Before Prohibition, Louisville was the home to a very prestigious industry magazine, The Wine and Spirits Bulletin. The Louisville Free Public Library has a collection of these magazines and this image comes from one of the early editions in that collection. I find this to be a very interesting image. It shows a tree with its roots in Kentucky. Every branch represents a year starting in 1868-69 and ending in 1889-90. On each branch hangs a barrel head with the number of proof gallons of whiskey made in Kentucky that year.
In the 1868-69 year, Kentucky produced 7,018,306 proof gallons of whiskey. That is about 146, 215 barrels of whiskey produced that year. The standard barrel at that time was a 48 gallon barrel. Every year, the production increased until in the last year, Kentucky produced 36,189,378 proof gallons of whiskey. That is about 753,945 barrels of whiskey. This steady increase represents the improvement in technology, allowing distilleries to produce more whiskey each day.
In 1870, when E. H, Taylor, Jr. purchased the distillery that he would rebuild into the O.F.C. he was using steam power to heat his stills, but they were still pot stills. This meant a much slower process of distillation. He had to separate the solids from the wort after cooking the grains. Pot stills had to be filled with the fermented wort, the spirit distilled, the pot still emptied and cleaned before starting the process over again. If they were not cleaned well, then there could be a scorched taste to the next batch of distillate. A slow process which meant lower production. Taylor’s distillery was typical of many of the distilleries in Kentucky in 1870. However, that was beginning to change.
By the end of the decade, many new distilleries were being built with the new column still. The column still allows for a continuous distillation process. This means less time spent cleaning the still between batches. As long as there is mash being fed into the still, distillation is taking place. And that leads to the other time saving factor, distilling from a mash instead of a wort. The distillers found that they could leave the solid grains in the beer while fermenting and feed the beer, solids and all into the continuous still. Because the mash is flowing through the still and not trapped in the pot, the solids do not scorch and give the spirit a scorched grain flavor.
Production increased every year in the twenty years depicted in this illustration because more and more distilleries began using column stills to produce their spirits. They would still use pot stills for a second distillation, but since by that time, they were not dealing with grain solids, the process was relatively quick. Many distilleries went from producing ten to twenty barrels a day to producing two to three hundred barrels a day. Indeed, the major limitation became the fermenting process.
In 1870, E.H. Taylor, Jr. was using 50 gallon fermenters to make his beer to feed his pot stills. He eventually built larger fermenters – the copper-lined pits uncovered a few years ago at Buffalo Trace. These larger fermenters were needed because after they added the Carlisle Distillery to the site, which had a column still. One of the problems with large fermenters is the build-up of heat in the fermentation process. Cooling coils with water pumped through the coils, solved this problem and they were developed and patented at the Old Crow Distillery in 1868.
A lot of changes in the industry are reflected in this illustration of Kentucky whiskey production. The twenty years following this chart would see even more change as glass bottles made bottling whiskey profitable for the distiller and the Bottled-in-Bond At of 1897 and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 defined straight whiskey and educated the consumer as to why straight whiskey cost more than a rectified, blended whiskey. Prohibition would interrupt this growth in technology and production, but it would continue to grow into the business we know today.