Brian Cushing of Locust Grove Farm Distillery in Louisville KY.

 

18582460_1522684031096523_6650199256320988695_n

Brian Cushing is the historical distiller at the new Locust Grove farm distillery in Louisville Kentucky and an avid history buff interested in all aspects of the clothing, agriculture, and alcohol of the time. We met recently via our mutual friends Lisa Wicker and Steve Bashore at the grand opening of the farm distillery and have found we have much in common when it comes to our love of history.  Brian is one to watch out for, if the time arrives when Locust Grove can legally produce spirits I would not be surprised to see what he creates excel!

So Brian, what is your background?  When and where did you start participating in reenactments?  What brought you into reenactments?

I started thinking in the direction of history needing to be experienced as something alive vs. just read or talked about when I started discovering old photos and historic houses at a young age. My first opportunity to really jump in was at Locust Grove in 1999 when I volunteered as a first person interpreter for the first time, portraying an individual relevant to the property in 1820. From there, I moved into Revolutionary War reenacting. From there, things have only expanded into pretty much every area of my life. In my spare time, I like researching and recreating historic men’s clothing, especially from throughout the 19th Century. And I am lucky enough to have a job where I get to work with various forms of living history all the time as an aspect of enticing our visitors at Locust Grove to investigate and discover our story.

18664298_10210953257002149_7828648027151603987_n

Can you detail some of the training you went through to prepare yourself for the role at Locust Grove?  Did you spend any time at Mount Vernon?

Steve Bashore and the crew at Mt. Vernon were the cornerstone of my training for this. Melissa Alexander, also on our distillery committee, and I got to spend three days with them in the thick of the whiskey making process. They were intense days that left us with a basis of understanding of the process. That made further independent research possible. One of our sponsors, Wilderness Trail Distillery, provided further training that gave me context for how the 18th century methods translate into the modern world and really polished my understanding of the science. Finally, I went through the Certified Bourbon Steward training at the Distilled Spirits Epicenter here in Louisville. It has been an amazing ride but it’s only the beginning, of course!

18558791_1315013001952041_1456014550419153283_o

Have you had a hand in actual distillation?  If so what have you produced and what products do you find yourself interested in from a historical and taste point of view?

Only as directed by the distillers I have trained with- I have not yet had the opportunity to direct my own batches. But, even though we can’t ferment and distill at Locust Grove at this time, we are not cutting corners when we demonstrate. We are using the correct grains in the correct proportions mashed correctly according to our current research and calculations. That way, what our visitors see us doing is real and if we ever have the opportunity to take the process further in some context, we will not be starting from scratch. That’s how we go about all of our historic trades projects here; we don’t fake it and if something’s not quite right, we own it. Museum visitors have and expectation of and place trust in the authenticity of the information they are receiving. I take living up to that expectation and trust very seriously.

My primary interest is making a variety of historically correct spirits produced by the correct historic methods from start to finish. Compared to modern methods, it’s inefficient, unpredictable, messy, and downright exhausting. But that’s the only way we can truly develop an understanding for what they had then and it’s also true craftsmanship. Attempting to understand life in the past and make it live again on some level is what drives pretty much everything I do.

Have you discovered anything you found surprising about historical distillation?  Any interesting methodology you would like to share or cultural norms?

I would say mostly the difference in the expectation that people in those days had for distilled spirits. As with many aspects of life in the past, I hear a lot of people talk like they must have just been suffering through it waiting for the 20th Century to get here. But people are innovators and always have been. Were these spirits as nice to sip on their own as our mellow barrel aged wonders? Probably not. But this was the era of punch! Early spirits made delightful with water, citrus, sugar, spice, etc. and enjoyed with friends from a “flowing bowl.” And while punch houses have popped up again here and there as a novelty and we can try to replicate the recipes with the most equivalent recipes that we can find now, what we have gained in the delights of our individual glasses of well-crafted spirits we have surely lost in the experience of the punch bowl as it slowly faded from our culture. I mean, look at these guys. They do not appear to be feeling in any way deprived:

19433392_1559159800782279_1920029749_n

You and I have spoken a bit about our interest in agriculture and old fashioned agrarian/Yeomen farming, will you guys be growing grain on site for demonstration purposes?  How about fruit?

We certainly hope so! Our objective in building an early 19th Century small farm distillery was to help tell the story of crop processing in that era and to interpret the complex economy of a farm in that time in general. And that can’t make any sense without seeing the right crops! A small bed was set aside for me near the distillery to grow corn so that visitors could at least see the whole life of the grain on a small scale (and it is going very well). In the Fall, I plan to replace it with rye. My hope is that this is something that we can continuously expand and learn about so that we are really giving our visitors a comprehensive look at life at Locust Grove 200 years ago.

Could you detail a bit of the history regarding distillation in the past at Locust Grove?

William Croghan, Locust Grove’s first owner from ca. 1792, owned a grist mill and apple and peach orchards – distilling went hand in hand with these in the early 19th century, since conversion of grain and fruit into spirits was an effective way of preserving excess crops from spoilage. In 1808, records of Louisville’s Fitzhugh & Rose store show the purchase of a 66-gallon still on Croghan’s account. The infamous whiskey taxes (that sparked the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s) had been repealed, opening a reliable way to increase profits from grain and fruit crops.

Who would have operated the still at Locust Grove? It is likely to have been enslaved African Americans, who comprised the majority of the work force here. During the early 19th century, men were largely involved in crop production, with women largely handling crop processing, making it quite possible that the story of distilling at Locust Grove is part of the story of the lives of enslaved African American women.

This early Kentucky whiskey was still years away from evolving into the now legendary Bourbon whiskey, with its careful barrel aging and strict rules about grain proportion. The Locust Grove still was small compared to industrial operations and its whiskey likely never saw the inside of a barrel, going straight into jugs, and served in its clear, “white” state.

The small farm distillery was an integral aspect of farm economy as a whole in the early 19th century. Farmers who did not have their own mill or still would pay to use someone else’s. Spoiled grain or fruit would mean that the farmer would not get a return on the time and work he had put into the crop but once turned into spirits, it could be stored, sold, and traded over a long period of time. The distillery was part of crop processing and food preservation in the days before refrigeration, just like the smoke house or, in later periods, canning.

The wealthy Croghan family was able to purchase the imported spirits and other beverages that they preferred, rum and Madeira (a type of fortified wine) appearing repeatedly in their account records. We don’t know how much of their own whiskey and brandy made it their own table but, one way or another, the decision to purchase and use a still was effective farm management.

18581515_10210953256762143_5157508600012982350_n

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: