Monday, June 23, 2014

"Running on the Log," with J. W. Dant



Herein I will tie together our ongoing discussion about Maryland Rye and wooden stills with Saturday's post about Gethsemane Distillery.

One of the early distilleries at the Gethsemane site was founded by Joseph Bernard (J. B.) Dant. He was the eldest son of Joseph Washington (J. W.) Dant, who came to Kentucky with Captain Sam Pottinger and established several distilleries in Marion County.

J. B.'s main brand was Yellowstone. The family's Marion County place made J. W. Dant Bourbon, both before and after Prohibition. After 1947, both plants produced bourbon for the J. W. Dant brand.

As J. W. Dant was a major brand, it had marketing and advertising, and therefore it had an origin myth. "Myth" doesn't mean it isn't true, but all we have is the marketer's version of the story, which goes something like this.


Joseph Washington Dant was one of our pioneering bourbon production giants. Little is known of his early life other than that he was reared on a farm and received an early education. Records indicate his first occupation as that of a blacksmith. Joseph would eventually turn his love to distilling and by 1836 started his own still and commenced in whiskey (bourbon) making.

He would eventually become famous & revered for being the first bourbon production giant to utilize the log still method. This was an old-time method back from the days of the pioneers when they could not afford, nor had the money for copper stills. This method is where a hollowed out tree trunk would have copper piping run through it in which the hollowed trunk would be filled with fermented mash & then steam would be fed through the piping to start distillation.

Joseph was the only log stiller known that distilled a bourbon good enough to ensure that his name would survive for ages to come.

Joseph grew his own grains and handpicked the choicest grain for his bourbon and then made his cooperage. In the year of 1860, Joseph owned more than 196 acres of distilling land. It was believed that sometime during the 1880's, J.W. Dant retired from his business. He died on February 19, 1902, age 82, and is buried in the St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Cemetery at St. Francis in Marion County.


Here is a little bit more from Gary Regan and Mardee Hardin Regan's The Book of Bourbon. 

Although pot stills were used by most of the legitimate distillers, some poorer folk were still “running it on the log.” This was a backwoods method of distillation that seems rather convoluted--but it worked. The process is partially described by Gerald Carson in The Social History of Bourbon, and although we have added the description of the lid, the still must have looked something like this:

A distiller would take a log, split it lengthwise, hollow out each half, and bind it back together. The log was then stood upright and filled from the top with fermented mash. A lid of sorts must then have been fitted onto the top of the log. It was probably similar in shape to a Hershey’s Kiss, with the 'top knot' narrowing into becoming a pipe that would carry the vapors to a vessel where they would condense. Somewhere, close to the top of the log or in the lid itself, must have been a hole fitted with the copper pipe that carried live steam into the still from a nearby kettle. The steam would, in time, heat the mash and vaporize the alcohol.

Carson does mention, however, that the log stills were used only for a primary distillation, and the spirit would then be redistilled in a pot still. The final product was called 'log and copper whiskey.' Joseph Dant, whose family would later be responsible for giving Yellowstone and J. W. Dant bourbons to the world, was using the 'log' method in 1836 to make his first Kentucky whiskey.

(The Regans appear to have merged the two Joseph Dants. J. W. was the old-time log distiller and originator of J. W. Dant Bourbon, while his son J. B. Dant was the maker of Yellowstone.)


Another, even more crude example of 'running on the log' was where the hollow log functioned as the pot and a thick blanket functioned as the lid and condenser. When the blanket became saturated it would be wrung out into a container and returned to the pot. This would be repeated until all of the alcohol was extracted. Ideally, the result would then be filtered through cheesecloth. The objective was not a high proof spirit, but simply to raise the alcohol level enough to keep the beer from going bad.

3 comments:

EllenJ said...

Many of us have known for years about "running on a log", and also clay (earthen) stills, but most of us have written the use of such equipment off as crude, simplistic, and unfit for legitimate commercial production. That's certainly the way I felt until reading Dave Wondrich's work and especially after seeing the illustration he posted.

I'm afraid I've been wrong. So have you. The fact is that, while I gained much of my original knowledge about(and excitement for) bourbon history from you, you in turn were using the likes of Regan and Carson and others who've either quoted from or taught them. And THEY were wrong. At least about whiskey that wasn't Kentucky bourbon.

I have several examples of fine whiskey, mostly Maryland/EastPA rye, made before Prohibition, and according to Wondrich (and the Internal Revenue reports) there is a 9-in-16 chance (44%) that any one of them was made on a wooden still. These ain't hillbilly hooch we're talking about here; these are well-known brands. If Dave or someone (you, perhaps?) could find some information on just which commercial distilleries used such equipment (for example, the one in Dave's illustration) we might be able to correct this point of view, which you seem to be reinforcing in your current article about the Dants. I do think you'll need to look beyond traditional Kentucky-centric sources to find the answers, though. Asking a Kentucky historian about whiskey cannot help but bring answers applicable mainly to Kentucky bourbon.

Anyway, keep it up. Let's see who can find more to add. I ESPECIALLY look forward to hearing from someone actually using such a thing.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Since you're so smart, why don't you do it?

EllenJ said...

Heh-heh. You've never seen the horror of what happens when I attempt making something out of wood, have you? :-))

Besides, I'm not smart, just curious and (like yourself) not inclined to place a lot of stock in "common knowledge". Why do you suppose I read this stuff?

= Col. John =