I was recently asked if rectifiers deserved the bad reputation they had in the 19th century. The answer is “yes and no”. There were rectifiers that simply purchased whiskey from distilleries and married the barrels to make their own flavor profile. Examples of these rectifiers were people like George Garvin Brown, Paul Jones and Isaac Wolfe Bernheim. They were rectifying good whiskey and their brands survive today.
Other rectifiers were making whiskey by blending aged whiskey with neutral spirits with caramel coloring and fruit juice to add color and flavor. We would call this whiskey today a “blended whiskey”. The problem with these rectifiers is that they were often calling their whiskeys old Bourbon. Col. E.H. Taylor, Jr. actually had a court case against Marion Taylor of Wright and Taylor because Wright and Taylor had a brand they called Old Ky. Taylor in which they claimed they could make a nine year old Bourbon while you wait. Col. Taylor won the case when the judge asked how Wright and Taylor could make such a claim when there was no old whiskey in the bottle. Marion Taylor’s lawyers claimed it tasted just like a nine year old Bourbon. When the judge then tasted Old Ky. Taylor against a nine year old Old Taylor Bourbon, the case was decided for Col. Taylor.
Then there were the rectifiers that made “whiskey” without using any aged whiskey at all. In my book, Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey: An American Heritage, I give several recipes for making whiskey from an 1860s book on rectifying titled The Manufacture of Liquors, Wines and Cordials without the Aid of Distillation, by Pierre Lacour. His recipe for “Old Bourbon Whiskey is as follows: Neutral spirits, four gallons, refined sugar, three pounds, dissolved in water, three quarts; decoction of tea, one pint; three drops of oil of wintergreen, dissolved in one ounce of alcohol; color with tincture of cochineal, two ounces; burnt sugar, three ounces. This does not taste of Bourbon. I know because Lincoln Henderson made some from this recipe for an event I held at the Filson Historical Society in 2001. Lacour’s recipe for Monongahela rye is as follows: Neutral spirits, four gallons, honey, three pints, dissolved in water, one gallon, rum, half gallon, nitric ether, half an ounce. This is to be colored to suit fancy. Some customers prefer this whiskey transparent, while others like it just perceptibly tinged with brown; while others, again, want it rather deep, and partaking of red.
Another recipe I found in the archives at the Filson Historical Society was a recipe for “Injun Whiskey”; whiskey to be sold to Native Americans. This recipe called for reducing neutral spirits to 100 proof, then coloring it with tobacco spit. Because the Native Americans expected a burn, add a little sulfuric acid to the mixture, then stir well and bottle. Needless to say, this was a rare occasion of whiskey made by unscrupulous people, but they did exist.
There were different types of rectifiers in the 19th century. Many were honest merchants making decent whiskey. Others were people making money by selling an inferior product and calling it Bourbon or Rye whiskey. The distillers, who tired of this, pushed for the Bottled-in-Bond Act of 1897 to distinguish straight whiskey from these products. When the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed, there was a heated debate as to “what is whiskey”. It was finally settled by the Taft Decision of 1909 and the categories of “Straight Whiskey”, “Blended Whiskey” and “Artificial Whiskey” were defined and all products had to be labeled as to what they were.
In short, to answer the original question, the reputation was deserved by many, but not all rectifiers. The bad reputation of rectified whiskey is what most people remember today, but not all rectifiers and rectified whiskeys deserved that reputation.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller