Dr. Linda A. Fisher was working on the historical spread of diseases such as cholera in 19th century America when she found this diary in St. Louis in 1993. She became enthralled by the quality of the information found in the diary – not only information on her research subject, but about life in America as a whole. She eventually decided to take on the challenge of editing and publishing the diary. In 2007, Ohio University Press released Fisher’s finished project and the world now has access to this fascinating glimpse at life as a 19th century rectifier in the Midwestern region of America.

The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary: An Urban Life in the Emerging Midwest, Joseph J. Mersman, edited by Linda A. Fisher, Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press, 2007. Contents, Introduction, Bibliography, Index, Appendix, Illustrations, 378pp.

Linda Fisher has done an excellent job of editing this diary. She has done her research and found items of interest such as people, events and places that are referenced in the diary. There are extensive footnotes covering this additional information, but the reader can easily understand the entries without referring to the footnotes. As an editor, she has balanced the information in the diary with the need for additional content and information on subjects. 

The diary itself covers the period between 1847 and 1864. Mersman is a German emigrant to America who settles first in Cincinnati, Ohio where he is apprenticed to a whiskey merchant. The diary discusses his life in the city that includes going to the theater, dealing with floods of the Ohio River, socializing with friends and family and of course, the business of selling whiskey. In 1849, Mersman moves to St. Louis and starts his own rectifying business

He also deals with courtship, marriage, syphilis, and epidemics of typhus and other diseases of the time. The diary is not a business diary, so the whiskey merchant part of the diary is only a fraction of the material documented by Mersman. However, Fisher has included an appendix with undated recipes from Mersman’s papers. Mersman made products such as gin, brandy and of course, whiskey. The book offers a glimpse at the markets for these products and the difficulties inherent with the business of getting supplies and distributing the finished product. 

The book is well designed and organized. There are many maps and illustrations to help the reader understand where Mersman was located and life in the cities where he resided. Fisher has indexed the diary making access to specific references an easy task. There is a list of sources for those wanting to find more on a footnoted subject. The book is an excellent academic source of information, but it is also a very enjoyable read for those just interested in the history of this period of American life.

The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary is an excellent addition to any whiskey library. The diary is not whiskey specific, but contains enough information on the industry to give the reader an understanding of the 19th century rectifying industry. When you read about Mersman’s business in St. Louis, you could easily apply some of the same experiences to rectifiers such as Greggory and Stagg who were rectifying whiskey in that city in the 1870s. Every student of whiskey history should read The Whiskey Merchant’s Diary.

Photos courtesy of Rosemary Miller