Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Chris Middleton Weighs In On Maryland-Style Rye


Last Sunday's post about Leopold Bros Maryland-Style Rye Whiskey drew a big response from a small number of readers whose lengthy comments appear below the post. Chris Middleton, my whiskey guru down under, whose commentaries appear here from time to time, tried unsuccessfully to post his thoughts in the comments section, so he sent them to me via email. They follow, in two parts. I'll post the rest tomorrow.


The Maryland and Monongahela rye issue is a subject I did extensive research into some years back. In general terms there were differences in supply and product that can be broadly attributed to these two rye whiskeys having different flavor vectors. Another part of this evidence can also be found in adulteration recipes advising rectifiers how to make whiskey that resembles Maryland, Monongahela, Virginia and other distinctive whiskey profiles from the late 18th century.

Maryland rye was rectified in Baltimore (and Philadelphia produced the same style of rye), where large growing populations could be served and shipping exports to east coast markets made this industry viable. Maryland (& Philadelphia) whiskeys were regarded as a slightly lighter rye style. How much rye was in each primary distiller’s mash is debateable, but on the whole it was rye-flavored and that was how whiskey was marketed back then; as in India and Thailand today where the criterion is it merely has to taste like whiskey even though made from molasses. The coastal city rectifiers bought common whiskey (usually double distilled, but hard to verify) from numerous rural distillers and rectified it to a higher proof for compounding. Their grain bills had a greater proportion of corn, malted barley, wheat and even other grains than the rural Pennsylvania distillers used, being predominantly rye mash. The Maryland rectifiers would have used a softer base distillate. This, most likely, was the leading factor in differentiating Maryland style whiskey from other regional whiskeys.

The rectifiers were also adding prune juice to the nearly-neutral spirit. Prune Wine, as it was marketed, had been a universally-popular adulterant for whiskey since the late 1850s. Sourced from Ireland, it flavored and colored young spirit to resemble aged whiskey, ‘neutralise the acrid, fiery and impure properties, as well as give the appearance and the quality of age.’ Previously, the rectifiers had an arsenal of other compounds to adulterate spirit. The rectifying industry only began to be established in the early 1800s in coastal cities, especially where they had access to primary spirit producers, those numerous small distillers who had no markets or distribution capabilities to sell their output. The rectifiers were a relatively secure line of sale.

Monongahela rye in modern parlance is a product of south western Pennsylvania GI (geographic index or origin). It has been described as a meaty and bold style of whiskey. I would speculate this was the rye imprint making its distinctive presence felt. This was because many of the distillers were either exclusively using rye in the mash, or it was the dominant grain. This was principally due to regional factors such as cultivation and economics. As much of this rye did not pass into the hands of rectifiers due to the remoteness of the small distillers, its passage to market in cask wood was of a longer duration giving this rye its famed redness and mellower character. And cask charring was being practiced on the east coast since the 18th century, so it added to Monongahela’s flavour profile and ruddy hue. There is some conjecture about differing still designs playing a part in regional developments in the 19th century. I could explain and speculate on the role different and emergent technologies played in still design and process during this period; however, this is too complex an issue to detail here.

Suffice it to say the American wood still was a substitution for copper (cost and access for small farmer-distillers, usually 40 gallon capacity cucurbit, common cask size) using steam boilers to heat the mash in a wooden tub; probably also the same mashing and fermentation tub used by some farmer-distillers. Had heated stones been used by some poor souls it would have been the most primitive and least effective method to heat the mash. When it comes to making alcohol, nothing surprises me. The head and lyne arm was usually copper, so some wood stills had some sulphate conversation, more likely a whisper. These were rustic pieces of homestead-made plant and not used by serious distillers as they were for many farmers who could not afford nor get access to a copper pot still. EG 1800 in western Pennsylvania only one in thirty farmers could afford a 30 – 40 gallon still at $25. It’s the mother-of-invention from necessity. As you may imagine this spirit would have been of the poorest quality.

The Guyana EHP wood still at Demerara Distillers mentioned in one of the responses was originally made for the Enmore Distillery by Coffey’s company in London (around 1880). It is the only wood still in commercial use, made from Australian kauri wood. Few wood stills were manufactured by Coffey. To my knowledge none were ever built or used in America as the different mash method required distilling on the grain. It’s suitable for barley-based wort and molasses wash only.

8 comments:

EllenJ said...

Thanks, Chris, for the really comprehensive followup on both wooden stills and East-of-the-Alleghenies rye whiskey. And thanks, Chuck, for posting it as a separate article. This subject needs further examination and I'm sure this will help.

Until Wondrich brought it up, it hadn't occurred to me that any commercial-sized distillery was using wooden stills, but others I've spoken to agree that such might have been the case. Chris mentions the wooden still used by Demerara Distillers in Guyana for making El Dorado (and other brands of) rum. There is also, I believe, at least one major distillery in Trinidad that uses a wooden still. Pusser's 15-year old is supposed to contain rum from that source, although that may be old stock and the wooden still may no longer exist. But it must have at least as late as fifteen years ago. Zaya rum, which was once sourced from Guyana and it now made in... yup, Trinidad, might also come from such a still.

The problem with using rum distilleries as examples is that, at least in the Caribbean, there is already such massive differences in both the distillate and the aged product that one can hardly draw a center line by which to gauge one particualar feature. The differences between bourbon (any bourbon) and rye (any rye) are nothing compared to the differences in rum from Jamaica, Barbados, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, St. Lucia, etc, etc, and that doesn't even touch Martinique, where there are over a dozen distilleries whose products are completely different from one another. I've visited a few; I've seen big column stills and little pot stills, but never any made of wood. But now I know there are some, and in commercial distilleries. And Wondrich says there were some in commercial American whiskey distilleries once upon a time. Not in bourbon distilleries; in rye distilleries.

And yes, Chris, what you say about rectification and its place in Maryland/East Pennsylvania rye is true. In fact, as I've pointed out before, the end of the Pre-Prohibition Maryland rye domination was brought about by the 19th Ammendment. Most of those fine old Maryland rye brands disappeared around 1906, with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act. That doesn't mean that those fine old Maryland ryes (or fine old bourbons, either, since much the same was going on in Kentucky and Ohio) were rot-gut pooh-pooh. I have a nice bottle of Wm. McBrayer Cedar Brook from somewhere between 1906 and 1911. It is a fine a bourbon whiskey as you'll ever want to taste. And, thanks to the PF&D act, the word "whiskey" does not appear on its label. Because it can't. That's just the way "whiskey" was made in those days. I find it humorous that folks today who don't know better speak of "rectified whiskey" as if it were all something creepy and bad. Shows what marketing can do (The Straight Whiskey Distilling Company of America, 350 Fifth Ave., New York).

As for wooden stills, I truly can't see anything but disadvantages to using a wooden still, but then if it weren't for my education by knowledgeable whiskey writers, I probably would be able to see any advantages to using wooden barrels for storage either, unless you consider the rather noticeable flavor difference between aging in charred oak and aging in stainless steel (or, God help us, copper). The fact is that there is a MARKED difference that we can all readily recognize, and I'm really curious to find out -- from someone actually USING such a contraption -- what effect it has on the raw distillate.

Again thank you for taking the time to expand upon this, and thank you again, Chuck, for keeping this alive. Wait 'til the artisan/craft distillers jump on this (not to mention Popular Mechanics and Home Repairman magazine readers). I think this could be as hot a topic as homebrewing once was :-))

theBitterFig said...

Adding a few drops of prune juice to modern whiskies is an interesting experiment I've done a few times. It really does seem to mesh pretty well.

EllenJ said...

@theBitterFig...
Despite my current status of geezer-in-training, I actually don't have a bottle of prune juice on hand. But you KNOW I'm gonna try this out as soon as I get back from the grocery store :-))

I did try a drop of Wright's Liquid Smoke in whiskey once. ONCE.
Folks, don't do that.
At least it wasn't mesquite. Does anyone remember McKendricks?
I'm sorry. So do I. And I'm sorry.

Chuck Cowdery said...

In Canadian whisky; sherry, port, and other wines are sometimes added to the blend for flavor, but according to Canadian Mist's chief blender, the wines so-named are not the same as the ones you can go to the store and buy. They are products made specifically for whisky blending. They use those names because the products are similar but not the same.

Long way of asking how similar the 'prune wine' used by the Maryland rectifiers was to the prune juice sold in supermarkets today. Probably close enough, and I've often seen prune juice listed as an ingredient in compound whiskey recipes, but it may have been something tailored for that specific use.

Plus, what would you add it to? There is nothing you can buy today that would be similar to what the Maryland rectifiers were using as their base whiskey.

Sam Komlenic said...

My understanding of the "box of rocks" still is that the stones in the wooden column provided reflux for the vapor produced in a pot of wash below as it moved upward through the stones.

It did not act as a column still, with the distiller's beer being introduced at the top of the column and cascading down.

So, a wooden still as discussed here and the box of rocks could be two different and distinct still styles.

EllenJ said...

Well, of course that brings us back to whether wooden stills were a viable option then. Otherwise, my guess is that raw rye whiskey from copper pot stills would probably be similar to what we can do today, and spirit distilled in column stills (at least for recification use) was likely GNS or close enough not to add any particular flavor of its own. And I think we're all talking here of legitimate rectifiers, not the stereotype demon-chemist pouring battery acid and tobacco chawings into some godawful poison intended for fools and the heathen.

I agree that today's prune juice would certainly not be the same as you'd find in 1814, or even 1914 (well maybe... there WAS the PF&D act to change things a bit). Unfortunately we'll never know. Whiskey is about the only consumable substance that -- kept properly -- doesn't deteriorate. At least as far as bacterial infection is concerned. A recently opened bottle of 19th century prune-juice-enhanced "whiskey" taste pretty much the way it did then. A recently opened bottle of 19th century prune juice, however, would probably kill you. If I WERE encounter a bottle of rectifiers' prune wine (it would have to be a lab bottle since, as you noted, these were blending flavorings, not intended for direct consumption) I would certainly not want to taste it myself.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I was thinking more along the lines of a food historian having a description or recipe.

e said...

As one whose interests are primarily "empirically-oriented", my first assumption was (and always is), "what does this s#!t taste like if I put it in my mouth?" This point of view has not always resulted in pleasant experiences for me, but I cannot help but believe it gives me a better understanding (at least for my purposes) than reading a description or recipe. That's why you rarely see anything from me about tasting notes, of which my (somewhat negative) opinion is already well documented :-))