Of Rectification and that old “Lincoln County Process” ….

tour20

Of Rectification and that old “Lincoln County Process” ….

 

So, everybody knows the old Jack Daniels success story, right?  Jack was born of Scotts-Irish and Welsh descent and was the youngest of 10 children born to Calaway Daniels and his first wife Lucinda.  Shortly after Jacks birth his mother died and his father in time remarried a woman whom Jack didn’t care much for and set the wheels of independence and success into motion when Jack decided as a boy he’d had enough and went to live with some neighbors and subsequently found work with local lay preacher Dan Call (there is that old Preacher-Distiller story again!) Dan put Jack to work around his farm and merchant store handling odd jobs which Jack excelled at.  Eventually young Jack began to show interest in the whiskey distillation being carried out by Call and a slave by the name of Nearest Green.  This whiskey was being produced in the typical Farm-Distiller style of the day along a small spring upon the homestead of Dan Call and sold subsequently by Dan at the store, now whether it was from the barrel or straight up white dog we don’t know, but it was most certainly the quintessential American Corn based whiskey we know so well and according to all accounts it was produced on a tiny pot still (according to some accounts only 10 gallons in capacity)  The story from there, depending upon it’s either corporate origin or upon the more recently updated version making the rounds to promote the new “Uncle Nearest” whiskey,  goes something along the lines of preacher Dan Call asking Nearest (just a couple years Daniels elder) to teach Jack how to distill and become the best distiller in the world.  The newer version posits that Call was not a distiller at all and that Nearest taught Daniels how to distill and also that Nearest developed “The Recipe” (80, 10, 10) and the famous Lincoln County Process of Charcoal Mellowing.  The truth likely is somewhere in between.

 

The most likely scenario is as follows; Nearest was a distiller as was Dan Call.  Nearest may have taught Call or Call might have taught Nearest, and truthfully, I’m not sure the order mattered as they both likely fostered the young Jack who not only honored Nearest throughout his life and broke race barriers in both his respect of Nearest but also made sure that Nearest’s family maintained employment in the company their patriarch helped build.  Also, that “recipe”, it’s pretty damn common amongst farm distillers historically and considering that it’s one of the cheapest mash bills to make why wouldn’t it be?  Corn was very common in the South-Eastern distilling scene and grown on nearly every farm of any size, it was cheap to produce and easy to handle (it is literally grain on a handle, the cob being the handle).  Rye was somewhat abundant and at the very least grown in smaller plots or easy to get ahold of from the large merchant mills.  Barley malt on the other hand was probably a bit less common and I speculate that a lot of those “farmer-distillers” like Green and Call were likely using corn malt (if it isn’t broke don’t fix it).  This is of course if there ever really was a recipe in those early days to begin with.  The problem with the idea of some “special” recipe in whiskey distillation amongst distillers prior to the large-scale industrialization of the art is that farmer distillers were making whiskey from whatever they got ahold of, whatever crop they had an excess of as it were, and they were not stuck to any particular one mash bill.  Now, they may have had preferences, and certainly that bill might have been a favorite of Nearest or of Dan Call, but the chances that it originated with any of them are absolutely nil when you take in to account just how common that mash bill was in that era and in that region and the propensity for the exchange of ideas amongst local distillers and in distilling handbooks of the day.

The Second part of this historical riddle however involves the process and methods of distillation.  While Farmer-Distillers were not apt to consistently applying the same mash bill due to the law of supply and demand, nor do I think they viewed that type of consistency as anything special as they were creating a commodity whiskey, they were much more apt to follow a very consistent process and methodology for distillation and for the finishing of spirits. The methods of distillation after all were typically regionally specific and owing to the background of the settlers of that particular area and their ethnic background.  This is to say that yes, indeed, Germans distilled one way, Scotts Irish distilled another, and the Irish yet another and occasionally hybridization of styles and methods did happen, but once you found something that worked you generally kept that method and it was passed father to son over the years.

Jack Daniels produces Tennessee whiskey, a category only really defined by the state and not by the federal government.  For all intents and purposes Tennessee Whiskey is regulated as a Bourbon (although I suppose Jack and George Dickel, the other large producer in the state, could argue for the use of corn whiskey as their moniker and then put used barrels to work as well, but it is not what their reputation and history is built on) and adheres to all of the bourbon regulations except arguably for not adding any outside flavor sources (outside the fermentation, distillation, and barrel aging parameters) as it could be argued that the use of the Lincoln County Process adds unique flavor to the newly distilled whiskey prior to barrel entry (although I’m not positive if Jack does or doesn’t wash their charcoal before whiskey is introduced into the vat, if they don’t wash then some charcoal dust will certainly end up in the spirit and could account for flavoring and that “sooty” flavor Daniels is famous for).  For those who don’t know the Lincoln County Process is a filtration step whereby new make spirit is filtered through a vat of Sugar Maple Charcoal prior to barreling the product.  This essentially creates an activated carbon filter that works by way of the charcoal having enough surface area and pores to grab onto certain congeners (flavors, fuel oils, esters) and pull them out of the liquid matrix of the whiskey effectively “cleaning” or “rectifying” the whiskey. That’s where this story gets interesting to me because it delves into truly historic types of distillation outside of the standard Maryland Rye, Pennsylvania Rye, Kentucky Bourbon, Tennessee Whiskey conversation which I’m pretty bored with and consumers eventually will be as well.

Why do I find it interesting?  Well, because it throws a hitch in the giddy up of the standard Kentucky Bourbon story that posits (or at least often implies) that Bourbon (and to a lesser extent Rye) was the only style of whiskey made in Kentucky.  You might be asking yourself now why we are speaking of Bourbon in relationship to the aforementioned Tennessee Whiskey.  Well it’s because that charcoal mellowing process was common, even in KY because Bourbon and Rye whiskey styles weren’t the only types being made in the bluegrass commercially.  Oh, it was also common in Canada.  And, to tidy up the past section of my commentary neither Nearest nor Dan nor Jack themselves likely came up with the method or likely taught each other how it was done, because it was already common in whiskey commerce for certain regions.  There was even another variation of the Lincoln County process, it was known as the Robertson County process and for all intents and purposes was essentially the same method but applied to a type of whiskey found in a county on the north west border of Tennessee and Kentucky (and in the surrounding counties, probably 1/3 of KY) which was a high corn mash bill, made as a sweet mash (with no backset), charcoal filtered, and sold as a white spirit and was in commerce at the same time (1870’s-1890’s) as the now much more well-known Tennessee Whiskeys.  I find that high corn mash bill interesting as well as it is indicative of a less rye/east coast influenced whiskey and more indicative of a very nativist American style whiskey of its own right.  I can also attest from personal family history that in Eastern Kentucky/Appalachia these same types of whiskies were commonly produced by Farmer-Distillers and remained in commerce (even if illegal) into very recent times as probably a full 50% of distillers I have known or who have known my family from those Illicit times used almost these exact proportions and methods as passed down from fathers, grandfathers, and great grandfathers.

 

So then, how and why did the charcoal filtration (sometimes accomplished with other woods than maple, particularly hickory and oak) come to be a “thing”?  I imagine it has old world roots, potentially in fact African roots,, that someone could and should trace back but my guess is its commerce use has origins in the constant fluctuation between the popularity of heavy bodied congener rich distillates and lighter bodied more neutral sprits and was a reflection of one of the many waning popularity moments of congener rich spirits somewhere between 1830 and 1860.  It is in this time period that many rectifiers went into business.  The generations of early settlers were used to and developed a taste for congener rich spirits off of the simple pot still method, sometimes even just single pass whiskey with no real heads cuts. However their children grew up with more refined tastes as commercial distillates from larger manufacturers became more common.  The popularity of these lighter distilled spirits (and one would presume amongst benefits was less a chance of a hangover!) left local small-scale distillers in a lynch, particularly grocers who often produced or bought their spirits as new make to age in their cellars locally.  The rectifiers were essentially doing the same as the small-scale grocers but on a much larger scale.  They may have a still but didn’t make much of their own spirit, instead they bought locally made spirit, both good and bad, and tried to clean it up and dress it up as much as possible via the addition of chemicals, the subtraction of compounds via charcoal filtration, or in the case or really bad spirits complete re-distillation.  The column still made this much more plausible in later years and in Canada the standard became the production of a high proof 170-180 proof whiskey approaching neutrality and to which a heavy bodied congener rich “flavoring” whiskey was added at 10-15% to create a lighter, fruitier, blended style of whiskey.  The same is true of Ireland, though the Irish seemed to have always preferred a lighter whiskey as even Potcheen makers used a triple distillation method quite commonly.  The rectifiers were pretty crude business men as well and so their purchase price of spirits from farmer distillers would have reflected as such, I imagine their prices were not flattering in the least. So, by what method could poor backwoods farmer-distillers improve their products palatability to that day’s consumer and create a lighter spirit while also competing with the backhanded rectifiers who sometimes even sold poisonous spirits?  Well, cut a little wood, char it, run your congener rich spirit through it, bottle it, and point out the difference!  Score one for the good guys and enter the concept of fair market and common use technology.  Tennessee as it were just held on to the tradition and the marketing long after it fell out of favor elsewhere and thanks to the likes of Jack Daniels and his nephew Lem Motlaw as well as George Dickel they managed to maintain and market a category which could hold its own and more against old Monongahela and later Bourbon.

 

Now, did Hoosier distillers practice charcoal filtration?  I have never seen any evidence for it to my knowledge, however, given the number of settlers who moved from Eastern KY north to the Hoosier state and their Scotch Irish backgrounds as well as the number of mills grinding corn in the area I have no doubt that it was practiced to some extent, particularly with corn heavy distillates as they produce so much fusel oil and corn oil.  Given how common distilling manuals were becoming by the time of Indiana’s statehood I would imagine that the early distillers in the Hoosier state saw it as a common and acceptable method of producing a high-grade style of whiskey with a lighter, perhaps even more brandy like quality than a standard white dog filtered only through flanne

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: