This past weekend I was invited by Historic Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky as well as my historian and reenactor friend Brian Cushing to visit the on site farm distillery and demonstrate the mashing in of a 100% malt corn mashbill. We chose this mashbill as it was a bit of a progenerator of Bourbon and would have been a common product of Farm-distillers of the time period. I was also asked by Brian to present a small speech about the connections between distilling and agriculture which I thought I would also publish at The Alchemist Cabinet.
If you have never visited Locust Grove please make plans to do as such, it is a beautiful location with a deep, rich, and fastenating history! I will be back at the farm-distiller on September 7’th this year for another demonstration.
Also, a huge shout-out to my amazing wife Kimberly Marie Bishop as well as my brother/videographer D.J. Henderson; without their help we would have struggled to keep the operation moving!
Distillation and agriculture; Two human driven and nature reliant halves of one similar endeavor. The endeavor to create a human existence not based merely on survival but also on the ability to thrive in and enjoy our primal experience when, if, and where possible. Responsibly obviously.
In Kentucky and Hoosier Occupied Northern Kentucky (Indiana) we are all very familiar with the distilling side of this equation as the great American Spirit Bourbon and her older sister rye thrive in our markets as well as in the foreign market. Everywhere we turn we see the distilled spirit industry permeating the mainstream culture and we reap the benefit, both in quality, but also in economy. We are to a much lesser extent however in modern times directly connected to the agriculture side of the same equation unfortunately.
But the root of distilling is always in contact with the soil, the sun, and the water and it has always been as such. The fermentative arts of wine, mead, and beer making were the direct catalyst of agricultural endeavor and the great builder of our societies and it is directly from these traditions which we can attribute the traditional farm-distiller, or in many cases the gardener-distiller.
As distilling entered the underground in Europe in the 12 century and subsequently joined the mainstream by the 14 century the old copper kettle or pot still as we know it became an indispensable tool of the commoner. In the earliest of times it was looked on with reverence, as an almost magical gift of the gods, and the approach to distilling so reflected such thoughts, but as the device became more commonplace it was looked upon as an implement of preservation, medication, and recreation. If one were to ask a farm-distiller of the 18’th century what he thought of a copper still, I wouldn’t say it were unexpected for him or her to think of it the same way they would a plow, harrow, or even a mule. It was a means to an end, yet another farm implement that made an otherwise hardscrabble life far more efficient and enjoyable, sometimes even profitable.
Throughout Europe every culture had particular tenants of their local region. Staple crops, dishes, and subsequently distilled spirits reflective of the terroir of their region and the palate of the people who lived there. The art of distilling itself was based on localized knowledge and available ingredients as well as some of the old Alchemical tenants. Even the word “Spirit” was derived directly from the produce of field as to capture the spirit was to capture the very “essence” of what made a crop what it was. Apple brandy was as much about capturing and preserving the aroma of the apple as it was at the peak of ripeness in order to enjoy it on a dreary mid-winter day as it was about intoxication. The preservative effect of alcohol was as much respected for stopping the spoilage of fresh herbs and extracting the elixir like qualities inherent in those ingredients as it was for the the elation it caused on the human mind and body. Not that anything is wrong indeed with intoxication or elation as part of the prize of this new art was an ability to loosen social structure, wind down, and enjoy yourself after your agricultural labors.
In modern times we can often name off a long list of “master” distillers. But how many fans of spirits can name a single farmer also responsible for that spirit? How many “masters” distillers are experienced farmers today? Truly, and perhaps sadly, something about our beloved distilling art has been lost to time in the way of experience and regionality, although the growth of craft spirits producers and the continuing experimentation of large firms gives rise to hope that the integral link between yesterdays commonality and todays and industry isn’t completely broken.
The types of spirits produced during distillation have always relied exclusively on both the person crafting those spirits as well as the available agricultural ingredients. Every region had its spirit or even spirits, and the expertise to craft those spirits was handed down, either within the family, or amongst masters and apprentice. Eastern Europe is well known for their fruit brandies; Slivovitz, Palinka, and others. Still backyard farm/garden distillers ply their trade seasonally, making wine from fruit collected from the commons or their own backyard to be distilled in small Alembics, either owned or rented, or sometimes at a communal distillery. Often these acts, carried out in the fall, are accompanied by great celebration, feasting, and the butchering of farm animals or other acts of family and community. The spirits produced are to be used throughout the year in celebrations of life, including weddings and funerals, and as aperitif or digestiefs during holiday meals. In France three well known brandy styles based on geography and cuisine. In Gascony Armagnac is still produced by mostly untrained folk distillers by way of a single pass distillation. Every estate sets aside some production for the Distillatuer Ambulant or traveling distiller, who often hitches a small mobile distillery to his tractor and travels the country roads from estate to estate. The brandy produced is often described as “rustic” in nature, and the producers will tell you that they do not make this brandy for themselves, or their children, they make it for their grandchildren. Even the ageing is carried out in small outbuildings around the farm.
Cognac of course is the most industrial of the three, but even here the big producers buy a vast majority of their double pot distilled stocks for blending from farm-distillers running tiny operations on small acreages.
To the North is Normandy. Too cold in general for grape production they long ago focused their agrarian efforts on the production of Pome fruits such as apple and pears and found that cider and cheese were very worth their time and passion. The byproduct Calvados (apple brandy) stands as one of the most elegant spirits available. No one should live and die on this planet without a good glass of true Calvados.
Of course you can’t skip over Germany, particularly the Black Forrest region from which so many Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Indiana distilling families can trace their ancestry. No one understands fruit brandies and rye whiskies better historically. The production of fruit schnapps from mash brandy has been happening here since time immemorial and the quality of the brandy is a direct reflection of both time, tradition, and subsequently the quality of the fruit and knowledge of the farmers.
In Italy Grappa was a natural reaction to an abundant agricultural/alcohol resource. The skins, seeds, and residue of grape wine production.
Ireland and Scotland owe their distilling heritage to well educated monks who understood that the gift of seed to grow into life giving sustenance could also enhance such life by way of Uisquebetha or Aquavit, the miraculous and sometimes healing herb infused water of life. Even in the far northern parts of Scotland the growing of Beire barley was central to the illicit farm distillers who held out until the 1830’s. Plying their trade for the thirsty townsfolk who were unimpressed by the gargantuan commercial distillers who were removed from the agricultural fields and using cheap methods of rapid distillation. Distilling was Value Added agriculture long before the modern food movement made farmers markets and home canning trendy reflections of long-gone quaint traditions.
The Dutch made use of the many botanicals they had access to from their trade routes and thus gin became a phenomenon of agricultural and horticultural diversity. Now distillers look at Gin and think “how can I use local agriculture to put a “sense of place” in the bottle”? In the swiss Alps sugar beets, wormwood, anise, and fennel became the base for “La Blue” or later “la Clandestine” style absinthe. Even the Nordic countries adopted something similar to early Irish or Scottish spirit, something they called directly Aquavit, derived from caraway, coriander, and dill.
The eastern world gave us Baijiu (the most popular spirit in the world) and Scochu. Both originally from rice and later both adopted Sorghum and Sweet potatoes.
In the English Countryside in the 16’th and 17’th centuries most homes had a garden house and most of those garden houses had a section laid out for the distillation of potable alcohol and strong elixirs made from the produce of the home, often by the wife or the housemaid of the home. Indeed, women have often been the “master” distillers of their domain. I long for a day when the law allows every garden shed to have a 10-gallon copper pot to produce essential oils and medicines again…. alas, death and taxes.
Of course, not everything in the history of agriculture or distilling is ever completely rosy and romantic. By the 1600s sugar cane was imported into the Caribbean and large sugar plantations arose and eventually gave way to distilleries employing slave labor and expanding the market for such agriculture derived labor exploitation across the Caribbean and southlands of the United States. Thus, rose the unfortunate Triangle Trade. Molasses for Rum, Rum for Slaves, Slaves for Molasses.
The new world though brought many new agricultural possibilities. Maize or Native Corn was unlike any crop seen in the old world. Grain on a handle, easy to grow, easy to cultivate, and very easy to ferment and distill. The yield of such a crop was outstanding at harvest time just as it was at the end of distillation. Corn and the culture of mill building and flat boating created entirely new agrarian based economic structures.
Isolation from markets and commodities gave rise to desperation which so often leads to inspiration. The frontier was always home to berries and wild fruits. Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio certainly saw the domestication, cultivation, and distillation of their fair share of paw paw’s, persimmons, and mulberry cultivars. Distillers in Switzerland county Indiana even created their own Hoosier take on Absinthe by using wild relatives of wormwood and cultivated botanicals in the 1830’s.
Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson hoped that the United States would become and maintain and agricultural society of Yeomen farmers. When we were British in name, we consumed rum, but as the spirit of independence grew in the hearts of farmers and gave them the bravery to fight for freedom despite their lack of military training, we began looking for a spirit to call our own, one we could grow ourselves. We ended up with two initially, both old world staples but made uniquely American by the terroir of our land; Apple Brandy and Rye Whiskey.
Throughout distilling history in the United States, the still has often been the piece of equipment that kept the farm in family hands. Illegally and legally. Even George Washington NEEDED a distillery to make his estate profitable, and it took a Scottish farm manager with distilling experience to convince him as such.
As frontiers opened up so did grist mills and subsequently distillation as a farm service. People think of mills as simply tools for creating grist for cornmeal or flour but they would be very wrong. Often in the frontier there was little or no money for the average farm family to trade with but grain and fruit were both common. Of their own accord not worth much but when transformed by the natural power of fire and copper to evaporate and condense their value sky rocketed. The mills would grind grain on shares and keep some of the farmers grain as payment, some of this extra corn, wheat, etc. was ground and shipped south on flat boats but the fast majority was distilled on site and traded locally, still more was put in barrels and shipped alongside the grist on those same flatboats. The waste from the distilling operation was used to feed cattle and hogs onsite and as such the mills main exports where whiskey/brandy, pork, and flour or cornmeal, most generally in that order.
The Ohio Valley gave birth to two types of spirits. One is Bourbon, based quite obviously on corn, but the second, the lesser well known of the two is Applejack (of course pear and peach brandy were common as well). A cultural reminder of the number of descendants in northern Kentucky and southern Indiana that can trace their families back to the Black Forrest. In many ways this was the last hurrah of the olden times farm distillers locally. An entire culture grew around the production of this now virtually unknown spirit, made from the pomace of the fruit, skin, seeds, and all and fermented with the miraculous limestone water of the region. Agriculturally speaking the Ohio Valley became the fruit basket of the United States. By the late 1800’s most counties had upwards of 125,000 apple trees and multiple part time distilleries making anywhere from three barrels a year to upwards of 1200 barrels a year. To put that in perspective it takes one to three bushels of apples to make a single barrel. That’s a lot of orchardists and a lot of nursery men. One distillery in the region fed two distilleries and consisted of 1,100 acres of fruit trees. This culture gave rise to myriad cultivars of apple trees as the old methodology stood the test of time. Though trees were occasionally grafted and cloned they were more often grown from the pips or seeds of the fruit, giving rise to various hybrids, some good eating, some terrible, but all were selected for the production of fine applejack brandy. Old favorites like the Turley Winesap come from this culture and who knowns how many hundreds or thousands of others came and went.
The Fleenor Peach, a peach of much home gardening repute and commercial recognition in the 1800’s shares a similar background. It was carried to Southern Indiana by Abraham Fleenor and put into distillation in the earliest known Hoosier Distillery in the year 1806. It had made the distant journey from Tidewater Virginia and was known to come true from seed reliably. It also grew quickly. Fields of these trees were planted from seed just as any annual crop would have been. They were grown on 12 year rotations. The year after the first field was planted the one adjacent would be, the next year the next field and so on. At the end of the cycle the first field was cut clean for firewood for the home or the still and the field was replanted. So pervasive did this little seedling tree become that they can still be found growing around old still sites all over the Ohio Valley.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and the introduction of prohibition as well as fire blight brought this chapter of agrarian distilling to a close. Many families attempted to continue in the old farm distiller traditions throughout prohibition but if they were caught running illicit stills using the raw material, they grew themselves the excise would often cut the orchards down themselves. Of course, the commercial utility of these apples was questionable outside of distillation as well as they were never selected for hand eating and subsequently no market existed. As such the farmer often cut his own orchard down and replaced it with something more sensible, usually something like corn, and that corn like the apples before it eventually found its way into a copper still on some clear spring on the farm.
With Brian Cushing and Shawn Stevens (of Vendome) and my Dona Jug Maria.