The largest apple brandy distillery in the “North”. The Alexander & Co. Distilleries of New Amsterdam and Mauckport Indiana.

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The Alchemist Cabinet exists for a myriad of reasons but the main imperative has been the study and revelation of the depth of Southern Hoosier Distillation and the economic and agronomic effects it had on the region, as well as a study of the methodology for the production of ardent spirits and the people who made them.

I feel confident that I’ve covered both Washington and Orange Counties in Indiana (and a bit of Lawrence) fairly well but there is plenty more to go. The area once known as the “Black Forrest of Indiana” includes Washington, Orange, Harrison, Crawford, Lawrence, and Perry counties, many of which I’ve not even touched on. Anyone familiar with geography will notice that all of these well known fruit brandy producing counties are located in an area closely associated with Karst features and Olitic and Salem Limestone. That is not a coincidence. These fruit brandy’s of course were made from a mash of the fruit and fresh limestone filtered water much like the Bourbon in Kentucky was made. The limestone does a few things, first of all it allows the correct pH for a proper mash in and buffers acidity a bit and also provides micronutrients for the feeding of yeast! We will explore this as well as yeast and other fermentation bacteria more closely in my next Alchemist Cabinet book which I hope to finish this fall/winter.

I thought I would collate a few old pre prohibition newspaper articles and some pictures based around Harrison county distillation here. The area around New Amsterdam and Mauckport was once covered with orchards producing apples and peaches, subsequently three large commercial fruit distilleries were began in this area. One at Mauckport and two at New Amsterdam. The one at Mauckport and one of the New Amsterdam distilleries (just across the Ohio River from Brandenburg Kentucky where brandy distilleries were common as well) were owned originally by Sterling Alexander and David Kemper. The second New Amsterdam distillery changed hands a few times but ultimately also came under the same ownership.

Originally the Mauckport distillery was the largest of the three but in time the Sterling Distillery located on the Blue Spring just East of New Amsterdam became the largest at 350 gallons of capacity daily. This distillery operated as many as eight months out of the year converting the local apples of all varieties (many pippins/seedlings with no names and otherwise no commercial use) into fresh and more often barrel aged “Apple Jack.”

Terminology here is interesting. Often you will see apple brandy and apple jack used interchangeably. At some point in modern times people have become confused and apple jack now is known as a brandy that is cut with neutral spirits (this is done at Ted Hubers Distillery as well as Lairds), as well apple jacks reputation fell to something a bit akin to a cheap blended whiskey subsequently. Brandy on the other hand made from fresh pressed juice or cider gained the reputation of a high quality spirit which it can be if it is produced correctly. That said however the two spirits were known quite differently prior to prohibition. Apple Jack in fact was originally a spirit made from a mash of apples cooked with fresh limestone water and distilled typically as a “wash” meaning no solids were added to the still. This spirit was and is incredibly full bodied as it is fermented typically from small apples with a deep concentration of flavor and the fermentation leaves the skins intact on the fruit, extracting the phenolic and tannic compounds which add deep complexity to the finished spirit. “Cider Spirits” or brandy on the other hand were considered inferior in flavor, expensive to make, and often not worth the time or expense as the cider itself sold fine fresh or fermented. It is important to note that screw presses were not very common in the mid-west, at least not of the size that would accommodate the easy consumption of the amount of apples delivered to these fruit distilleries on a daily basis. A nut mill or simple apple grinder on the other hand answered the need quite well, the fact that mashed apples made a qualititatively better spirit was simply a bonus.

Often when I tell folks about the history of the fruit brandy distilleries in the Hoosier Hills they look quite perplexed, shortly thereafter they ask the obvious, where are all the orchards? Its an interesting and sad question with a couple of facets; the first of three plagues was blight which started taking down orchards in 1914. The second plague was the introduction of temperance and prohibition. These apples generally were not great apples for human edibility, once the market for them went away the farmers had to convert their acreage to a paying crop. The third and worst plague, the one which elicits the most disgust, is also prohibition related. During prohibition if the tax man got word of your illicit operation and busted you, well he was at full liberty to cut down and subsequently burn your orchard. Most orchards couldn’t convert to the type of apple the consumer demanded before going belly up. When I was a child there were still three commercial Orchards in Washington County Indiana, now there are none. The brandy distilleries provided a fair pay to farmers with extra apples, particularly when you consider that the distilleries weren’t asking for premium fruit but small, knobby, and sometimes bug bitten fruit, this gave the farmer a source of income which took very little input. The farmers could be payed by weight/volumn in cash or for every five bushels of apples delivered the distilleries would trade the farmer one gallon of brandy. A bushel of apples fermented without a sugar addition made roughly one gallon of brandy.

What of course happened to the myriad of trained distillers and employees that operated these commercial enterprise you ask? Well, a lot of them, for better or worse, went right on doing what they had been doing, just scaled down and in more secretive locations. Areas like New Amsterdam were after all covered in orchards that still produced crops of prime fruit but had no ready market outside of a jar and now many folks were unemployed, it would sure be a shame to let all that good material God provided to go to waste! Still sites were hastily set up and good Peach and Apple flowed once again from small copper pots.

One example notated on Blue Spring Road was the discovery of a makeshift still furnace in the back of a chimney located in the basement of a home located adjacent to an old orchard outside of New Amsterdam, clearly a still was once clandestinely fired here. Research turned up a fellow by the name of George William Trobaugh may have been involved in working this still and many others in the area. Mr Trobaugh was well known for making fine peach brandy from the orchards in the area and the limestone water. He was eventually arrested by federal officers as the local judicial officers were quite fond of his production. Apparently he was tending his brothers still one day when an accident led to mash running downhill to a neighbors pig barn where the hungry hogs proceded to figure out how drunk and happy they could be. The neighbor was none to pleased and knew that the locals would do nothing to put an end to the distilling so instead contacted Federal Officers. Ill be interviewing the family in the coming weeks and I’ve been told that an audio tape interview exists featuring the distiller himself.

Another example was Strother A. Jacobs of Heth township who family lore says was arrested three separate times for operating an illicit distillery. He later buried his still on the family farm which was in recent years recovered and put on display in Corydon Indiana. I’ll have more on his story in the near future as well.
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