaneous formation of several by-products (impurities) in very small proportions, such as glycerol, volatile acids, fusel oils or higher alcohol ethers, aldehydes and esters. It is these substances that give ethyl alcohol with its many peculiar flavours, colour and the seemingly ever-present “hangover”. More about this quality under the heading of distillation.

Incidentally, poisonous methyl alcohol is not produced by the fermentation of pure sugar. It is manufactured by the destructive distillation of wood or cellulose, hence it is called ‘wood alcohol’. The addition of fruit juices and fruit itself, which contain some starch, into the fermentation of pure sugar, as in home wine making, may yield some methyl alcohol but only in trace amounts. The pectin or starch compounds contained in fruits are generally insufficient to yield methyl alcohol of significant quantities, but from the view of eliminating hangover effect, any methyl alcohol is undesirable. Among the commercial liquors, brandy has the highest per cent of methyl alcohol.

The several general conditions required for efficient fermentation of a satisfactory alcoholic yield are a favourable temperature, specific proportions of sugar, water and yeast, food for the yeast, inhibition of vinegar formation and sufficient time. However sugar, water and yeast will produce an adequate yield of alcohol.

Temperature: High temperature kills the yeast plants whereas low temperatures decrease their rate of activity. The higher the temperature, the faster the rate of fermentation, but the lower the alcoholic yield. The optimum temperature is 78 deg. F. (25.6) Never exceed 90 deg. F. (32.2degC)

Sugar and water: The optimum ratio of sugar to water is 2 pounds to 1 gallon.

Yeast and time: The usual proportion of yeast is 1 cup to 5 gallons of water. At this ratio, other conditions being optimum the yeast will, in plus or minus 14 days, have manufactured enough ethyl alcohol to kill themselves and stop fermentation. Since the yeast will reproduce rapidly in sweet solution, using less than one cup of yeast is satisfactory; however, active fermentation will take a little longer to get going. Nevertheless, in plus or minus 14 days as the presence of alcohol increases, fermentation will stop. Let experience be your guide.

Yeast Food: Small amounts of inorganic salts, such as nitrogen, phosphate and potassium may be added to promote vigorous growth of the yeast plants. Household “Calgon Water Softener” is a safe and readily available food; or, use ammonium phosphate dibasic. The proportion is 1 level teaspoon of Calgon to 5 gallons of water.

Vinegar Inhibition: The solution of mash or wine upon exposure to oxygen will tend to promote the growth of another fungi which will manufacture vinegar. The addition of sulphuric acid to increase acidity of the solution to a pH of 4 or 5, or simply preventing prolonged exposure to oxygen (air) will prevent its growth. Cap your fermenter during fermentation and after. Caution: Carbon dioxide gas pressure will develop during fermentation, so you must provide for its constant release.

When fermentation is complete, the mash or wine will be turbid and must be allowed to settle. The sediment contains precipitated organic matter, yeast bodies and potassium tartarate. The settling may take several days or a week; or even months in the case of wine. Chilling the fermented mash and/or filtering will shorten the time it requires to sell. Siphon or decant the clear solution and discard the sediment. Try not to aerate the mash or wine unnecessarily thereby encouraging the formation of vinegar.

The resulting mash or wine now will be no more than 16 per cent and not usually less than 8 per cent ethyl alcohol by volume. Thus, it is a very dilute alcohol solution akin to most wines which must be concentrated by distillation if you are to have a high proof spirit. See Appendix E for the basic mash recipe.


Distillation is simply boiling a mixture to separate the more volatile (having the lowest boiling point) from the less volatile liquid, and then cooling and condensing the resulting vapour to produce a more nearly pure liquid. The non-volatile impurities will remain in the residue, which in this case is discarded.

To illustrate, if you had a mixture of water and glycerine, the water will begin to turn to steam (vaporise) long before the glycerine gets hot enough to vaporise appreciably. By keeping the temperature high enough to vaporise the water, but not high enough to appreciably vaporise the glycerine, you can collect and condense the water vapour, leaving most of the glycerine behind.

Direct distillation for alcohol can yield at best only the constant boiling mixture of alcohol and water (172.7 deg. F.) (78.2degC) containing 97.2 per cent alcohol by volume (194.4 proof) because this mixture boils 0.18 deg. F. LOWER than pure alcohol (172.9 deg. F.) (78.3degC); hence, do not expect more than 190 proof alcohol from your home still.

If ethyl alcohol is redistilled several times to 170 proof or better it will be a neutral spirit and all but free of any hangover producing components, such as the volatile acids, fusel oils, ethers, aldehydes and esters mentioned under the heading of fermentation. Commercial whiskey, i.e., is distilled out at a much lower proof specifically to retain these components pulled from the grain of which it was made to impart a desired flavour to the liquor. It is because of these components by-products (impurities) that you get a hangover; and, those of us who have tried both commercial liquor and ‘Sadiki Juice’ can swear to the veracity of this statement. The ethyl alcohol produced as described in this booklet and flavoured to make or duplicate the liquor you want is the best you will ever drink.

The simplest distillation apparatus, often used in High School chemistry laboratories, and employing Justin von Liebig’s single surface condenser, consists of five basic parts as does any still; first, a heat source; second, a boiler to heat the mash; third, a thermometer to observe the vapour temperature; fourth, a condenser to cool and condense the vapor; and fifth, a receiver to collect the distillate.

The thermometer bulb should be mounted just below or in front of the outlet to the condenser to most accurately check the temperature. However it will work if located in the pot but care should be taken to prevent hot liquid from coming into contact with the bulb.

The usual home “pot” still is just a variation of ;the glass apparatus described above, but far safer. The pot should be made of stainless steel throughout to prevent corrosion by the hot acids produced during distillation. All fittings must be vapour tight to prevent leakage of alcohol or its vapours and possible explosion and fire. The tubing extending from the pot can be of almost any metal, but copper is the most practical. The condenser should be made of metal and not glass. It is a cylindrical metal box with copper tubing coiled up inside.

The best heat source is an electric stove. A gas stove or an open flame of any type are quite dangerous due to the ever present alcohol vapour. Immersion heaters are satisfactory, but they court disaster if through corrosion they become exposed and ignite the alcohol or its vapours.

The simple pot still requires three or four consecutive time-consuming distillations (runs) to produce a wholly pure, hangover proof distillate.
Home Pot Stills
Other Pot Stills

Design and make your own stainless steel pot of 5 to 10 gallons capacity with large machined or screw tops for easy cleaning. Be sure to install handles for easy handling.

There is infinite variety in design and materials in pot stills, in the alcoholic content of mashes, in thermometers, in heat sources, and in condensing apparatus; hence you must expect variation in the initial boiling temperatures. The following is a guide. As you gain experience, you will learn to judge your own temperature ranges depending upon the equipment you have.

First Run: (Start collecting at 170 to 180 through 205 deg. F. (77 to 82 through to 96degC) then stop.)
Gradually heat the 5 gallons (or more) of clear mash in the pot and expect the first condensate to begin collecting in the receiver at about 170 to 180 deg. F (77 to 82degC) . Collect all that comes over in this first run. About 2 hours later when 205 deg. F (96degC) is reached, stop collecting. You should have about 1.25 gallons of distillate which will be about 40 to 60 per cent water and by-products. Throw away the residue in the pot, rinse it out and flush out any solids that may have boiled over into your tubing.
Caution: Too high heat will cause the mash to foam or to boil over through the tubing, clouding the distillate and possibly clogging the tubing. The more slowly you heat, the less impurities will go over and the better your product will be. However, this is not too important in batch distillation.

Second Run: (Start collecting at 170 to 180 through 204 deg. F. (77 to 82 through to 95.5degC) then stop.)
Gradually heat the first run distillate in the pot and begin collecting the condensate in the receiver between 170 and 180 deg. F. In about an hour when 204 deg. F. is reached, stop collecting. You should have about 3/4 gallon of 70 per cent alcohol plus by-products. Discard the residue from the pot as before.
Caution: Your 70 per cent alcohol is 140 proof and has a flash point of 70 deg. F. The product is now very flammable!

Third Run: (Start collecting at 170 to 172 through 184 deg. F (76 to 77 through to 84.5degC), then stop.)
Gradually heat the second run stock in the pot. Action is fast. The temperature moves rapidly to about 170 deg. F. Discard whatever distillate comes over before 170 deg. F. or that which comes over before the trickle steadies into a solid stream. Stop collecting at about 184 deg. F. in about 45 minutes. You should have about 1/2 gallon of about 85 per cent alcohol. Throw away any residue in the pot.
Caution: Your distillate is about 170 proof and extremely flammable. If you make one more run, purifying the product even more, you will have hangover -proof alcohol.

Fourth Run: (Start collecting at 170 through 174 deg. F. (76.7 through to 78.9degC) then stop)
Gradually heat third run stock in the pot. The temperature will rise to 170 deg. F. very rapidly and settle down at about 172 deg. F. As before, discard what comes over before 170 deg. F. and keep what comes over between 172 and 174 deg. F. It should take about 1/2 hour and you will have about 1/2 gallon of 90 – 95 per cent almost pure, ethyl alcohol.

The Reflux or Fractional Distillation Still is a refinement of the preceding “pot” still but is more efficient and more complex in design; therefore, it produces in one run what the above stills may require three runs to do. A tubular metal reflux column packed with glass marbles, stainless steel wool, or a system of baffles and sieves is attached just above the pot. The olumn or tower should be combined with a top temperature control reflux condenser at its top.
Reflux or Fractional Distillation Still

The Reflux Still is nearly identical to the preceding Pot Stills, except a reflux tower is attached on top of the pot in place of the simple tube.
Use neoprene tubing in all water connections and from the condenser to the receiver. You can see the flow of water and alcohol; and neoprene will not impart any flavour to the alcohol as rubber tubing might do.
Leave the water flow valve wide open until the temperature builds up to about 140 deg. F. (60degC) Then begin closing the valve. Maintain the temperature at 172 deg. F. (77.8degC) As the run nears the end the temperature will begin to rise. Stop running between 176 and 178 deg. F. (80 and 81.1degC)

Note: The water drain tubing in this set-up must be about half again larger than the water input tubing.

Blow-up of Reflux Tower

Note: Using a packed column without the Reflux Condenser or a column alone without either packing or Reflux Condenser will yield a higher proof first run than the simple pot still

In fractional distillation the point is to achieve the closest possible contact between rising vapour and descending condensed liquid within the reflux column, and thus permit only the most volatile vapour to continue through to the after condenser while returning the less volatile vapour as a liquid toward the pot. The purification of the more volatile vapour by such counter-current streams of vapour and liquid is known as rectification and the descending liquid is known as reflux; hence the name reflux column. This system may yield a first run of about 170 to 180 proof, double that of the first run of the simple pot still.

The efficiency of the reflux system depends upon the length and diameter of the reflux column. A column of about 6″ high and 3″ across may require two runs; whereas a column 18″ high and 4″ across may require only one run to produce 170 to 180 proof alcohol. Heat control is accurate because of the controlled water flow through the reflux condenser in the top of the column. Also, you can control the temperature by raising or reducing the heat source, as in the simple pot still, but it is not so critical.

Keep the top temperature of the column between 172 and 176 deg. F. (77.2 – 80degC) for optimum results. One run should be sufficient, and yield pure spirits, but if yeast flavour or odour is present, run the distillate a second time at the same temperature range. Two runs are advisable unless you have a very efficient reflux column.

The Sneaky Home Still, invented out of necessity, is a compact system which yields an acceptable product in one run, is mechanically simple, and can be stored in a dresser drawer. A 550 watt soldering iron is fitted with copper tubing of various lengths and diameters and during a constant flow process may produce between 90 and 115 proof alcohol depending on the temperature at which it is operated. The adjustment of flow rate is most important in this system because it regulates the operating temperature. An operating temperature of 195 deg. F. (90degC) appears optimum and should yield about 4 quarts of 100 proof alcohol from 5 gallons of mash. The running time varies between 4 to 6 hours. A lower temperature of 193 deg. F. will yield less alcohol but at a higher proof, about 115, and consequently more pure. After the unit is initially filled so overflow begins, pinch off the flow until an initial rise in temperature is indicated, then begin adjustment of flow rate. Overflow is a slow drip.

Apply electricity after unit is filled and remove prior to breaking siphon.

An earlier version of this booklet suggested 170 through 180 deg. F. (76.7 – 82.2degC) for this run.

NOTE: Here are the formulae to convert Fahrenheit and Centigrade temperatures:
Fahrenheit = Centigrade x 9/5 + 32
Centigrade = Fahrenheit – 32 x 5/9

Cleaning the Still
Immediately after each distillation, while the metal is yet warm, thoroughly rinse, and with a cloth wipe out your still. Flush out all tubing with clear water. If washing is indicated, use a weak detergent solution but NOT soap. Soap may impart an undesirable odour.
In addition, an occasional rinse and flushing with a salt and vinegar solution will keep the still clean and “sweet” (dissolve 1/2 cup of salt with 16 ounces of vinegar – rinse thoroughly with water).

You are cautioned against storing 15% or better alcohol, even temporarily, in plastic containers. There are many types of plastic and unfortunately some of them will dissolve in alcohol.

Recognize the fact that when distilling alcohol we might just as well be distilling gasoline! From a fire and explosion hazard point of view, alcohol is almost as dangerous as gasoline and what nut would cook gasoline on his stove? The mash is not flammable; however, the first and successive run distillates certainly are. The flash points or the temperatures above, which alcohols will ignite and below which they will not ignite, are:

51 deg. F. for 100% or 200 proof ethyl alcohol (pure)

57 deg. F. for 95% or 190 proof ethyl alcohol (uncut)

78 deg. F. for 45% or 90 proof ethyl alcohol (Bourbon)

When you are distilling the temperatures of the alcohol will be well above these flash point temperatures, so be careful! Memorise the following Common Sense rules:

Do not smoke while running a still.
Do not use an open flame if you can avoid it.
Ensure excellent ventilation. Alcohol vapour diffuses readily in air and will explode very easily with a spark or a flame.
Avoid using glass containers. Use metal or plastic only.
Never fill a pot while it is on the stove or near any heat source. Alcohol spilled on an electric stove burner may explode.
Never leave a still unattended. Hose lines may fail or the receiver may overflow spreading dangerous vapours.
Keep the receiver and its vapours low, on the floor, away from the heat source. Use a small neck receiver; for, if a fire starts it will burn at the small neck opening, which is easily extinguished. A damp cloth wrapped loosely around the tubing where it enters the receiver will help keep the vapours in the receiver.
Never store uncut alcohol unless it is in the refrigerator. It is a potential bomb at room temperature!
Be sure all fittings are tight thus avoiding vapour leaks in your still. If a leak develops, stop all sources of heat, then fix it.
Have a CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) fire extinguisher on hand and know how to use it.

If you have the opportunity to study the commercial methods of flavoring and coloring liquors, you will be startled at the simplicity of the process and the similarity to what you will do to make your own. Any desired fruit, herb, wood, seed, or its extracted essence is steeped or added to the fermenting mash, or to the alcohol after distillation. Not only flavor, but especially color is created with various additives.

Aging whiskey in wood barrels, for example, imparts the characteristic golden brown color as well as improving the character of the liquor. Rum derives its golden hues from the addition of caramel. Creme de Menthe is green because vegetable coloring has been added.

When spirits are distilled out at 170 proof or better, it would be hard for any but the experienced distillers to differentiate among the distillates of grain, fruit, or can; it is said the alcohol is without “character”. As we stated before, when the spirit is distilled out at a lower proof, 160 or less, it contains more by-products, and has more “character”. Such a spirit, upon ageing in wood, undergoes changes which develop its flavour and character. Once it is placed in glass and sealed against the air, no more change will take place. But as long as it is in wood, there is constant change, brought about by the oxidizing effect of the air on the alcohol through the pores of the wood. However, it stands to reason that alcohol in a partly filled bottle is in contact with air and evaporation and oxidation will continue there, as well as in wood. The oxidation causes the esters and acids to increase materially, the aldehydes slowly, the fusel oils to remain the same, and a certain loss of alcohol to take place. The spirit will absorb some tannin and other coloring material from the wood, and become less harsh, and in a sense, a bit sweeter than it was originally.

You can do the same thing by adding an amount of selected wood chips to your own spirits and letting it age in a partly filled bottle.

The recipes listed in Appendix E are practical and proven. With imagination and experimentation you will discover how to make any liquor you wish. Remember, proof strength is as much a part of certain liquor as is its color and flavor, hence check the proof of the real liquor and check appendices B, C, and D on strength of alcoholic beverages when you make your own.

Probably the best source to buy supplies to prepare liquors is from your local grocery store. Most sophisticated items, such as specific flavorings, barrels, wood chips, recipes, etc., can be obtained by writing to:

Fioretti & Co. 1470 Lexington Ave, New York, NY 10028


Grains Whiskies Str. Whiskey
Spirit Whiskey
Whiskey Blends Scotch
Vodka Zubrovka
Gins English
Fruit Gins Akavit
Light Bodied Cuban
Sugar Rums Jamaican
Cane Full Bodied
Molasses Barbados
New England
Cactus Tequila
Aromatic Batavia Arak
Grape Brandies Cognac
Apple Calvados
Apple Jack
Cherry Kirsch
Plum Slivovitz

Grapes Wines Natural
Other Fruit Cider
Grains Beer Ale
Cactus Pulque

Fruit steeped in Brandy (infusion)
Fruit Mash (distilled)
Neutral spirits,
Fruit extracts, and Vegetable coloring
Bitters Aromatic

Wines (fermented juices of various fruits, notable grapes) 14% or less
Natural Wines (still)
Clarets (Bordeaux), red or white, table, sweet or dry
Graves, white, table, dry
Sauternes, white, table, desert, sweet
Burgandies, red or white, table, dry
Moselles, white, table, dry
Rhones, red or white, table, dry
Alsatian (Rhine), white, table, dry
Riesling, white, table, dry
Tokay, white, table, dry
Chianti, red, table, dry

Sparkling Wines (Effervescent) 14% or less
Champagne, white, table or desert, dry or sweet
Sparkling Burgandy, red or white, table, med. sweet
Sparkling Asti Spumante, white, table, sweet
Sparkling Moselle, white, table, sweet

Fortified Wines (Brandy added) 16% to 23%
Sherry, amber, appetizer, dry or sweet
Port, golden or red, desert, sweet
Madeira, golden, desert, dry or sweet
Marsala, brown, desert, sweet
Muscatel, golden, desert, sweet
Tokay, red, desert, sweet

Aromatized Wines (Brandy added) 15% to 20%
Italian Vermouth, brown, appetizer, sweet or dry
French Vermouth, white, appetizer, dry
Dubonnet, red, appetizer, sweet
Montilla, straw, appetizer, dry
Quinquina, red or white, appetizer, sweet-bitter

Other Wines 2% to 8%
Cider (Sidra), sparkling, apple wine, straw, sweet
Perry, sparkling pear wine, straw, sweet
Blackberry, Peach, Apricot, Cherry, Strawberry Wine, etc.
Pulque, Agave Cactus wine, resembling sour milk

Beers 1.2% to16%
Beer (lager), pale, dry 4%
Ale, pale to dark, bittersweet 6%
Stout, a dark ale, strong malt flavor, bitter 6%
Porter, like stout but not as strong, dark, bitter 6%
Sake, rice beer, white, dry, still 1 to 16%


Whiskies2 (distilled at 160 proof from fermented 80 to 110 (40 to 55) mash of various cereal grains)

Straight Whiskies
Rye (made from nlt 51% rye grain)
Bourbon or Corn (from nlt 51% corn grain)
Wheat (from 51% wheat grain)
Malt (from nlt 51% malted barley or rye)

Blended Whiskies (Any straight whiskey 50% blended with neutral spirits; or blended with another straight whiskey)
Scotch, a blend of straight Scotch whiskies from peat-smoked malted barley
Irish, a blend of straight Irish whiskies from barley, oats, wheat, and rye
Canadian, a blend of straight Canadian whiskies from rye grain

Vodkas (distilled at 150º proof from fermented 90º to 115º (45% to 57%) mash or wheat and a little malt, it is not flavored, nor aged; white, dry)
Subrovka, a vodka flavored with Zubrovka
Grass, slightly bitter, dry

Gins (distilled at 190º proof from cereal grains, 86º (43%) mostly corn, sweetened or not, flavored with juniper berries, almonds, cardamom, coriander or licorice; never aged)
London Dry, white, dry
Old Tom, white, medium sweet
Hollands, white, dry, distilled out at 98º proof
Fruit Gins, flavored with fruit extracts

2Note: ‘Bottled in Bond’ is not a type of whiskey or a guarantee of quality. It is a tax device to allow a distiller to bottle straight whiskey (provided it is 4 years old) without paying Federal Tax. He must pay the Federal Tax immediately upon removing the whiskey from the bonded warehouse for sale.


Rums (distilled at 160 proof from fermented sugar 86º to 158º (43% to 79%) cane molasses, colored with caramel, flavored with cognac and fruit)
Cuban, light or dark, dry or sweet
Demerera, dark, sweet
Jamaica, gold, sweet
Batavia Arak, dry, brandy-like

Other Spirits
Tequila (distilled from pulque, an agave cactus wine, pale, dry)
Aquavitae (distilled at 190 proof from grain potatoes, 90º (45%) flavored with caraway seed and other herbs; it is not aged, white)
Brandies (Distilled at 140º proof from wine or 96º to 108º (48% to 54%) fermented mash of fruit juices)
Cognac, brown, dry 84º (42%)
Armagnac, brown, dry
Spanish Brandy, brown, medium dry
American Brandy, light gold, oak flavor
Greek Brandy, dark, sweet, resinous flavor
Calvados (Apple Jack), brown, dry 100º (50%)
Kirsch (Cherry Brandy), white, dry, bitter 96º (48%) almond flavor
Slivovitz (Plum Brandy), brown, dry
Quetsch (Plum Brandy, brown, dry

Liqueurs and Cordials (various fruits steeped in 36º to 110º (18% to 55%) brandy [infusion] which may or may not be redistilled; or neutral spirits, sweetened, then flavored with extracts of fruits, herbs, or spices, artificially colored)
Benedictine, secret blend of herbs, plants, peels, 60º (30%) etc., golden, spicy, sweet
Chartreuse, secret blend, yellow green, spicy, 86º (43%) sweet
Cherry Heering 110º (55%)
Cordial Medoc, blend of brandy, curacao, cacao
Cointreau, a brand of Triple Sec
Drambuie, a secret blend of Scotch Whiskey and honey, golden, spicy sweet
Kummel, caraway and cumin seed 60º to 80º (30% to 40%)
Forbidden Fruit, Shaidock grapefruit and brandy, orange color, sweet
Liqueur d’Or, lemon peel, herbs, plants 86º (43%)
Van der Hum, tangerines (mandarins) 70º (35%)
Anisette, aniseed, white 54º (27%)
Apricot Liqueur 60º (30%)
Arrack Punsch, simple syrup, herbs and Matava Arak
Blackberry Liqueur, dark red, sweet 86º (43%)
Cherry Liqueur, black cherry, red, sweet 60º (30%)
Creme de Ananas, pineapple 60º (30%)
Creme de Cacao, chocolate, vanilla 60º (30%)
Creme de Cassis, blackcurrants, red 36º (18%)
Creme de Fraises, strawberries 60º (30%)
Creme de Menthe, peppermint 60º (30%)
Creme de Noyaus, bitter almond
Curacao, green orange peel 60º (30%)
Sloe Gin, wild plum, red, sweet
Triple Sec, a white Curacao, sweet 60º (30%)
Peach Liqueur 60º (30%)
Maraschino, wild cherry, white 60º (30%)
Creme de Cafe (Kahlua), coffee
Absinshe, aromatic plants and brandy, yellow-green; licorice 136º (68%)

Bitters (neutral spirits infused or redistilled with plants, seeds, barks, roots, and fruits) 80º (40%) or less
Angostura, dark, bitter
Abbott’s Aged Bitters, dark, bitter
Orange Bitters, dried Seville orange peel


Units of Measure

1 ounce = 2 tablespoons
1.5 ounces = 3 table spoons = 1 jigger
8 ounces = 1 cup
16 ounces = 2 cups = 1 pint
32 ounces = 2 pints = 1 quart
8 pints = 4 quarts = 1 gallon
25 ounces = 3 1/4 cups = 1 fifth (4/5 of a quart)


Basic Mash (for distilling neutral spirits)
In 5 gallons of ordinary tap water dissolve 10 pounds of granulated cane sugar. Add 1 cup of bakers yeast softened in a cup of lukewarm water and 1 level teaspoon of fertilizer such as Calgon.
Allow the mash to ferment at about 78 deg. F. for fourteen days or until the fermentation stops. Provide for the release of CO2 gas and keep air out. Let the mash stand until clear of sediment and siphon or decant. It is now ready for distillation. Yield: 1/2 to 3/4 gallon of 190 proof alcohol.
Wine yeast may be used in place of common bakers yeast. When you make your own wine, decant the fluid just before fermentation stops and save the sediment; however, strain any course fruit, etc. Store the sediment or ‘wine yeast’ in the refrigerator. When you make your basic mash use this sediment in lieu of the bakers yeast.
Wine yeast has developed a greater tolerance for alcohol than the common bakers yeast it was. As wine yeast reproduces during fermentation in your basic mash, it will yield as much as 50% more alcohol content than the common bakers yeast could have.

Simple Syrup
Bring to a boil 3 cups of sugar dissolved in 2 cups of water; cool.

Any Grain Alcohol (using Fioretti Flavors)
1 pint 190 proof alcohol
1 pint water
21 drops any flavor, such as Bourbon, Cognac, Rum, etc. (except 3 drops Gin Flavor)
Dissolve flavoring in alcohol, add water and shake well. One teaspoon of chemically pure glycerine may be added to one quart of prepared beverage producing a smoother liquor.

Pour 110 proof alcohol into Vodka bottle.

Apple Brandy
Add 1 pound of dried apples to 2 quarts of 100 proof; let stand 2 days then strain.
Yield: About 2 quarts.

To age beverages like Brandy, Rum and all Whiskies, add about a tablespoon of toasted oak chips. Let stand for 10 or more days and then filter.


Any Cordial or Liqueur (using Fioretti Flavors)
3/4 pound (12 oz.) sugar
12 ounces water (boiled or distilled)
3/4 pint (12 oz.) 190 proof
1/8 ounce (1 dram) any flavor, such as Apricot, Blackberry, etc. (except 7 drops Anisette flavor)
Dissolve sugar in warm water. Cool. Add alcohol in which you have dissolved the desired flavoring. Shake well and let stand for several days or longer.

Cointreau #1
Pour a quart of 180 proof in a wide mouth jar. Suspend a well colored orange from a string about 1/4 inch above the alcohol and cap tightly. Let it stand quietly, unopened for 14 days. Oils from the orange peel will drip into the alcohol, flavoring and turning it yellow. Mix 12 ounces of sugar in 16 ounces of water. Slowly boil this solution until the syrup will almost thread when poured from a spoon and not splash. Pour this hot syrup slowly into the orange treated alcohol and stir slowly until thoroughly ;mixed. Pour your finished Cointreau into an appropriate bottle.
Yield: About 1 1/3 quarts.

Cointreau #2
Dissolve 3 cups of sugar in 2 cups of water and mix well in 1 quart of 150 proof. Add the outermost peelings of 2 well colored oranges and 1/2 lemon and a little pulp of both. Allow to set two weeks. Shake every other day. Strain the Cointreau into an appropriate bottle.
Yield: About 1 1/2 quarts.

Creme de Menthe
Dissolve 2 cups of sugar in 2 cups of water; add 2 tablespoons of white caro syrup and boil for 10 minutes. When cool add 2/3 quart of 100 proof, 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons of peppermint flavoring and green vegetable coloring to suit.
ield: About 1 2/3 quart.

Creme de Cacao
Thoroughly mix 1 pint of chocolate syrup, 1 pint of caro syrup, 1 quart of 120 proof, and 1 ounce of vanilla extract.
Yield: About 2 quarts.

Creme de Cafe (Kahlua)
Boil 1 pound of drip grind coffee in 1 1/4 quarts of water and simmer for 40 minutes. Strain liquid (for grounds through cheesecloth. Dissolve 3 pounds sugar in 1/2 quart water and boil for 5 minutes; add coffee concentrate and cool. Add 1 1/4 quarts of 180 proof and 2 ounces vanilla extract.
Yield: About 2 1/2 quarts.

To one pint of simple syrup add 4 ounces of Caro syrup and 25 drops of Scotch Essence. Bring to a boil and cool. Add to one pint of 180 proof and let stand 1 week.
Yield: About 1 1/4 quarts.

Add 1 1/4 ounces of Anise Flavoring to 2 quarts of 84 proof (The drink will turn milky white when served with water).

Red Wine, Dry or Sweet
To 12 quarts of tap water at room temperature dissolve10 cups cane sugar (about 5 pounds) . 11 cups or more will make a sweeter wine; nine cups or less will make a drier wine. Add 1 envelope active dry yeast (1 cake) softened in some lukewarm water; add 3 quarts of frozen concentrate unsweetened Concord Grape Juice thawed to room temperature; add 15 ounces (1 box) of seedless raisins.
Note: About 5 quarts of canned unsweetened Concord Grape Juice and only 7 quarts of water may be substituted if frozen grape juice is not available; however, the frozen concentrate will produce a wine with more body.
Mix all items thoroughly in a large 5 gallon glass jug or similar container of ceramic or plastic. Cap neck of jug.

Let stand 10 to 14 days in subdued light, or until fermentation stops. Fermentation will be recognized by bubbling or effervescence as in a carbonated drink. Usual room temperature (78 deg. F.) is recommended. Stir or shake once or twice during fermentation.
After bubbling stops, siphon off most of the liquid, preferably through a cloth, and discard the residue of raisons, etc. Now let the liquid stand quietly so that the fine sediment in suspension may settle out. chilling will hasten the settling time. Pour off the clear liquid, carefully and without agitation, and discard the sediment.
Repeat this process several times if you want a clear wine. There may be an unpleasant odour to the liquid, but it will gradually disappear during the settling or aging period. Three or four days after siphoning you may drink this wine, which will be very satisfying; however, several more days, weeks or months of aging will continue to reduce the acidity or rawness of the wine, enhancing flavour every passing day.

General Instructions for Wine

If there is difficulty in obtaining wine casks, the wine can age in bottles or stone jars; but the flavour is improved by aging in wooden casks.
Never add yeast to a hot mash.
When bottling wine, see that bottles are clean, sweet and dry; fill so that the wine comes into contact with the corks when they have been driven in; use only new corks (old corks may sour new wine).
Should there be a shortage in a bottle when filling, add white Spanish wine.
All new-made wines should be kept in a cool, dark cellar or cupboards.
It is not essential to add brandy to any new wine, but it helps to keep it, and makes it stronger. Add 4 ounces of brandy or gin to every gallon of wine before bottling.
For white wines, follow the instructions as for the red wines.
In the following recipes, all given quantities can be reduced or increased in proportion.

Mango Wine
6 pounds mangoes
1 gallon water
3 pounds sugar
2 oranges, halved
1 lemon, halved
1 envelope yeast
Boil the mangoes in the water until tender; strain, cool and add the other items. Follow instructions as for the red wine.

Apple Wine
4 pounds sugar to gallon of juice
6 pounds apples, sliced but not peeled
1 gallon water
1 envelope yeast
Add apples to water and let stand 2 weeks; stir every day. Strain and add sugar and let stand another 4 – 5 weeks to ferment. Let age for 3 – 4 months before bottling.

Orange Wine #1
5 gallons water
20 pounds sugar
50 Seville oranges with half the peel removed
2 ounces yeast
Boil the sugar and water briefly. Cool and add other items. Follow instructions as for red wine.

Orange Wine #2
4 gallons boiling water
4 1/2 dozen thin skinned juicy oranges
4 pounds sugar to each one gallon juice
1 envelope yeast
Pour hot water over cut-up peeled oranges and peelings. Do not use the white peel. Let stand 1 week, stir every day. Then strain and add sugar and yeast. Follow instructions as for red wine.

Blackberry Wine
1 quart boiling water
1-2 pounds sugar to each gallon juice
1 gallon berries (when berries are ripe use the lesser amount of sugar)
Pour hot water over berries and mash them. Let stand 4 days, then strain and add sugar and yeast. Follow instructions as for red wine.
A little cinnamon stick may be added after fermentation has begun.
Age for 6 to 12 months.

Cherry Wine
36 pounds of unripe cherries, remove stems
2 tablespoons yeast for each 2 gallons of pulp
4 pounds sugar for each 2 gallons of pulp and juice
Mash the cherries and let stand 24 hours; then rub them through a sieve. Discard stones and skins. Add yeast and sugar.
Follow instructions for red wine.

Grape Wine
1 quart water to 1 quart any grapes
1 pound sugar to each quart juice
Pinch of yeast
Partially mash the grapes and add the water; let stand for 1 week. Then strain and add the sugar and yeast
Follow the instructions as for red wine.

Raspberry or Strawberry
1 gallon boiling water
1 gallon of fruit
4 pounds sugar
Pinch of yeast
Pour hot water on fruit and let stand for 10 days. Strain and add sugar and yeast.
Follow instructions as for red wine.

Strawberry Wine
1 gallon berries
3 pounds sugar to each gallon juice
Pinch of yeast
Mash the fruit well and strain through a sieve into 1 gallon cooled boiled water then add the sugar and yeast.
Follow instructions as for red wine.

Dry White Wine
5 quarts water
2 pounds sugar
1 envelope yeast
2 pounds raisins
2 pounds rice

Dry Vermouth
12 quarts water
2 cups sugar
1 envelope yeast
4 pounds raisons
2 cups rice

26 of March
12 liters of “Vic”
80 ounces of “Welch’s”
5 liters of water
9 cups of sugar
1 yeast nutrient tablet
1 package of wine yeast

Archie’s Best
16 liters of “Vic”
2 liters water
3 cups of sugar
25 drops pectin
2 Campden tablets
1 packet wine yeast

Jerry’s Best
20 cans frozen grape juice
10 cups sugar
7 lemons juice
5 Campden tablets
1 teaspoon pectin
1/2 teaspoon tannic acid
5 yeast nutrient tablets
1 packet wine yeast

Homebrew Beer
Heat 6 gallons of water to the boiling point; in it dissolve first 3/4 can of liquid hop flavored malt and then 4 1/2 pounds of sugar. Cool (to at least room temperature) and add 1 envelope of yeast pre-softened in a cup of water. Place mash in a large bottle or crock, cover with a cloth and let stand for 72 hours at about 76 deg. F. For flavour cut up 2 or 3 raw potatoes and add the yeast.
To bottle: Put 1/4 teaspoon of cane sugar in appropriate beer bottle then fill to 1 1/2 inch from top; cap bottle. Let stand for ten days in a cool (not cold) place.
Yield: About 36 bottles.

Sring Mill State Park: Daisy Spring Distillery

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A couple of years back I wrote an article about Spring Mill/Daisy Spring Distillery that I felt like needed some updating as in the time in between then and now I’ve learned quite a bit more about the history of the old Daisy Spring Mill and Distillery. I recently was allowed to copy some documents in possession of the distillery/mill/park which shined a brilliant light on the distilling happening there at least in the 1880’s. I also discovered the name of the original distiller employed on the site by Hugh Hammer in the 1830’s.
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In the original article I also speculated a bit about the amount of whiskey made at the time based on an older document, as it turns out the information about the capacity of that distillery in the older document was actually related to the nearby (Mitchell Indiana) and much larger Irwin distillery which I am currently researching and which did produce up to 135 gallons of whiskey a day and had a capacity of around 38 bushels a day roughly.

As a quick recap I’ll now give a bit of a history of the distillery itself:
Sam Jackson acquired the land as payment for his service in the war of 1812 and later sold the property to the Bullitt family in 1819. I am a bit confused on the history of the original mill as it was a small affair built of logs and made of one room, the initiator of that business could have been either Jackson or the Bullitt’s but it is clear that in these earliest days there was a small distillery run in conjunction with the mill on the property. In short order the mill could not keep up with demand and was sold then to the Montgomery brothers in 1823.
The Montgomery brothers lived in Pittsburg and were apparently very speculative regarding their investment as the western frontier in Indiana was just beginning to grow, apparently, they both bought and sold the property sight unseen and spent a small fortune building and renovating the large three-story stone mill you see today. It was at this time that they hired John Hammersley of Clifty Mill (Cave River Valley Fame) to be their millwright and oversee the implementation of new gristing equipment using his knowledge as well as that found in the book; “The Young Miller and Millwright”. At the time Hammersley was seeing much success with his own milling operations in Washington County both in the form of profit from milling and subsequent distilling but also in his ability to build unique milling operations and sell them at a profit to speculators in the nearby community. I am sure Hammersley sensed a valuable payday in his work for his bosses in absentum as he left a young Hugh Hammer and his brother Thomas back at Clifty Mill to run his own enterprises until the Montgomery mill was updated and ready to run somewhere around the year 1825.
That year Hammersley returned to Clifty and informed Hugh Hammer that he was moving elsewhere in Indiana to pursue a new mill and would be selling his interest to his son but that the Montgomery brothers would be in need of a miller at their new location. Without much further thought Hammer and his brother Thomas loaded up and headed for the springs outside of Mitchell Indiana. In short order, they ended up owning the mill despite their impoverished position in life as the Montgomery brothers passed away thereafter and what seems to be a “well timed” rumor about a large crack in the wall of the mill made its way back to one of their sons who was now in charge of the estate; that son sold the entire operation to Hugh Hamer for $7,000 made in payments. A Hell of a deal for the time.
Hamer wasted no time in setting to work getting the distillery back up and running and before long corn whiskey, apple brandy, and peach brandy was making its way into the local community as well as onto flat boats alongside meal from the grist and pork produced from the 350-400 hogs that were run annually on the property.

Spring Mill has made much in press releases recently about “Old Hamer” whiskey, not to dispute that there may have been such an article aptly named but if there were it probably wasn’t marketed as such until much later in history and would have been only a few months old at best by the time it reached New Orleans via flat boat after the fall distillation season. My searches have turned up no traces of this “Old Hamer” whiskey until the revival of Spring Mill via the conservation corps and subsequent press releases in the 1930’s.

Hamer by all accounts was a hell of a fellow who would help out the men, women, and children of his village anyway he could and subsequently made a small fortune monetarily from his enterprises and a large fortune in friends and family from his good character, but like all mortal men, including Whiskey Barons, the lord came calling for him on March 10, 1872. By then the village had already started it’s decline as the rail road line had bypassed it for nearby Mitchell Indiana several years prior.

Thereafter Johnathan Turley took possession of the property and continued in the business of milling and distilling with his partner Solomon Scott. Solomon himself had deep ties to Distilling himself as he owned another distillery between Mitchell and Bedford in partnership with a Wolfe fellow (this distillery was located across the road from the property where Apple Acres orchard currently sits). They renamed the mill property including the distillery as Daisy Mill and installed a turbine to modernize the milling equipment and began milling wheat flour By this time cornmeal was no longer as nearly in want as what it had been in previous decades given the prevalence of steam powered grinding machines which lessened the need for water power greatly, the mill became primarily a resource of the distillery which built a hell of a name on their well-made brandies and whiskies, the last of which recorded was a batch of Apple Brandy distilled on April 18, 1886. This being four years after Turley had closed the mill to the public, making the distillery by far the most productive of the enterprises associated with the property and the last to remain in operation. Unfortunately, the temperance movement was on the rise, commerce had passed the mill and distillery by and Turley’s health was failing (as was his ability to make a profit from his investment). Turley passed away a few months later.

The story of the distillery would not be complete without the mention of yet two other names, those of the distillers who in fact would have been responsible for the astounding quality of the whiskey and brandy made at that time. The first distiller under Hammer in the 1830’s was James Clouse who was followed by William W. Dalton who made the village and distillery his home and responsibility for over 40 years before he found his final resting place in the old Hammer cemetery on the ridge above the scenic valley. That’s a long career and an admirable legacy for a Hoosier Distiller.
The building as it currently stands was pieced together by the the Conservation Corps in the 1930’s on the footprint of the old distillery. At that time they created two schematics of the distillery based on both their survey and the memories of a gentleman who was alive during the time the distillery was in operation in it’s later years in the 1880’s. Both are similar but I don’t think either is quite accurate as they don’t exactly match the Gaugers surveys or tax records that I will share in this article.

Luckily for us several documents and pieces of equipment from the original distillery still exist on site and at the Indiana State Historical Society. The distillery actually still has the original 100 gallon copper boiler, one original copper 100 gallon pot (with no head), an original worm in a 100 gallon mash tub, at least one other original 100 gallon mash tub, an 8 gallon brandy barrel, and the brand that would have been used to burn “Copper Distilled” on the barrel head. From all of these things we can infer quite a bit.

The wash boiler is as surprising to see extant as what the pot is, these were usually torn from their moorings in a bricked up furnace and recycled for use in the production of apple butter. At some point this particular boiler itself had been used for some such purpose as the outlet drain on the pot had been covered over with a piece of copper and riveted in place. The still is of very early construction and is of a fairly unique design mimicking very much what is seen at the Staley Family Distillery in Ohio.
There are several tell-tale features that link the design with Romani/Gypsy design including the fill port shape. The Staley Gypsies were a staple of Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky history and were often the go to tin and copper workers of their time and it has been theorized by myself and by many others that they were responsible for the building of many early pot stills in the Ohio valley which all share many design similarities. I have read that in the summer as they took to the wagons to travel from their home base/winter camp in Dayton Ohio they would stop outside of many towns on main thorough fairs and set up camp to offer their services in tin and copperwork. These camps were fenced off by the locals and someone from town would guard the encampment, always armed, from horseback, supposedly to dissuade the Gypsies from pursuing the other (perhaps fictional due to racial bias) “trade”, thievery. If the tax papers are any indication then there were at one point three of these 100 gallon copper stills in operation at the distillery.

The brand is interesting as well because it links directly to the production methodology used in the distilling process. By the late 1800’s many of Indianan’s Farm-Distillers had given up the old pot still methodology and switched over to wooden bodied three chamber stills in order to create a more time efficient operation to deal with the thousands of lbs of apples they were processing yearly. While these stills were very well known for producing high quality Rye whiskey they were unfavored by the consumers of apple brandy and corn whiskey in the local area who had grown up with the old “fire copper” pot still products. Subsequently those operating on the old/traditional plan of distilling began in earnest to market their product as a premium style by using either “Fire Copper” or “Copper Distilled” brands on their barrel heads to mark the difference in their products.

The mash tubs are of 100 gallon capacity and the fact that they are still standing is a testament to how well built they truly were.

The records the several Gaugers kept that I have access to from around 1880-1883 are fairly detailed and include a lot of very interesting information. Key was understanding of a few base processes used in the distillery as well as capacity. The layout is fairly easy to ascertain; 16 mashtubs of 100 gallon capacity (30 inch base, 34 inch chime rim, and 32 inches of depth) were set upon an elevated wooden decking and used for mashing in whiskey and apple jack brandy. The distillery was equipped with at least one 100 gallon boiler in a stone furnace, and 3 copper pot stills in furnaces. The water was derived from the same flume that feeds the mill and a secondary reservoir built from wood was held inside the building where water was siphoned for needed processes.
Ill delve into the apple jack first. The records indicate that Turley was buying from a number of local farmers, on average he was purchasing roughly 30 bushels of fruit from each farmer and was engaged in producing both Apple Jack from crushed pomace as well as a small amount (3,830 gal) of true brandy from cider. The records also clearly show a large amount of peach brandy from pomace and grape brandy (5,592 gal. of wine) was being produced as well. The indication given in the record is that to every bushel of apple pomace ground that roughly seven gallons of water was added which would make for a very heavy mash bill. The back side of the existing pot still is quite interesting in regards to this as there is an extra port not related to pressure relief, nor to fill, nor to the head, I speculate that there may have in fact been a gear driven rummager or agitator to keep this thick mash moving in the still. This technology was already well known in the distilleries associated with large water mills by as early as 1809 so it wouldn’t be surprising, this too would also result in a very heavily flavored apple spirit wherein tannin and phenolics would all be extracted during distillation as opposed to a distillation relying only a wash (no solids included) charge of the same material.
On the whiskey side the guager only completely fills out the category for Whiskey primarily derived from corn with rye as a secondary grain in his survey of October the 6 1883. Since this is a survey he had to fill out the other columns (Rye in excess, Corn and Rye Equally, Rye Exclusively, and Molasses) as they were gauging the true capacity of the distillery. From this we can infer that what was being made (at least the majority of what was made) sets pretty comftorably in the category we would call either Corn Whiskey or potentially Bourbon Whiskey. Interestingly enough he gives us the expected yield per bushel of both Sweet Mash (3 ½ gallons per bushel) and Sour Mash (2 ½ gallons per bushel) as well as the fermentation period of Sweet Mash (72 hours) and Sour Mash (92 hours) and records in the March 1883 survey that the Daisy Spring distillery uses 6.73 bushels of corn in a 24 hour period for sour mash and 11.97 bushels of corn for a sweet mash as well as that the sweet mash will yield 16.82 gallons of spirit and the sour mash 41.89 gallons of spirit in a 24 hour period. To this we are treated to the viscocity of the beer in distilling where it is reported that the sour mash is a 60 gallon beer (super thin!) and that the sweet mash is a 45 gallon beer (still thin but in line with some of the large Kentucky Distillers).
We also get a good look at the barreling of apple brandy which is recorded generally around 100 proof and mostly in what appear to be 42 gallon barrels (although one is clearly marked as 48 gallons) and being produced in 7-8 gallon lots. Most likely these were “packages” to be delivered to local merchants who would handle direct sales from the barrel directly to the customer. It is unlikely that much of this liquor ever aged for an extended period of time and I would imagine that since the old Hoosier Peach/Apple brandy consumption custom was to add honey to the mix that very little if any of this brandy ever made it past it’s second birthday.

Taxes on a 42 proof gallon barrel of apple brandy in 1883 amount to $37.80. From a second document the distillery is noted at producing between 600-1200 gallons of apple brandy yearly.

The heritage of Distilling at this valley is deep and we’ll documented. Over the years a few volunteers showed interest in the site and it’s interpretation including Andy Evans who married into the Hammer family and researched the facility heavily in the 1980’s before he passed away. He was responsible for collecting many of the documents you see here and preserving many of the artifacts, something he can’t be thanked enough for!
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A big thank you to my brother D.J. Henderson for the document photos!

Todays 5-7 with Lexus Hoskins of Rabbit Hole Distillery.

Recently I had an excellent visit with a very talented young distiller working at Rabbit Hole Distillery. Five years ago when I got into the legal industry I was the first legal distiller living in and from Washington County Indiana and furthermore the counties that made up the “Black Forrest of Indiana” distilling complex in 97 years. Sad considering the heritage and tradition of Hoosier Distillers in this region. Now there is a second name on that list from the same county and with a bright future at only 24 years old! Lexus Hoskins is the first ever legal female distiller living in and from the Black Forrest region/Washington County and working alongside a large Bourbon producer in Louisville Kentucky. I was impressed with her knowledge and love of the industry and look forward to seeing all she will accomplish in the future!

Tell us a little about your background here in Washington County.

– I grew up about 15 min from the Salem Square. I attended Salem Community Schools and graduated in 2013. Throughout my high school career I was highly involved in a numerous amount of activities including band, choir, and the dance team. I was also an Academic Honors student.

Did you ever have an interest in distilling prior to becoming a tour guide?

– I truly had not thought about it until I came to Rabbit Hole. I figured with my background I would stay in the marketing and/or hospitality path that I’d been following since I was 16 years old. About a month into my employment, I was casually talking to our head of production, Cameron Talley, about distillation. I basically told him I could see myself in production in 5+ years, and he informed me they were currently hiring for new distillers. At first, I wasn’t 100% confident I’d even be offered an interview, but realized that if I wanted to test & challenge myself, I had to dive on in. You could say, there was no going back.

Lexus, tell me a little about how you initially go into the distilling industry via Evan Williams.

– During my junior year in college, a friend of mind from IU Southeast, Alex Lynch, was working at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience and knew that I was looking for a new part-time job. He told me they were hiring part-time tour guides. He said I’d be perfect for the position, saying they hand you a script, you learn it, you drink bourbon, and get paid to it! As a freshly, 21-year-old, of course I was sold. And initially, I saw it as an opportunity to network with Louisvillians as well as people from across the globe. It wasn’t until I graduated college that I even considered staying within the bourbon industry.

What is your go to Bourbon outside of Rabbit Hole?

– This is a tricky question because it really depends on my mood or situation. I drink just about anything, whether it be neat, on rocks, or in a cocktail. There are also so many bourbons and whiskeys I’ve yet to try. I’ll tell you some of the products I currently have in my liquor cabinet: Evan Williams White Label, Knob Creek Single Barrel, Evan Williams KY Cider, Evan Williams Peach, Henry McKenna, Larceny, Willett Rye, Rabbit Hole KY Straight Bourbon, Rabbit Hole Rye Whiskey, Jim Beam Double Oak, and Woodford Reserve.
Talk to us a little about your training to become a distiller at Rabbit Hole, what has been the most rewarding part and what has been the most frustrating part?

– First of all, let me just say that I always have and always will be my worst critic. I get frustrated with myself because I have this need to get everything right the first time. This position has definitely taught me that it’s ok to recognize your faults and mistakes and continue to do better. I wouldn’t necessarily define this as frustrating but more as difficult, but forso long, I had been talking about the grand scheme of distillation as a tour guide. I realized very quickly that there was so much that I didn’t know. So, for me, it was like learning my career all over again. However, my boss, Cameron Talley, is excellent at explaining the whys and hows of every aspect of the job. My co-workers are also very helpful when it comes to education of the job. Cameron emphasizes extensive and continuous education for all the distillers. With that said, the most rewarding part iswhen I feel confident in what I’ve learned, applying it to my duties, and knowing I’ve performed well.

Do you have plans to expand your distilling education in the future at a school or to learn in the old way as an apprentice of the art?

– As of now, it’s hard to say where I’ll be in the future. I mean, I’ve only been a distiller for 4 months.

What excites you the most about this industry?

– The fact that I’m one of handful of female distillers excites me the most. Women in bourbon is becoming of a key topic in the industry. Really proud to be a part of a company that is forward-thinking and recognizes the importance of being supportive of women in Bourbon.

Anyone in the industry in particular that you look up to such as Charlie Downs?

– I have a good amount of people I look up to from Evan Williams & Rabbit Hole:

From Evan Williams, I look up to Charlie Downs, Jodie Filiatreau, Jeff Crowe, Ashley Cuyjet & Vicky Fugitte. Jeff & Ashley were the ones that gave me a chance by hiring me as a tour guide. Even though they were my superiors, I always felt like I could talk to them about anything. All of the managers and coordinators at EWBE were incredible. They were sad to see me leave, but wished me all the luck in the world. Charlie & Jodie were the first two distillers that I had a close encounter with. They were very transparent about answering any and all questions about distillation. Now Vicky is currently the general manager for Michter’s distillery that recently opened up in downtown Louisville. She was my trainer and mentor at EWBE. She was the first person who taught me everything I know now. She didn’t just teach me about bourbon, she also taught me about Louisville history as well as other distilleries and how they play a part in the industry. She also taught me her signature laugh and hair flip when networking.
From Rabbit Hole, I look up to our CEO, Kaveh Zamanian as well as Jennifer Murley, Danielle Bramblett & Cameron Talley. Kaveh’s story of fulfilling his dream of building a distillery is so inspiring. The fact that one choice could make a huge difference in one’s life, knowing there’s no going back, really hits home for me. When I first met him, I truly didn’t know what to expect. But I saw a man that really cares about his crew. The first thing he asked was, “What’s your story?” and “Where do you see yourself with Rabbit Hole?” When I told him that I could see myself as a distiller, he, and Cameron Talley, gave me a chance and I cannot thank them enough for it. Jennifer was, briefly, my boss when I was initially hired as a tour guide. She and Danielle (Event Manager) have given me so much advice based upon their experiences; everything from figuring out your personality and worth to figuringout how to buy your first house. They’re both incredible smart, beautiful women and I’m so happy to call them my friends. Lastly, Cameron, I can honestly, say is one of the most understanding and caring bosses I’ve ever had. He always says he wants the environment to be fun and educational. In my opinion, I’d say that goal has been achieved, and if I ever decide to apply for any managerial position, I hope I can be as great as him.

Tell us a little about what makes Rabbit Hole different

– Rabbit Hole is different in many ways. We take the modern approach to whiskey making, while still honoring Bourbon’s tradition, history, and reiterating that’s it’s truly an American spirit. When visiting our facility, one of the biggest topics we focus on is the transparency of our products and company. We show you every step in the process of making Rabbit Hole spirits.

Where do you see yourself in the industry (or elsewhere) in 10 years?

– Again, it’s very hard to answer that question because I still have so much to learn and experience in the industry. I will say that I will continue to be involved in the industry and community. I have so many loves and interests outside bourbon. The sky is truly the limit for me, and I can’t wait to see what life has in store.

Distilling Superstitions

Distilling has always been a somewhat “mystical” art to both the initiated and outsiders. If my two recent entries about pot stills vs columns and sweet vs sour mash did nothing else, I would say that they certainly brought illumination to the fact that even many current distillers in the middle of the spirits industry boom don’t truly understand their art the way they should. I don’t mean that mean-heartedly in any way, shape, or form, I point out the things I see in the industry amongst those on the production side that I think can be better understood, things that other distillers can learn from, and trust me, I am more than humble enough to know I have a long, long way to go before I myself truly feel at ease with my knowledge.

The “art” has always been like this. From the earliest onset of distillation, the process and methodology has always had a mystical or spiritual element tied closely to its evolution. This isn’t only in terms of the physiological nature of alcohol’s effects, but in the very nature of distilling itself. Superstition has always been a part of the distilling culture and still exists amongst many in the industry and more so of course amongst folk and farm distillers. The superstitions have cultural markers that are unique to certain traditions and yet superstition of some sort or another in this line of work has no cultural boundaries, that interests me intensely. Today we will take a look at those superstitions from the inception of spirits distilling as tribute to Bacchus and up to the current bourbon boom. We will look at how those superstitions serve sometimes as reminders of the care and attention distilling requires or as reminders of the illegality of producing non tax-paid spirits. Sometimes these beliefs are nothing more than call backs to the roots of the tradition or even unique personality “quirks” of the distillers themselves and have no deeper connotation that that which their originator gives them.

Even in the most scientific of distilleries you cannot avoid the alchemical mysticism associated with the history of distilling as it is literally found in the very word which we use to describe these distilled alcoholic (a word actually descended itself from the name of a simple pot still; “Alembic”) “Spirits”. Distilling will always be associated with alchemy, itself a misunderstood branch of human study that has less to do with transforming lead to gold and more to do with understanding the basis of the material world around us in an effort to better understand the spiritual world beyond us. The very word spirit itself was chosen as a descriptor for these cordial waters because the base of the distilling art is the simple break down of raw material into base aromatic components (plus, you know, that whole additional bonus of the process; alcohol), the very components that delight our sense of smell and the majority of taste. We distill the raw material and then capture the “spirit” of that material in an effort to contain it and admire it outside of it’s normal physical boundaries. Thus, through this process we have created in essence a “water of life”. A phrase chosen because the essence of a raw, naturally grown, but fleeting and seasonal thing has been captured for enjoyment later, out of time and out of place, and perhaps because these “waters of life” were thought to have some incredibly miraculous powers of healing and life preservation. Truly distilling was considered a gift from the gods.

For the Dionysian cults, who presumably picked up the gift from the orient (with distilling being underway in China by 800 B.C.), distilling was very much so a mystical “rite”, only to be performed and taught to initiates of an order high enough to understand its primal power. True mystery religion stuff. By the 5’th century BC the Maenads, female followers of Dionysus, were recorded in poem carrying bronze still heads at Delphi during biennial rituals. These they would dress outwardly as an effigy of the God of wine. The still itself having three outputs made of piping in the shape of a cross was heated and the resulting uncondensed distillate was then lit on fire in order that flames may appear to come from the hands and head of this effigy. The flames could also be colored by way of various chemical compounds added to the base wine or left in the vapor path.

The term “baptism by fire” can be traced to this same cult who would, by the addition of Sulphur and water to the condensed distillate of wine, make the spirit “safe” to pour upon an initiate and lite upon fire without burning. Miraculous in all ways to onlookers who were uninitiated in such theatrics, proof of the provenance of the God of wine over his converts. The wine itself was viewed as the blood of the slayed Dionysus/Bacchus and the distillate then was seen as evidence of his spiritual nature and rebirth and subsequent resurrection at fertility rites held in the spring of the year. Transmutation at it’s finest.

Later, certain of the Christian Gnostic sects would use this same method for initiation into their rights. The tradition of distilling was protected, preserved, and passed yet again only to their initiated. In the Coptic-Gnostic text known as the Bruce Papyrus, a figure representing Jesus is mentioned carrying out a long ceremony including a presumed distillation of something that sounds very similar to modern day Aquavit. From these Gnostic cults the trail of distilling history leads directly to the Egyptian Coptic tradition and from there it is passed as holy knowledge to the Templars and the Cathars on its way via Monks to the British Isles. All rich sources of folklore and superstition, well documented throughout history.

All of this history of course simply points us in the direction of more modern distilling folklore and superstition. The British Isles have long been a rich source of such superstition considering how long the art has been practiced in the region. The Irish, as example, often give Saint Patrick credit for bringing distilling to the isles, but focus their superstitions much more on the old pagan myths of bygone days. As you will see, not everything is simply fairy dust. The particular superstition I am about to discuss, as you will find, actually has its roots based on an understanding of the dangers of methanol in distilled spirits production and on the unfortunate kidnapping of the healthy children of peasants by royal servants. I would classify this one as a functional superstition which exists in both parts as a warning to would be illicit distillers and peasants learning the trade.

Amongst the hills of Connemara Ireland, the Potcheen makers of old practiced a highly functional superstitious rite while distilling. Trained distillers who truly understood the danger of the first fraction of distillate they were distilling were few and far between but it was well understood from experience that this fraction (the fores, or fore shot) could potentially cause temporary blindness and other physical maladies and would also put a hamper on the next mornings work. To combat the urge to keep this distillate as part of the larger yield (despite the danger) a complex folklore was developed and passed from distilling father to son in order to train and subsequently remind them that they should toss this fraction aside. The distiller would collect the first cup of distillate to leave the serpentine condenser and subsequently toss this with his right hand over his left shoulder in tribute to the fairies.

Even after the introduction of Christianity into the Emerald Isle the pagan belief system was still strong amongst these people, and the belief in and subsequent respect of the “little people” or fairies was woven deeply into culture. Most potcheen distillers were of the lowest social class of peasants and hadn’t much to show for their existence. Farm and family were all they had and often the birth of a son or heir signaled not only joy in the arrival of a healthy and well-loved child, but respite that one day there would be an extra hand around the farm. Unfortunate then that quite often these male children of potcheen distillers were placed in bed at night in a healthy state only to be discovered in the morning as a sickly or debilitated child. Word quickly spread that something had been done to anger the fay folk and in exchange (mischievous little assholes they are) the fairies had kidnapped the child and replaced him with a changeling, a child originating from the fairies, the original child never to be seen again.
Since most distillers were peasants and most peasants were distillers it would seem logical of course that in some way, shape, or form, the fay folk had been shorted their due right in some regard during the production of illicit whiskey and it was quickly rationalized that the little folks were simply not getting their share of the new make spirit. Subsequently the Irish Potcheen makers quickly adopted the habit and superstition of collecting the first fraction in a cup and throwing it out via their right hand over their left shoulder while verbally offering it to the little people.

So, scared of the threat that their child might be replaced with a “changeling” did the potcheen makers become that they took to dressing their boys in female clothing to trick the fairies into not taking their heirs from them, sometimes this was continued well into childhood and the practice was still in play as late as the 1890’s. While occasionally a child thought to be a changeling was most likely simply a case of undiagnosed or misunderstood mental or physical health problems, there was something else just as sinister as a fairy kidnapping happening on a limited basis. Occasionally the landed gentry and royals who often suffered from various genetic disorders due to inbreeding would give birth to a sickly child. Needing a viable heir as well as not wanting the public to see that their own biological children were suffering from genetic conditions meant that occasionally they would have a servant kidnap a child from the local peasant population and replace the child with their own.

So prevalent was this belief amongst the potcheen distillers that the excisemen often had suspicions aroused of a local moonshiner by way of seeing his sons wearing dresses and growing their hair long, and this was suspicion enough to warrant further investigation of the issue.
Another old Connemera tradition is the Potcheen toast, tied closely to the hatred of the crown; “This is to those who wish us well, those who don’t may go to Hell!”.

In Scotland distilling was carried out very early on by Monks (the same who first came to Ireland) whose monasteries were later dissolved by Henry VIII, most of these trained distillers of course never stopped partaking of their art and instead turned to the business as their income, many superstitions of course grew from this tradition, and many distillers have their own individual stories.

At Glennrothes distillery it is an old custom to “Toast the Ghost” of Byeway. Biawe ‘Byeway’ Makalaga was “rescued” from famine-plagued Matabeleland by Major James Grant, owner of the Glen Grant Distillery where Grant gave him a home and where he served as the Major’s page boy and butler. Biawe became very popular amongst the distillery workers as he grew up around the still house and had a vast knowledge of its workings. He was also a popular local football player and gained respect in that field from the locals.

Byeway outlived major Grant by many years and lived a quiet life until his death in 1965. By 1972, with the addition of new stills to the facility, reports were coming from the Glenrothes of an old man with dark skin and a scraggly beard showing up on the night shift and standing silently in the still room. Enough of a disturbance was caused by this mystery figure that authorities approached Cedric Wilson, a local professor with an interest in the paranormal, to investigate. Wilson visited the nearby cemetery and the grave of Byeway. After this he returned to the facility and indicated to the authorities that this could all be resolved by way of correcting the position of the stills. It seems as though Byeway had come back to the distillery because the misalignment of the newly installed stills had disturbed him and he felt this would affect the character of the whiskey while also posing a threat to the workers. Subsequently, the stills were aligned as dictated and the Byeway’s spirit was never seen in Glenrothes again. From this experience the distillers created the tradition of raising a ‘Toast to the Ghost’ with a dram of their scotch.

A modern Scottish distillery, Arran, experienced a bit of superstition itself during the opening day of the distillery when a rare White Stag, thought to bring good luck, was seen by the manager and the distiller right before distillery operations began. That luck seems yet to be paying off for them!
Turning towards more generalized superstition we will explore some more common ones.

The naming of stills is another old distiller’s tradition tied to superstition, although the origins are pretty unclear. It would make sense though that given the time the distiller spends with the still and the nature of the still’s purpose in creating new make spirit that a name would be appropriate. This is particularly true of pot stills, each of which has its own identity and its own unmistakable markers of character and subsequent spirt quality. I suspect the tradition is similar to naming ships for good luck and that is much the way I see it. I wouldn’t sail on a ship with no name and I certainly wouldn’t run a still without one quite truthfully. The consequences? Well to be honest I don’t know, because I’ve never had a still that I didn’t give a moniker. Tradition is to give the still a woman’s name but some do buck that tradition. For my own purposes I have always focused on goddesses of antiquity (Isis, Sophia, Innana, Ishtar) or women of Biblical origin (Magdalena, Lilith, Joan), but always a female and usually one with some amount of divinity ascribed, I always choose the name based on the character of the still (Is she difficult to run? Lilith. Is she versatile and filled with knowledge? Sophia. Is she physically beautiful? Magdalena.) and the spirit she makes. I have occasionally run a spirit on a still that I named prior to the first run and then decided the name wasn’t befitting and changed the name subsequently to something more appropriate.

Traditional distillers across the world have always believed in the idea of protective trinkets of some sort, an icon perhaps, or even a token of “luck”. Sometimes the items can be religious in nature such as a Catholic medallion portraying Saint Louis XI, the Patron Saint of Distillers, other times these objects are secular or even Pagan in nature. Often these items are hidden out of sight of prying eyes, and for those who are very superstitious they may be looked at in a manner similar to a “mojo hand”. Put simply, they are seen as a source of knowledge, understanding, and even mastery of the art and are very well hidden from nosey competitors with sticky fingers who might choose to steal them for their own selfish wants. This may sound intense and you the reader might think this is relegated to the superstitions of yesteryear or only abounds in far off places, but you would be wrong. I’ve had conversations with many modern legal and illicit distillers that carry or hide their own trinkets. I place this belief back upon that mystical knowledge the alchemists and cults gave us about distilling and the knowledge of the process thereof being “sacred” and a “gift” only to be revealed to the initiated. These trinkets are subsequently seen by their owners as a physical manifestation of that gift, knowledge, and skill and are not to be seen by everyone, subsequently they are only shared with a select few. I myself have three such trinkets of which all have distinct meaning and use and no I won’t tell you what any of them are.

Another version of this same superstition harkens back to moonshiners who would often hide something of some value in plain sight around the area of their illicit operation. This wasn’t done as much for the belief in the objects power (although they might stretch the truth to imply as such) as it was for a simple alarm system for the distiller that if it had been altered from its position or stolen from the site in the intervening days or hours that someone had found the clandestine distillery
Some superstitions associated with moonshining have more to do with maintaining the silence of the producers outside of the accepted circle of people “in the know” and closely resemble the Italian concept of “Omerta”. A valid example of this is seen in old east coast circles where a ritual called “cleaning hands” is performed each and every time any action is taken around the production of illicit liquor. An old towel was hung next to the door of the building serving as the still house or the stash house and as work was completed for the day each participant was to stop and “clean” their hands on this towel. No actual “cleaning” was accomplished with this action but it existed to remind those in the inner circle that they were to leave what they had done behind when they left the production site and to remind them not to speak of it outside the circle. This was done any time any one came in contact with the production, or the equipment itself, even if it was just by happenstance (stored somewhere other items of use were also kept) and was maintained with the understanding that forgetting to clean your hands might cause one to get caught in the act. More so, this let those in the inner circle know and understand who in the circle payed such close attention to detail as to always observe the action and to feel reassured about how careful they were in this action and how that might reflect on the care they might otherwise take to protect the illicit nature of their operations.

Other superstitions had more to do with the skilled artisan in the group training the less skilled in the quality and care which should enter every facet of production in the art. These superstitions usually started right at the beginning of the distillation cycle with the harvesting of raw material. For example, in some traditions while harvesting fruit the person harvesting is only to ever hold the vessel to contain the raw material with their left hand and only to pick the fruit and place the fruit in the vessel with their right hand. To do otherwise would be proof positive that attention to detail wasn’t being placed as a priority on the objective goal and to further enforce this it was often repeated that even allowing the left hand to touch the material would ruin the entire batch.

This same premise was applied sometimes to the way that illicit liquor was stored, particularly in cases where previously used bottles of legal liquor were used to store the illicit alcohol. The placement on the shelf of such bottles was always that they were to be faced with the labels facing the wall and not forward, both as a superstition and to avoid confusion about which alcohol was which. It was often said that the alcohol having been stored facing the wrong direction would destroy the quality of the product.

Distilling having been so closely associated with agriculture and the turning of the seasons it is no doubt unsurprising that in many cultures a day of distilling often turns into a celebration and that some of the new make spirit might be used for these purposes as well. Often at the very least a toast would be made in an almost prayer like fashion in order that the new make might be blessed to maintain its quality (if stored in glass) or to improve in quality (if stored in wood) in the coming winter months and that it might maintain any and all needed medicinal qualities for the imbiber as well. Many times, these toasts were made to long lost loved ones or other people who are highly revered by the distillers.

In modern times my re-enactment group follows a superstition similar to this. As we are often times playing the character of by-gone distillers we will make sure and visit the graves at least once a year and offer a toast to those who came before us, both in remembrance but also as a sign of respect.

At Spirits of French Lick distillery, we have recently been working on a line of products that pay homage to long lost distilleries and personalities of the past. These labels have been a big hit and for me it has been an honor to be able to pay tribute to what came before but I have from the very beginning made it a practice to claim bottle number one and personally deliver it either to the grave of the person the product is named after (Lee W. Sinclair bottle number 1 is in the Mausoleum located in Salem Indiana) or to the next of kin (Stampers Creek Rum Bottle number 1 belongs to Cathy Coulter Qualkenbush) or to pour it in tribute to those who inspired it (Old Clifty Apple Brandy bottle number 1 will end up at the sight of the old distillery). I do this because I am a superstitious person but also as a sign of respect for those who paved the way for me.

Of course, there is the old superstition we are all familiar with about the “bad luck” associated with the number 13. In an ironic everything old is new again tradition Moonshiners notoriously avoided Ball jars printed with the number 13 on the bottom and even purposefully destroyed them in order to avoid the negativity associated with the number which in turn has made such jars quite valuable in the world of collectors. Ironically one of the many reasons postulated for the unluckiness of the number is the supposition that King Phillip IV of France arrested and had executed many of the Knights Templar on Friday the 13’th of October in 1307. The irony again being that as “initiates” many of these Templars certainly understood the distilling art.
Other superstitions might have been more in line with either sexism or old school Jewish/Old Testament laws about “cleanliness”. Many Appalachian moonshiners thought that having a woman going through her cycle come in contact with the fermenting mash would “ruin” the mash itself and subsequently shunned them from the still site at that time.

Although superstition around the still house is by far less common than it once was it does certainly still exist and I weekly seem to gather another facet or two from some far off place. In time I’d like to continue to publish them here as I find them interesting in their culture context and wide variety and also indicative of the type of person running the still. If you have any you would like to share I would be glad to hear them.
four-leaf clover in hand

Sweet Mash Vs. Sour Mash

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Sour Mash Vs. Sweet Mash Whiskey

With the rise of the small craft distillery movement in the United States and the drive to find a competitive edge and differentiate products, many distillers have decided to look back at the history of whiskey production in order to determine their path into the future. Everything methodology wise is back on the table again regarding distillation philosophy, just as it should be, just as it was before a handful of industrial producers decided on the single “best” (read efficient) methodology to use across the industry. We recently took a look at the differences between a few types of distilling apparatus as the conversation about Pot Still Vs. Column had become such a hot button topic. In this article we will tackle, in much the same way, the debate about whether sour mash or sweet mash whiskey is decidedly “better” or simply a marketing slant. Just as in the pot vs. column debate, we will present evidence that even those within the marketing departments of companies making the product usually have a poor understanding of the method themselves, if they have any real understanding at all.
Before I go into the history of the two fermentation methodologies, I feel I should give a little basic explanation of what defines a modern “Sweet Mash” and “Sour Mash” fermentation. Here we are simply looking at the most basic understanding used in marketing to differentiate products, later we will break the two categories and their associated sciences and misconceptions down further.

Sour Mashing in the modern sense of the term, is used to define a process wherein a proportion of mash/beer/wine that has already been distilled and had ethanol stripped from it is added in a proportion from 10-35% into the next run of fresh, unfermented mash. The standard marketing tale told on all commercial tours is that this is done to correct the pH downward in order to create a hospitable environment for yeast and to buffer against bacterial contamination. The truth in modern times is a little different yet and as you will see the term prior to the industrialization of whiskey distilling is even more convoluted.

A “Sweet Mash” on the other hand is simply mash with no “backset” (the term which defines the spent mash or slop added to the beer in the sour mash method) or other pH adjustments made (via citric acid, malic acid, or malolactic bacteria). Sweet Mash begins fermentation as nothing more than the yeast working away at a fresh batch of beer or wine to be distilled. As you will see, nothing is ever as simple as this definition makes it appear to be.

Here I will explore the history and wide spread use of both methods and explain some of the theory behind the methods as we go.

In order to better understand the pro’s and the cons of each of the two methods we should probably take a deeper dive into the history of the two. Much has been written over the years of who the creator of the sour mash methodology was, and unfortunately every scrap of material written about the method has been written from the perspective of the Bourbon aficionado, putting only one category of distilled product to the forefront as ground zero of this valuable technique and ignoring most everything that existed before bourbon was recognized as a category. As well, the people who tend to write distilling articles tend not to be distillers themselves so have only and outsider’s perspective of the processes and the history.

There is no doubt of course that the man who single handedly brought the method to prominence and who “modernized” and standardized the practice was a distiller working for Oscar Pepper at what is now known as Woodford Reserve in the 1830’s. Scottish Dr. James Crow of “Old Crow” Bourbon fame, who used the sour mash method alongside a number of more “modern” tools to take Bourbon distilling from folk art to an industrial science and who subsequently built a legendary and bespoke career for himself. I have nothing but respect for the man (and nothing but disdain for the company who owns the brand but refuses to see its true historic value) and certainly value his contributions to the distilling world, even if he was not truly the originator of the Sour Mash methodology. Of Dr. Crow more than enough has been written so I won’t wax poetic of him here. Instead I will post his “recipe” for Sour Mash taken from from the law library of Mr. T. Noble Lindsey and given by William Mitchel (who worked for Crow) to Van Johnson:

Use in 100 bushels of bourbon mash, 12 to 15% of barley malt, ground, 8 to 10% rye, ground, and 75 to 80% corn, ground. In starting up the distillery and using small tubs, put say 80 lbs. of corn meal in the tub and cook with say 30 to 40 gallons of boiling water.
Let set for 4 to 5 hours, then stir and cool to 150 degrees to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and then add rye, say 8 to 10 lbs. Then cool down by stirring to 135-148 and then add malt, say 12 to 15 lbs. Then cool down to 115 degrees Fahrenheit and add cold water enough to bring it down to 68-78 according to the temperature of the weather.
Then fill the fermenter with water at same setting temperature, then add yeast which has been made say 1 1/2 to 3 1/2 lbs. to the bushel.
Continue the above for four days and thereafter cook the corn meal with boiling slop, then let stand from 12 to 24 hours, then break up and cool by stirring to 122-160. Then add rye, same percent as above, and cool to 120-130. then add malt and hold for two hours. Then break up, run to fermenters and fill according to the weather, and add either fresh yeast, or yeast taken from the previous tubs.
The tubs for the first three days of the week are set at say 72-78 and the last three days say 66-72.
Then run the beer into the stills, copper preferred and boil until the spirit is practically exhausted. Then run this spirit obtained from first distillation, and which is held in tubs for the purpose, into the copper doubler and their boil until the whiskey so made would show above proof in the receiving room. The remainder being boiled until the whiskey is practically exhausted and which after cutting off is run into the low wine tub and distilled over again.
YEAST. Use proper proportions of rye, say 1 1/2 lbs. to the bushel, and cook same in 15 to 20 gallons of water to a temperature of say 160 to 175 for say 10 to 20 minutes; then follow with barley malt, same percent, and let stand 24 hours at least to sour and cool to 70-76 degrees. Then stock it with jug yeast previously prepared.

Here Dr. Crow is outlining a process for a typical production week or distillery to start up the sour mash process, starting by making what is clearly a sweet mash to start his production and then utilizing his spent mash (still boiling hot from the still) for cooking in the rest of the mash by the end of the week to create his sour mash process. As you can see, if this is what he practiced in his time, then not all the whiskey he made was indeed sour mash in the traditional sense. He may have also have simply been laying out a process for a week of production and if so, I would presume he was blending these sweet and sour mashed whiskeys together in the barrel, but it’s hard to say. What I can’t say either is why he wouldn’t have continuously used the process by making a batch of sweet mash initially and then subsequently always using a proportion of spent mash. I suppose it could be due to a day off in the production schedule since he is specifically using this spent mash to cook in fresh grains and cold spent mash would have held no interest for him. To put it simply it may have been a matter of industrial efficiency for him to use the spent mash in order to cook the new mash. He obviously notated the difference in pH between the spent material and a new unfermented mash as well and saw the same as beneficial to his process, but it’s truly had to tell how deep his “involvement” and “understanding” of all the facets of the process were without any first-hand notes or descriptors. This is important because there is so much more happening with sour mashing than just heat reclamation and pH adjustment, all of which we will come back to shortly after examining other earlier accounts of sour mashing.

Aside from the standard Doc. Crow legend, many writers in the Bourbon sphere have made much of the 1818 Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter recipes for “sweet” and “sour mash” whiskies respectively as a possible origin point for the sour mash method. These were originally brought to light by Historian Michael Veach and latter touted by writer Fred Minnick in his “Whiskey Women” book and associated engagements as “the first recorded sour mash recipe”. A notion, which while interesting, and true for the recipe in Kentucky, is not historically accurate. Catherine Spears Frye Carpenter, who lived from 1760-1848, inherited a Kentucky distillery from her late husband and recorded the methodology for both sweet and sour mash in the following:

“Receipt for Distilling Corn Meal Sweet Mash, 1818
To a hundred gallon tub put in a Bushel and a half of hot water then a half bushel of meal Stir it well then one bushel of water & then a half Bushel of meal & so on until(sic) you have mashed one bushel and a half of corn meal – Stir it all effectively then sprinkle a double handful of meal over the mash let it stand two hours then pour over the mash 2 gallons of warm water put in a half a gallon of malt stir that well into the mash then stir in a half Bushel of Rye or wheat meal. Stir it well for 15 minutes put in another half-gallon of malt. Stir it well and very frequently until (sic) you can bear your hand in the mash up to your wrist then put in three Bushels of cold slop or one gallon of good yeast then fill up with cold water. If you use yeast put in the cold water first and then the yeast. If you have neither yeast nor Slop put in three peck of Beer from the Bottom of a tub.”

“Receipt for Distilling by a Sour Mash
Put into the mash tub Six busheles (sic) of very hot slop then put in one Bushel of corn meal ground pretty course (sic) Stir well then sprinkle a little meal over the mash let it stand 5 days that is 3 full days betwist the Day you mash and the Day you cool off – on the fifth day put in 3 gallons of warm water then put in one gallon of Rye Meal and one gallon of malt work it well into the malt and Stir for 3 quarters of an hour then fill the tub half full of Luke warm water. Stir it well and with a fine sieve or otherwise Break all the lumps fine then let it stand three hours then fill up the tub with luke warm water.
For warm weather – five Bushels of Slop Instead of Six let it stand an hour and a half Instead of three hours and cold water Instead of warm.
A Receipt for Destilling (sic)
By Sweet and Sour Mash May 18, 1818”

Interestingly both of these recipes are actually forms of sour mash with similar and yet quite different aims. The notated “sour mash” recipe does resemble closely what is done in Kentucky in modernity and is very similar to what Dr. Crow was notable for doing above. The sweet mash recipe however is similar to distilling methodologies practiced by moonshiners and distillers the world over who are reliant on using wild yeast or reusing the same yeast strain repeatedly for consistency or practicality purposes.

In many old sour and sweet mash recipes you will see reference to the use of “Slop” or spent mash/stillage as a replacement for yeast and some recipes even call for the slop to be held in tubs for several days at a time giving it time to cool off before being added to a newly made fermentation. Here is where having an understanding of what spent mash/beer is capable of and actually does in a fermentation becomes paramount to having a true understanding of “Sour Mash” whiskey production. The key to opening the door on both methodologies is related to both yeast and the conditions that govern their health and allow them to propagate efficiently and quickly and also allow for other reactions caused by beneficial bacteria (and the conditions they are propagated within). All of which we will come back to, but first, let us right a historical wrong.

While Catherine Carpenters “Sour mash” recipe is the earliest recorded in Kentucky, it is in fact not the first recorded in the United States. That honor as of this writing goes to Michael Krafft in his book “The American distiller, or, the theory and practice of distilling where he lays the method out in Chapter 11, Of mashing and fermentation as follows:

“Various deviations have been adopted with tolerable success. The plan of cooling off with the liquid part of the returns, or what is termed pot ale, has advantages, it serves the purpose of producing a powerful and rapid fermentation, though tolerably perfect: this practice has been adopted under an idea, (and I think a just one) that the still does not throw off all the spirit.”

This account, a full 14 years prior to Catherine Carpenter, was published in 1804. Shortly thereafter SAMUEL McHARRY, OF LANCASTER COUNTY, PENN penned a similar account in 1809 (a full 9 years prior to Catherine’s notation) from his book The Practical Distiller. As follows:
To make four gallons from the bushel.

This is a method of mashing that I much approve of, and recommend to all whiskey distillers to try it—it is easy in process, and is very little more trouble than the common method, and may be done in every way of mashing, as well with corn or rye, as also a mixture of each, for eight[Pg 56] months in the year; and for the other four is worth the trouble of following. I do not mean to say that the quantity of four gallons can be made at an average, in every distillery, with every sort of grain, and water, or during every vicissitude of weather, and by every distiller, but this far I will venture to say, that a still house that is kept in complete order, with good water, grain well chopped, good malt, hops, and above all good yeast; together with an apt, careful and industrious distiller, cannot fail to produce at an average for eight months in the year, three and three quarter gallons from the bushel at a moderate calculation. I have known it sometimes produce four and a half gallons to the bushel, for two or three days, and sometimes for as many weeks, when perhaps, the third or fourth day, or week, it would scarcely yield three gallons; a change we must account for, in a change of weather, the water or the neglect or ignorance of the distiller. For instance, we know that four gallons of whiskey is in the bushel of rye or corn—certain, that this quantity has been made from the bushel; then why not always? Because, is the answer, there is something wrong, sour yeast or hogsheads, neglect of duty in the distiller, change of grain, or change of weather—then of course it is the duty of the distiller to guard against all these causes as[Pg 57] near as he can. The following method, if it does not produce in every distillery the quantity above mentioned, will certainly produce more whiskey from the bushel, than any other mode I have ever known pursued.

Mash your grain in the method that you find will yield you most whiskey—the day before you intend mashing, have a clean hogshead set in a convenient part of the distillery; when your singling still is run off, take the head off and fill her up with clean water, let her stand half an hour, to let the thick part settle to the bottom, which it will do when settled, dip out with a gallon or pail, and fill the clean hogshead half full, let the hogshead stand until it cools a little, so that when you fill it up with cool water, it will be about milk-warm, then yeast it off with the yeast for making 4 gallons to the bushel, then cover it close, and let it work or ferment until the day following, when you are going to cool off; when the cold water is running into your hogshead of mashed stuff, take the one third of this hogshead to every hogshead, (the above being calculated for three hogsheads) to be mashed every day, stirring the hogsheads well before you yeast them off. This process is simple, and I flatter myself will be found worthy of the trouble.

Here lies the key to understanding “Sour Mashing” as it was originally conceived and for all of its uses and it tries again directly to yeast, but also to the inefficiency of starch to sugar conversion in old farm distilleries. As McHarry notes above, he is adding water back to the spent mash and allowing many of the solids to settle and is then transferring this spent “wash” into a clean fermenter (hogshead) wherein he utilizes it as a yeast starter for freshly made sweet mash after allowing the yeast to propagate. If in fact the beer was spent then how was yeast able to propagate itself in this hogshead of lower pH spent wash? Well, the beer was spent, and all alcohol was extracted from the spent wash during distillation, however due to the inefficiency of mashing in during challenging climatic conditions and generally in absence of a good thermometer, coupled with the fact that most if not all farm distillers of the time (Including most likely Catherine Carpenter) in the U.S were making their own and using their own corn malt as opposed to rye or barley malt (which was both much harder to procure and to produce on a small scale) and since corn malt has far less Diastatic Power (the ability to convert starch to sugar in grain) then the cooked mash retained a large proportion of unconverted starch which would subsequently be converted during its use in the succeeding fermentation and add to the yield which he accounts for. This also speaks for how inefficient fermentation by way of a standard “Sweet Mash” was at that time due to either weak yeast (we are getting close to explaining the remedy!) due to a lack of nutrients or an off kilter pH or due to the lack of temperature control on fermentation at the time (perhaps the yeast went dormant during a cold spell or died during high temperatures, or simply wasn’t attenuated to the higher specific gravity of the mash). Whatever the cause, there is more than enough sugar left in the matrix to create a yeast starter. The remaining starch in the water isn’t simply enough to account for the gain in yield from the subsequent fermentation, however the health of the subsequent generations of yeast is!
One of the biggest constituents found within spent mash is autolyzed yeast, essentially dead yeast husks. These dead yeasts are excellent sources of nitrogen which yeast needs to thrive but also create an environment conductive to yeast propagation as they provide surface area for the yeast to cluster and then bud. They represent a source of yeast nutrition that is not often available (at least not in large amounts) in simple sweet mash whiskies and which give the yeast a major boost in metabolism to make their way through those sugars in order to convert them into alcohol and C02 and which accounts, at least in part, for the gain in yield experienced by the distiller. In fact, modern pre-prepared yeast regiments are made primarily from these dead yeast “hulls” and if push came to shove and marketing departments were truthful, most of the current crop of “sweet mash” producers are probably using some of these alternatives.

It is of course unlikely that McHarry or Carpenter or Krafft at the very least knew this is what was happening in their fermenters, but what they certainly knew was that fermentations utilizing this method were far more productive and likely were infected by unwanted bacteria far less often. The other thing they were certainly well aware of (just like Dr. Crow) was just how inefficient their mashing was at converting starch to sugar. Using some proportion of the spent mash (I’ve seen examples up to 50%) made simple economic sense as it allowed them to recover some of the lost and unconverted starches in the next batch, but it also did a lot of other things.

One of the effects would have been the buildup of complex esters and long chain fatty acids caused by chemical breakdown facilitated by heat in the wood fired pot stills. Subsequently and arguable leading to the most important factor in distilling: More Flavor!

Of course, this would have also have corrected the pH to something more suitable for the yeast as well (although yeast can do this themselves which we will talk about with sweet mash momentarily).

Now, on occasion I have seen reference to this spent beer/mash being “suffered” as they call it to stand in a tub for many days before it is added “cold” back to a newly mashed in fermenter in place of yeast, in fact this was very common up until prohibition. Usually in these accounts small amounts of fresh beer/wash are “fed” to the spent wash in order to facilitate it’s “fermentative prowess”. What is happening here is still a form of sour mash, but the level of complexity and subsequently the “involvement/understanding” of the distiller is heightened. This is very similar in point of fact to how a yeast jug (or Dona Jug) was used to propagate yeast and subsequently dose fermentations with an active live culture, it’s also very close to a sour dough bread methodology and probably where “sour mash” got its name and connotation from.

In these cases, you are creating vats of low pH spent mash in your distillery and allowing them to hang around and pick up only the absolutely strongest strains of yeast and beneficial bacteria that will survive in that environment. You are in essence creating a self-selecting yeast starter that favors the organisms you want to both ferment and subsequently transmute your raw material into the finished beer/wine for the still. These conditions are incredibly efficient for picking up highly selected and efficient yeast strains but also malolactic bacteria. Malolactic bacteria are used by many distillers for the conversion of malic acid which can be “sharp” to lactic acid which is considered softer and “creamier” on the palate. Malolactic bacteria are also incredibly adept at going dormant in low pH environments and coming back to “life” when the pH is increased. In many other distilling cultures (rum, Scotch) these “co-inoculants” are much better understood and utilized as a part of terroir and spirit “character” than they currently are in the U.S., but if you went back to the 1800’s in the U.S. each distillery using this sour mash method (or a Dona jug for yeast propagation even in sweet mash) would have certainly have had their own unique strain of yeast and malolactic bacteria.

So common were these methods that I would have no doubt that the very yeast strain that Jim Beam captured from his porch in Bardstown Kentucky during prohibition and that was subsequently divided between Heaven Hill and Makers Mark in later years most likely evolved in and was a product of one of these distilleries. Nothing about the environment of Kentucky or Indiana or Pennsylvania, or Maryland is unique for the production of yeast specific to distilling other than the fact that all have a distilling tradition with some parallel that makes the selection and propagation of wild yeast with specific traits incredibly efficient and would have made such strains far more prevalent (dormant or not) in the surrounding air, water, wood, etc.

While I have not yet discovered evidence for the earliest of “sour mashing” in grain distillation I do have every honest belief that like many of our distilling methodologies it too can be traced back to the old world. Many of our grain whiskey practices are analogous to what Dutch and German distillers were practicing with raw and unmalted grain whiskey productions and I fully suspect that we Americans simply brought those methodologies with us into our distilleries via heritage or adoption.

Now, before moving on to “Sweet Mash”, there is yet another version of sour mash we need to explore. This sour mash is related again to yeast propagation, yeast nutrient, and pH levels but is handled a little differently and is commonly only used in current practice by home distillers. This version of sour mash sees distillers who distill only from a “wash” (liquid only, no solids) remove said wash from their fermenter to their still and subsequently distill it in whatever way they prefer. The “trub” or “lees” left behind in the fermenter is full of both dead yeast as well as dormant yeast (who stopped performing due to a lack of fermentable sugar) and leftover grain (sometimes already nearly exhausted and sometimes never converted to begin with in the case of a “sugar head” whiskey). From this bed is removed an amount of grain and to it is added new grain and water (and sugar quite often). The bed provided the needed yeast that was once dormant as well as unconverted sugar and helps again to lower the pH for the subsequent fermentation. In an uncooked mash (a mash that relies on refined sugar for alcohol) the unconverted grain is slowly “cold” hydrolyzed and releases flavor into the liquid matrix. If enzymes are added in the form of exogenous or malt derived sources the starches slowly convert to sugar. Sometimes these mashes are carried on for many generations by simply scooping out some amount of spent “trub” and adding new grain.

Many folk distillers would perform a similar task during prohibition. They knew their starch to sugar conversion was poor when making a whiskey the traditional way with a cooked mash so would take the spent grains and wash and put them back in a fermenter while hot and into which they would add refined sugar and malt to extract the remainder of what was left for a subsequent run.

The advent of yeast nutrients, temperature control, exogenous enzymes, lab standardized yeast, and standard chemistry equipment in many modern distilleries has led many to give up the traditional sour mash method, and of those who still practice it I’m not sure how many of them truly have an understanding of its original intended uses. Many have switched to the use of citric acid for souring and of the larger distilleries that use the sour mash method I would place a bet that it is done from an energy saving perspective as opposed to a true quality control perspective, as using the reclaimed heat from the spent mash to cook a fresh mash makes a lot of economic sense and represents a valuable resource. That said, the tradition does live on in many small distilleries and home distilleries. The other branch of sour mashing I didn’t mention previously is involved in the production of fruit brandies. Although brandy doesn’t have the marketing association with sour mash that American Whiskies obviously do, many traditional European folk distillers will add 10-15 percent or more spent wash into their new make fruit wines for all of the reasons mentioned above. This drops the pH as mentioned and is known to create a more aromatic wine for distilling with a sharper and more fruit forward nose and acidic “bite” on the palate of clear brandies.

Many modern distillers will also use selected strains of lactobacillus to sour their whiskey mash as well, similar to what was discussed above in the old methodology. In early distilleries there were a handful of other methods for souring a mash as well that were non-reliant on spent mash, including the use of citrus juices (where available) and hops. Many times, hops were used for their antimicrobial properties in conjunction with the pH of liquid yeast cultures but in some distilleries, they were also a viable component of water for mashing in. The hops would be added to the water boiler as the water was heated and would imbue the “strike” water to be used in the cooking process. This would also create a slight flavor variation in the finished whiskey as the volatile components of the hops would distill over into the product.

Now onto sweet mash. As classified above any whiskey made without the addition of backset (or other pH corrections) or not fermented on a bed of spent grain/trub/lees would be considered a sweet mash. In the days before temperature control in fermentation and intense sanitation sweet mash whiskeys could certainly be a true challenge to make due to the threat/risk of bacterial contamination, this is still a problem with many home distillers. The modern distillery is equipped with any number of ways to combat such issues and the risk in most current settings is quite mitigated.

Prior to prohibition many “sweet mash” whiskeys were sold at a premium as the issue at hand and the challenges of creating a sweet mash were very well understood. The taste, as one might imagine is a little different as well. Usually a sweet mash whiskey will be a little cleaner and less heavy bodied than a sour mash whiskey and will subsequently drink a little more linear, with a clearer and sharper focus on the raw material in the fermentation and its virtues, although there are exceptions. Some will use the various methods of correcting pH above (citric, malic, lactobacillus) to stave off bacterial infections, but many will run a true sweet mash. There is no set pH that all distilleries abide by as a starting point as all grains and water sources as well as the amount of grain in the matrix will allow pH to vary but these whiskeys usually start between 5.2 and 5.5. Of this we will return for discussion momentarily after a little historical aside.

Everyone, I presume, is aware of the “Lincoln County Process” and its most famous practitioner Jack Daniels. Jack Daniels of course itself is a “sour mash” whiskey from Tennessee, but were you aware that the Sour Mash process was an important signifier alongside filtration through maple charcoal of the “Lincoln County Process”? What most don’t know is that there was another wide spread process named after yet another county in Tennessee as well that relied on using a “sweet mash”; The Robertson County Process. All things being equal, the R.C. process relied on sweet mash and charcoal filtration and the whiskey subsequently made herein was often sold and served unaged. This style of whiskey was actually pretty preeminent in Kentucky and Tennessee overtop of the more common aged bourbon and Lincoln County Process whiskey prior to prohibition. Prohibition of course virtually wiped its production off the map except upon moonshiners of the region who often made sweet mash whiskeys that were filtered through charcoal before sale.

Coming back around to the science of sweet mash there are a few notations worth mentioning. Typically beer fermentations for whiskey production are fairly short at 3-6 days (although I do know of instances in less than ideal conditions requiring 10-14 days), this is a fairly short window of time and good selected yeast will ferment hard during most of this period, meaning that enough C02 is being pushed from out of the top of an open topped fermenter that very little in the way of bacteria ever has a chance to inhabit the vessel and the subsequent ferment and ruin it. The yeast of course as well, if it has good nutrition, is typically of a strong type and outcompetes most any wild yeast or bacteria (although there are exceptions), but the process of fermentation itself will actually sour a mash of its own accord. As the yeast breaks down sugar and turns it into ethanol it begins to become stressed by its own waste material (alcohol) and will actually begin to turn that alcohol (without the presence of acetobacter) into volatile acidity, lowering the pH, in a last-ditch effort to survive the “yeastpocalypse” that is coming. Effectively creating its own “sour mash” These acids of course make up a large percentage of the flavor profile of any distilled spirit.

Going back into the history of the sweet mash methodology we will also take note of the methodology mentioned above of pitching yeast from a previous ferment which would have also have historically have played at role in adjusting the pH of the fresh mash depending of course on how much volume was added from the previous fermentation. This in itself would to me be considered still yet a form of making a sour mash. In a previous article we discussed the use of the old-fashioned Dona Jug (Yeast Jug) amongst distillers. These yeast jugs always relied on a portion of spent mash or finished/fermented mash to be a carrier for yeast nutrients and viable cells in order to keep the yeast strain alive and healthy across countless generations by way of pH adjustment, depending on the pitch rate of this liquid yeast (between 2-6% amongst traditional distillers) and how far into fermentation the liquid yeast was, it is arguable that a pH adjustment was also affected by this method.

It is also important to remember that one of the most viable natural sources of lactobacillus bacteria is present in nearly every distillery and every whiskey mash; malt. Since we don’t typically add malt to a mash until the cooldown side of the cooking process between 135-148 and since this isn’t hot enough to kill the culture, it is likely that some level of lactobacillus bacteria survives the cook and also contributes to the drop in pH seen in sweet mashes.

I have made and drank many fantastic sweet mash and sour mash whiskeys and truthfully I think both are valuable tools in the distillers arsenal, I couldn’t say with any amount of certainty that I believe that either method makes a better product, much like the discussion of differing types of stills it truly depends on the raw material and the preference of the distiller in terms of the type of product that they wish to make at that moment in time. I do think that the large distillers and many undereducated distillers have made far too much of the sour mash process in terms of quality in their marketing materials over the years and I do think that most have only a vague understanding of the historical use of the process as anything other than a way to adjust pH or to regain/reclaim heat for the cooking process. I hope this article has shed some light on both methodologies and their history for readers, there are some other distilling parallels in the world that have some interesting similarities including the use of “muck” and of dunder in the rum world which I believe that whiskey distillers could easily draw some knowledge and application from as some of the process are far more developed that our current understanding of the use of spent stillage and hold the potential to unlocking some amazing flavor profiles that we have not yet experienced.

Distilling is a humbling art and the more I learn the less I seem to know. I hope that never changes on my behalf.

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