Lisa Wicker is fond of telling a story of how, while working at Starlight Distillery she got distracted one day and let a mash cook for a longer time at a lower temperature than was their normal process. To her surprise, It had a very good yield and made excellent whiskey. She experimented with doing this slow cooking method and has since adopted it as a standard procedure for her distillery at Widow Jane Distillery in Brooklyn, New York. She has also taught Steve Bashore this process and it is standard procedure at the George Washington Distillery at Mount Vernon, Virginia. I found this interesting and thought about it and looked at the historical precedent for doing it that way.
Distilling on the frontier in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was often a small operation. The distiller had one or two small pot stills heated on open fire. They would use the still to heat the water for the mash, but would do the cooking in the same vats as they fermented the mash. These mash tubs were often 48 gallon barrels. They would bucket the hot, boiling water to the desired mash tubs. They would then add their grain, often from bags from the local mill, into the hot water. Corn was always first as it can take the hottest temperature.
A little malt would be added to reduce the clumping of the grain, and then they would stir the grain as well to prevent dough balls from forming. The grain was added slowly as they stirred the mash. The water temperature would reduce as they did this and I have seen recipes that called for adding more water if it dropped too quickly. They would wait until the corn had cooked for some time before they added the rye or wheat. When the temperature had lowered until you could put your hand in the mash without burning the skin, you would add the barley malt.
This historical method sounds very much like what Lisa has been doing in her cooks. The water may have been boiling to start, but the process of moving the water from the still to the mash tub is going to start lowering the temperature. Adding room temperature grain is also going to lower the temperature of the cook. The recipes often describe the cooking time in hours between adding corn, then the small grain and then the malt. It would have been a long cooking time at lower temperature.
With the improvement of technology and the use of steam to heat a dedicated cooker, constant temperature could be maintained in the cook. This improvement of technology would have allowed for larger cooks done in a faster time. After all, time is money.
Distillers would come to depend upon this technology and used thermometers to check the temperature as to when they needed to add grains to the mash. Having mills on site to grind the grain meant that the grain could be added mechanically from a hopper while blades in the cooker would stir the mash. Once again, a quicker, easier process. It was all about making a lot of whiskey more quickly. Time is money and if old time distillers noticed the difference (I bet they did), they were making more money and ignored the difference as long as what they made tasted good. The slower cooking time was lost because nobody used it anymore.
It is good that the old methods are being rediscovered. It is good that we can taste whiskey made in the old way today. Even in the late 19th century, people wanted to taste the whiskey made in the old way. Many brands advertised themselves as being “Old Fashioned Fire Copper Hand Made Sour Mash Whiskey” in the 1870s, 80s and 90s. They knew that there was a difference in the flavor and would pay more for whiskey of that nature. The same is true today. If the whiskey is made using the older methods, people will pay more for a bottle – as long as it is good whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl