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.

The Reason Why Your Whiskey Can and Should Come from Pot Stills, Column Stills, Chamber Stills, Alquitars, Pots with Dephlegmators, Coffee Stills, Pots with Retorts, and Hybrids. Or, how arguing pot vs. column will never broach the complexity of the distilling arts.


Back in October Max Watman posted an article to the Daily Beast ( titled “The Reason Why Your Whiskey Should Come from a Pot Still”. As a Pot Still, devotee and specialist I certainly appreciated his take on the subject, however there were some technical mistakes in the perception of “Column Still” distillation. Max Watman’s mistakes were based on the fact that he simply took the word of Irish distilling giant John Powers from his testimony that was recorded in the infamous “The Final Report of the Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits” in the late 1800’s and Power’s subsequent “damnation” of the continuous column to mean that Powers was damning all types of column stills (he most certainly was! However, he likely didn’t fully understand their capabilities) and subsequently Max Watman simply didn’t make the distinction that “All Coffey Stills are columns but not all columns are Coffey stills.”

This January Lew Bryson fired back with his own Daily Beast article entitled “The Reason Why Your Whiskey Should Come from a Column Still”. Another interesting read, and one which straightens out the Coffee Vs. Kentucky Beer Still argument to a small extent but again contains lots of misconceptions about how pot stills are ran as well as the intricacies of a true Coffey vs beer column debate and what their limitations are. These misconceptions didn’t come from Lew Bryson himself generally but from Jay Erisman, the Vice President of Strategic Development for New Riff Distilling, who certainly should have known better.

All of this takes a bit to unpack and understand and I am not going to get into the deep chemistry of each type of still but instead will try to keep this as basic as I can for readers/distillers who are not as in depth in the distilling arts. These arguments are nothing new and in fact stretch back across the continents for as long as the taxman has been trying to regulate and bring to heel rebellious distillers of old using inefficient small pot stills to the chagrin of the excise.

For centuries each distilling culture and region have had their favored type of distilling apparatus and unique methodologies for running them. Each type of distilling apparatus subsequently could be modified and run with a veritable plethora of modifying machinery to affect the proof and purity of the product and subsequently the passage of more or less volatile substances to the condenser prior to raw spirit ever being finished in whatever way it was intended. Unfortunately, through the industrialization of distilling in the 1800’s-1900’s we have lost sight of how diverse our technological distilling heritage is (particularly in the Kentucky Bourbon dominated United States) and have simply settled (at least in the houses of most of the big players in the field) on an apparatus as well as methodology that is common across large distillers that simply creates a consistent raw distillate that relies heavily on the maturation process/location of barrels in storage to give differing flavor profiles. This stands in stark contrast to the roots of distilling when the art was reliant on the skill and intuition of a trained or practical distiller to start the process of differentiation between products from mash, through distillation, to maturation. A blend and balance of all the tenants of the art.

At the base of understanding the differences between a pot still and a column still is understanding the functionality of each in their most basic form:
Pot stills are batch systems, able to process and distill only what the capacity of the boiler pot will handle in one run from start to finish. Pot stills are heated by way of indirect steam, infrared, or direct fire, and most generally ran very slowly as heat must build in the entirety of the fermented material inside the still before alcohol separation happens. Pot stills are unable to fractionate alcohol in an angular way at specific product outputs in the vapor path based on the boiling temperature of various compounds and subsequently all output will exit the system from the same port at the end of the condenser, meaning a distiller needs to be standing at the end of the port to make a valid examination of the products produced and subsequently to separate wanted alcohols from unwanted alcohols.

A column still on the other hand is a continuously operated system able to “flash” distill high volumes of raw fermented material in minutes instead of hours by direct injected steam and fed by a pump from several hundred- or thousand-gallon cisterns holding raw material. Advanced “Coffey” style stills can be “tuned” to bypass unwanted congeners like “heads” and to rectify tails to a higher proof for potable spirit. Generally, they rely on a second distillation in either a “Doubler” or “Thumper” (in the Beer Still/Kentucky Column) or a second column for “Rectification” or “Finishing” (as in a Coffey still) in order to raise the proof and purity of the finished spirit. A column can be as easily operated as a set of pre-written parameters (as is done in most U.S. Beer Column still houses) or as complicated as a distiller and his/her subsequent employer will allow (again, the Coffey Still). Many column still distilling employment positions in the U.S. industry are known simply as “Operators”.
Before I start receiving hate mail for my descriptor let me add this; a column still in no way shape or form is “easier” to operate than a pot still, it’s simply a different set of parameters. As far as producing a “better” spirit, trust me I’m driving towards a point.

Let’s start with Lew Bryson’s assertion about the difference between a continuous Coffey still and a continuous beer still. Lew’s description of the difference is pretty apt. In a Coffey still, one will find (in most cases but not all) two distinct columns. The first column will contain a number of sieve plates used to separate the raw fermented base from its ethanol. These are flat plates placed in the path of the alcohol with numerous perforations to allow steam to pass through them easily. Product enters near the top of the column and runs from one side of this plate, designed similar to a strainer, to the other side where it meets a “down comer” tube and falls to the next level to repeat the same process. As the material moves across this perforated plate steam rises through the material from the bottom of the apparatus (where the live steam that makes the system work is introduced) removing the said alcohol from the raw material. From here the raw fermented material keeps making its way downward and eventually out of the system. The concentrated alcohol however then escapes the top of the first or “stripping” column and finds its way into the bottom of the second column which is known as the “doubling” or “finishing column” where it meets what are known as bubble plates. These plates have raised copper caps spread across them with small slits or holes in the side where they attach to the plate. These “bubble caps” are essential to raising the proof and purity as they allow for numerous micro distillations to happen as vapor alcohol meets liquid alcohol and an exchange occurs. Each plate represents a further step in the distilling process, raising the proof and the purity at each step. These stills were originally designed to make high proof spirit at 189.5 proof or higher, quickly and efficiently. This increase in efficiency led to a profusion of what we in the states would call “rectifiers” who would pass off spurious “whiskey” made from neutral spirits and blends of various flavoring components off to consumers both in the United States and in the British Isles. Such questionable behavior eventually lead to the quote from John Powers as noted above and subsequently an entire tirade written by John Jameson (Yes, that Jameson) entitled; “Truths about Whiskey”.

All negatives aside however, clever distillers, particularly in the Rum and Scotch category, figured out rather quickly how to modify these Coffee stills to deliver products across a spectrum of proofs higher than a common pot still generally all the while pulling from various points in the vapor path distillates that were full of flavor, life and character. Heads are eliminated from the top of the rectification column while various ports further down the column provide access to “hearts”. Anything impure like methanol or acetone can be returned to the first column for redistillation and subsequently cleaned up and salvaged. Rum distillers such as Foursquare and Demerara Distillers have both proven that these stills have unique capabilities in producing distillates that simply can’t be replicated on a simple pot still. Many times, these distillates are even blended with pot still distillates to create entirely new products. There is no doubt that a true Coffey still can offer many interesting variations and of course not a thing in the world wrong with that; a win for distillers in efficiency and a win for drinkers in diversity of flavors.

Enter the Kentucky Beer Still as described by Lew Bryson in his article. This particular style of still is very common in mid to large sized distilleries and started becoming popular and widespread after the excise tax was put in place the third time in this country in 1862. Essentially a Kentucky Bourbon Still/Beer Column is a Coffee still condensed to a single column. The continuous beer still is made up of a multitude of sieve trays in the bottom two thirds of the column and 2-4 or more bubble plates in the top of the still. Above this is a device known as a dephlegmator, essentially a condenser with a needle valve, which determines the rate of forced reflux (the condensation of ethanol vapor to liquid which falls back down the column to be re-distilled to a higher proof) in the apparatus. Raw fermented material is introduced above the first sieve tray and begins its downward descent meeting steam and separating alcohol from water. The alcohol then enters the rectification portion of the still where the proof is adjusted appropriately. During this initial distillation is when a small number of “Heads” (alcohol not wanted in potable spirit) is removed, usually by vaporizing to the atmosphere while distilling water from the previous run (used to clean out the still) during start up. A small tails fraction is also created by this same cleaning process on shutdown. The process for balancing true heads and tails portions on a continuous still is delineated by the “tuning” of the dephlegmator and condenser during the run, allowing the distillate to run fast and hot and to vent some amount of this unwanted material to the outside atmosphere (ever notice the smell of finger nail polish remover outside some of the large distilleries?) but this is a very limited method, and not truly a “cut” in the traditional sense. Methanol, acetyl aldehyde, and ethyl acetate from those portions are all collected alongside hearts for the duration of the run. Tails are generally dropped out of the still with stillage or rerun to raise their proof and purity. Even with the limited control that does exist for this “heads” portion, at most large companies and distilleries this is all pre-determined and is simply a matter of sticking to the standard operating procedures of the company, leaving the distiller with no choice but to run the still as the specs dictate. Many times, these specs are set simply for efficiency, the old “alcohol is alcohol” is standard, these methods often are put in place by engineers, not by distillers. This is a massive reason why product from large distilleries is consistent from run to run.

From the column the resultant distillate will then be condensed and run to either a “Thumper” (utilizing parasitic heat from the previous process to distill) or a “Doubler” (using steam heated coils to distill) which most generally resembles a small pot still. This device, always made of copper, again flash distills the product, raising the proof slightly but also allowing for catalytic conversion via copper contact in order to remove unwanted congeners. Due to laws regarding the proof ceiling of distilling bourbon and due to the nature of bourbon having been traditionally distilled inefficiently on pot stills (with the residual flavor of the raw material) the output of this second distillation is usually somewhere in the range of 135 proof.

The remaining unwanted congeners in the finished spirit (foreshots/heads) are over time esterified in the barrel or lost due to their volatile nature to the angel’s share. But depending upon the tuning of the still this process may not be complete in all samples.

This is not uncommon in distilled spirits of several types, even those produced even on pot stills, as many traditional Black Forrest Schnapps forego a heads cut in favor of retaining the sharp and acidic tonality of the fruit (although consumption of these spirits is to be moderated as they are unaged) and Armagnac distilled on a hybrid/Saville style still is known for its long ageing and “Rustic” qualities. No wonder then Armagnac is the brandy considered the closest kin to Bourbon.

In rare exceptions the beer column is used as a stripping still to feed a true pot still, such was the case at the original PA Michters Distillery.

As mentioned, these Beer Column stills are incredibly efficient, and they can make good product in what has become (perhaps unfortunately) the traditional Kentucky Bourbon style. However, for me as a distiller I don’t find the Kentucky Continuous Beer Still that interesting due to its lack of versatility and the focus almost exclusively of large producers to diversify products by focusing solely to the raw material and fermentation and the subsequent maturation in a large warehouse. I would even argue that the raw material might be of questionable concern to most of these firms as many large Bourbon distillers will tell you 60-70% of their flavor is derived from maturation alone. Again, this isn’t to say these stills don’t make some fantastic products as they certainly can and as their market share indicates. Instead the Kentucky beer columns simply lend themselves to a very specific and very commercial profile of whiskey. I don’t like limitations, and I hate Dogma, so generally I find myself less than enthralled with this type of distillation. That said, you would be hard pressed to find a bigger admirer of Heaven Hill than myself.

On to pot stills:

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

Pot stills, which were the preferred method of distillation for centuries, clearly have a much longer and in-depth history and study and are still the preferred mechanism of distillation for many different traditions the world over. Pot stills are the darlings of American craft distillers, single malt scotch distillers, Cognac distillers, and of certain regions of Calvados production due primarily to the inefficiency inherent in their distillation process and the subsequent flavor which is retained and concentrated directly from the raw material of fermentation. (low proof ceiling).

Pot stills of course automatically lend themselves to a bit of poetry and romanticism giving their long run and association with producers of illicit folk spirits and long association with farmers and smallholders. These folk distillers have been appreciated primarily for making one off distillates unique to a specific still, location, and raw ingredient such as Mescal, Slivovitz, and Clairin. The Charentes method of double pot still distillation is one of the oldest methods of producing potable spirits still in practice.

A pot still is a very percussive instrument, it is rhythmic and reflective and everything around it effects its output. It is an extension of the distiller themselves as well as a reaction chamber for chemical conversion and of itself a study in the atmospherics of the location where it is run.

A pot still is made of a boiling pot with a simple or complex head system connected to a condenser (or potentially a retort or thump prior to the condenser). Pot stills are generally heated by way of steam jackets in modern times (though not always) and require a trained distiller to monitor constantly the output of the distillate in order to make the correct cuts for a good potable spirit. I would argue any distiller using an automated cutting system as offered by certain manufacturers should consider themselves simply an “operator”.

A basic pot still operation requires the raw fermented materials to be pumped into the boiler or cucurbit and then heated in two unique steps of distilling. The first distillation known as the “striping run” simply allows the removal of all the available alcohol from the raw beer or wine in the still with no “cuts” or removal being made (generally, although some do make a heads cut on the first run), in order to produce “low wine” at 60-70 proof to then be redistilled in what is known as a “doubling” or “finishing” run.

The low wine is then pumped into a second pot still where the temperature is closely monitored and the spirit exiting the condenser is constantly subjected to sensory analysis in order to make the appropriate cuts to remove unwanted alcohols and flavors from the finished potable spirit. Generally, 4 cuts are made on pot stills. The first amount produced is called “fores” (short for foreshot) and is removed and discarded as it is full of poisonous methanol, this is generally discarded. The second fraction produced is known as “heads” and has a strong fingernail polish remover/solvent aroma. This fraction is often saved and redistilled in the next stripping run of the same product as the proportions do not build up over time and break down with heat. The next fraction is the “heart” which is composed of potable alcohol intended for consumption or maturation. The last fraction is the “tail” which is composed of various “fusel oils” and has a boiled vegetative aroma and bitterness. This “tail” is actually where a vast amount of flavor lies and some consistency comes into play for pot still distillers as these tails are saved and rerun in the next doubling run of the same product.

Even in this most simple form of pot still distillation there are tons of variables (including when the fractions that are unwanted are or are not added back to the process), and each distiller will have their own methodology and preferred place to make particular cuts depending on the product. Those cuts are also greatly affected by everything that happens in the distillery before the distillation even begins, starting with the raw ingredients that went into the beer or wine to be distilled.

Generally, a pot still distillery will begin the process of determining where to make cuts at by deciding whether or not the distillate is going to be a young or even potentially unaged product vs the product of many years of maturation. A young product will be cut accordingly by the removal of as much heads or tails as deemed necessary to make the raw product palatable whereas an aged product distiller might elect to keep more of both components to esterify in the barrel during maturation.

The spirit produced from this second run is called “high wines” and usually clocks in around 135 proof, just like those column still’s we spoke of earlier. However, in this case, because each of the components has been selected each individual batch to make up the potable alcohol, variation is the rule and consistency is the exception.

My love for pot still distillation comes from their finnicky nature. Everything can, does, and will affect a pot still. If you are running in cold weather you get more natural reflux and a lighter spirit, in hot weather the effect is the opposite. Barometric pressure and moon phases also effect the still and each pot still runs slightly differently. Five pots made by the same manufacturer to the same specs, run in the same distillery, by the same distiller, running the same raw material, will all five turn out slightly differing products due to the human element and the atmosphere surrounding the pot still, but all will be excellent representations of the elements retained and concentrated in the raw materials (provided the distiller knows what they are doing). You don’t create consistency on a pot still, you manage it with refined senses and the use of those senses, including intuition and then through the art of marrying your barrels or batches for bottling.
Of course, nothing in life is as straight forward as what my explanation of pot still distilling above would imply. Pot stills have all manner of variations and gadgetry. Some are equipped with Pistorius lenses for forced rectification, some with dephlegmators, some with attached bubble plate columns, some with purifiers, and some with water jacketed heads. The simple line arm directionality (45 degrees up, straight over, 45 down, swans’ neck) can greatly affect the spirit by forcing reflux and creating a lighter or heavier bodied spirit. Worm or serpentine condensers vs. shell and tube condensers also make a world of difference. Some of the best pot distilled whiskies in the world that I have ever tasted have been made on a simple Appalachian style 40-gallon pot still with an attached dephlegmator holding the spirit at 155 proof for the duration of the hearts run. It’s all about flavor, and each of these setups can and does create a unique flavor, that’s all distilling should be about!

Pot stills do have another advantage chemically speaking over column stills as well if one wants to produce a heavy/full bodied spirit. The business of distilling is nothing more than the business of creating, maintaining, and manipulating flavor and since that flavor is determined by the breakdown of long chain fatty acids into short chain esters (the flavors you want in finished whiskey) and those esters are broken down with the duration of heat, why not go with an inefficient system. You get three chances to create esters; fermentation, distillation, and maturation. During distillation the duration (time) that those acids are exposed to heat is vital to the breakdown of those acids into esters and since we aren’t “flash” distilling alcohol through a device distilling hundreds of gallons a minute and instead are focusing on a batch that might take from 8-12 hours to distill we by proxy end up with volumes more chemical reactions. Add an open flame under the still and hot spots in the heated surface and you go a step further by creating Mallard reactions (think caramelization!).

In the article written by Lew Bryson, Jay Erisman pointed out that in a beer column:

“And those grains get pounded by live steam. They enter in about three-quarters of the way up the still, and all the way down, it’s giving up flavor. The beer still allows for that, and that’s important for making the biggest, fattest whiskey possible.”

Which is true, the steam is interacting with the grain for a short amount of time in the still and removing alcohol from the matrix, but points to a misunderstanding of pot still functionality and chemical reaction as well.

He goes on to say:

“You can make good bourbon on a pot still, but it is difficult to make it as big and as hefty as on a Kentucky beer still.”

To which I will add that it is not difficult at all because we pot still distillers rely on those chemical conversions mentioned above to achieve something quite similar and perhaps more complex, particularly when paired with the sensory evaluation of the different fractions of pot distilled alcohol.

Erisman goes on to say:

“Why does that beer still make a difference?” he asks. “Because a pot still whiskey is lighter, going in the barrel, and you need the biggest, fattest whiskey you can get going in that new, charred oak barrel. That’s why a pot-stilled whiskey shows best in a used barrel. The beer still is essential in making big bourbon whiskey that ‘fits’ that new charred oak barrel.”

If any distiller wanted to argue that a pot distilled whiskey from a simple pot, even with an inclined line arm, was “lighter” in style than a column distilled whiskey I would say they needed to go back to the drawing board regarding distillation theory and philosophy. Pot distilled whiskey was in new barrels and holding up just fine long before the column was introduced and the current crop of small distillers is bringing that back around. The only instance in which this might be true would be in those instances where the entirety of the grain was not entering the still as is common in scotch single malt distillation and Irish whiskey distilling where only the “wash” or liquid from the fermentation is included in the pot still. The method of wash distilling on a pot still is not common in Bourbon distilling.

Another of Erisman’s faulty points of convention is as follows:

“You don’t get stillage for sour mash out of a pot still,” Erisman explains. “What goes in the pot still is a liquid. What goes in a Kentucky beer still is everything, all the grains, everything.

Which is patently untrue. Folk distillers, commercial Bourbon and Rye Distillers, and Brandy distillers have been including solids in pot stills since the advent of pot still distillation. With old open flame systems, yes there is a chance of “scorching” or burning the material but simple stirring of the pot until it boils alleviates most of that concern and automated water power or hand crank agitators have existed for centuries, folk distillers sometimes overcome the concern by lining the bottom of the still with straw. This means that even in pot still distillation (short of Ireland and Scotland and some home distillers) Everything, grains and all, go into a pot still for distillation which also means you can take stillage for sour mash back out of the still. The oldest recipes for sour mash distilling come from pot distillers, not column producers. It’s just not a well-informed or thought out statement.

The truth is, a Lew pointed out in his article, it’s a non-argument. The art of distilling is all about the preference of flavor desired for an end product, and flavor is highly subjective. Truthfully your whiskey should come from all the variations noted above as well as others we didn’t speak of, because they all have their own unique characteristics and flavor components and each has its own set of parameters and modifications that make them distinct. For too long the U.S. was suffered commercially to drink only one type of domestic spirit distilled homogeneously across a handful of large companies. Fuck that, that’s boring. We want diversity and we should have it. If you are a column still commercial producer customer happy with where you are, there is nothing wrong with that, but if you expect diversity go seek it out and support the people producing it. I’d like to think none of us have tasted the “best” yet, simply because there are too many variables. Hell, we may already have done as such and don’t even realize it. I’d wager odds our great, great, great grandparents did, and I bet it came off a 40-gallon pot still in an old farm shed!
Spirit Still

Piecing together the McCoy Distillery….

Again I am back to researching the George B. McCoy and Co Distillery of Stampers Creek in Orange County Indiana. Why? Mostly because I continue to find more and more information about this farm distillery that operated until 1916 and because it is one of the few where there are newspaper articles, descendents of the distillers, and even photos to research.

Recently I was perusing old newspaper articles when I came across this add for the R.H. Nevitt Corner drug store in Brandenburg KY which boasts of apple brandy purchased from the George D. Richardson Distillery that is “Genuine, Hand Made, Copper Distilled Brandy” as opposed to other products that are only doubled in copper.

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The article got me thinking about several details regarding the McCoy Distillery I have read over the years. In particular this line from the History of Lawrence, Orange, and Washington Counties where the McCoy is referenced as a “Steam Distillery”:

The only institution of this kind in the township is the steam distillery of GB McCoy & Bros about onehalf mile east of Millersburg where a large business is carried on in the fruit seasons and many gallons of these brandies are manufactured

The McCoy’s were turning out quite a few 30 gallon brandy barrels yearly made from the old Apple Mash method which leaves tons of solids (which easily burn in a pot still if not filtered out) in the wine which enters the still. It would certainly make sense for them to find a quick and efficient way to run this wine into brandy with the use of steam as opposed to open flame which risks scorching the product. As well, I suspect the McCoys were distilling some whiskey as well:

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This article was written in 1901 and describes a grain distillery on Stampers Creek, at that time only two distilleries were operating in the area; the McCoy and the Wolfe. I’ve seen references to whisky associated with the McCoy’s but never the Wolfe’s so I am inclined to believe that the McCoys were distilling whiskey.

What does that have to do with steam distilling? While it’s never explicitly stated that this distillery on Stampers Creek was distilling wash (filtered beer or wine with no solids) or mash (unfiltered with solids) it does compare their distillation to that which is happening in the state of Kentucky where the tradition of running the mash, grain and all, into the still was more common. I also infer from the tone of the reporting that this distillery was considered a bit more “industrial” in effect than the typical farm distillery. Those facts coupled with the old add we ran before about the 20 horse apple grinder the McCoy’s purchased (obviously looking for industrial efficiency) lead me to believe we are talking about the same distillery. Running mash and all into a pot still can be done with good luck on an old onion style pot still if its kept well conditioned or lined with straw but is generally pretty risky. All of this of course is happening at a time when distilling is undergoing some industrial changes, from the romantic pot still of yore towards the efficient column still of modernity, and also at a time when rye whiskey is at the precipice of popularity and relying on a contraption often referred to as a “steam still” but known also as a three chamber still!

1912 3-Chamber Wooden Still

So my brain was piqued when I saw that the George D Richardson distillery (who also shipped some product into Indiana being located across the river from Mauckport and New Amsterdam) were advertising essentially double pot distilled brandy. Suddenly it made sense, in order for the 5 distilleries in Harrison County and the 2 in Orange County to have produced in total the 2-3000 barrels they did many years in the short amount of time (3-6 months) yearly, they would have had to have turned to industrial efficiency, the aptly named “steam still” certainly fit the bill.

The three chamber is almost a take on the old European Pistorious style still, designed as a batch system, but more efficient than a pot still, it allows for steam to be raised by an engine, pumped into the bottom chamber, flow to the wooden or copper plate that seperates the bottom chamber from the middle chamber, enter a manifold of piping, circulate through the middle chamber, rise up a copper pipe through another plate and enter yet another manifold in the third chamber. Mash, with solids and all enter the top chamber (with no worries of burning or scorching as they never come into contact with a surface in touch with direct flame)where they begin the distilling process under low pressure and after a heads cut is made the mash can be dropped into the second chamber via a valve for further distilling (rectification or the raising of the proof and purity of the hearts/tails) as new mash enters the top chamber the middle is dropped to the bottom for further rectification, the top moves to the middle, and fresh mash enters the system again. From here the steam would travel on to a doubler or thumper system for further distilling to raise the proof and purity of the final product. The illustration above shows a column style doubler but I imagine some of these doublers were more like the pot still shaped doublers that you see in modern beer column Bourbon distilleries, hence the advertisements touting that other apple brandies are only “Copper Doubled”.

This style of distillation would have put the mash in contact with multiple heating processes and subsequently would have extracted heaps of flavor from the wine/beer and imbued the new make spirit with a unique product not capable of being produced in the old pot still methodology.

My suspicion is that the producer and seller of the old copper method brandy knew that most of the brandy distillers outfitted with steam distillers were probably running the wooden style (though there were copper 3 chamber stills too, Leopold brothers in recent years had Vendome Copper and Brassworks of Louisville Kentucky build one for them to recreate the old Maryland style of Rye Whiskey)and were trying to infer that the old double copper pot distilled method of 100 years prior is what set them apart.

Two pieces of evidence lead me to believe that this is exactly the style of still the McCoy’s were running at the turn of the century. The first is the advertisement of the distillery auction:

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As you can see they offer a 3 horse steam engine (enough to run a fair size 3 chamber) connected to a “stationary boiler” which they never refer to as copper. They also mention “200 lbs” of copper pipe, far more copper than needed for the serpentine worm and probably includes the piping from the steam engine to the boiler, perhaps the piping in the boiler, and the subsequent piping from the boiler to the doubler and worm.

Though unrelated the mention of the 80 Hogsheads (68-120 gallon barrels) give us some indication of the size of the distillery as these were used for mashing in apple brandy or whiskey for distillation.

The second piece of evidence is the most convincing in my opinion. Though we don’t know of any pictures from inside the still works we do have a picture of the distillery after the tornado that ripped it’s roof off in 1912 (4 years before the auction), in this photo I’ve always noticed three things. a. there is a barrel on the second story of the stillhouse in the far left hand corner. b. there is a gentleman standing in the same area that seems to be wearing business clothes (Distiller? Owner?) next to that barrel. c. to the left of the tree in front of the building is a piece of infrastructure that looks to be coopered with bands like a barrel but tapers to the top, it could just be my imagination but to me that looks a whole lot like the top of a three chamber wooden still like the one illustrated above. Take a look and decide for yourself:

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“Old Mill Hollow” Jefferson Township, Washington County Indiana.

Like many places, the valley that myself and friend/filmographer D.J. Henderson visited this past Sunday has many names; Twin Creek Valley, Henderson Park, and originally “Old Mill Hollow”. Located East of Cave River Valley/Old Clifty Old Mill Hollow too has a long and interesting history of distilling and milling with an industry stretching from at least as early as 1818 and for certain until well into the 1860’s.

There were at least three grain mills and as many as 9 distilleries operating simotaneously in this unique limestone plateau valley. Though I, and I doubt anyone else can determine precisely where these operations were located (distilleries) the Mills do leave a few remnants. We have much more to study in the valley and I will update new posts as they come.

Interestingly this valley was the launching point for many flat boats carrying pork, flour, and of course brandy and whiskey. The name McPheeters will pop up here again as it has earlier in Howard Township in association with the distillery sold to John Horner. Here McPheeters alongside of partner Mallote are bringing purchased barrels of whiskey and brandy for flatboat shipment south (the launch being about a mile or so down the creek from the McNeely Mill).

The other cultural thing of note in this region is that most of the settlers are actually of Welsh, Irish, and Scottish descent unlike the rest of the county which was made up mostly of German descent. there are lots of Covenanters ( Scottish Presbyterian movement)here. There are however Hessians such as a distiller by the name of Bush (related of course to the Bush family of distillers in Jackson twsp.) and also two of Napolean Bonaparte’s chief officers, Marshal Neigh (Napolean’s Field Marshall who faked his execution in France and lived in the area a short while near the cave located at Wonder Valley Christian Camp and wrote the first book published in Indiana, ironically about the life of Napolean) as well as John Caspar; a special deputy of Napolean trusted with hand selecting the finest horses for Napolean’s officiers.

A little history from The Centennial History of Washington County Indiana:

EARLY MIILS AND INDUSTRY The first mill in the town ship was built by James Meredith in 1816 on Twin creek, the power to operate if was furnished by water damned up in a cave The water was carried down to the mill by hewn troughs to an overshot wheel which operated a corn buhr about two and one half feet in diameter. Twin creek was declared navigable up to within a couple of miles of this mill and farmers living adjacent to the stream were required to regularly remove all drifts and logs that would interfere with boats floating out just as they had to work the roads A few years later Meredith built a saw mill about three fourths of a mile farther down the creek This mill was rebuilt in 1845 and operated up to 187.0 Fultz also built a gristmill some distance above the saw mill which was afterwards known as the old McNeely mill It was run by an overshot water wheel and some of its remains are still to be seen In 1824 Jehu Cox put up a corn and oil mill about a mile above where the McNeely mill stood It was afterwards known as the Keyes mill and was operated for a good many years or till about 1860 when the creek dried up so there was no water to operate it excepting for a few weeks in the spring of the year There was also a carding machine operated here by the Key es for several years

DISTILLERIES A NECESSARY ADJUNCT It was once the boast of this section of country that it contained more distilleries than could be found in any other part of the county As fast as they got enough land in cultivation to raise a surplus of corn or fruit they either distilled it themselves or sold it to others to distill into whisky or brandy Almost every hollow that had a good spring in it had its little copper still where the pure liquor was made From 1820 to 1835 more than half the land in Jefferson township was paid for by the sale of whisky Some of it was sent south by flat boats down Twin creek and much of it went to Salem Malotte and McPheeters purchasing all that was for sale had it hauled to Louisville in wagons and from thence sent south in boats There was no government tax on it then and it was sold at from twenty to fifty cents per gallon according to age On election and muster days political aspirants would be on hand and roll out a barrel of the pure stuff knock out the head and with gourds serve the attendant throng till all were satisfied Those who are now known to have operated distilleries in early times were William Williams Christian Prow Thomas Sandy William Sells William Reid Robert Ellison John Collins Isaac Denney William Elliott Alex Wilson Solomon Bush William and Mathew Marks Booth Robinson Henry Baker John Holler George Holsapple and Tippins Brothers The first store was opened by Christopher Prow Jr in 1836 who ran

DANGER OF FAMINE In 1814 corn and provisions of all kinds were very scarce in the settlement and there was nothing to be bought in the county To avoiding suffering if not starvation Christian Prow Jr and William Williams took a five horse team and started for Beargrass Kentucky to buy corn On arriving there they found a man who had corn he had been selling at fifty cents per bushel but he unfortunately for them was on a big spree and they could do nothing with him They then heard there was corn twenty two miles back in Kentucky to which place they drove and got all they could haul Over the roads as they then were a ton was a monster load for five horses As they came back they stopped at Vorkman’s mill in Clarke county to have their corn ground and were detained there two days waiting for their meal It took them about twelve days to make the round trip and the settlers began to be quite uneasy about them supposing a stray band of Indians had ambushed them besides they were all out of meal not a quart being in the entire settlement Finally the wagon rolled in at Prow’s where all were waiting The meal was soon distributed and all were happy

and a little from The History of Lawrence, Orange, and Washington Counties Indiana:

MANUFACTURING The first mill built on Twin Creek was put up by James Meredith between 1815 and 1820 Its power was furnished by water dammed up in the cave The mill is still in use Twin Creek was declared navigable by the Legislature very early Meredith built a saw mill about three fourths of a mile further down the stream a few years later It was rebuilt by John Fultz in 1845 and was used until about fifteen years ago In 1845 Fultz built the grist mill now owned by Robert McNeely a little above the saw mill Between 1820 and 1825 an oil and corn mill was built just above this mill by Jehu Cox It was not used after his death A saw mill was built by John Collins about 1842 on Buffalo Creek David Hamilton built a saw mill on Rush Creek in 1836 A

This was the banner township for distilleries It was stated at one time a person could stand at a certain point on Walnut Ridge and see the smoke from nine distilleries William Elliott had one Fayette Burcham’s Isaac Denny operated one on land owned by Bowen s Alex Wilson had one on land owned by David Gordon Reid had one on the Reid place Solomon Bush had one where Branaman lives John Collins operated one where Joseph Hogue lives William and Matthew Marks owned one on land now owned by Larks Booth Robinson William Williams Henry Baker John Holler Christian Prow George Holsapple George and Andrew Tippins probably others also conducted distilleries


-Welcome to Henderson Park by Mayor Mahuron

The city of Salem purchased this 400 acre tract of land about 1930 to get water. Salem’s water Department was formed in 1885 and furnished water to residents from springs just west of the city’s edge for 25 years or to 1910, when this system had to be supplemented by laying pipe to Indiana springs (now Rotary Springs”. A gasoline powered engine pumped water into the Salem system until 1930 when again, more water was needed; thus Henderson Park was purchased, pipe was laid to Henderson Park, collecting ponds and the old reservoir was built and again water from these everflowing springs was pumped by gasoline mors into Salem’s water system. By 1940 Salem was again feeling a water shortage and plans were made to build Lake Salinda (35 acres) which was completed in 1949. Water was again rationed in the early 1960’s. The City, cooperating as co-sponsor of the Twin-Rush Watershed along with the Soil and Water Conservation District and the Twin-Rush Watershed Conservancy District was able to get cost-share from the Soil Conservation Service in constructing Lake John Hay (240 acres) which was competed in 1967.

History- Henderson Park

At the source of the once navigable stream, three caves continually pour out large quantities of pure water. Surely the Indians camped here often, and there is some evidence that the “Indiana raceway” over the Mill Cave entrance, where grass would not grow, was either a ceremonial or burying ground. Recent disfigurements cover any traces of Indian writings in or near the caves.

When the White Men found this area, he built a few more mills. “The first mill in the township was built by James Meridith in 1816 on Twin Creek. The power to operate it was furnished by water damned up in a cave….a few years later Meridith built a sawmill…further down the creek…Fultz…built a grist mill….above the sawmill, which was afterwards known as the old McNeely Mill. In 1824 Jehu Cox put up a corn and cottonseed oil mill and was operated until about 1860, when the creek dried up so there was no water to operate it, the spring. With the Mill came stills, and it is said that “a person could stand at a certain point on Walnut Ridge and see the smoke from nine distilleries. The mills were still standing in the early 1900’s, but are gone today.

In 1917 a group from Chicago bought this 360 acres from the Sullivans, who owned several of the mills. A Dr. Henderson from Salem was appointed to take charge of the place, and it has been known as Henderson Park ever since. Even though the owners called it the “Hoosier Orchard and Poultry Farm”. Mr. McNeely sawed lumber for a three-story barn. Several other buildings (Vista) were built, but not remain today. The road into the property was graveled in 1918. Until it was improved in 1972, cars often buried themselves up to the axles in this roadbed, even in dry weather.

The cave water was pumped to a reservoir on top of the hill by a hyrdraulic ram, until the City of Salem bought the property and built a larger reservoir and pump house where the McNeely Mill had been. The water was pumped into Salem for a while but after a new lake (Salinda) was built near Salem, the machinery was removed and the area was left to nature. The Reservoir ponds soon filled up and the buildings were defaced by vandals, but the valleys have returned to a natural state and Henderson Park is now a popular retreat.

I do have some information and articles and pictures about the Hoosier Orchard and Poultry farm which I might post later. Ironically they planted a huge number of Fleenor Peaches there!!!

For now though I’ll give you some pics and video to ponder.

Ignore the pocket folds but this is the map we took into the field on the trip from the article included by Mayor Maharon.

To the left of the stream what I original had presumed to have been an old Lime Kiln but what I believe to actually be the Ramhouse

To the left side of this stream there is a short stacked wall as well as a road bed that rounds the side of the hill ridge, this is where the first mill, known as twin creek mill was located. The cave is known as Mill Cave.

Mill Cave. This was originally damned up to provide water to an overshot mill for Twin Creek Mill operated and owned by James Meredith

Looking upstream back towards Mill Cave. You can see there is quite a water drop here.


Various ruins of the second mill in the valley started by Jehu Cox and later run by the Keyes family. The rectangular depression next to the creek was either water wheel related or gearing room related. This mill was used for corn but also for the production of cottonseed oil (believe it or not Cotton was a Southern Hoosier crop!)

Middle Cave. Hard to imagine this wasn’t used for “industry”. No foundations were found here but I’d say that water has cooled a serpentine coil or two.

The path to Waterfall Cave (ironically a dry chamber) as well as the cave. Rock with graffiti including “Raymond Cauble”. Ironically the Caubles owned mill works as well.


It is hard to tell anything much from this picture and I need to go back and further explore this area more completely, this is a drainage from either a small spring or cave with several “falls” in it, some of which look man made, it runs right beside a wagon trail, of which there are many in the valley, but this one is perhaps the single best preserved trail I have ever seen in the county and judging by it’s ruts and reinforcement along the stream with limestone blocks saw a lot of traffic, this was a high commerce area and I imagine it is entirely possible this might have fed a farm distillery.

The road leading into the valley from the West side and to the site of the original McNeely Mill. The stone house you see is the Salem pump plant mentioned above and its holding tank.


Beyond the pump plant and across the stream the old wagon road continues and the creek widens. I will be returning to this portion of the park to do more research as this is the area of McNeely Mill and not far from the flat boat launching points. To the left side of the old road runs a 4-7 foot tall stacked stone fence. These were usually built in conjunction with hog farming. This fence easily continues for a 1/4 or a mile or more and encompases a large area, this is the industrial agriculture of the 1800’s, running a mill and distillery and feeding the slops to hundreds of pigs to put on flatboat and send down stream. Any farm that would have sustained as many hogs as this fence could have held would have had to have been run in conjunction with a mill and a distillery. There is more here to find and I will follow up very shortly.

Also, as a quick follow up to my previous Old Cliffty work. Recent research has revealed the presence of five commercial distilleries in the valley. The ruins we posted are actually those of the old Wessner distillery while the Brewer was closer to Cavetown at what is now known as the Kelly Green Cave. The block wall ruins at Moscow caver were actually those of the Schroyer distillery. We are working on getting to the Kelly Green cave but haven’t made it that far yet, the last foray was made late in the evening and was hindered by finding the Clifty Creek Falls as seen below:

An Ode to Hoosier Apple Jack

I can’t tell if this is a proclamation of quality or an assasination of character by the temperance crowd but I sure do love it!

Logansport Chronicle December 16 1905
The eastern papers are discussing the relative merits of the applejack of their states. Pshaw, if you desire to drink the real stuff, come to Logansport. There is but one state where the precious fluid loves to grow, tradition favors it; where the apples, if few, are fit, and where alone there are strong me fit to have it. There is no applejack but Indiana applejack.

“Riper than autumn, clearer than the light,
Sweet as young love, it warms but does not bite.

At least not often. In doing justice to our applejack we do no injustice to the feelings of the driest of the Drys. Applejack is poetry, not drink. The name and thought of it are stimulant enough to the healthy mind. Much can be made of names, which may be as real as things; who knows? Cherry brandy, peach brandy, pineapple rum, appletoddy, applejack. Why, here are fire and poetry enough to last the world for ages.

A bottle of sound, sterling Logansport applejack-if we can afford no larger a cellar- is a comfort and protection, as well as a happiness. It helps heat the house. The tang and value of it increase every day. Don’t spend it. Hoard it. It is more precious than money. And if a burglar ventures upon it you will find him dead in the dining room the next morning. The plate is intact. The burglar died happy. And there is yet some liquor left!

A first hand account of growing up around a Hoosier Distillery circa 1835


I haven’t forgotten about the Alchemist Cabinet, in fact, I’ve been busy compiling more stories than ever! Recent weeks however have seen me become quite busy with various commitments both inside and outside the alcohol industry so updates have been and probably will remain slow until the new year. I recently came across this gem of an article from near Columbus Indiana I thought you might enjoy as it gives a bit of an inside view (albeit from a child) of life around a Hoosier Distillery in the earliest of days. Of note here is the use of the Cordial bottle as a dipping dog and the tread mill and mule used to raise water for cooling the still worms. I have come across both of these before. It is by wanton habit that when searching for still sites I always look for elevated water or nearby water sources but more and more I am realizing that elevated water wasn’t needed if you could raise it yourself and in some cases cisterns/rain water served all the purposes of cooling and the distilleries weren’t always in close proximity to a spring, creek, pond, or well. Enjoy.

Columbus Indiana Weekly Times March 12 1897
“Ye Olden Tyme”
The Distillery

“The distillery at Arnold’s mills, was probably built in the “20’s” somewhere. At any rate I saw it about 1835 when I crossed the river with my father. He was then building the “cottage house” in which uncle Ephraim’s family and ours resided till the early spring of 1841. My mother, then a widow, chose the uncle Joseph Fassett house and farm of 160 acres, and fourteen acres bought of George Cummings as a equal division of the partnership property, and moved there.

Uncle Ephraim took the mills and some timber on the west side of the river, and also took all the credits and debts of the firm.

Hog drovers used to buy our still slops and also to use our ten acre ox lot, for their hogs. I remember walking around the lot and looking at the large fat hogs. The slop was first let out, into a large vat 20 x 60 feet and three feet deep to cool. For a while water was pumped from the river for the use of the still house by a mule on a large circular tread wheel lying elliptically. I often earned a tip (6 ¼ cts.) by sitting up close to the mules back and touching him up with a whip when he began to walk slow. Otherwise he would stiffen his front legs and stop the large wheel on which he was treading. I kept my “fips” and “bits” (12 cts) in a Brandtiths pill box.

Later my father ran some long belts to a mill wheel to run the pump at the still house. This relieved the mule but stopped my revenue

Once I did something out of the way at the house and to avoid punishment took refuge under this big tread wheel, where the hogs slept and fleas abounded. Our hired girl came for me but I refuse to come out, and she would not come under after me. She was unconcerned about it, and said if I would come out mother wouldn’t whip me. But as soon as I came out she grabbed me, and dragged me home where I was chastised severely.

I once saw Jim Chase drink whiskey out of a half gallon measure, and some drops ran down the corners of his mouth. A man said “jim, your mouth leaks”. Chase said “you’re a damn liar!” whereupon the other knocked him down and the back of his head struck the door sill very hard

We children used a Godfrey’s cordial bottle with string attached as a “proof vial” to try the new whiskey. Of course we little boys were judges of such a matter, and would let our bottle down and draw up some of the liquor to look at, just as the head man did. There was a malt house near by where the soaked corn was dried before grinding for malt meal.

The distillery was discontinued for a year or so before my fathers death in 1840. Probably fifty barrels of whisky were stored in an old log house at one time. Cousin Addison Pownail, brother George and myself were having some Christmas by shooting at a mark. Add set a board with a spot on it against this cabin to aim and fired. The ball passed through the board, between the logs of the house, and into a barrel of whisky. We left then and did not make a report.

Isaac Talley of Madison Ind, remodeled the flouring mill about 1846. Uncle Ephraim took him in as a partner, but they got into a tangle somehow, and within a year the partnership was dissolved by arbitration. A miller named Whiteside of Columbus was one of the arbitrators and I think Banfill of the same place was another. They allowed Talley *00 and $2.75 a day for his time, including board for himself, wife and child, and the use of a house. Whisky then sold for twenty and thirty cents per gallon. While Talley was at the mills, the old still house, unused for several years was made into a barn for horses.

A bucket of whisky with a dipper in it was always within reach of the “mill hands” and farm workmen. Once when a boy of six or seven years, while in the company of some men, I took two or three drinks from a half gallon measure, to be like them. Soon I concluded to go home some hundred and fifty yards distant and heard my brother George calling as he came towards me. I was much tickled and laughed to myself, thinking that when we met I would throw him into the middle of the mill race; but somehow when we met I thought I was not well and so I went home and told my mother. She made me a nice pallet on the floor and in reply to her questions I told her I thought I had the ague, but when I began vomiting on the floor she seemed to know all about it and I had to skip on hands and knees over the steps and out of doors without getting up.

And so I learned I had better not drink whiskey while I had a mother!

Thomas H Arnold,
May 1896

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