The Louisville Free Public Library has a pre-Prohibition trade magazine, The Wine and Spirits Bulletin, as part of their collection. Fortunately, Brown-Forman paid to have the originals reproduced for preservation purposes about 20 years ago. This was necessary as many of the pages were trashed as people cut articles and advertisements out of the magazine in the past. The magazine is not indexed so searching them can be time consuming. I have spent many hours sitting in the library paging through a volume to see what I can find. One of the items of interest I did find was this illustration of the log still used by the Kentucky distiller, Richard Wathen.
In the early 19th century, copper stills were an expensive piece of equipment. Most were being made in Pittsburgh and the cost of the still included a fee for having it shipped to Kentucky. Many distillers could not afford this expense so they came up with an alternative – the log still. Their idea was to hollow out a large log as the pot holding the beer and to heat the beer with steam heat. This became known as “running it off a log” distilling. They still used copper pipes to steam heat the beer and for the worm. This investment in copper pipe was relatively cheap compared to that of a complete copper still. The distiller could purchase the pipes and make these pieces themselves as opposed to paying a skilled coppersmith to make a complete still.
There were many small farm distilleries using this technology. Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of most of them. There are two distillers that used this technology that we do know about: J.W. Dant and Richard Wathen. J.W. Dant was proud of his humble beginnings and used the story of his first still in advertising his product. Richard Wathen, we know because of the story published in the Wine and Spirits Bulletin that included this illustration. Other distillers using log stills are lost to history for now, but as more families revive their distilling heritage and explore old family papers, we will probably discover that the use of log still technology was more widespread than we realized.
A talented distiller could make good whiskey using a log still. We know this because both J.W. Dant and Richard Wathen sold enough of their whiskey to eventually invest in copper stills of greater capacity. Moonshiners also used this technology. The Filson Historical Society has a moonshine still seized by government agents in the 1920s that uses some of this technology. The pot itself is hand made from a sheet of copper, but the head and part of the worm are made of wood. Moonshiners would be attracted to the idea of the low cost of these stills, but more importantly, they were probably easier to hide from authorities looking for illicit stills.
Log still technology has deep roots in Kentucky’s distilling heritage. They offered a less expensive alternative to people who wanted to make whiskey. It is an alternative that works well on a small scale, but for those distillers who were successful, they quickly invested in large and more expensive copper stills.