Monday, December 13, 2021

When Alcohol Was Money

A collection of pioneer stills at the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Whiskey plays an outsize role in American history, largely because this continental nation had an active frontier for nearly 300 years and distilling was a typical pioneer industry. 

Whiskey enthusiasts tend to focus on a narrower window, the middle to late 18th century, a period that saw the beginning of bourbon and the birth of a nation, when the frontier was the land west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

On the frontier, whiskey-making was an adjunct to farming. Almost everyone grew grain and distilled some of it into liquor, one way or another. If you didn't have a still somebody in the neighborhood did. Distilling was the only sensible thing to do with surplus grain. Wherever fruit was plentiful, it was fermented and distilled too. 

Distilled spirits were more than just another consumable. They were valuable. Where currency was scarce, as it typically was on the frontier, alcohol was a handy substitute. Fermented beverages such as beer, cider and wine were fine for drinking, but they were bulky and didn't keep. They weren't much good for high finance. Distill that beer down to about fifty percent alcohol-by-volume (100° proof), then you've got something.

Whiskey (or applejack) was like money in the bank. Everybody had a general idea how much a given quantity was worth, it was easy to divide, and always in demand. You could buy a nice farm with a barrel of whiskey. Abraham Lincoln's father did.

Businesspeople today talk about ‘liquidity.’ On the American frontier, ‘liquidity’ was literal. Alcohol was money. Before bourbon was bourbon it was a medium of exchange vital to the frontier economy.

On the frontier, most people were subsistence farmers. Communities were important but households had to be self-sufficient in food, clothing, and shelter. To live you needed a farm, and to farm you needed land. The constant need for more land inexorably pushed the frontier west. Since Roman times, governments have struggled to provide farmland for retired soldiers. The need for farmland following the French and Indian War (1754-1763) created friction between colonial administrations and the British government, leading to the American Revolution (1775-1783).

America’s original frontier had been the Atlantic coast, two fragile colonies of European immigrants in what would become Massachusetts and Virginia. Brewing and distilling began right away. Europeans brought with them barley, wheat, rye, oats and other Old World grains. The people who were already here introduced them to maize. 

The word ‘corn’ originally referred to any grain. Wheat and rye were types of 'corn.' This usage lives on today in terms like 'barleycorn.' When Europeans encountered maize for the first time, they called it ‘Indian corn.’ Eventually, English speakers in North America shortened that to simply ‘corn’ and the word’s original, broader meaning died out. 

Bourbon is whiskey made from maize, i.e., corn, a New World grain. That is what makes bourbon whiskey uniquely American. The first distilled beverages made in the colonies were not whiskey and the first whiskeys were not made from corn, at least not as the main ingredient. The first fermented beverages were made from fruit; mostly wild berries and grapes. Apples for cider were among the first cultivated fruit. When the first cereals the immigrants planted yielded their first harvests, food for animals and humans was the priority. Only when the fields yielded surpluses for those needs were cereals fermented and distilled. 

As trade got going among the New World colonies, the residue of Caribbean sugar production was shipped to New England where it was distilled into rum for local sale and export. Rum was America's first commercial distilled spirit. In the mid-18th century, bad mojo with Mother England created a clog in the molasses pipeline just as the growing colonial population began to spread into the interior. Only then did Americans start to make whiskey…spirit distilled from a fermented mash of grain…in earnest. 

At first they mostly used familiar cereals they brought from Europe: barley, wheat, rye, and oats, but by the 18th century they knew how to work with corn too. 

If a frontier grain farmer had a surplus of anything it was corn. Corn grew well and was very productive. It was excellent livestock feed, which is how most of it was used, but had limited applications as human food, to European tastes at least. Unlike barley and wheat, corn contains no gluten so it isn't much good for bread. Pioneers tended to eat corn only when they had nothing else, which often enough was the case.

So they turned their surplus corn into alcohol. That wasn’t easy either, nothing on the frontier was easy. Despite obstacles, corn became the go-to grain for distillation in the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

To make alcohol, you need a solution of sugar, water, and yeast. Since yeast is almost everywhere, you often don’t need to do anything except mix the sugar and water together. With fruit or any other direct sugar source, such as honey or molasses, starting fermentation is easy. Left alone, a sugar-and-water solution will ferment whether you want it to or not. 

It is harder with grain because you need an additional step. Cereals such as corn, barley, wheat and rye are mostly starch, so first you need to convert that starch into sugar. Seeds convert starch into sugar by producing certain enzymes. Any seed can produce the enzymes, but for our purposes the grain starches must be dissolved in water before the enzymes are introduced. Barley is favored because, when ground, its starches dissolve easily in warm water. Corn is tougher. To get its starches to dissolve takes hotter water, more time, and agitation. 

Corn beer never caught on as a drink, but it was (and is) a terrific base for distillation. Corn the hogs don't eat can be converted into something useful. 

The stage for bourbon was set. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As you know, barley is also favored because it produces strong enzyme activity when malted, facilitating the conversion of starches into sugars. Maize can also do this, but there are also approaches where no malt enzymes are used. Instead, ptyalin enzymes in the maker's saliva are used by chewing and spitting out the mash, probably an arduous process if one were to try making enough to be worth distilling the result. For more, see: