Bulletin Relative to Production of Distilled Spirits

Bulletin Relative to Production of Distilled Spirits
United State. Internal Revenue Service, United States.

I came across this wonderful text while researching my last post on mid century, golden era, American whiskey production. The 1912 text is basically a primer on distillation encountered in American distilleries for excise agents who were working alongside the distillers.

It is early and gives a glimpse of the industry before products like Bourbon really took definite shape and consistent production traditions stretched out. There is a picture of an ordinary pot still, a three chambered still and a continuous beer still, but not the Bourbon still setups that we know today.

The text also has a unique tone and mentions what was in vogue in regards to production. A relationship between distiller and excise agent emerges.

The data contained in this bulletin has been compiled and is furnished for the information of all internal-revenue officers, and particularly for the information of those whose duties bring them in touch with the operations of distilleries.

These excise agents had to know what was going on to spot fraud and monkey business, though it is not explicitly spelled out that way.

It is hoped and believed that the information furnished herein, so far as all internal-revenue officers are concerned, removes anything that may be of mystery from the operations of these plants; and it is further expected, and in the future will be required, that every distillery officer shall sufficiently familiarize himself with the simple laws of chemistry and physics involved in the production of spirits so as to understand their application to the materials and the equipment in the plant to which he is assigned.

As I framed in the last post, the IRS had a big incentive to be technically helpful to the industry. In 1912 fermenting to dryness was no guarantee, and if a distillery gained enough control to hit dryness every time, grain purchased would match alcohol produced and the agent wouldn’t have to turn into Columbo constantly unraveling mysteries of what the hell happened. This is probably taken for granted these days now that distilleries do not have live in agents and everyone is on the honor system.

It is not intended that this bulletin shall constitute a primer or a guide to the production of spirits. An effort has been made to give a general description of the various processes in common use, and an explanation of the reason why certain things are done; and, further than this, that the information herein shall furnish a method by which, from knowing what is done, the officer assigned to a distillery can ascertain whether or not the amount of distilled spirits normally to be expected has resulted therefrom.

The relationship between the IRS and the distillers evolved, but for 1912, the last line here is key.

Barley is the grain generally used for malting purposes, because it is considered to have the highest diastatic power of any of the malted cereals. Considerable rye malt is used in the production of an all rye whisky and a little corn malt is occasionally produced and used. By diastatic power is meant the measure of the activity of the malt in changing starch into sugar.

Here is a little fun factoid relating to ryes like the Baltimore Pure Rye.

A certain quantity of water is added to the cooker, about 20 gallons to the bushel (the exact quantity depending upon the ideas of the distiller) ;

I highlight this excerpt from the mashing section because it shows more of the unique tone.

Things get interesting when they describe three different mashing methods with the last being called old sour mash process:

Third, the small tub or old sour mash process. The details vary, but the following is the general process: A certain quantity of hot slop, about 20 gallons to the bushel, is placed in small tubs (capacity about 50 gallons, sometimes more) ; the meal is then added and the entire mass thoroughly stirred with the mash sticks. This is allowed to stand overnight, in the morning it is broken up by means of mash sticks; the malt and rye is then added, in some places without heating the mash, in others after heating to about 160° F., allowed to stand for some time and then sent to the fermenters.
This process does not give as good results in mashing as the open mash tub, because a smaller number of the starch cells are acted on in the process, and a smaller yield is obtained.

The hot slop is backset right out of the still. If it stands over night it may or may not grow lactic bacteria, especially if it is in already infected vats. It would be very cool to try this out and see what happens. My question then is would the enzymes actually have time and ability to act on the rye if it wasn’t heated after being added? Everything has to be back to room temperature after sitting over night.

If I were running a distillery tourism program, I would try and do some interactive exhibits to show we progressed from the most rudimentary processes to what is currently practiced. Create a living history type of thing.

There are three methods of yeasting in vogue: First, to allow the tub to be yeasted by the yeast organisms which fall into it from the air or are remaining in the fermenters; second, yeasting back, or the use of “barm”; third, the preparation of a yeast mash in a quantity representing from 2 to 4 per cent of the grain bill.

The first method is how we think of fermenting wine, but distillation is all about abstraction. Abstract quantities of yeast, beyond what is already present in a vat, are used in near every class of distillate with few exceptions. Arroyo has the best systematic explanation of how this abstraction avenue can be varied.

First method, no yeasting used.—At a very few small distilleries no added yeast (neither mash nor barm) is used. The mash is prepared and placed in fermenters, the distiller leaving the tubs to nature, and as yeast cells are present nearly everywhere, some cells drop into the mash and fermentation begins. As other organisms also develop, this fermentation is a poor one and the lowest yields are obtained from this process. In the early days of the industry this was the general method employed.

It is so hard to believe that anyone would do this, even in 1912, except possibly a fruit brandy producer. He may be describing it in terms of a grain mash just to help his narrative.

Second method, yeasting hack, or the old sour-mash process. After the mash has been prepared in the small tubs, as before described, and emptied into the fermenters, the new mash is yeasted by taking from a tub set the day before and presumably in active fermentation the “barm”; that is, the top is skimmed off, containing a large number of yeast cells, which will immediately begin to grow in the new mash. After this tub has been fermenting 24 hours, the “barm” is skimmed off of it for use in the next tub, and so on. In this method the yeast is less vigorous than in the third method, hereinafter described, because in addition to the race of yeast desired there is an abundance of other types of yeasts and various bacteria which interfere and tend to cause a low yield by a development of other substances in place of alcohol. The longer the process of yeasting back continues the less vigorous the barm becomes, as far as the true yeast is concerned, though it becomes very rich in the varieties not desired.
Finally the tubs will become so foul that a fresh start has to be made by obtaining a quantity of yeast from other sources. In a distillery operating strictly on this plan there would be no yeast tub on the premises.

I’m taking the time to highlight all of these options because it is 1912, Jamaica versus America if you’ve followed this blog. A few years prior Jamaica was writing its great treatise on rum production at its agriculture experiment stations. These explanations are neck and neck and no one really seems to be ahead explaining what they are doing. The state of the art happens to travel fast.

The yeasting back idea is also important to understand because even though it is less efficient in theory it often is more efficient in practice. Massive Brazilian ethanol distilleries using yeasting back because when extra logistics are factored in for their medium, it can produce better results. Yeasting back can also be pragmatic and used when labor is not scheduled to grow a proper culture which takes active time and planning. You can yeast back in a pinch.

The average system of making a yeast mash is somewhat along the following lines : A yeast mash is prepared of malt, or malt and rye and hop water; this will have a gravity of 20 per cent or more; it is stocked with a good yeast and allowed to ferment. At the proper time, after active fermentation has ensued, it is drawn off into jugs of one-half gallon or more capacity. These jugs are used as stock and will keep a month or more before the yeast contained therein will degenerate.
Each day a “dona” is prepared by mashing barley malt and adding a little hop water; this is cooled to the proper temperature and set with one of the jugs ; it is then allowed to ferment overnight or even 24 hours. A yeast mash in the meantime is prepared by mashing one-half barley malt, one-half rye, cooled and set with the dona.
This mash is allowed to ferment overnight or longer and is then ready to add to the fermenter. The grain represented in the yeast mash is from 2 to 4 per cent of the total grain bill for the day (and as all of this grain produces alcohol it should be included in the grain account). In the preparation of the yeast mash at some distilleries another step is taken : After the mashing of the rye and malt the mash is held at about 124° F. from 18 to 24 hours to sour; that is, to permit lactic acid bacteria to develop. This bacteria is not injurious to the yeast, but is an enemy of certain bacteria which are harmful to the yeast. After the souring the mash is either cooled and pitched with the dona or heated to kill the lactic acid bacteria, and then cooled and set (this is called “wine sour”).

The first time I read about the hop water trick they were putting their yeast down a well to keep it cool until the next season. A lot of this is like a cooking show where they put a turkey into the oven then pull another cooked turkey out. If that can’t be arranged, you have to yeast back. The yogurt technique is mentioned here when they create the wine sour medium for their cultures. When you have multiple potential yeasts, one will be suited for the medium, it will grow the best, and that will be your wine sour yeast.

There are four legal periods of fermentation in the United States—that is, the statutes recognize four different periods during which a tub can be filled but once.

That is an interesting way to put it.

First. The sweet-mash, process, in which 72 hours is the maximum time, and 45 gallons of beer must represent not less than 1 bushel of grain.

So the ferment cannot be too long or too dilute. You’d think all the guidelines would aim in the opposite direction.

Second. The sour-mash process, in which 96 hours is the maximum period and in which 60 gallons of beer must represent not less than 1 bushel of grain.

These rules looked like they changed and in the document, 50 years later, there were sour mash fermentations as long as 120 hours. Again, maximums.

Third. The filtration-aeration process, in which 24 hours is the maximum period, and 70 gallons represents not less than 1 bushel of grain. (This is a process in which yeast for bakers is the main product, and alcohol more or less a by-product.)


Fourth. The rum period, in which 144 hours is the maximum period, and 7 gallons of beer represents 1 gallon of molasses.

You don’t see many acknowledgements of American rum in the literature, but there you go.

For me, and after reading Arroyo, this all raises the question, do you pitch only enough yeast to finish fermentation by your 72 or 96 hours?, or is the yeast done when it is done and the extra time is for action by bacteria and effects of resting? In the document we often saw three different time variations for the same mash bill, but did they pitch different amounts of yeast to create them? Arroyo was big on a resting period as benefiting rum, but he had lots of stipulations. He was also big on explicitly counting the yeasts that you pitched.

Note.—A distiller who desires to use molasses and make alcohol, and not rum, can have his distillery surveyed on a sweet mash period of fermentation and use 7 gallons of beer to represent 1 gallon of molasses. The advantage in the shorter period lies in the opportunity afforded for operating with fewer fermenters.

Fascinating, distilleries were surveyed.

Let’s cover the three chambered charge still in case they come back in vogue:

Charge chambered beer still (see illustration, fig. 4) .—This still consists of from two to four chambers, and is so arranged that each chamber is a unit in itself. The beer is placed in the top chamber and after one distillation the contents of the top chamber is lowered into the chamber below, and a quantity of new beer dropped in the upper chamber. The method of heating is by live steam entering in the lowest chamber. The vapors, consisting of a mixture of alcohol and water, pass from the lower chamber through a vapor pipe to the bottom of the chamber above, these vapors in turn heating the beer in this chamber, boiling the spirit out of it. If there is a third and fourth chamber the same process is repeated. From the upper chamber the vapors pass through a vapor pipe into a doubler, which is a large cylindrical copper vessel, into the bottom of which is placed, at the end of each charge, the heads and tails of the previous distillation. A vapor pipe from the upper chamber enters at the bottom of this doubler, the hot vapors, boiling the heads and tails, pass up the doubler into another vapor pipe, and hence into the condenser. The time consumed in the distillation of one charge is determined by the spirit runner judging by the proof of the distillate. When he is satisfied that all of the alcohol has been boiled out of the beer in the lowest chamber the spent beer is emptied into the spent beer tank and in turn the contents of each chamber is emptied into the chamber below; steam is again turned into the lower compartment and the process continued. It takes approximately 30 minutes to run a charge and there are as many charges as are necessary to distill the beer for that day. These are the stills invariably used at the larger houses in the distillation of rye beers. The distillate of each charge of this still varies in proof, beginning at a low proof, say 40 or more, running up to a maximum of 140 and then down to approximately 10. According to the ideas of the distiller, this distillate is cut off into heads, middle run, and tails. The strongest part of the distillation being classed as middle run. All the middle runs of the various charges distilled during the day are mixed together and called singlings or high wines. The heads and tails of each charge are, as a rule, mixed together and at the end of the distillation of each charge are placed in the doubler of the beer still where they are subjected to a further boiling, and thus the alcohol contained therein is saved and the product called the middle run is kept free of the undesirable substances present in these heads and tails. At certain houses this separation may not be practiced, but all the different distillates mixed together, the disadvantage being that a lower proof is obtained.

This is so attractively archaic and it is easy to appreciate the operators skill and understanding of what they are doing. The chambers quickly become symbolic and recall Wu-Tang. It should be noticed that the charges are dropped (another hip-hop metaphor) before they are fully liberated from alcohol, but when all the drops add up (3 or 4 chambers of death!) all the alcohol is removed. You could stop the distillation when the lowest chamber hits 212° F. I don’t think you could take that measure from the vapor pipe in between chambers because of all the super heated live steam moving through it which would bias the number.

At one time it was a general practice to filter the distillate of the beer still through charcoal filters, or as they are called “rectifiers.” This practice is still followed at several distilleries. Sometimes the singlings are leached (as it is called) and bonded without redistillation; at other houses they are redistilled.

The author, and his unique vantage point, make it seem like charcoal filtration was a trend that moved through the industry at one point. In the beginning it was seen as a way to avoid second distillations, but eventually refined by producers in Tennessee.

The next section of the text is simply titled “Control”.

Nearly all of the larger distilleries keep a scientific control of their operation and production. From the earliest days the Federal statutes made provision for scientific control by the Government, and these statutes, which internal-revenue officers have not availed themselves of generally in the past, will be utilized fully from this time on. The possibility of scientific control lies in the fact that the amount of alcohol capable of being produced depends absolutely on the per cent of sugar in the mash, and this amount of sugar can, by use of the saccharometer, be accurately measured and the amount of alcohol developed by fermentation definitely ascertained; and by intelligent observation, by a competent officer, of the processes followed in any plant, the amount lost in fermentation and distillation closely estimated, and the production that should be recorded as entered into the cistern room closely calculated.


Whenever an examining officer visits a distillery he is expected to test the beer in each fermenter and compare his results with those of the distillery officer. If the results indicate that the proper gravity has not been taken and recorded by the distillery officer in charge, the examining officer will make immediate report to the revenue agent in charge, using his judgment as to whether such report should be by writing or by telegraph, and the instructions issued by this office with respect to keeping of Form 88 should then promptly be followed by the revenue agent, and prompt reports relative thereto should be forwarded direct to the bureau.

You are not allowed to be incompetent as a distiller!

Heavy responsibilities devolve on distillery officers and they must be as thoroughly trusted as any class of Government employees. In no other position in the Government is there greater necessity for alertness, competency, and intelligent action at all times. The Bureau of Internal Revenue believes that it is to be congratulated on the internal-revenue officers as a whole. It is the constant effort of the bureau to further raise the standard of these officers by discovering and visiting with severe punishment the few unworthy persons who from time to time find their way into the service.

No nonsense, and then he jumps right into some math! Can you imagine if our police departments used language like that?

Revenue agents, deputy collectors, and examining officers are expected to use every care in checking up distilleries and to render every assistance to distillery officers in the performance of their duty, and immediately report any incompetence, lack of intelligent effort, or irregularity on the part of any distillery officer, with a view to furthering the purpose of the bureau that there shall be collected for the Government every dollar of revenue due with the least possible annoyance or interruption in the business of the legitimate taxpaying manufacturer.

I like the language, lack of intelligent effort. I will borrow that when I scold people. He then goes into Form 88. Basically then collected data on every aspect of production and knew everything on everyone. It would be wild if we could request some of these records.

It turns out 1912 was a important year and the results of IRS technical assistance were starting to pay off. Increasing the yield of commercial distilleries also made them more competitive against illicit distilling.

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