Why what home distillers are producing and experimenting with is more important than anything currently happening in the distilled spirits industry.

Why what home distillers are producing and experimenting with is more important than anything currently happening in the distilled spirits industry.

Wait, did you feel that?  That shaking? That’s fear; that’s the anger of thecrowd that subscribes to the stance that “home distilling is illegal and no one would ever hire a home distiller”. Certain individuals and institutions have repeated that mantra (and the one revolving around needing a few million dollars to even start a distillery) for years now, constantly belittling the lowly “folk distiller”. With innovation increasingly coming from the home distilling arena.

The powers that be are slowly losing that battle.If you haven’t noticed, the landscape of distilling has changed. Craft distilling has started turning out quality products, and craft distillers are demanding a fair share of the attention now from both big and small names in the media.  Why is that, you think?  Could it be that the market didn’t bear the load of the bulk of bad craft distillers and that the ones that made it finally figured out what they were doing?  More than that though I’m noticing a trend, one where more and more home distillers are being hired by companies who will listen to their expertise, and evena few of these home distillers launching their own legal distilleries. Whyis that important?  How does it change the game?  What does it mean?for the future?  Are there past historical parallels?  We are going to touch on all that and more moving forward here.

Let us start with those criticisms and historic parallels. When I entered the legal industry eight years ago, I was consistently told not to mention home distilling, not to advocate for it, and that nobody would take it seriously — that, in fact, this experience was not meaningful nor valuable in the industry; that somehow the legal industry had some endemic knowledge and insight that a home distiller could never access.  I heard it said in overpriced classes where the virtue of the big boys were sold off in pre-packaged parcels to the next Johnny-come- lately types to enter the industry – typically, those attending had more money than talent.  I read it in books. I heard it from those with a platform. I still sometimes hear it, although now it rings particularly hollow and the vast majority of people now understand just how wrong this assessment is.

I find it strange that here, so close to “Bourbon Country” and being part of the bourbon industry, that anyone could possibly think this is true.  For an industry so tied to an outlaw tradition, with folk heroes who all started as home distillers and moonshiners, it seems funny how quick the industry sycophants and some members of the industry itself can ignore, belittle, and in fact talk down about anyone distilling at home and trying to get into the industry.   Lest you forget that many of the most notable figures at the roots of the bourbon tree were, themselves, “home distillers”, or at least from a long line of “Folk Distillers”.  Hell, the very processes that make up the fundamentals of Kentucky distilling philosophy can nearly all trace their roots right back to this lineage. The only thing that is truly new is the industrialized (column stills and bottling) and tourism catered aspects of production.  The relevance of water quality, yeast, sour mashing, grain bills, and more were all originally aspects of home distillation that led to the creation of this beloved category of whiskey.

Would it surprise you that many of your notable Bourbon heroes turned? to moonshining during Prohibition?  It shouldn’t, and none of those folks or their families nor their respective companies should be ashamed of that.  Unfortunately, they are, that is why you rarely ever hear those stories.  Beautiful pieces of Americana about not only survival, but art and the love of that art, slowly being eroded by time.  Illegality and immorality are not one and the same.

So, why should you as a consumer, distiller, or industry member be paying attention to what home distillers are doing?  Because home distillers are pushing the envelope in ways that even the medium-sized craft distillers currently cannot.  The consumer is constantly on the search for something new, exciting, and qualitatively “better”. While traditional Kentucky Bourbon isn’t going anywhere, there is certainly plenty of room being made for Old World and New World innovation with existing spirits drinkers and as an atmosphere of “show me more” has become much more apparent, even in large sectors of the dedicated Bourbon drinking crowd. How do you think we craft guys making off-the- wall products not only survived the pandemic but thrived? The caveat: it has to be damn good!

The next wave of craft distillers won’t hang their hat on traditional bourbon; they can’t. That space is too crowded and far too noisy even for differentiated types.  Instead, they will hang their hat on innovation, personal experiences, stories, and a deeper lever of understanding and education not limited to the ordinary tourist experience.  Involvement will become paramount.  Classes, atmospheres, community.  Above and beyond consumers will want spirits that push the envelope in the same way that cooking culture has, in the same way that the locavore movement did, in the same way that the heirloom seed movement did.  Luckily the home distilling movement is there and has been for some time.

The most involved distillers I know don’t work for companies from which you can buy their product; they don’t even work in the industry (at least not yet).  The home distiller has no boundaries beyond whatever they can imagine and practically make happen.  They can work with small lots of hard-to-find ingredients and pursue avenues of fermentation and distillation that, as of yet, have not been implemented in the distilling industry in major ways.  They can play with odd yeasts, they can design new types of equipment, they can find interesting ways of creating “Intuitively flavored and matured” spirits.  The best of them is 10x the distiller any of us in the public spotlight will ever be.  They know more, they are more widely educated on the subject, they go deep, they mine old books and create entirely new philosophies. Many of my legal distilling friends would struggle to keep up in conversation. The operators of the large distilleries mostly wouldn’t even know where to start. These folks grow a lot of their own ingredients, and in some cases they even breed their own varieties of fruits and grain.   The truth is they have no one to tell them “No” or that it can’t be done, or that it isn’t marketable.  Anything qualitatively “good” can be marketable, even on a small scale. They do these things because they LOVE the art. Because they are passionate about the art, to the extent that they are willing to break the law to partake in their passion. They share amongst one another and improve upon one another.  Most “distillers” in the industry, on the other hand, seem to only be passionate about the attention they can attract by saying they are a distiller. That’s the real difference. And why does it matter?  Because these are the distillers that will work their way into this industry via good employers or via their own investments. In 5 years, the only craft folks you’ll hear from will be the ones breaking the mold, and because most of the current crop of legal distillers aren’t willing to take a chance coloring outside the lines, home distillers will have a real chance of doing meaningful things in the space. Will they be huge producers? Not likely.  Will they make good product? Damn right they will and they will be able to explain why it’s good.  Will they make money?  If they can market the product correctly and take full advantage of the social media platforms available alongside real life educational opportunities such as distilling centric classes and unique lifestyle opportunities, they definitely have a chance.  Either way, they will start the trends that drive the market outside of and alongside bourbon, and some of them will ride those trends to financial victory. They will change the way we view and speak about the art of distillation — that alone is a victory in and of itself — and they will change and prove wrong that tired, old assumption that has been so vocally parroted for so long. In fact, I suspect that most craft consumers will in time turn back to the old traditions and, themselves, become home distillers to some extent, at least in terms of having the flexibility to learn outside of the strict controls of a DSP wall and ostensibly educating themselves beyond the realms of the marketing mysticism and pseudo-traditional gab that has been so prevalent until now.

As a professional distiller I can not advocate for illicit distilling, but as a private citizen (As I am here on this blog which is representative only of my own opinion and not In anyway that of any employer or organization that I represent) I certainly can Advocate for the eventually legalization of the hobby as well as for the qualities that It can and often does imbue a distiller with. We live in a time after all where small, cheap, and Useful pot stills are readily available via Wal-Mart and Amazon, we are potentially just years away from Discovering some new “Picasso” of the art of distillation, someone who was willing to break the rules, dive deep, find something old and shine it up or create something new and truly exciting.

In the next several weeks I will be working on a new series of YouTube videos regarding home distillation and contributing where I can to the education of current and future distillers. 

This will include recipes, theory, methodology, process, and equipment and ingredient reviews. 

Until then be sure to check out the following channels:

Still It

Bearded and Bored

Barley and Hops

Stone Beer/Gruit Distillation continued…

This past Sunday we took the next step in our Historic Stone Beer/Gruit Brewing for distilling research.  Myself, filmogropher D.J. Henderson, Christi Atkinson of The Veil and Distillers Talk, Dayton Barrel works Distillers Bill Hocket and Drew Zarrett , as well as Brian Cushing of the Victorian Barroom and Locust Grove Farm Distillery met at Caleb and Whitney Michalke’s Sugar Creek Malt House in Lebanon Indiana along with their salesman John Beal for a day of brewing with hot rocks, tours of the malthouse and the Sainhouse, shop talk, history, good food, and of course fellowship amongst similar artisans.  

This was the latest step in the hypothesis that we laid out previously regarding Aqua Vitae or Uisce Beatha perhaps developing from two separate and mostly unrelated alcohol traditions (Religious and studious monks distilling for medicinal purposes and more isolated folk brewers making use of existing beer to distill whiskey) in Scottland and Ireland.  The project has certainly developed its own more unique direction as it has evolved.  Moving from a historical hypothesis to a fully functioning distilling methodology with interesting possibilities in regards to new spirits production based on many different cultures and their brewing methodologies.  Basically, what might for example have Norse Whiskey have tasted like if such a thing ever existed?

Christi, DJ, and I rode up together making use of the 2-hour drive to listen to music which might inspire the day and perhaps harass other drivers along the route (at heart I think we may all still only be 15 years old) as well as to play a prank on Brian who called on the trip up as D.J. mimicked my conversation with him with a 1-2 second delay making it sound as though the phone were feeding back on Brian’s end of the conversation.  This happened not once, but twice during the trip.  Christi, or Canadia, the name she earned on this trip, also directed us to miss our exit by about 18 miles, supposedly that was an “accident”, I remain unconvinced.  😊

The day officially started with the trading and tasting of many different spirits amongst the gathered parties.  A couple of different Verte Absinthe Varieties, and Purple Absinthe, samples of the previous two Gruit/Stone Beer distillations, a Citrus/Orange Juice based Gin followed by the layout of the day’s work.  As this is a true collaboration of mid westerners it was important to us that Caleb would select the malt and to lay out the brewing methodology of the day alongside John Beal. Ultimately a gray alder smoked Stjordal malt was selected as the base and Caleb went off to set up equipment (John already had the stones in the fire and the fire roaring for the process when we arrived) and prepare the grain.  We went with John for a quick tour of the malting facilities which I was super impressed with.  John was incredibly well versed in malting and brewing as well as in cider production which he is very passionate about.  After we toured the main malting facility it was on to the Sainhouse. This was the highlight of Caleb’s malting operation in my opinion.  A beautiful building composed of a partially underground concrete foundation to help regulate temperature for germination with a large concrete steep tank, spacious malting floor, and drying room for smoking, drying, and roasting malts with various woods and to various degrees.  The malting floor is surrounded with windows for ventilation and cross flow of air as well as light.  The fires are kindled on the farm end of the building in a separate room divided from the malting floor by two sliding doors raised a foot and a half or so from the floor to allow the smoke and airflow to permeate the building. Caleb really put some thought and research into this design including traveling to Norway to further study his art and it really shows.  This is the only Sainnhus in the Americas operating at this time.  The quality of the malt that Caleb is making shows just how worthwhile the investment of time and effort has been. If you have yet to purchase any malt from Caleb there is no better time than the current.  The offerings are absolutely gorgeous and the possibilities truly endless.  There isn’t much he doesn’t malt or offer to both professionals and home enthusiasts.

Afterwards we were treated to Biscuits and gravy and fresh fruit for breakfast by Whitney.  All greatly appreciated on a cold day after a good little road trip. 

Just after breakfast we began the process of brewing with John leading the group as Caleb and Whitney prepared two chickens for the rotisserie for the evening meal. The process began with making an infusion of eastern red cedar (traditionally Juniper is used, but as it doesn’t grow well in the Hoosier state, we use our much more common cousin).  We started by laying the juniper in the bottom of the small barrel/mash tun who’s drain was on the bottom of the barrel and plugged with a piece of alder wood.

The group took turns retrieving hot stones from the fire down the hill, careful to discard ash and char, and adding them individually to the barrel of juniper infused water.  Once the barrel came to a boil, we boiled for around 15 min.   Afterwards the drain plug was removed and the infusion water was collected in a stainless-steel boil vessel.  The barrel was lined then with alder wood, straw, and cedar yet again and the liquid was added back into the mash tun.  I started adding the ground malt into the mash tun as Bill Hocket began to stir.  It was cold enough outside that we decided during mashing to go ahead and add a couple more hot rocks in order to raise and maintain a proper conversion temperature.  After a 30 min or so conversion time we began adding more hot rocks to the tun in order to lightly boil the wort. 

To this Caleb and I decided to boil our botanicals separately upon the hot rocks and remaining fire.  This particular brew was intended to be a blend of traditions. Both Norse and Gaelic in nature.  Caleb decided to add some bog myrtle he had gathered during a canoe trip in northern Wisconsin as well as some rosemary they grew on the farm.  On my end I added more traditional Aqua Vitae Irish fair.  Raisins in particular which are often seen in recorded instances of Aqua Vitae manufacture (I suspect because brandy is an older spirit than whiskey and was often tied to medicine as opposed to recreation at that time that the raisins were added during distillation or in a bag at the end of the condenser in order to make the whiskey imitate the qualities and flavor of brandy as much as possible and to somewhat disguise the base malt alcohol) with small proportions of sweet cinnamon, wormwood, anise, fennel, cloves, and cardamom (I highly do not suggest trying to “grind” this mixture in a malt mill!).

We brought the ingredients to a boil for around 20 minutes before adding them to the mash tun with the boiling beer. The aromas were incredible and the color of the finished beer once filtered out of the mash tun was even more remarkable! 

As the beer was filtering Caleb took us to the neighboring farm to show us his newest expansion and I can guarantee it will be game changing for not only his business but for craft malt in general!

Christi, DJ, and Myself were able to hang around for super and great conversation including a joke or two about mine and Caleb’s new baby (pictures included) and to plan the next steps.  Our specific gravity ended up higher than we expected at 1.080 but only around 3 gallons of beer.  We added some water to bring the gravity down to 1.060 and give us some more volume. Ironically Caleb and I both forgot to prepare yeast for this project so we made use of two bottles of his previous Yule beer which included still active Voss Kveick!

The next step is to reconvene everyone in a couple weeks at a secret location and perform a double pot still distillation on this batch and see what kind of spirit we end up with!  Will it be entirely historically accurate?  Likely not.  Will it be similar to what I believe was happening but not documented in the British Isles?  Yes, I think very much so.  I should add that all of this was filmed by DJ as well for an upcoming documentary and that the distillation process too will be filmed alongside exposition by many of those involved in the project!

Of Stein Beer, Gruit, Farmhouse Brewing, and potentially early whiskey/spirit styles or new and interesting ones.

2020 has seen a lot of experimentation on my end. I’m constantly trying to dig deeper into the history of the art of distillation in order to re-imagine what the future of the art might be. Unlike many industries, pot still distillation is not easy to computerize nor is it any easy art for others to learn, this makes job security just one less thing on the list of things to worry about. Sure there are Carpetbaggers attempting to normalize the process and remove the human element from traditional whiskey and brandy making, but I am fairly sure consumers can see right through that, after all, a machine complete with AI “learning” capacity cannot determine what tastes good and what is pleasurable to the palate, they can only look at chemical constituents and make a best possible prediction which caters to the largest number of average drinkers. Me personally, I don’t want anything to do with that and nor do I think does the common adventurous drinker, therefore it is in my best interest to keep exploring the Alchemy and to hit on ideas that might in fact inform future distillers about past, present, and future, and to potentially lay out hypothesis on which to build historic understanding and future methodology (even in the areas of the craft that may not be financially rewarding but instead are spiritually fulfilling).

This year I tackled a few really interesting projects. The Locust Grove/Venoge/Alchemist Cabinet historic Hoosier Absinthe project was one. The documentary following that process is well underway and I’ve heard that there may even be a trailer released for it alongside a preview of the new podcast Christi Atkinson and I are working on called “The Veil” come New Years Eve. The Gnosis gained from those absinthe experiments (Including creating an “Amethyst” absinthe using purple corn as the coloring mechanism, and distilling various base alcohols to 170 on a pot still) will in the future further inform not only my distilling methodology knowledge but has also had the effect of greatly expanding my palate in unexpected ways.

There are other irons in the fire of course as well. The results of years of research and work in some cases. The Hells Half Acre Documentary comes to mind alongside a new project that D.J. Henderson and I are working on alongside the extraordinary Bo Cumberland…….but more on that later.

For now we will focus on my current muse; a method which spawned a hypothesis, that in turn inspired an experiment, and which will now be documented and committed to film for posterity.

So, where to begin? A few weeks ago my friend Caleb Michalke of the excellent Sugar Creek Malt House here in the Hoosier state posted to social media about his brewing of a Norwegian Raw Ale using hot stones to heat the mash for conversion of starch into sugar in a wooden cask. Herein he also used a mixture of straw, juniper, and alder sticks as a filter. Around the same time I had began to study a bit more on “Gruit”, beer made before the introduction of hops and often using interesting botanicals in place of the hops. Immediately the distiller in me jumped forth and started thinking of the various possibilities with brewing these “Gruit” beers and subsequently distilling them. How would the Juniper (or in the case of this Hoosier, the Eastern Red Cedar) flavor influence the distillate? How would the individual botanical elements hold up to said process? Can you make a proto-gin? Aquavit? or Absinthe using these processes? What else could you make? More importantly is there precedent for these types of distillates in history?

My interest was piqued by the fact that my recent study of Absinthe had led me to believe that Absinthe was truthfully born of three seperate but related branches of the alcohol based arts; one based primarily in the art of tincturing and closely associated with old world magic, one based completely in Alchemy and later translated into pharmacy, and a third, in between the first two, based primarily on the use of botanical elements in beer brewing and wine making which saw such botanical elements and their inclusion in the craft both as flavoring and as medicine and even occasionally as mind altering sacraments. My interest was further spurred by the book “The Immortality Key” by Brian C. Muraresku as well as my renewed interest in Old World Animism/Paganism and inclusion into the facebook group; “The Gruit Guild”.

Immediately my mind started racing with ideas about how distilling such a malt beer base in this method could have created a spirit not dissimilar to those described in early Ireland and Scotland as Aqua Vitae or Uisquebetha. This early whiskey made primarily by religious monks on the Isles was said to be harsh and as such botanicals were often used as a way to “hide” the harsh flavor; I have seen many of these recipes before in the form of Aqua Mirabilos and various recorded “Elixers of Long Life”. I have always had a hard time believing this early whiskey was so bad that it required in any way to be covered up by strongly flavored and fragrant herbs. After all, these monks were learned of the sacred art of distillation and while compared to todays commercial distillery setups they were certainly working more primitively there was no real reason they couldn’t coax a perfectly palatable spirit from a small Alembic still without such additions. To boot I had heard from a few home distillers in the old world about the addition of such botanicals directly into the mash or even into the wort itself during fermentation to achieve particular flavor profiles. And why not? If for example we have maceration and digestion of botanicals for potable alcohol as a palatable dram or as medicine in the form of Vermouth or Genepei and we have the inclusion of various botanicals in the form of Gruits or even more modern craft beers, why then would such a distilled product be so far off the beaten path? In fact, given the history of Norse and Celtic ancestry and brewing, could it be possible than in fact some of that very early Aqua Vitae might have been made in such a fashion? Can I recreate such a beast?

I talked to my friend, Irish Whiskey author and Ph.D candidate Fionnan O’Conner (who is currently working with Boann Distillery to reproduce various Irish whiskey mash bills from the history of Irish distilling) about his take on the matter. He didn’t have any information on the botanicals being included in the mash but certainly knew a good deal about botanicals post distillation via maceration or even via a bag hung at the end of the serpentine. Fionnan did agree that the botanicals where there for their use in Gaelic medicine, to treat the various Humors of the body and were a part of very old systems of medicine and not in fact included to coverer the harsh flavor of the distillate. Fionnan is also sending me some various literature on early Irish distilling which I greatly look forward to.

I also spoke with my friend Simon Thompson of Dornoch Distillery in Scotland who was kind enough to scan pages from a book on Highland Distilling titled “From Burn to Bottle” published in the early 1920’s which details the use of Heather in bloom in the mash tun at Lagavulin at that time, responsible, according to the book, for the floral character of that whiskey. Simon and I both think that this may be in some ways a throwback to something much, much older in the world of whiskey! I find this particularly interesting because it is exactly in the more rural regions such as Islay and the Highlands where I would expect to find such remnants of a past tradition! Places where it would and could have held on, sometimes even when the makers may no longer have remembered why it was originally practiced but just that it is “the way we have always done it”.

Oddly enough Calluna heather (Calluna vulgaris) or Scottish Heather is one of the several common Gruit herbs! The others include sweet gale (Myrica gale), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), horehound (Marrubium vulgare).

Now, this is obviously not “solid” proof, but it gives me a better idea that I might just be on to something with this!

With that in mind I proposed an experiment alongside D.J. Henderson, Caleb Michalke, Christi Atkinson, Bill Hockett, and Brian Cushing. Let’s take a trip to the Sugar Creek Sainhouse and devise a mash similar to what would have been available in those early distilling days using malt as historically appropriate as possible and botanicals that would have commonly been available. Let us film the making of this mash, ferment it using Kveik yeast (as this resembles likely what was probably available at the time) and then bring it back to Southern Indiana to distill it and see what we get and if this is even remotely a palatable option. The ball is rolling and so to shall the filming…..come January.

Until then though, I wanted some practice, and to be honest I wanted to take a traditional methodology as well as my hypothesis about early whiskey and push it to the next level. I set about building a wooden mash tun from an old Bourbon barrel after reading about several of these at The Farmhouse Yeast Registry https://www.garshol.priv.no/download/farmhouse/kveik.html I was also lucky enough to have an old 10 gallon copper kettle (bought from an antique store and retired from it’s service producing old fashioned hard candies) in which to make an infusion of juniper (Red Cedar) water (used for flavor but also to sterilize the mash tun and implements) and happened to have access to granite rocks (which do not explode when heated) as well as a myriad of malts and botanicals.

The first mash was a combination of two row Marris Otter Malt as well as Aromatic Munich and Honey Malts with Cedar as a filter but no added botanicals. D.J. came up to the farm to help with the project and film some b-roll for the upcoming documentary. D.J. and I boiled the mash hard after conversion to reduce the volume and raise the specific gravity. Our finished wort ended up at 1.075. The resulting wort was a beautiful dark brown and had the unique aroma of each individual malt as well as some pronounced cedar, and a characteristic smokiness from the rocks that we heated with hickory wood!

The process was fairly straight forward; We heated 10 gallons of water with about 5-10 cedar bows using wood in the copper kettle. We laid to bricks in the bottom of the mash tun and over these placed a filter bed of cedar. On top of this we took a standard barrel head and drilled many holes to make a false bottom in order to lauter the wort from the solids. We brought the infusion to a simmer and filled everything below the false bottom with this infusion water. We then removed the juniper from the kettle, refilled with fresh water and brought the temperature up to around 155 F. We added our ground malts to the tun and the hot water and mashed in until the mash was thinned out (we used roughly 20 lb of malt). After this we left the mash to work for 15 min. and returned for the boil. We began adding the hot rocks into the mash tun a couple at a time until we got a good and steady rolling boil. This we continued for one hour, reducing the volume of the mixture and raising the specific gravity. After this we removed the plug from the bottom of the tun and drained the liquid into two 7 gal plastic drums. All together we ended up with around 8 gallons to work with. This was taken to a very warm spot in the house to ferment using a mixed culture of Kveik yeast. The fermentation was quick and the beer was finished in roughly 3 days. This beer is waiting to be processed legally through a small 3 gallon pot still as we speak.

The next run a week later was nearly the same with the exception of an addition of a small amount of malted oats and the addition of several botanicals. Otherwise all elements are the same. The botanical used however were as follows:

Star Anise 23 gm

Ceylon Cinnamon 14 gm

Lemon Peel 10 gm

Jasmine flower 10 gm

Licorice root 16 gm

Spearmint 1 gm

Horehound 15 gm. (This is a guestimation as I actually used Horehound candy as I had some on hand)

These were added at the beginning of the boiling process. This will likely be distilled and added to the first batch as well.

Stay tuned as there is obviously much more information to come!!!!

Historic Indiana Absinthe Project Between Musee De Venoge, Locust Grove, Spirits of French Lick, Kentucky Artisan Distillery, and The Alchemist Cabinet. December 2020 update!

Just a quick update on the ongoing Indiana Absinthe project we spoke of before. The project has moved forward by leaps and bounds in recent months. Brian Cushing, Myself, DJ Henderson (responsible for the gorgeous photos above), and Adin Pempberton with the help of several Locust Grove and Musee De Venoge volunteers managed to get two 50 gallon barrels of mash completed at the Locust Grove Farm Distillery in early October.

The mash bill for this base whiskey, which we will use to re-create the Switzerland County Absinthe, was composed of 80% Corn, 10%, Wheat, and 10% malt. We went with a grain base as we feel it is likely what those absinthe distillers in the Swiss Colony would have been making use of as the Catawba grapes for their wine were at too high of a premium to use for distillation. Unfortunately, hard facts regarding distillation protocol in Switzerland county in the 1830’s is impossible to find, as such we have to work off of the logic of “common sense” based on the equipment and ingredients we know the distillers would have had at hand. The day of the mash in was a joyous one for all involved despite current public health concerns. These historic mash in’s always draw in those who are truly interested in the art of Alchemy at it’s deepest level and tend to attract the people who want to learn more about the art and go further both in terms of depth of knowledge of the art but also those who want to go further back in time and place to better understand the roots of their art. Pre-industrialized alcohol production certainly has it’s romantic lures, but also has a lot to teach us about the future of Sprits production as well as medicine and perfumes. I tend to liken these events to Black Smith hammer in’s at historic re-enactments, they are about knowledge and experience and teaching, but just as much they are about community. Sometimes too they are bragging rights, or even a chance to show off a new skill or new homebrew, or newly stitched clothing, or new knowledge. Anything really. They are fellowship.

The grain was provided to us by Brooks Grain, and thankfully came pre-ground. We mashed both of these barrels using hops in the copper boiler to compete against any type of bacterial contamination that might be on hand. This was a common method in many early farm distilleries. The other common method involves using Eastern Red Cedar. The rowing was much easier with volunteers from both Locust Grove as well as from Musee De Venoge. We may have all have consumed a fair bit of Absinthe as well as Adin’s fantastic home brewed cider as well as a few beers, but the work was completed safely and efficiently and a lot of laughs and jokes were shared amongst the tribe of workers. At the end of the day the two mash barrels were setting around a 1.055 specific gravity and by the looks of the mash alone as well as the lack of mash splattered across the workhouse bricks I could easily tell that this was by far the best and most efficient mash that Brian and I had ever completed at Locust Grove.

We pitched the yeast that we gathered from the botanical garden at Musee De Venoge. A truly wild strain that took some adapting to new mash bases and which gave me trouble for some weeks prior to the event. It is the yeast in my opinion and experience that is the very Soul of the base alcohol and will bring with it the golden pixie dust that provides contrast and depth to all that will come post fermentation. It was important to Brian and I to use a yeast from Switzerland county for this project. Everything in it’s right place, even if the yeast does prove difficult to work with.

Thankfully both D.J. Henderson and Brian were able to document the day in photos and videos. In fact Brian has been filming the entire affair, from the first visit to Venoge, through mash in, back to Venoge for follow up shots we did a couple weeks back including filming the running of a small 20 gallon alembic and preparation of dried botanicals, and soon back to Spirits Of French Lick where he will film the final preparation of herbs and the Absinthe distillation process.

The mash then went to Kentucky Artisan Distillery where it fell under the watchful eyes of Jade Peterson. Fermentation was slow to start running but run it did in time and finished to 1.000. Jade then ran the mash through a small Hybrid still with a single distillation from which was recovered around 5 gallons of alcohol at roughly 130 proof. We were also given another bucket of “tails” around 108 proof which we re-distilled on a pot still to around 135 proof. This will give us several gallons to turn into true Hoosier Absinthe of the old type.

The plan is to finish filming the process whereupon Brian will edit the video into a documentary film for presentation to the public, restoring once again to the state a sense of pride and knowledge of our Farm-Distilling history, and filling yet another gap in American and Folk spirits production history and methodology. Alchemy in Action!

This past weekend Brian and I spoke and we plan to have a trailer for the documentary out on New Years Eve alongside another very cool piece of “Sprits Media” (Or is that Medium?) as Christi Atkinson and I have been working on an all new independent show titled; “The Veil”. This show (perhaps a podcast or a youtube stream, we aren’t sure yet.) will be released in seasons with each season based on the demystification or the deep history of one particular type of spirit. Season one is Demystifying Absinthe, which we have absolutely failed to do, instead muddying the waters even more than previously. We have interviewed 6-7 people intensely involved with absinthe on a production, heritage, or simple connoisseur level about everything from Absinthes origins, right through production, into drinking, and the more fun for me level of Spirituality. These interviews will be edited into clips that Christi and I will introduce and will be interspersed with stories of the paranormal from our guests on the show. Very Art Bell inspired in tone.

Work is also nearly complete on the long awaited Hells Half Acre Documentary as DJ Henderson is currently working on narration and I am working on music.

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!

Hoosier Apple Brandy Certification

Indiana has a long history with the production of seasonal farm-distiller produced apple brandy from the pre-prohibition era. In fact the state was once the largest producer of apple brandy globally. With the rise in craft spirits distilleries in the state it becomes more important than ever that we as distillers secure our distilling legacy and future by creating a cooperative “mark” and set of identity standards based on historic production protocol in order to create a category of spirit that is distinctly and completely representative of our distilling heritage and prowess. Creating this category also gives rice to the opportunity for existing farmers and aspiring farmers to diversify and introduce much needed horicultural diversity into the state.

This is a rough draft that I created on my own sitting on my porch. I hope to work with other interested Indiana distillers to further refine, edit, and subsequently create an independent and voluntary logo and certification for said category similar in nature to New York States Empire Rye Designation Input is welcome via:


I will be uploading some definitions, history and explanations/thoughts on individual sections in coming days.
Stay tuned, this should be fun and get plenty of reactions.

Hoosier Apple Brandy Category
Requirements for participation:

Adulteration: Nothing but pure Indiana water may be added to the spirit post distillation. No coloring agents, sweeteners or ageing alternatives (Bois, oak chips, or spirals) may be used
Maturation Statement: No minimum age statement is required. Spirit may be aged or unaged as both forms remained historically popular up to prohibition.

Cask Type:. No casks smaller than the historically appropriate 30 gallon. None larger than 68 gallon hogshead. Construction of oak species of producers preference. Re-charred or re-toasted barrels or dry barrels from Indiana only beer, wine, spirits, or syrup producers may be used.

Distillation Location: Must be fermented and distilled in the state of Indiana by a licensed distillery. Product of one distiller (who must reside in state), in one distillery, in a single year (between Jan. 1 and December 31’st).

Method of Distillation: Must be distilled via pot still or three chamber still as was the Historical method. Still may make use of retorts, thump barrels, doublers, or forced reflux mechanisms (dephlegmator). Continuous columns are disallowed as they are non reflective of the traditional apple brandy production practices of the state of Indiana.
Average proof of hearts collected not to exceed 170 proof. No lower than 100 proof.

Raw Materials: A 10 year grace period shall be adopted for sourcing apples from within the state as the historic orchards were destroyed by Prohibition, this will hopefully spur the planting of new trees within the state.
Juice/Fruit may be sourced from any state contiguous of Indiana to maintain regionality and teroir. After ten years 50% of all fruit must come from within the state of Indiana. Apples of all types are allowed but must be a blend of no less than three types if sourced from out of state. Single varietal apple brandy may only use the Hoosier Apple Brandy designation if the fruit is sourced entirely within the state of Indiana.

Fermentation: Fermented material can be from juice or fruit mash. Mash can be strained of solids if desired. Any water additions to fermenting materials must come from an Indiana water source.
No less than 1.5 lbs fruit per gallon may be used
Wine or mash may be chaptalized to no more than 1.075 Specific Gravity or 18.5 Brix

Yeast: Must be sourced within Indiana to promote regionality and teroir. Can include natural yeast on fruit or strain originating out of state but maintained and propagated by the distiller.

Ageing/Maturation:. Must be 100% aged in Indiana. No finishing is allowed.

Bottling: Must be bottled exclusively by and for the distillery who fermented, distilled and matured the apple brandy.
To be called “Estate” Hoosier Apple Brandy the fruit must be sourced 100% from a farm associated with or owned by the distillery or an employee thereof.

To be called a Blended Hoosier Apple Brandy and to encourage collaborative efforts each Independent component of the blend must meet the standards set out above. Bottling requirement of participating collaborators is waved and bottling happens at one of the distilleries involved in the project.

A love letter to the simple pot still

A love letter to Pot Still Distillation
Simple Alembic

The humble pot still has existed in some form since the advent of distilling. Starting with the simple alquatar and moving forward to complex hybrid systems complete with gin baskets, columns, bubble plates, jacketed cooling systems and more. The pot still, although not widely understood by the general public, nor even by a lot of modern column still distillery “operators” is probably the single most recognizable symbol of distilling in the eye of the general public and has been incorporated by many distilling companies or spirits related companies due to this recognition.
Spirit Still
Pot with rectification lenses

Although the pot still is one of the oldest forms of distilling equipment it’s place in the modern distilling industry, despite myriad technical advances, is very secure and for most of the world pot distilled spirits are the mark of quality and craftsmanship. Pot stills are widely recognized by producers and imbibers because of their built-in inefficiencies which when well executed can produce superior products which require the trained senses of an experienced distiller in the process of distillation.
If one thinks of the humble moonshiner, they think of the pot still. If one thinks of Single Malt Scotch they think of the pot still, if one thinks of Cognac they think of the pot still, and if one delves into the history of any potable spirit with the exception of high proof ethanol the pot still will have no doubt have shaped the history and the taste profile of each of those spirits. Yes doubters, this includes Bourbon and Rye.
waterringFettercairn water Cascade for forced reflux

It isn’t my intent in this short introduction to get into technicalities but instead to confess my love of pot stills and all their eccentricates. Here I will focus on all those things that for me make pot stills special in a way that no other system could ever be.
Lomond still. Similar to a modern hybrid or old fashioned Saville still with three plates all independently cooled and capable of tilting.

Pot Stills at their core are most simply about the retention and concentration of flavor and more importantly aroma derived from the raw material of fermentation. Pot stills in their most basic form are agricultural and traditional cultural tools and the distilling carried out on such systems is reflective of the regional agriculture and cultural culinary norms of the community within which they are operated. The operation of pot stills is always agricultural in nature, even when industry is involved. From the earliest time the pot still was looked at and understood to be yet another farm implement, albeit an important one capable of transmuting raw beer (for whiskey) or wine (for brandy) or botanicals (absinthe, gin, aquavit) into a more portable and value added product that in itself offered psychoactive relaxation and the opportunity to experience the aroma of a time and place at a later time and place often removed by the cold weather seasons or by miles traveled. Pot stills are Alchemy, pot stills are sexy.
PureS1 Double retort rum still.

Pot stills are batch systems meaning that their industrialization and therefore bastardization is limited. A pot still can never handle anymore beer or wine than the capacity the boiler (or pot) has to hold or than what time has provided to distill correctly. Over the centuries many have tried to “hack” the pot still system in order to speed up the process and in every case the system failed. Often these trends focused on using shallow stills that could rapidly distill and be refilled from pre-heaters and generally the patents for these apparatus were and their invention was spurned on by the ignorance of government tax collectors who themselves wanted to gather the maximum amount of profit possible with little to no effort on their own behalf. Where I’m from we call this Carpetbagging. In every instance the “Improvements” would fail to meet the quality expected by the drinking public and in every instance the one who truly profited was either the legal distiller who stuck with the tried and true principals of the pot still or the illicit distiller who could not be pressured to give up his or her trade and dedication to the old ways handed down from generation to generation.
Tennessee Thumper Still Rev. Thomas Green model with bypass and two independent vapor paths containing four retorts each.

Pot stills are reflective and percussive instruments. The operation thereof is a simple mimicry of natures processes of evaporation and condensation as well as other atmospheric conditions and subsequently many variables can affect the distillation process in these systems. All manner of variables has profound effects on simple pot still distillation. Barometric pressure changes from storm fronts and high-pressure fronts can slow distillation the same as turning down the fuel used to heat the system. Because the “head” of the still heats slower and cools quicker than the pot more reflux is created during cold weather or in cool environments than in hot weather or warm environments. This reflux raises proof and purity and drops out heavier and more aromatic and flavorful components meaning that a pot still subsequently makes a lighter style in cool weather than in warm weather. The set-up of the lyne arm itself and the subsequent angle of the vapor leaving the still for the condenser can create vast differences in natural reflux as well. The very mood of the distiller as well as physical or spiritual ailments can affect pot stills as well. A true pot still is always operated by a true distiller using their senses to determine what fractions of alcohol and wherein the distillation of that alcohol that “cuts” or the removal of unwanted components (Fores, Heads, Hearts, Tails) are made. If a distiller walks into work in a great mood and with plenty of sleep as well as a palate clean of heavy foods he or she will make an entirely different cut to the product than a distiller who comes to work in a bad mood, little sleep, and having made poor dietary choices for the job at hand (spicy foods, smoking, etc.). The distiller will use every sense that they have to make those cuts. Every system has a sound, every fraction of alcohol a distinct aroma, taste, and feel (dry, oily), and the simple observation by sight of the speed of distillation or the quick read of a hydrometer even inaccurate will tell the tale (or tails!).

Moon phases greatly effect distillation on pot still systems. Just as the moon has a pronounced effect in the atmosphere of the earth such as high tide and low tide or the high turnout of medical emergencies during full moons so too does the moon have an effect on the liquid and vapor contained in the enclosed system. Full Moons produce quicker distillations with all variables otherwise remaining the same than do new moons. So called “super” moons have their effects as well.

Pot stills are individuals. Each has its own set of quirks. Even stills made by the same manufacturer, of the same design, and run by the same parameters turn out different distillates from one another. You could have five stills produced by the same builder to the same specifications, run in the same building, run by the same distiller, and running the same product and each of those five stills will produce a slightly different flavor profile. Pot still distillation is a LIVING and DYNAMIC art that can not be mimicked by other systems. By the variables above you can see that consistency is not created by pot stills, it is instead managed over time by the distiller or blender testing their stocks and making blends that fit a “profile” for a product. In fact, we want variation, we pot still distillers love the ability to create unique one-off products and see the diversity of a single grain bill or varietal with far more variation than the simple placement of a barrel in different locations during ageing to create individual expressions.

Due to the stated individuality of the pot still and because of old school superstition every pot still should have a name. The still should be run a time or two and evaluated by the distiller for the unique properties it presents and named appropriately thereafter. Myself, I tend to name my pots after goddesses of antiquity or Biblical characters, but always, always, of the feminine persuasion, pot stills do after all have curves, dints and dings, but also present perfection just like the feminine form.

Although the batch size and industrial efficiency of the pot still is limited the production of a myriad of diverse spirits is not at all limited by a well-designed pot still and the many options that can be added to them. Simple cooling coils or jackets on the head or line arm or the placement of a dephlegmator can allow for the production of amazing, light bodied and subtle spirits or the elimination of unwanted congeners. The implementation of a bubble plate column can raise proof and purity for the production of single pass style spirits or high proof spirits. The addition of multiple vapor paths can allow for the implementation of “gin baskets” holding botanicals of great quality and can create spirits unlike any that ever existed before. Simple “retorts” or thump barrels can allow for the raising of proof and purity, the addition of unique and beautiful flavor compounds, the building of unique acids for esterification, and so much more. To boot these many additions and the flavorful spirits that they create can be blended in many proportions to create an entirely different style of spirit. Heavy bodied whiskies or brandies can also be used to make unique botanical creations and develop flavor bridges between otherwise unrelated components. The sky is not the limit, there is no limit, and despite our heritage of pot still distillation we are nowhere near the apex of the possibilities!

The old-fashioned pot still is in fact still the best option for true artists, true farmers, true lovers of an ancient by not outmoded heritage.

Of Distilling and Agriculture.

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!

LG speech:
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. FB_IMG_1557752119811
With Brian Cushing and Shawn Stevens (of Vendome) and my Dona Jug Maria.

Capturing and culturing the Daisy Spring Distillery yeast strain

If you have been reading for a while you probably remember me posting last year about capturing the yeast strain used at the now infamous McCoy Distillery in Orange County Indiana. I ended up employing that strain last fall in a practical demonstration at Locust Grove farm Distillery (the mash was later distilled by my brother Jade Peterson at Kentucky Artisan Distillery) last fall where we were filmed by Townsend’s making historic apple mash/apple jack brandy. The video is below:

In the meantime I’ve been doing a lot of research on the old Daisy Spring Distillery located in Lawrence County Indiana at Spring Mill State Park. I started wondering about the feasibility of capturing the strain used here by Johnathan Turley at the end of the 19’th century after speaking about the history of Distilling in Southern Indiana at the mill there this last Saturday and finding out that the logs (as well as the remaining hogshead and scrap staves) are original to the building. I decided that the chances of catching yeast from the site were pretty damn good, particularly given the luck I had at the McCoy Distillery.
On Monday i prepped two quart jars of mash at home. Corn malt, Marris Otter, and just a tiny bit of sweet corn and placed one jar inside a rebuilt hogshead and another next to an original hogshead designed to look like a flake stand for a worm. Near this was an old hollowed out log that used to be a storage bin for Distillery grain that is now filled with old hogshead/fermentation barrel staves. Tuesday evening I picked up the sample jars and by Tuesday night they were running fast and hard!

The aroma of the yeast is unlike any I have ever captured before, it’s cinnamon, but not cinnamon alone, in fact the closest thing that comes to mind is Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I have no doubt this will be a great Distilling yeast as it finished Fermentation by Friday morning and I’m now propigation it with plans to incorporate it into Distilling at several permitted historic sites.
I have no way to prove or verify this is the strain used by the Distillery but given it’s unique quality aromatics and ability to synthesize sugar to alcohol quickly and efficiently I have no reason to believe otherwise and I look forward to seeing what she can do!IMG_20190429_163910237.jpg

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