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When I wrote American Whiskey by the Numbers I had never before actually looked at Bourbon, though I’ve certainly drank my fair share. Believe it or not, I haven’t read any of the recent titles on the subject and I don’t really know what anyone else knows. Are all the mash bills, fermentation, and distillation parameters known, or am I blowing the lid open on a big story? It is slow going finding out and I probably got the lowest amount of interest ever in a story I thought was pretty significant. Be warned, this saga is a bit of a disillusioning mess.
Since profiling the document, I’ve read two older books on Bourbon plus a few great old research papers. Some really interesting things turned up and I’m basically convinced that Maker’s Mark saved Bourbon from destroying itself. I’ll get to that slowly. I used to think that the American whiskey story lacked the wide dimensions of other traditions, but boy is that wrong. It is full of churning culture wars that pushed it to the brink and they are still unfolding.
The first book I read was by Sam K. Cecil who’s big claim to fame was being the scientist counterpart to practical distiller Bill Samuels at Maker’s Mark. It was sort of a dead end, believe it or not. The book turns out to be a lot of births and deaths and locations which does interest a lot of people, but does not help our quest.
Even though Cecil was in the thick of it, his writing does not explain the document. I was hoping for someone as crazy as Fitzcaraldo grappling with beauty. I’m always looking for aesthetic opinions, style, and other criteria by which to judge what is fine, what is commodity, and what is flawed (regrets and missed opportunities).
Cecil, however, was kind enough to point me in the direction of Harry Harrison Kroll’s Bluegrass, Belles, and Bourbon (1967) which is chock full of confrontation with the 20th century and modernity told through the guise of a book on Bourbon. It is also told by a guy traveling around with a nun, sister Kathy, as a chaperone. Initially, I imagined it kind of like Two Mules for Sister Sara, but there never were any plot twists.
Before I complement Kroll, I need to lay down a few asterisks ∗† and luckily we all just received some excellent guidance in recognizing these matters from Wayne Curtis. Because the book isn’t solely a compendium of births, deaths & locations, and it encompasses all that grappling and confrontation, Kroll reveals himself to probably be a misogynist and a racist. He says uncomfortable crazy uncle things constantly. The writing style is unusually candid which provides evidence for my diagnosis. By the end however, when the book appeared to be about much more than Bourbon, I was getting the sense that his was a flexible mind. Kroll overcame prohibitionist ideologies, and I began to suspect that unlike David Embury, Kroll was not likely to die a racist. Sadly, I don’t think he was going to make much progress with his casual misogyny (Kroll actually died in 1967 so technically I’m very wrong).
You can really time travel in this country, back then and even now. I see a lot of it in the restaurant. Many people have hairstyles like they haven’t left the house in 15+ years. In that time they just did not absorb anything that influenced the style they present themselves with. You hear economic and political conversations that are 15 years dated like someone heard something so formative that they never read the news after. Eight years in and seven years to go, countless people will still be talking about her emails.
Kroll does a lot of that fifteen year time traveling, or he sort of watches himself doing it when he writes later. No wonder he must travel with a guide. He is constantly pursuing the effects of prohibition & repeal thirty years prior to his trip, revealing that for some people it wasn’t that distant. This can strike today’s reader as odd. The book becomes comparable to Infinite Jest with some readers being bored to tears by the parts on tennis and AA, but I actually enjoyed them the most.
A large part of the book, where the bluegrass and belles come in, is Kroll romanticizing his own typical American past where he grew up barefoot, eating squirrels, walking to school uphill both ways, and apparently had a very formative early job making barrel staves at subsistence pay. He keeps aligning himself with a young Abe Lincoln that did grunt work under his father at Watty Boone’s distillery. Kroll warms up that story a few times almost coming across as a senile repeater until he finally tells it, and tells the best version of it I’ve ever heard. He is either slightly nuts or pretty damn masterful in his gonzo ability to romanticize, humanize, build myth, and plain old story tell. He is a lot of Bourbon personified.
Eventually Kroll time travels from all this back into the bottling room of the day at Heaven Hill where teams of women are earning great middle class wages, the industry is proud of paying, and gives a “ya don’t say?”, like it all snuck up on him. Things are always sneaking up on Bourbon. The recent Bulleit story is no surprise. You don’t really know what the time traveler thinks about it. Was he happy American prosperity was spreading and women could be independent or did it threaten his masculinity and cheapen the hard years of splitting barrel staves he romanticizes? The time traveler walks an unclear line, but it has the effect of humanizing the industry.
The Shapiras snuck up on Kroll and he may have brought some antisemitic baggage to their “temple of iniquity” though it is never as pointed as his other major short comings. These furriners were an assault on his brand of Kentucky negative nationalism and they were getting rich. Hiring a Beam as master distiller didn’t make it right. Kroll keeps noting that he can barely taste the difference between bourbons so its all in what they represent to him. This experience was disillusioning.
Before I move on a little, I will quickly note that a possible reason we don’t see more information turning up about New England rum production pre prohibition may have been the influence of the temperance movement and the semantics of demon rum. Kroll, noting about doing his research, clues us into a pacing of the temperance movement I wasn’t really aware of. The peak of New England rum as modernized by Dr. Harris Eastman Sawyer unfortunately coincides with that tenuous time when it wasn’t wise to publish much about industrial demon rum. The right to a drink was hanging by a thread for quite a while before it was actually cut.
Our time traveler sets us up to see Bourbon’s confrontation with modernity. Practical distillers had to start competing with scientists (even though they had somewhat different objectives). The most practical of distillers had to compete with other practicals who were going huge and creating very large operations.
We don’t really recognize the practical distiller today yet they are blooming all around us. Kroll likes to celebrate them and believes they may be solely capable of making an uncompromising fine product even though so few then actually drank it (I never fully appreciated that last detail). Today many hold practicals with a mild disdain.
To be practical in this context means you have no formal education, and back in the early days, many were even illiterate. They never took a chemistry or biology class and operated from an old fashioned notion of empiricism and a heightened intuition. Practicals were viewed as born with it which kept the profession dynastic, male and mostly white (though there are some awesome stories of black distillers in America and Kroll notes a few). Practical can be authentic, but that is another term we haven’t given much thought.
Today, all the new American distillers are practical distillers with very few exceptions (and the acceptance of consultants). They’ve started their businesses with grit and determination plus probably only two PDFs and a skimming of this here blog. Start up costs are so high that they also often have generational wealth, IPO money, or predatory capital that will eventually rob the best. They compete with huge well researched scientific operations who have also monopolized distribution channels. The practicals sound very all American, but somehow the consolidated establishment, big Bourbon, has really won the public over.
The scientific distillers of Kroll’s era were the Seagrams, Hiram Walkers and their Herman Willkies and Paul Kolachovs which were all commodity producers. Commodity spirits aren’t exactly authentic, but authentic working people often only drink commodity liquor. See why I’m avoiding the authentic concept?
In a great chapter, Kroll singles out a wonderful new fusion of the two which was the team of Bill Samuels and Sam Cecil (he returns to this story!) working to build Maker’s Mark which to me seems like it saved Bourbon. When Kroll visited in roughly 1967, Maker’s was only producing 20 barrels a day relative to other operations that were up to multiple hundreds of barrels a day. Many of today’s craft operations are starting at one barrel per day.
Bill Samuels kicked off a new era of fine whiskey using a frame work I call guided traditional practices. The stylistic ideas of practical distiller Bill Samuels were proven scientifically and made to scale forward and up by lab guy Sam Cecil. Flavor returns as modus operandi, not price and volume.
Around this very same time, wine was going through the same paradigm shift led by Grigch Hills and Stags Leap plus the others that won the Judgement of Paris. Wine did however move in the opposite direction. Samuels got himself a lab while in wine, the lab guys like Mike Grgich got practical and embraced flavorful risk in ways not seen in the commodity framework. Wine in America, many don’t realize, started as a commodity product because it initially was a salvage product. The priority was table grapes, then raisins, and lastly wine, which was for a long time a skid row beverage. Walt Whitman probably didn’t drink American fine wine and there are no tales tying wine to great generals like there are of Old Crow.
It is really important to understand these tensions and transitions so we can understand other spirits categories. You could be a practical distiller in the Bourbon racket using yogurt technology (I say that because that is basically how advanced it got) and get pretty far, but could you do it with rum? Can you do it with grape brandies like Cognac?
Jamaica rum, as we revere it, was success at random until the top Victorian scientists stepped in. These guys were following the development of modern chemistry and yeast technology by the day. Cognac is the most quality focused spirit out there because it has it’s back up against a wall. Every acre of the appellation is pretty much planted so they cannot expand, they can only improve. Cognac has easily moved beyond the merely practical or scientific to the complete state of guided traditional practices. Tequila is just entering the end of its commodity phase. Consultants have gone in, homogenized everything with pure yeast cultures and efficient processes, stripped all individuality and beaten the price into the commodity floor. A few productions are finally starting to investigate the flavor they left behind and revive it with more than marketing speak.
Before we move on, I should quickly state my theory that the scientific era probably allowed women and minorities into white male dominated production positions. If you could handle the lab work, you could handle the job and all the white male mysticism was no longer relevant. Seagrams early on, employed some notable female chemists.
Kroll gives us some great insights into the document. He visits Yellowstone noting their huge operation and their production angle of mellow mashing to make a light whiskey distilled in a giant column and he implies the removal of fusel oil. If you remember, this was the controversial technique and avenue for loss of identity that provoked the IRS survey of whiskeys that is the document. Am I grasping here or is that umbrella-like do-dad not a fusel oil separator?
No itemized list is presented, but we also get the sense that there were far more distilleries in operation than what the IRS selected for their survey. Very interesting to note is that the exclusively sweet mash producers like distillery no. 2 and no. 42 likely weren’t tiny little heritage operations. Their sweet mash did make inferior whiskey according to Kroll (and production theory) and he sadly doesn’t even bother to name names, but he does note that they were in Daviess county. There is a bit of ambiguity to the logic of his paragraph, but he may imply that some sweet mashers were among the largest in the state.
Towards the end, Kroll goes to visit the Medleys and gives us the greatest hint behind the M&A churning that has always been a hallmark of the industry. Taxes were everything. Distillers would build up value in the business then unleash it all at once in a sale instead of taking it steadily year by year. Capital gains taxes were very different than income taxes and I don’t think it was proper to have private jets and write off your golf outings like we do today. Corporate decadence came in the 1970’s from Barbarians at the Gates culture. That is what consumed Tribuno vermouth, remember?
Who knows how long that tax logic was true, but it makes a lot of sense to these highly rational thinkers who didn’t even drink the stuff they made. Foreign money would come in and the labels would get traded around. The foreign money would have to pay the dynasties of practical distillers again to operate the places. It was a little bit of a racket.
These practical distillers often said dumb patriarchal shit like he could never make whiskey as great as his father (and on up the line), but none of these people ever really cared that labels were getting swapped and not corresponding to their juice. Bill Samuels may or may not have carried a family yeast, but he did use Stitzel-Weller as a template, mash bill and all.
Beauty, that thing we’ve been trying to confront, has always been a little lopsided in American whiskey. Beauty is the composite of extraordinary sensoriality and exemplary human behavior. Here its git-up-and-git over the specifics of grist. Grain bills don’t matter, If you’re allowed to pick one thing, they pick yeast because it is the easiest to mystify. We’re supposed to admire hard work and tradition with a lineage that leads us through Lincoln to pastors like Elijah Craig.
If you pursue that other side of beauty, that aesthetic sensory side, which with distillation takes startling science, you’re headed down a road to decadence and demoralization. Stick the Venus of Willendorf in the bottle and you’ll just get alcoholism and depravity. Did we learn nothing from the temperance movement? Teams of conspiring scientists, corporatism, undermine the individuality of the lone practical man. Bourbon is just fraught with moral peril. Who’s side are you on?
No doubt clutching his copy of Huysman’s Against Nature, Hiram Walker’s own C.S. Boruff writes a plotless listicle of actionable aesethtic advancements for the journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry in 1937.
Repeal of prohibition ushered in an important new phase of the business of manufacturing whisky. Chemistry, biology, and engineering meant little or nothing to the old industry, occupied as it was with its deep obeisances to age and hoary tradition. To the reborn industry, science and technology have become essential tools.
Who you callin’ hoary?!
Age was the fetish of the distillers and of the drinkers of alcoholic beverage of two decades ago and with many it still occupies a sacred niche. Even the niche has vanished before the enlightening discovery of research which form the basis of today’s distilling practice.
You’re going to let him talk about your Pappy that way!?
Necessarily there are three steps in the manufacture of beverage alcohol: fermentation, distillation, and maturing. For many reasons which will become apparent, the ancient practice of distillers place particular emphasis on maturing over long period of time and the fetish of age became the idol of the industry.
This guy is quite confrontational.
The crude distillate of old-fashioned stills was harsh and unpleasant and long aging in charred oak barrels was known to accomplish a remarkable change in it. After long maturing, whisky lost its rough harshness, acquired a pleasing aroma, and delighted the palate. Chemists explained this as the removal of certain unwanted constituents and the chemical rearrangement of others to yield a palatable result.
So the practical distillers produced ends to justify their means, but this guy gives credit to the chemists. The ends didn’t matter if you didn’t understand them. It is an assault on intuition that would build throughout the rest of the 20th century.
Either this fact failed to reach distillers or they were too busy with other matters to heed it. In any case, it remained for the reborn whisky industry to apply this fact to its operations to the advantage of all.
“What we need is a bigger ideology”
The new technic is exemplified in the operation of Hiram Walker & Sons, in a plant at Peoria, Ill.
No one ever calls it Hiram Walker & Sons!
In the old practice of the distillery, fermentation was allowed to take place as it would in open wooden tanks which were never sterilized and into which every possible wild yeast was encouraged to come and grow.
This is an assault on yogurt technology! And a criticism of the IRS!
Distillation was conducted for the prime purpose of recovering every bit of alcohol possible from the mash without regard to other constituents. The result was a distillate which contained all the volatile (with steam) constituents found in the fermented mash and whose maturing required long stretches of time to correct its deficiencies.
Dr. Science here thinks he’s superior to a practical distiller. But, we just learned from Kroll that they built up value in their distilleries via inventories then unleashed it all at once in a sale. Practicals were no fools and they dangled the promise of the buyer extracting value by walking down the aging times. Clever like a fox! Problem is, its a routine you can only use for so long before it is worn out and Kroll was wading through the late years and a talking to a cast of characters like Marcella McKenna who had already played that hand.
The vital importance of the maturing process justified analysis and investigation, and from this came the key to the whole situation. Maturing was found to consist of two parts. (1) corrective aging and (2) maturing. During the corrective aging period the objectionable flavor and bouquet-producing substances found especially in whiskies made by the “rule of thumb” method, are absorbed and modified through assimilation, while during the second stage (maturing) slow chemical reactions occur between the congeners (nonethanol constituents) of the distillate and the wood extractives, whereby the desired bouquet is attained.
Rafael Arroyo, writing at the same time on rum never talked down to anybody like this. Boruff goes on and starts to walk the reader through procedures like yeasting. Yeast has been that one thing that practical distillers had really latched onto to build myth and create exclusivity, but they never did perform any analysis that could prove that their chosen organism hit objectives better than another. Boruff doesn’t tackle this issue, but mainly claims that all practical distiller’s ferments were tainted by aroma-negative wild yeasts.
The concept of whiskey of two decades ago reached the point of making the product an alcoholic solution of a quantity of congeners—that is, compounds other than ethanol present in whisky. In other words, the congeners themselves became the prime objective of the distillery and the alcohol merely a convenient carrier for these flavors. On this basis long maturing to permit the completion of slow chemical reactions in the distillate and the dissolving of extractives from the oak barrels containing the spirits was essential. The new industry, however, has been built upon the concept that the primary objective is the alcohol in the finished whisky and that such congeners as are present make this potable. The difference between these two conceptions has enabled the new industry of whisky distilling to provide whiskies of high potability and palatability, and yet whiskies which may possess quite different characteristics from these of even a quarter century ago.
Wow. Did Kroll ever have any sit downs like that? Sister Katherine would have started murmuring over and over, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they are doing.” That is where tequila is at right now, but we do know that if we pray hard enough, the next phase will be guided traditional processes, and be delicious.
In the old art, the fermentation was conducted and the choice made of the raw materials used in it to foster the formation in the ultimate distillate of alcohols, aldehydes, and acids in variety and abundance. This end was accomplished by encouraging the growth in the mash of organisms other than the yeast. When the product of a fermentation of this kind was distilled, the distillate was an extremely unpalatable product, requiring extensive subsequent correction to give it the desired bouquet and flavor. The larger the proportion of congeneric substances, the longer the period of aging required and the greater the quantity of extractives needed to balance their effect.
Boruff is describing a large aesthetic shift and it doesn’t start with consumer demand for lighter whiskeys which is the narrative we’ve been peddled. These guys were simply condescending the work of the practicals and chalking up the old sensory experience to randomness, accident, and byproduct (but not the regrets and missed opportunities that are flaws). They also had to extract value from brands they paid huge prices for. A departure of style was needed to justify themselves.
In contrast to this, the new whisky industry has devoted its efforts to finding methods of fermentation and distillation which control the original formation of congeners in the mash and which subject those present to logical treatment. Smaller proportions of congeners are balanced in the finished whisky by smaller amounts of extractive matter, and at the same time, since extent of the chemical reaction involved is materially reduced, the time required for them to occur is much shortened.
What is cool about this is that these guys were in some ways neck and neck with Arroyo and rum. At the same time, they were moving in opposite directions. I’ll leave that for another time.
In other words, by making distillates containing predetermined amounts of congeners, the subsequent treatment to make the alcohol palatable is predetermined.
They didn’t quite make good on this inevitability engine, but they kicked off the pursuit. Currently it is at work in the industry using startling amounts of inline monitoring and data science. How else could you manage scarce resources and scale products to global demand?
In the selection of the grain the primary consideration is its starch content, since other constituents (proteins, etc.) are always present in ample amounts. In the old days, distillers apparently failed to recognize that differences exist between the starch content of various grades of grain and consequently always bought the cheapest. The fallacy in this has been amply demonstrated and the first and second grades of corn, although selling at higher prices per bushel, have been found actually cheaper sources of starch than the lower-priced inferior grades.
What are we dealing with here? This can go a few ways. Boruff paints the practicals as ignorant even though upthread he describes them as having wholly different production objectives. Were these backwards aboriginals that were thought devoid of technology yet somehow wanted for nothing and built an elaborate civilization no one noticed?
Again, this can go multiple ways. We’ve already found economic incentives for practicals to operate exactly as they did given their sellout culture. Dan Barber presents another angle in his lovely op-ed, Why Is This Matzo Different From All Other Matzos? Traditions can be a bit arbitrary and often they have unintended benefits. Part of the guided traditional processes framework is to make no assumptions of backwardness. Wine makers have found it a safe bet to assume brilliance in tradition and that techniques that survive were democratically selected for advancement even if it is not apparent. Dave Hickey won a McArthur for the concept if you need the art angle.
It is worth reading to the end of Boruff’s paper, but we need to go no further here. American whisky was fraught with cultural collision for decades after prohibition, well past Harry Harrison Kroll. Maker’s Mark clearly looks like the precedent that moves Bourbon past the creepy shortsightedness of C.S. Boruff et. al. and moves the spirit into the era of guided traditional practices. It took a while to capitalize, but this framework is where all of Bourbon’s recent prosperity comes from. There is still opportunity to do a lot more reflection and understand the place of all the new practicals popping up. Now that we better understand American whisky and its historic tensions, we can also reflect a lot more on comparisons to other spirits as their histories also start to fill in.