Many historians are saying that the term “Industrial Revolution” is an outdated term. Technology has continuously evolved since the middle ages with the introduction of machines such as the water mill and clocks so, the proper term should be “technological evolution”. Just for form’s sake, I am going to stick to the old term and discuss how technological changes caused the Kentucky Bourbon industry to move from a small cottage industry of farmer-distillers to large scale industrial distilleries.
At the beginning of the 19th century, distilling was done mostly by farmers who each owned a pot still or two and turned their excess grain into whiskey. These were distillers using wooden tubs as fermenters and heating their water in the copper still to cook the grain or their distiller’s beer. The copper still was heated over wood fires and the water used came from a stream or well on the farm. The farmer would sell their whiskey by the barrel, usually to a grocer or what we call today, a wholesale house. The individual consumer would bring their own bottle, decanter or jug to a liquor merchant to be filled.
Steam power was the first technological advance to change the industry, but it took a while to do so. The first attempt to use steam power for distilling on a large scale was the Hope Distillery in Louisville’s Portland area in 1816. It was a large distillery with pot stills that were on the scale of what is being used today in some distilleries in Scotland. Steam was used to cook the grain and heat the stills. Unfortunately, this venture failed and it was many years before large-scale distilling restarted in Kentucky. However, steam power did change transportation through the creation of steamboats and railroads. These inventions made it easier to get barrels of whiskey to markets and increased the demand for Kentucky whiskey elsewhere in the United States.
The next invention to change the industry was the column still. Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey still in 1830. This is a continuous still that allowed a distiller to make a lot of whiskey inexpensively. This evolved into the modern column still.
Column stills need a lot of beer to continuously feed the still and they are expensive to construct. These two factors make them impractical for a small scale farmer-distiller, but very profitable for a new whiskey company. Large amounts of money were invested to build a distillery with a column still and usually a pot still doubler.
To get the grain needed to make the beer, a railroad spur was usually attached to the distillery. Steam powered water pumps were used to get enough water to cook the mash and cool the worm. It was after the American Civil War ended for these large scale distilleries to become common in Kentucky, but in the 1870s, a new distillery or two was built every year using this technology.
In the 1860s, an engineer working at the Old Crow Distillery invented cooling coils using cold water to cool fermenting mash, allowing the distilling season to extend into the warmer months of the year. In 1879.
Frederick Stitzel patented barrel racks for whiskey warehouses that increased the flow of air around the barrels and helped prevent musty whiskey in damp barrels aging in a warehouse. Also in the 1870s, steam heated warehouses allowed for more aging cycles during the winter.
Changing the industry indirectly, the lithograph introduced color printing on an affordable level, allowing for new forms of advertising such as full color prints to hang in bars and stores, metal bar and tip trays, and eventually colorful labels.
The invention of machines that could blow standard sized glass bottles in the late 1880s, made it affordable for distillers to bottle their own product. This led to improvements in bottle caps and corks for these bottles, as well as, the colorful labels.
By the end of the 19th century, instead of a small cottage industry selling to local people and wholesale merchants, there were large scale distilleries producing brands that sold nationwide and distributed by the railroads.
At the beginning of the 19th century a large distillery made as much as three barrels a day and only distilled in the cooler months of the year. At the end of the century, there were distilleries making hundreds of barrels per day with distillation taking place most of the year with shutdowns only in the heat of the summer.
The evolution of technology in the 19th century forever changed the distilling industry in Kentucky.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller