I was having a discussion with a friend the other day and was asked, “What was the typical distiller doing in 18th century Kentucky?” I thought we had an interesting conversation that I would turn into a blog.
First of all, this distiller probably came to Kentucky because he received land for his service in the Virginia military during the Revolutionary War. Most of Kentucky’s land grants were to veterans of the war. Once here he grew corn and tobacco because there were markets for these crops that could be grown in Kentucky. Corn could be distilled into whiskey. There are several recipes for whiskey to be found in the archive at the Filson Historical Society. The “Pennington Method” from the Filson archive is typical of the recipes from the 18th century. Here is the recipe:
“Take 12 gallons of boiling water Put into a tub then put in one Bushel corn meal and stir well. Go over three tubs in this manner. Then begin at the first tub & put into it 10 or 12 gallons of boiling water in each then stir as above. Then fill your still again with water to boil – 20 minutes after this put 4 gallons cold water to each tub then add one gallon malt add to this half bushel rye meal stir these all together well. When the still boils add 10 gallons boiling water to each tub stir as aforesaid, then let your tubs stand about 3 or 4 hours after which fill up your tubs with cold water, stir as above then let tubs stand until as warm as milk or rather cooler then yeast them”.
Some recipes do state “rye or wheat” when adding the flavoring grain, but do read much the same as this recipe.
So what was the size of the still? From licenses and other documents at the Filson Historical Society, we know they were typically about 100 gallons in size as an average capacity. They were made of copper and heated by wood fires. These early distillers made both sweet and sour mash whiskeys. They used water from the local spring or creek. They would make about 5 to 10 gallons of about 100 proof whiskey a day and this was usually stored in jugs. A jug of whiskey could then be used as barter at the local general store. After distilling, the spent mash was then fed to the hogs or cattle. Nothing was wasted.
Once the whiskey was made, the distiller would often rectify the spirits to make them more valuable. At the Filson, there is a document in the Beal-Booth Family Papers that includes several methods of rectifying the whiskey. The first thing they recommend is to filter it through a barrel filled with charcoal, white sand and flannel. Then the document includes recipes for making cherry bounce, blackberry cordial and gin. The filtering took the rough edges off the spirits and the recipes gave the spirits a more desirable flavor.
Aging in barrels was not common and even when done, barrels were probably not charred. The earliest documented mention of charring barrels found so far dates to 1825. Barrels in the 18th century were seen simply as storage containers for the spirits and not part of the manufacturing process of whiskey. Barrels were more expensive than jugs and generally, were too large for everyday bartering needs.
The 18th-century distiller in Kentucky rarely depended upon making whiskey as his sole source of income. They supplemented their income by distilling. Most of them were farmers, but other distillers were people like Elijah Craig, who was a Baptist Minister and also owned a fulling mill and rope walk, or Evan Williams, who was Harbor Master in Louisville and a manufacturer of bricks. Distillers played many roles in the 18th century Kentucky economy.
Images from the archives of Michael Veach