I have had several people tell me that they just want to make Bourbon the way their great grandfather did before prohibition. I ask them how they plan to do that and they are surprised when I start telling them why that is not true 19th century whiskey production. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things that are done better today than it was back then, but they did make some good Bourbon and rye in the 19th century. Here is the way I would go about making a true 19th century Bourbon.
Water: The 19th century distiller bragged upon the water used to make their whiskey. It is hard in the modern world to use the water used in the 19th century because surface water is contaminated with too many pollutants from fertilizer to acid rain. Deep wells are the best bet for a 19th century style of water, free of contaminants from surface sources. Still, the ground water even in the 19th century was not free of pollution and contaminants. Typhus and other diseases were carried from location to location through the ground water so you know other pollutants were getting in there as well. In most cases RO purified water is probably better than ground water.
Grain: There were no hybrid grains in the 19th century. The whiskey would have to be made using heirloom varieties of grain. E. h. Taylor, Jr. bragged upon using only white corn in his whiskey. There are still many of these grains out there, but they are expensive to grow and have a lower yield per acre for the farmer. You would also have to have a mash bill without artificial enzymes. This means at least 10% malted barley, maybe even more than 15%. E. H. Taylor, Jr. bragged at his high malt formula with 150% more malt than normal. This indicates 25% malt in the mash bill.
Fermentation: The distillers of the 19th century used jug yeast, usually one they collected and grew themselves. There were no mass marketed dried yeasts until the late 19th century when the Fleischmann brothers started specializing in yeast production as well as distilling. The souring included a lot of the set-back from the previous batch. E. H. Taylor, Jr. stated that he used the hot stillage liquid to cook his grain for the next batch, adding very little extra water. Other distillers used somewhere between 25% to 50% slop to sour their fermentation process. In the last half of the century they did have large scale fermenters with cooling coils but many still bragged upon using small, 50 gallon fermenters.
Distillation: Lots of copper. The distillers of the 19th century went out of their way to add copper to the process. They had stills made of copper. They would cook the grain in copper. Some even fermented in copper. There were no stainless steel stills in the 19th century for whiskey producers. They had column stills and pot still doublers, but some, such as E. H. Taylor, Jr. were still using pot stills to make whiskey. By the end of the 19th century even Taylor eventually put in a column still to increase production and keep up with demand, but the still was made of copper. They also had a low distillation proof in order to keep as much grain flavor as possible in the whiskey. The big difference was the human element with no computer controlled stills and a person in charge of watching over the process at every step and turning the right valve at the proper time.
Maturation: The barrels used in the 19th century were 48 gallon barrels made of white oak. It would be interesting to see if the size had an effect on the flavor of the final product. Age barrels of Bourbon and rye in both the 48 gallon barrels of the 19th century and the modern 53 gallon barrels, side by side in a warehouse and not the difference in maturation. The barrel was also the primary package for selling whiskey for most of the 19th century. Glass bottles did not become practical until the late 1880s. As a result distillers entered their whiskey into the barrel at a drinkable proof – between 90 and 105 proof. Low barrel entry proof is a must for true 19th century whiskey and E.H. Taylor, Jr. put his whiskey in the barrel at a 100 proof, give or take a proof point. The bonding period for aging the whiskey – the amount of time you could age it before having to pay the taxes on it – was just 8 years. The Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 stated a minimum of 4 years and the Taft decision on whiskey defined straight whiskey as at least 2 years old. I would age the 4 years and go for a bonded product.
Bottling: Since it is not legal to sell whiskey straight from the barrel anymore, I would have to go for a bonded Bourbon of at least 4 years of age and no more than 8 years of age. The low entry proof means that there would be very little water added to adjust the proof, but I would use distilled water from the same source as I found for fermentation. E.H. Taylor, Jr. led the fight for bonded whiskey and that is all he bottled after the act passed in 1897.
The 19th century and pre-prohibition distilled whiskey I have tasted has been very different and distinct in flavor. I think it would be interesting to go back and make some whiskey in the same manner as they did back then, using the same materials that were available as then and see how different things taste.