Monday, November 23, 2015

Let Me Rectify That for You

Historically, rectification was the process of redistilling whiskey to strip out some or all of the whiskey flavor elements. Taken all the way, redistillation transforms whiskey into grain neutral spirit, i.e., vodka (GNS). Historical rectifiers also used filtering, through charcoal or bone dust, and blending. They added coloring and flavoring, some of it dangerous.

The dictionary definition of ‘rectify’ is ‘to fix.’ Rectifiers chose that name and justified their practices as ‘fixing’ poorly made whiskey, to make it more palatable and marketable.

Today ‘rectification’ is synonymous with blending. A rectifier mixes a little straight whiskey (e.g., straight bourbon) with a much larger percentage of GNS, plus flavoring and coloring, to produce blended whiskey. By U.S. law, at least 20 percent of the blend must be 100° proof straight whiskey.

This is American blended whiskey we’re talking about. The rules for blended scotch whiskey and Canadian blended whiskey are different.

Rectifiers also make vodka, gin, and liqueurs. By definition, vodka is GNS and GNS is vodka, although most vodkas producers filter the GNS in some way before bottling. Rectifiers also receive their GNS at more than 190° proof (>95% ABV), so they add water to reduce it to 80° proof. Rectifiers make gin by mixing vodka with a gin flavoring concentrate. This is known as ‘compound gin.’

Making liqueurs requires a slightly more complicated blending process. In addition to combining GNS with a flavor concentrate, liqueurs (aka cordial, aperitif, schnapps, etc.) typically add a boatload of sugar. Most liqueurs have GNS as their base but a few use whiskey. Many of today’s so-called ‘flavored whiskeys’ are actually liqueurs. (Check the label.) As such, they may contain more GNS than whiskey.

Rectified whiskey was virtually unknown before 1831. It took the introduction of the Coffey Still (pictured) to make redistillation, especially to or near neutrality, practical. After its introduction its popularity grew steadily. Rectified whiskey was most popular in the decades just prior to Prohibition, when 75 to 90 percent of all spirit consumed in the U.S. was rectified whiskey.

The flavor of rectified whiskey was generally lighter and less harsh than straight whiskey and because little if any of the typical blend was actually aged whiskey, rectified whiskeys were much less expensive. Rectified whiskey was also more consistent from batch to batch than all but the finest straight whiskey.

From the beginning, the makers, sellers and consumers of straight whiskey considered the rectification process disreputable.

Most rectifiers were distributors who purchased whiskey from distillers for resale to taverns, restaurants and other retailers. Their suppliers were the hundreds of small country distilleries that dotted the landscape across Kentucky and other states.

In those days, the quality of whiskey ‘at the still’ varied widely, not just between distilleries, but also from run to run within a given distillery. The quality depended on the skill of the distiller and his workers, the weather, and many other factors, probably dumb luck most of all. Even after Dr. Crow introduced the sour mash process, consistency and quality remained problems.

Not surprisingly, the best runs were retained for personal use or sold to neighbors. The rest was sold to distributors. To even out the quality and make what little good, aged whiskey they did obtain go further, distributors became rectifiers. The worst whiskey was rectified into neutral spirits, then blended with good, aged whiskey (maybe) and flavorings like sugar and prune juice. Glycerine was added for body. Acid was added to give it a good ‘burn’ going down. Some of the recipes were unhealthy and dangerous.

Bourbon purists thought the rectifiers were barbarians, but the argument generally revolved around labeling, specifically what should and should not be called whiskey. Rectifiers could and did make all sorts of false claims for their products, including false age claims. Though the claims were untrue, they were not against the law as there were no 'truth in labeling' laws like we have today.

The dispute came to a head when it was proposed that whiskey labels be regulated by the Federal Government under the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. At first, the Act was interpreted to require that rectified products could not use the word whiskey without a modifier such as ‘imitation,’ ‘compounded,’ or ‘blended.’ Rectifiers were to be barred from using the term ‘bourbon,’ making age claims, or duplicating the labels of famous brands such as Old Crow and Old Grand-Dad, all of which were common practices.

The rectifiers were understandably appalled by this interpretation and attacked the bourbon interests for selling dangerous, unwholesome ‘fusel oil whiskey.’ Lengthy and rancorous hearings were held in the U.S. Congress, where whiskey quality was by no means an abstract concept.

This so-called 'Whiskey War' raged until 1909, when President William Howard Taft issued the ‘Taft Decision.’ Henceforth, rectified goods would be called ‘blended whiskey’ and the traditional product would be called "straight whiskey," but both had an equal right to the name ‘whiskey.’ Later, even more precise definitions were written for ‘bourbon,’ ‘rye,’ and other types.

Blended whiskeys were popular after Prohibition and again right after World War II, in both cases because straight, fully aged whiskey was in short supply. When more straight whiskey became available, the ratio shifted in straight whiskey’s favor. Blends are still sold today, of course. Seagram’s Seven Crown is the best-selling brand. Most blends are very inexpensive, found on the bottom shelf in 1.75 L plastic bottles. Blends have not benefited from the current whiskey boom.


Sam Komlenic said...

Great background info, Mr. Cowdery.

One question: ARE there regulations on blended whisky in Canada?

Chuck Cowdery said...

Essentially, that is all their rules cover, since they sell so little of what we would call straight whiskey.

Erik Fish said...

As Chuck says, with the exception of Alberta Distillers (100 % Rye) and Glenora (Single malt), the Canadians all produce blends. The difference is that they mostly produce all-whiskey blends (no GNS), and distill all their blending whiskeys on-site; limited additions are allowed, though. Unfortunately, the practices described by Chuck have given blended whiskey a bad name in this country. In other countries, blending is an honored tradition, and master blenders are as respected as master distillers. In fact, it was the great blenders and bottlers starting in the 19th century like William Grant, John Walker, and William Teacher that even made Scotch potable to the world; single malts didn't start regaining quality and acceptance until the early 1960s.

Christian Beyer said...

And guess who first sold single malt outside of Scotland, beginning in 1963? ;)

Chuck Cowdery said...

I received the following from Chris Middleton, our extremely knowledgable friend in Australia.

Sour mash method: This was not invented by chemists Crow and Amburgey/Amberley. They took a scientific approach by first standardising its usage, making it more predictable in the fermentation process. Sour mash, or yeast-backing, was first employed by east coast whiskey distilleries, since the late 18th century. I have traced it to the domestic rum industry, where the process was imported from Jamaican and Barbadian rum distilleries. In the hotter Ohio Valley controlling pH and wash consistency made this fermentation process more appealing. I seem to recall it did not become the predominant method in Kentucky until the 1870s/80s, with most distillers continuing to use the traditional sweet method.

Coffey still: Rectification stills in the US preceded the invention of the Coffey still. Coffey’s dual columns, while superior in yield and efficiency, were one of a number of dual/continuous still designs developed the early 19th century (UK, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy & in US where perpetual stills were an objective too). My research into US still technology found no Coffey stills in North America until the second half of the 19th century (I think Canada was first, and one in British Guyana in the early 1880s). By the 1820s, the popularity of wooden steam stills led to large distilleries in Philadelphia and later Baltimore commercialising this rectification process. Even in 1802, the US authorities admitted they had difficulty in measuring, defining and taxing the modernisation of new emergent distillery formats e.g. 1791 to 1834 over 200 distilling patents were issued.

Sam Komlenic said...

I'm not sure where Mr. Middleton got the info on sour mash on the east coast, but as of 1894, not one Pennsylvania distillery was using the sour mash process. They all used sweet mash for every fermentation.

Combined with no addition of corn to the mash, heated masonry warehouses, and the three-chamber still, the sweet mash process was an integral part of what was Monongahela rye whiskey.

Eric Wilson said...

Great article. Filled in some gaps of information. Here in Tennessee we have had some folks fudging between the lines with GNS and "moonshine". Some of that is about to stop if they want to call it Tennessee Moonshine (aka "corn whiskey").

Chuck Cowdery said...

If I understand the new rule in Tennessee, it doesn't define moonshine as corn whiskey. It simply requires that anything called 'Tennessee Moonshine' must be distilled in Tennessee.

There is no consensus about what 'legal moonshine' is. It might be neutral spirit (i.e., vodka), corn whiskey, or cane spirit (i.e., sugar shine).

Alan Wolstenholme said...

Chuck, I don't think that illustration is a Coffey still. It seems to be a single Beer Column with a cooler (probably a copper coil in a vat) on the right.

A Coffey still would have an Analyser (Beer Column) plus a Rectifier (sic) Column where the ascending vapor would condense against the incoming wash (beer) coils which snake across and down the plates.

Professor Alan Wolstenholme, ICBD

Chuck Cowdery said...

I think you're right, although some people refer to any continuous still as a Coffey.

Chuck Cowdery said...

From Chris Middleton:

Sam Komlenic is undoubtedly correct about sour mash not being used by east coast rye-dominant distilleries during the 19th century. From the scant evidence it proved an unpopular method with the grain distillers along the Atlantic coastal States, even in at the beginning early 19th century when it was first mentioned. I was only remarking that this methodology was first employed and advocated on the east coast. Probably first adopted by Continental rum distilleries copying West Indies rum making practices. Or directly introduced by a sugar planters/distillers who relocated to the American colonies to import cheap molasses and distil for the rapidly growing east coast populations. Its application is for managing bacterial growth and controlling wash acidity, this being better suited to the new bourbon-style distilleries in the warmer Ohio Valley climates. Like any new ideas, change is often resisted or slow to gain acceptance (discontinuous innovation is the psychological term in adjusting to behavioural change). So it was not until years after the Civil War, sour mash gained wider adoption, even in Kentucky.

The first Kentucky whiskey reference of this proto-sour mash fermentation method was written by Anthony Boucherier (1819, Lexington). He noted ‘rum distillers employ advantages which the residual of the preceding distillation, to give the fermentation to his new molasses: this residual of the distillation has within enough acidity for that purpose’. A number of books, treatises and pamphlets were in circulation for colonial distillers learn about yeast backing if they had not practised or observed it at West Indies distilleries e.g. Samuel Martin c1750, Bryan Edwards 1894, et al. all recommended lees/dunder/stillage/barm be added to the fermentation.

Dave Zanko said...

And even Alberta Distillers, for their standard (non-premium) offerings still distill the base whiskey to near-neutral levels. They just use only rye grain in making it, just like the lower proof flavoring whiskies, whereas most others use corn to make the base spirit, as it's cheap and plentiful.

That's the main difference between Canadian and American blends; while US producers can (and do) use true unaged GNS as the base spirit, Canadian law requires that all of the blend be aged at least three years (except for the up to 1/11th (9.09%) that can be other blending ingredients, such as a bit of sherry or brandy), even if it is distilled to close to neutral levels. Same as Scotch and Irish whiskey rules.