On July 17, 1888, John M. Atherton, the owner of the Athertonville Distillery, testified before a Congressional committee about the distilling industry and the bonding period for whiskey. There were several interesting questions and answers during this testimony and I thought these questions would be of interest today.
The testimony starts with questions on how whiskey is made. Atherton describes the materials used and lists corn, rye and malt as the main grains and barrels as the other important material of the manufacture of whiskey. The following are some of the interesting questions about grain and barrels.
Q. – Where do you buy your corn?
A. – The corn used in Kentucky comes mainly from the west of the Ohio River. Very much of the corn used comes from the State of Kansas, and often from the State of Nebraska and from Illinois.
Q. – You do not go into the Chicago grain market or into any other central market to purchase?
A. – No. We can not ship corn from Chicago to Louisville. It is too expensive. Our dealers in Louisville get it from interior points in the West and bring it directly to Louisville and Cincinnati.
Q. – Where does the rye come from?
A. – From the West almost entirely; and the barley, too, from which the malt is made.
Q. – Do you get it as barley or as malt?
A. – I do not believe there is a distillery in the State that malt their own grain; they buy it as malt.
Q. – Where do they buy it generally?
A. – Generally from Louisville and Chicago and points north of Chicago. As a rule there is very little barley grown in Kentucky. Some years ago in the bluegrass region there was some fine barley grown, out of which malt was made, but that is a very small part of the malt used in Kentucky by the distillers.
Q. – You have given us the articles which go into the manufacture of whisky. You also purchase barrels?
A. – Barrels or the staves out of which barrels are made. Some distillers patronize the cooper shops where barrels are made for sale, and other distillers make their own barrels on their premises.
Q. – But in that case they buy the staves?
A. – Yes, sir.
Q. – Where do the staves come from?
A. – Almost entirely from Kentucky and Indiana.
This testimony gives us an interesting glimpse into the supplies used by Kentucky distilleries. It is interesting in how little has changed in the last 132 years. Distilleries are still getting most of their grain from what Atherton referred to as “out west” but the barrels are coming from a wider region that still includes Kentucky and Indiana, but also other States. Kentucky’s distilling industry has always played a huge role in the economies of other States. The testimony continues:
Q. Is there a difference between the process or the materials used in whisky which is called Kentucky whisky and the other class of whisky?
A. – Yes, sir; there is a difference in the combination of the materials used. I may say here also that there is quite a good deal of whiskey made in Pennsylvania. There it is made of rye; there is very little Bourbon made in that state. There is some rye whisky made in Maryland. In the fine whiskies made for aging, more rye and malt are used, because its value when aged is a matter of as much consequence as the yield; while the distilleries that make cologne spirits and alcohol want yield principally, and the flavor cuts no part in the product. The result is that we use as a rule in Kentucky in our Bourbon whisky I presume 30 percent small grain. By small grain I mean rye and malt. We use 70% corn. North of the river they use the smallest percentage of rye and malt that will establish and maintain a fermentation, without reference to the effect it will leave on the quality of the whiskey when it is aged.
This question shows that the distillers of Bourbon were more interested in flavor than yield. Atherton goes on to discuss some of the firms that he says are not making what is being called “fine whisky made for aging”. He states that these distillers are making what they consider a “pure product” but their market is not a fine aged whiskey. I find this testimony by John M. Atherton very enlightening as to what the business was like in the 1880s. There is much more testimony than I have transcribed here, including some of Atherton’s answers, so those who want to learn more can find his full testimony in the Congressional Record of this date.