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.