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.