Dr. Harris Eastman Sawyer, Architect of the Modern New England Rum style?

Not many production specifics are known about New England rums besides the fact that we liked it a lot and drank a ton of it. Mountains of scholarly works exist from other rum producing regions, but no technical documents exist (especially regarding fermentation) on New England rum besides Peter Valaer’s Foreign and Domestic Rum, 1937 which is an extensive survey (but lacking in specific areas). New England rum, like all rums, transformed from a rustic product created with little regard for science to a modern industrial concern with an agro chemist as architect of all their systems. The transformation happened at the turn of the century.

While digging, I just came across the name of Dr. H. Sawyer while searching for another agro chemist. Dr. H. Sawyer was Harris Eastman Sawyer (A Harvard guy, not MIT like I had previously thought). Sawyer was likely the architect of modern New England rum when he worked for Felton & Son’s. He provided the science that sculpted the style and allowed production to scale upwards dramatically to be among the largest in the world when New England rum went through a period of consolidation. Sawyer doesn’t seem to have been in the sugar scene of colonial researchers exchanging letters and bulletins from Java to Jamaica. He was more in the scene of American analytical chemists like Crampton, Tolman, and Peter Valaer.

It is worthwhile to single out and recognize Dr. Sawyer because the product of his work and its reputation is a large part of what has inspired a new generation of New England distillers to pursue rum. Acknowledging history can guide them either to historical production standards, so we can drink a day in the shoes of our ancestors, or along the path of progress which is the downplayed culture of the distilling industry. Sawyer as we will see in the glimpse of his life that follows was an astoundingly capable chemist. He was among the referees for new analytical techniques put out by various chemistry organizations. This means when you see numbers quoted for categories like fusel oil calculated by the Allen-Marquardt method, Sawyer was among the group of chemists that duplicated, critiqued, and vouched for the new methods.

I remember Warren Winierski, of Stag’s Leap wine fame, reflecting on the 1970’s and saying “fine wine was born in the laboratory” (as opposed to commodity wine which ruled the day). Winierski went on to explain that a style could only evolve and be sculpted with chemical analysis. Winierski, Mike Grgich, and all the other kings of Napa were all lab guys. All the same ideas apply to distilling, particularly rum, the most malleable of all spirits, and who could take it further than a chemist as capable as Dr. Sawyer?

The emphasis of the lab is also reinforced by all the technical works coming out of Jamaica. The tariffs & taxes in both England and on the continent for imported spirits were so high, sometimes four times what the spirit cost to produce, that the only way to stay relevant was to produce a product so extraordinary it was worth the egregious fees. This was high ester rum and it led to quests to advance fermentation science.

Lets take a look at the life of Dr. Harris Eastman Sawyer and start with an introduction in his own words:

In ’99 I was employed by the Trade Chemists’ Co., a New York concern doing business as tanners’ consulting chemists, as manager of their Boston laboratory. I left them toward the end of 1900, and opened a laboratory of my own on Federal Street, where I divided my time between taming bacteria and making tan analyses. About a year later I agreed to give all of my time to one of my clients; and shortly afterwards I closed my city laboratory, and moved over to his rum-distillery in South Boston. I have been there ever since.

I was married in February, 1899, to Ellen Margrethe Warberg, whom I had met while living in Copenhagen, in 1897. A year later, a daughter, Margaret, was born to us. She is still our only child.

In 1901 we went home to Denmark for a three months’ visit, and since that time nothing of any account has happened. Occasionally I get away from Boston for a few days, to attend the meeting of some scientific society or for a trip to the mountains. Regularly during the spring and summer and fall I get “up river ” or into the woods on Sundays and holidays to make up for the hours which I have to waste in the laboratory and distillery.

I never have had time nor strength to take any part in public life, but I have managed to do a good deal of chemical research work in connection with technical problems in the distillery and with the food work of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists. Once in a while I publish a paper in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. I belong to that society, as well as to others in England and France, and I am also a member of the Economic Club of Boston. Social clubs do not appeal to me.

Sawyer was employed with Felton & Son, maker of Crystal Springs rum in South Boston.

Sawyer published three scholarly articled that are in the American Chemical Society Archives (I will track them down soon and look at their bibliographies to see what he was reading):


I tracked these three papers down and the bibliographies all point to the scene of analytical chemists which was distinct from the cast of characters in the sugar scene. Sawyer is a fantastic writer and his papers, though dealing with weighty science, are notably organized better than average. He was probably a fantastic teacher.

An earlier scholarly work from his Harvard days was On Mucophenoxychloric Acid (1894)

Sawyer was even indexed in American Men of Science A bibliographic directory:

Sawyer, Dr. Harris E(astman), 244 Columbia Road, Dorchester, Mass. Chemistry, Bacteriology. Portland, Me, April 3, 68. A.B, Harvard, 91, A.M, 94, Ph.D, 95; Copenhagen, 96-97. Consulting chemist, 97- Chem. Soc; Soc. Chem. Indust; Ass. Chim. de Suc. et de Dist. de France. Methods of saccharimetry.— Graduation of Ventzke saccharimeters; methods of determining reducing sugars in cane products; detection of adulterants in distilled liquors.

We can hear even more about his career history in his own words (1899):

Writes: ” After receiving my Doctor’s degree from the University, in 1895, I spent the larger part of a year in the private laboratory of Professor Wolcott Gibbs, at Newport, where I worked upon a variety of chemical researches.

I was appointed to the Kirkland

Fellowship in the spring of 1896, and went abroad in the summer for study; I was in Copenhagen until June, 1897, working upon the chemistry of fermentation.

On my return to America, I opened a laboratory in Boston for zymotechnical work; the examination of malt, yeast, beer, etc.

In March, 1898, I became manager of the Boston laboratory of a New York concern; and I now am carrying on my own work in connection with theirs, at 620 Atlantic avenue. ” I became engaged while I was living in Denmark and was married last February. ” Was lecturer at Harvard in 1897-98.”

Sawyer’s knowledge of chemistry was pretty spectacular and he was definitely capable of doing more than running a distillery. He also worked as a referee for the development of many new analysis techniques and seems to have been an insider regarding the latest and greatest in fermentation and distillation chemistry.

While working at Felton & Son’s distillery, and also acting as an associate referee, Sawyer wrote this Report on Molasses Analysis. The report came before his American Chemical Society article on the same subject. He also participated in the Report on Distilled Liquors by the very notable C.A. Crampton whom co-authored the most notable study on whiskey of the era. In the document, there are details of how someone would work as a referee on a technique and be sent samples to test and report back on. They made sure all work was duplicatable in ways that we don’t commonly see in science today.

Harris Eastman Sawyer died in July of 1911 as noted in the Proceedings of the American Chemical Society.

Science also had a brief death announcement:

DR HARRIS EASTMAN SAWYER AB AM Ph D Harvard assistant chemist in the Bureau of Chemistry until he removed to New Hampshire on account of pulmonary tuberculosis the author of contributions to the chemistry of sugar and alcohol died on July 5 aged forty three years

A longer obituary describes his life in more detail. Apparently he contracted tuberculosis during an experiment:

He was the son of Frederick Sawyer of Gorham. Me., and Harriet Eastman Merrill of N. Conway, N. H., and was a Civil War soldier. Shortly after his marriage moved to Boston, Mass., where he has since made his home. The death of his wife, April 7, 1910, was a great blow to him. He died Feb. 11, 1913. Both are buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, Portland, Me.
I Harris Eastman, b. Apr. 3, 1868: d. July 5. 1911.
He graduated at Harvard University in 1891. The degrees of A.B., A.M. and Ph.D. have been conferred upon him. Went abroad and while pursuing studies in chemistry under traveling scholarship from the college, at Copenhagen, Denmark, he met the girl whom he subsequently made his wife. She descended from the German royal family. Dr. Sawyer in 1908 entered the government service as an expert on the subject of fermentation, under Dr. H. W. Wiley. He contracted a disease of the throat, in some of his experiments, which resulted in his death at East Andover. N. H. His widow with her daughter, Helen Margaret, b. Jan. 16, 1890, returned to her people in Denmark, where they now reside.

A notable article on Sawyer appeared in the United States Tobacco Journal, 1907, which is worth extracting in its entirety:

In the Manufacture of Tobacco.
Dr. Sawyer’s Most Interesting Exposition.
[Special to the U. S. Tobacco Journal.] WASHINGTON, D. C., Feb. 19, 1907.

A matter of much interest to the tobacco trade came before the Senate Committee on Finance during a recent hearing on the denatured alcohol bill. Frederick L. Felton, the largest distiller of rum in the country, and Dr. Harris E. Sawyer, a prominent chemist, both of Boston, advocated the use of denatured rum in the manufacture of tobacco. At present the alcohol or rum, for it is more a raw or crude spirit than alcohol, cannot be denatured and used except at 180 proof. The rum manufacturers and apparently the tobacco manufacturers also, want to be permitted to use the rum at 150 proof. Dr. Sawyer stated that the use of alcohol is an essential feature in the manufacture of many brands both of smoking and plug tobacco. In order to carry its solution many gummy materials are added for the purpose of binding tobacco to be made into plugs. More or less is used in the lubrication of machinery and in cleansing floors and the presence of a certain amount of alcohol during manufacturing processes tend to prevent the formation of mold on moist tobacco leaves. Heretofore the manufacturers of rum added a proof of 100. In the crude molasses alcohol there are certain bodies not alcohol themselves. Even as a chemist Dr. Sawyer did not pretend to say what they were because “We simply do not know.” Their amount is so small that chemists are scarcely able even by analyses to estimate their proportion. They are bodies of a waxy nature, Something like cocoa butter and when the alcohol evaporates they are left behind on the leaf. Mr. Sawyer pointed out that if the alcohol is redistilled from a proof of 100 degrees up to the proof of 180 degrees as under the existing regulations, this wax is taken out absolutely and thus We despoil the material which we supply to tobacco manufacturers of a constituent which has been shown to have a very distinct value to them. They were unable to add this material to the denatured alcohol because they did not know exactly what it Was. He said it was this wax which keeps the tobacco from drying out and makes it smoke sweeter. They have made a number of experiments on tobacco and it had been found that after several months the tobacco treated with 150 proof alcohol packed better in a pipe than that prepared with 180 proof. Furthermore, the crude alcohol at 150 carried a variety of odorous compounds derived partly from the molasses and from chemical changes which take place during fermentation. These bodies are ethereal and like the wax they seem to be retained in the tobacco after the alcohol itself has evaporated and develop there an agreeable fruity character which fails to appear when a high proof purified alcohol is substituted for the crude medium proof product. They also resemble the Wax in being removed from the crude spirit when it is redistilled from 150 up to 180. These fruity odors which develop on the leaf, said Mr. Sawyer, are considered to be very largely responsible for the character of certain brands of smoking tobacco, and while the manufacturers are very anxious to get the benefit of the remitted tax to which they are unquestionably entitled under the act of June 7th, they desire equally to hold the present character of their brands and they wish therefore to be allowed to use the crude spirit denatured at 150 degrees rather than the pure alcohol at 180 degrees. He states as an interesting fact that practically none of the alcohol is retained in the finished tobacco. In one case the tobacco having been soldered in tin cans there were traces of alcohol present in the proportion of about one-half a gallon to a ton of tobacco. He had about fifty customers among the tobacco manufacturers and supplied fifty or sixty other dealers in spirits.

Dr. Sawyer maintained that under the definition of alcohol in the Revised Statutes, the commissioner of internal revenue had authority to permit alcohol to be denatured with tobacco extracts at proofs as low as 140 or 150 degrees, but the commissioner thought otherwise. The cost of the denaturant was a cent a gallon for strong alcohol and about half a cent per proof gallon. This attracted much interest from members of the committee and they went into the subject at some length. Senator Hansbrough thought nicotine could be used as a denaturant for alcohol to be used as an aluminant for fuel purposes. “That is the cheapest denaturant I have heard of,” he said. Dr. Sawyer agreed with him, saying it is the cheapest and in many respects the most nearly an ideal denaturant. He thought it as fully efficient as any of the general denaturants that have been recommended. He did not think wood alcohol was nearly as efficient because when mixed in proportions called for under the regulations it does not impart nearly the nauseating character to the denaturized alcohol that nicotine did. It made it smell worse and might give the man undertaking to drink it more warning perhaps but the final effect on the drinker would not be nearly so pronounced as that of the nicotine denaturant. Great things are expected of denatured alcohol. It is freely predicted that in a few years the consumption will be increased to several hundred million gallons per annum and there will be a demand for denaturing agents. It would seem as though nicotine might be used in a great many cases and there would eventually be an opening in this line of business. The prospect of the passage of the bill amending the free alcohol act does not appear to be very good at this time. The bill has gone through the House and is pending before the Senate Committee but there is great opposition to it from the dis. tillers and the ether manufacturers.

A mention possibly related to the above article appeared in the Proceedings of the Twenty-Third Annual Convention of the Association of Official Agricultural Chemists held at Washington, D.C., November 14-16, 1906

Mr. Sawyer requested a somewhat broader standard for rum than he had earlier
recommended, in view of certain experiments now in progress at the distillery where
he is engaged.

Sawyer’s role as a Bureau chemist was starting to pay off for Felton & Son’s which was starting to leverage the connection for business gains.

A lot more detail on Sawyer’s rum based denatured spirit is explained in Industrial Alcohol, Sources and Manufacture.which was revised by him under H.W. Wiley, the chief of the Bureau of Chemistry. It seems like this kind of work kept Felton & Son’s well positioned to weather prohibition. Did Felton and Sawyer both feel it coming like other people did? I bet they did!

So far I haven’t found any of Sawyer’s lectures on fermentation given at Harvard or his presentations given on rum to the agricultural and chemical societies. The best look at his teaching style and sophistication come from the above linked document. He was not describing the massive ethanol plants that would come later in the century, but rather simpler small scale farm ethanol plants producing spirits from a wide variety of substrates. One that caught my eye was the potatoes of Maine.

The document (alt PDF link) provides some clues to how Sawyer might have conducted fermentation at Felton & Son’s:

Almost invariably cane molasses needs only to be diluted and yeasted to enter into vigorous fermentation. It is common however for molasses distillers to add a certain amount of acid to the fermenting solutions to prevent bacteria from invading them and setting up false fermentations. In some cases sulphuric acid is used for this purpose as in the beet molasses distilleries, but it is equally common and probably wiser to use sour distillery slop to produce the desired acidity.

This basically describes the use of dunder, but under the name “sour distillery slop”. How significant is this note? Well it just means they were modern and aware of fermentation kinetics.

Farmer’s Bulletin 410 (p.24) has more information on the state of yeast in America in 1911. Pure cultures are described and selecting yeasts with certain characteristics. Budding yeasts are described but not fission which was part of Jamaican inquiries. One notable thing described was the creation of a “spontaneous hop yeast.” This yeast culture actually involved hops and I recollect debate in the bourbon world on whether hops were ever actually used in Bourbon distilleries. If they were, this becomes the likely context.

So Sawyer was a spectacularly capable scientist. No doubt able to bring New England rum into the modern era through in depth systematic experimentation. The fact that the distillery employed him at all showed that they were interested in advancing their production.

Hopefully soon I’ll be able to take a peak at the Crystal Springs archives and see if his name comes up in the surviving documents.

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