Musee De Venoge, Spirits Of French Lick, and Locust Grove, to re-introduce the Switzerland county Indiana Absinthe tradition.

Hey gang,

Long time with no update, but God willing and the creek don’t rise many more will be coming soon.

First up is this exciting project. I have been working with Locust Grove’s Brian Cushing for a couple years now on the historic farm distillery project located on that beautiful estate in Louisville, Kentucky. Brian and I have meddled in all manner of historic distilling ideas and trials in that time period including traditional apple mash brandy, early frontier corn whiskey, yeast propagation, mixology (more Brian than myself, but I love that he is using my products from Spirits Of French Lick!) and various means and methods of improving all of the above said. In recent months I’ve also had the distinct pleasure of being involved in a new online streaming series through Locust Grove called “The Punch Bowl” alongside Steve Bashore of George Washington’s Mount Vernon Distillery, the good folks from West Overton Village (Of Old Overholt fame), Lisa Wicker of Widow Jane distillery and soon Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest and the always brilliant Andrea Meriwether!

Check out The Punchbowl #1 Here

#2 Here

Hopefully number 3 will be available soon.

All that said, a few years ago you might remember a short snippet I posted here of Switzerland County Indiana history that read as follows:

OK, so for all my research into Hoosier Distillation this entry is by far the most interesting and out of left field that I have found. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised considering the reports come from Switzerland County Indiana, an area that would have been very culturally aware of Absinthe.

Griffith Dickason: Griffith found wormwood on his land and took advantage of the crop to distill Absinthe. This spirit was used as a medicine and was particularly desired by the Swiss who originated absinthe in their homeland. Some of his sons became expert coopers who provided barrels for the absinthe and for the Swiss wines being made in the county.-Indiana Pioneer Founders booklet

John Detraz had a small copper still, at an early day, and distilled brandy and a liquor named Absinthe, which from its green color was vulgarly called “pond water” by many who frequented his place and drank of it. It was distilled from annis and some other herbs, and had a very pleasant taste. Mr. Detraz also brewed and made beer which was said by judges to be of an excellent quality, but the quantity he made was very small. – History of Dearborn Ohio and Switzerland Counties Indiana.

Truly nothing new under the sun! This alone requires more research!

Unfortunately at the time I didn’t have much extra time to devote to that research as I was head first into filming a documentary (still in process) as well as researching the “Black Forrest” region of distillers in Southern Indiana. But I’ve recently started venturing out of the forest to examine some of the other distilling complexes of Southern Indiana. Ironically last fall Brian Cushing and I had began to discuss what other spirits we could potentially fit into the timeline of Locust Grove and Absinthe was high atop our list of possibilities given the number of Swiss and French settlers and descendants in the Ohio Valley region. As always we made a pact to keep the project as historically accurate as what we possibly could. This is one of the most beautiful parts of working at Locust Grove is that everything is 100% about historical content and context and doing things in as an authentic way as we possibly can.
As you might imagine quite often this can come at the detriment of yield or potential quality when dealing with whiskey (inefficient conversion of starch) or can on occasion lead to the loss of a small batch due to bacterial contamination or other outside factors. Most of those outside factors are beyond the scope of what almost any modern U.S. craft distiller can imagine with their more comfortable modern complexes. While this is sometimes discouraging at first, it has taught us a ton about what early distillers were up against in the production of potable spirits, in a way that i’m positive no other distillery or even historic site could or would be willing to risk. We always learn something new, particularly once we see it in person and return to the historic literature on the subject. Almost as if by some miraculous revelation has occurred certain obscure statements in the books begin to unravel their Gnosis for us. Indeed there is a difference between Knowledge (literature) and Wisdom (from experience)and that wisdom, then backed by the knowledge of these old distillers, guides us in future projects.

From the get go I had brought up the references gleaned from my little bit of research into Switzerland County Indiana to Bryan and Bryan had brought to my attention the existence of a small living museum called Musee De Venoge, paying tribute to the Swiss heritage in said county. In fact Bryan and his Fiance Amy Liebert had even filmed a movie for the site:

Switzerland County Indiana is certainly interesting culturally, and it is through that lense that we find Absinthe production being practiced so early (before Absinthe is even a major item in Europe) by these settlers. An excellent book called “The Swiss settlement of Switzerland County, Indiana” was written by Perret Dufor. As the summary of the book below details, the colony was set up for the production of wine, and as such where there is wine there certainly follows distillation:

The Swiss Settlement of Switzerland County, Indiana – Perret Dufour . The Swiss Colony on the Ohio River at Vevay, in what is now Switzerland County, Indiana, was founded by French-speaking Swiss citizens from the commune of Chateland, district of Vevay, Canton de Vaud, Switzerland, in the early 1800s. The founder of the settlement was John James Dufour who had first come to America in 1796 in search of lands for vineyards. He first purchased lands near Lexington, Kentucky, and subsequently in Indiana. The Kentucky settlement failed after a few years, but the Indiana vineyard flourished and became a major factor in the development of Switzerland County. This volume contains a history of this interesting chapter in American history as written by Perret Dufour. He was born in 1807 at the Kentucky vineyard, the son of John Francis Dufour who was the brother of John James Dufour, founder of these settlements. Perret removed to the Indiana community with his family at the age of two and remained there until his death in 1884. Perret’s history is of special value because he was an eye-witness and/or participant to much of what he records. This volume is not limited to the Swiss families, but contains extensive mentions of other settlers, and provides a substantial history of the entire county.

Of Course Brandies and Whiskies were also common items. From the book History of Switzerland County Indiana:

At an early day the manufacture of spiritous liquors was carried on in the county on a small scale at several points. About 1817 or 1818 Samuel Mennet commenced distilling on his farm, with a small copper still, he having a horse-mill for the purpose of grinding the grain for distillation. What quantity was made by Mr. Mennet is not known. Another of the early distilleries was near Cotton’s Mill, on the farm now owned by Solomon Walden. The date of its erection is not known to the writer, although in 1824 a party of squirrel hunters was to meet at “Cotton’s still house” to count their game. Met later perhaps than 1820-1821 one of those small distilleries was erected and operated on the farm owned later by the wife of Hugh H. Lamb, near Mount Sterling. John Wilson, while he owned the mill afterward owned by John Bakes, erected a distillery near the mill on a larger scale than any (save one) that had ever before been erected in the count}’, and that larger one was erected by a firm under the name and style of Whitemore, Barnes & Dufour. The persons composing that firm were Nathan M. Whitemore, Francis Barnes and Daniel Dufour. It was erected on the lot of ground where Charles Grammor’s slaughterhouse stood. It was supposed its capacity would be about twenty barrels of whisky every twenty-four hours. It was run for a short time, but was finally abandoned as an unprofitable investment, and all three of the partners were bankrupted in the operation. Daniel Dufour gave a deed to the firm for five acre3 of land, furnished $1,000 in money, and in return before the final closing up of the partnership, he received three or four barrels of whisky.

Louis Gex Oboussier, who owned the farm which John J. P. Schonck owned at the time of his death, distilled the lees of his wine and made brandy, he also made peach, apple and cherry brandy. To the latter a German name was given, something like ” Keirshwasher.” This was all distilled with a small copper still. Jean Daniel Morerod for a short time had a small copper still, and made wine, apple and peach brandy, all on a small scale.

John James Dufour, on his farm above the mouth of Log Lick Creek, had planted a large peach orchard, and not knowing how to turn the peaches to profit, procured a small copper still, had a trough dug out of a large poplar log, in which the peaches were thrown, mashed up, and the juice drawn off into the still, and made into brandy, which was made in large quantities for two or throe years, and was abandoned finally, as he found a purchaser for his crop of peaches in the person of David H. Blunk, who became a famous hay dealer through this county a few years afterward.

John Detraz had a small copper still, at an early day, and distilled brandy, and a liquor named Absinthe, which from its green color was vulgarly called ” pond water,” by many who frequented his place and drank of it. It was distilled from annis and some other herbs, and had a very pleasant taste. Mr. Detraz also brewed and made beer, which was said by judges to be of an excellent quality, but the quantity he made was very email.

Gabriel Hall erected a distillery on Hall’s Branch, on the farm afterward owned by Dudley Leap, and ran it for some years. He also had a mill sufficient to grind the grain for distilling. He also made a large quantity of whisky. The writer has no knowledge of any other distilleries in the county in those early times, and none until the largo distillery at Patriot was started, and owned by “William T. Pate & Co.

Currently Brian and I are trying to track down the location of any/all of these to see if anything may remain in modern days, and as always to capture viable yeast for future projects.

Now, on to Musee De Venoge. For us Musee De Venoge is a beautiful snippet of the time when Absinthe would have been produced and enjoyed locally. It is an absolute peeling back of modernity and a peak into the history of the county. The owners (Donna Weaver, who is an awesome host and great to work with) have done a beautiful job of restoring a historic property which at one point was scheduled to be used for fire training for the local fire dept! Luckily it was saved and will serve now for the henge-post of this project including the production of botanicals (teroir is super important!) as well as the collection of wild yeast for the Absinthe we hope to produce. Venoge also offers some very cool Living History classes.

A bit of history on Musee De Venoge taken from their web-site Venoge.org:

In 1805 Louis Gex Oboussier (1761-1845) purchased the largest tract of 319 acres of bottomland along Indian Creek, which the Swiss renamed “Venoge” after a river in their native land. He planted grapes, orchards and food crops. Gex Oboussier’s two story home on the high bank of the Ohio River became part of the Swiss community’s efforts which resulted in the first commercially successful winery in the United States. By 1810 they were shipping wines in quantity to the East Coast by way of New Orleans. A parcel of the Gex-Oboussier property is what we now call Musée de Venoge.

Jacob Weaver and Charlotte Golay

Jacob Weaver was of German decent; he met and married Charlotte Golay in 1803 in Ulster County, New York, she was 17 and he was 27. The Golay family were from the Canton of Vaud in Switzerland and been living in New York in order to settle a legal affair before going to on to New Switzerland. Charlotte’s father, David Golay, had already joined Dufour’s venture in New Switzerland and Charlotte and Jacob decided to join him. Their 45 day journey over land and by flatboat is described in a letter from Jacob Weaver to his father in New York.

When Jacob and Charlotte reached New Switzerland, Jacob wrote “we are settled in a house of my father-in-law’s, close to his door”. Jacob enthusiastically set about earning a living in farming and in starting a vineyard for his family.

Jacob writes to his father in 1814 of plans to move to a parcel of land (now called Musée de Venoge) owned by Louis Gex-Oboussier. When Charlotte’s father, David Golay, died, their plans seem to have changed. He and Charlotte stayed at the Golay family house until 1828. By that time Jacob was 52. Some of his older children (they had ten total) were grown and making lives for themselves and it was time to move to a smaller place that required less manual labor. Jacob had given up on his vineyard; he had three times flat boated produce to New Orleans’s (which he called a ‘foreign port’) with no real success. We also know he built a horse powered carding mill. In 1839 he was lured into selling his Venoge property to buy into a mercantile venture by a devious son-in-law, a decision which proved financially disastrous. Charlotte died after a five-year illness in 1841 and Jacob spent his last days living in the little town of Jacksonville, Indiana, a few miles away cared for by a daughter.

Many homes that are restored and open to the public are of the well-known and successful. The Jacob and Charlotte Weaver home at Venoge is one of an early Switzerland County family that worked hard, tried many ventures and was only able to stay even. This is typical of many, but significant in the progress toward our life today.

With all of this in mind I set out to do a few things this year including transcribing the huge number of heritage absinthe recipies I had on hand to study what the most logical course of action would be for production (The best laid plans, I had not considered that Switzerland county was right on the Ohio river and as such next to a major Interstate traffic stream for the time!) and began to order and grow various Absinthe botanicals on my farm myself. I transposed three in particular that seem like the most logical and obvious choices for production. Interestingly they are insanely heavily botanical laden mixtures at nearly 3-4 times the botanical load of most modern absinthes. These will certainly leave an impression on the drinker.

This past week Brian was gracious enough to set up a field trip to Musee De Venoge so we could meet up with Donna Weaver and make plans. We talked about the local history, we talked about the various botanicals, we picked the recipie we thought best representative, we toured the cottage garden and Venoge, and as though the county and homestead were an old friend waiting for the righ ride it turns out Donna already had several of the requisite botanicals planted including Wormwood, Mint, and Hyssop!

We laid down plans to film at both Venoge and Locust Grove. To harvest botanicals using reenactors at Venoge and set up a faux distillery on site to film process as well as to film the actual mash in process of making the base alcohol at Locust Grove. This was in fact the most productive and fun planning meeting I have ever been a part of, now we must begin the actual work of resurrecting this Green Fairy for Hoosier History.

The last thing we did was to make some yeast traps of flour, sugar, and water and imbue them with various samples of absinthe related distilling plants from Venoge. Four days later and we now have a working yeast strain derived from Musee De Venoge’s botanical gardens for use in our newly made heritage absinthe!

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