Monday, June 23, 2014

Chris Middleton on the History of Wood Distillation in America

Image from the 1808 Barmum & Brooks steam still patent application.

These posts on early American distilling may be a little quixotic, but I see them as a critical and fascinating part of America’s whiskey development. David Wondrich has momentarily put a spotlight on a distinctly American piece of distillation technology that has held my interest too. (Thanks David, Chuck, John, Sam and others for your contributions.) I would like to keep this alive a little longer to see if more information and comments can be elicited on this important topic from learned contributors.

In an abstract I wrote some years back on proto-bourbon made in the east coast states during the 18th century (in product not name), I did quite a bit of back research into distilling technologies, patents, milling, bacio-fermentation, coopering, hybridization, consumption behavior, and even the influences of metallurgy in America and Europe.

It’s through a metallurgy lens that I can provide the best explanation for why America uniquely employed wood in still designs - from the primitive log stills, wooden tub stills, box-of-rock heating systems (also popular in Canada) to steam stills, and the triple chamber stills to name the most popular wood distillation formats. Forgive me if I leapfrog through this history, I will try and leave enough of a trail for readers to follow and see the role wood played in American distilling and whiskey’s development, before the spirit meets the cask.

When whiskey distilling emerged as new small industry in mid-18th century America, displacing rum after the Revolutionary War, the cost of copper was a major barrier to many American farmer-distillers. There were 127 commercial rum distilleries in New England in 1770, whereas in the country from New Jersey to the Carolinas you mostly saw small homestead stills, making fruit distillate, until the expansion in grain cultivation heralded a shift to whiskey from the mid-18th century onward.

By 1791, whiskey had grown to about a third of distilled spirits volume (3 million gallons), dominated by domestic rum and fruit brandy distilling from 2,162 registered stills. In 1801, domestically made spirits leapt to 10 million and by 1810, 14,181 registered stills produced 25.7 million gallons of which only 5 million was rum. Rye whiskey had replaced rum and ‘western corn whisky,’ soon to be called bourbon, was beginning to challenge rye.

The major issue for the nascent distilling industry in America was the British monopoly on the world trade in smelting, refining, and milling copper, which was centred in England and Wales. Copper was universally regarded as the best distilling material superseding glass, porcelain, earthenware, other metals and alloys. No one knew about the chemistry of copper and sulphate, but they knew the spirit tasted better and copper was the most friendly and durable metal to work with in distillation.

In 1790, there were only 81 coppersmiths across the east coast cities and towns. Imported copper cost at least 7 shillings a pound and a 30 gallon pot still and worm cost the equivalent of a 200-acre farm. The first copper refinery in America did not appear until 1814 in Baltimore, and the first mills were another decade away. These dates help explain why wood became the medium of necessity if a farmer or miller wanted to distil surplus grain, or even fruit. A copper still was either too expensive or impossible to secure for many.

By 1816, there were 37,880 registered stills of which 90 percent were common stills, another 650 had boilers. The American distilling landscape was rapidly changing. How many common stills were made from all copper is not known. Many probably included log still adaptions or hybrids. Even large distilleries using copper had a significant capital outlay e.g. Hope Distillery in Kentucky back in 1816 imported copper stills from England (1,200 gallon wash & 750 gallon spirit still, weighing 10 tons of copper equipment), which cost investors $100,000. Intriguingly they attempted to use corn cobs to sparge the wash to create wort for distilling.

Copper was uniquely an American problem. No historical evidence indicates wood stills were ever used in Britain or Ireland. However, new design advances and technologies allowed American distillers to side-step much of the copper shortage. Wood may not have made the best or cleanest spirit, but they were not that discerning back then.

From 1785 when the first steam still was patented, the next 50 years saw an explosion of new distillation practices and patents in Europe and America. Continental Europe was focused on grape-based (brandy), barley/bere (malt spirits gin & whisky), then beet distillation EG Chaptal (early continuous 1761), Adam (1801, retorts), Sulimani (1801 steam jacket), Cellier Blumental (1810 vertical column), Baglioni (1813, stripping column with plates), Pistorious (1817 rectifying plates), Corty (1818 compound still), then Stein in Scotland (1820) and Coffey in Ireland (1830) when continuous distillation came of age, to name but a few.

America between 1791 and 1834 generated about 200 patents for distillation including Gillespie’s perpetual log still of 1818, of which he proudly wrote from Baltimore to inform Jefferson.

In America, distillers were dealing with a distinctly different grain mash compared to Europe – rye and corn  – and evolved new methodologies to distil this American mash. By 1790, the American doubler design came into use and by the late 1790s, the first triple-chambered wood still had been invented. Anderson of Baltimore patented America’s first steam still. Triple-chambered stills came into use first in Baltimore and Philadelphia before the turn of the century.

Looking backwards in time, the first whiskey distillery in Baltimore was probably Purviane’s in 1761, using copper pot distillation. One of the major reasons these chambered steam stills were invented was to minimize sticky rye burning in the first charge. Wood- or coal-fired furnaces created hot spots, scalding and contaminating the low wines. The empyreumatic effects were avoided; bacterial contamination became a greater risk in the wood grain.

The 1808 steam still image above could be an example of this early three-chambered still. It is from the 1808 Barmum & Brooks steam still patent application. By 1834, the government recognised four types of still: common still (i.e. pot/alembic design), flat still (Lowland Scottish flat-bottom still), steam still, and wood still.

In the frontier hinterlands and for those who could not afford copper they were ‘running the log.’ This method was first reported in the 1780s. A tree trunk was cut, split and hollowed out, then hooped back together with saplings. The beer was poured in and distilled. Whether many had copper contact as the vapour left for condensation is debatable. Probably not a critical prerequisite as the purpose was grain preservation as ardent spirit. Mixed with botanicals and flavorings it served as the primary source of medication and pick-me-up, and as a potable beverage for psychoactive relaxation.

These ‘modern’ practices and technologies had become so pervasive we even see some of the old distillers repudiating them by returning to traditional pot distillation methods. In 1850, Jack Beam created Early Times whiskey, a name pregnant with nostalgic meaning, harkening back to the traditional pot still and direct fire method in use only a generation or two earlier. Jack Daniel started his Old Time Distillery in 1884, believing the old methods made a superior whiskey.

The three chambered charging still soon went west and even headed north into Canada, where Hoffman Ahler Design (Cincinnati coppersmiths) installed one at the Hiram Walker Distillery circa 1870. Rivaling the triple-chambered stills were the more efficient column stills, which were also going through adaptations in the second part of the 19th century. I have assumed as Prohibition closed in those still using the old triple chamber did so out of tradition (habit, 'if it aint broke') and to minimise the expense of new and expensive plant as the temperance movement relentlessly lobbied the legislatures.

My observation is that along with grain, especially corn, and American white oak for maturation, it was the innovations in distillation design and fermentation practices that permitted American whiskey to develop along a new path from the latter part of the 18th century. Hence why I think this has become a forgotten or unrecognized subject that deserves more attention.

Mr. Middleton, formerly of Jack Daniel's, is principal and director of Australia's Whisky Academy. He is a treasure trove of information, as his notes above demonstrate.


Andy said...

I'm not really sure where to look for examples, but many of the stills I've seen in Japanese shochu distilleries are wooden, of what seems to be a similar design (steam inlet wooden wash still piped to a metal doubler). Shochu distilling has a similarly murky origin as other forms of distillate, but it is certain that it was being made in japan by the 18th century.

David Wondrich said...

Very useful--and I agree that this is a subject that has been deeply neglected. History is written by the winners, and it's the Kentucky tradition that won out in American distilling; not much motive for distillers in that tradition to delve into something that they had no part of.

Unknown said...

Not sure that the illustration is multichambered. It looks more like a diagram of an external boiler arrangement where beer is being boiled in a metal chamber in the furnace and the vapor resulting is directed to the head of the wooden pot still. Cutting out the need to raise steam for heat transfer.

Unknown said...

"Copper was uniquely an American problem. No historical evidence indicates wood stills were ever used in Britain or Ireland. However, new design advances and technologies allowed American distillers to side-step much of the copper shortage. Wood may not have made the best or cleanest spirit, but they were not that discerning back then."
I've seen illustrations in John French's "Art of Distillation" from 1667 where the "manner of distilling in wooden vessels" is shown- two barrels beside one another- one acting as a still and the other as the worm tub. It looks like it was was taken from Glauber's steam-heated apparatuses (used in Amsterdam), but French's book was published in London. It seems likely that wooden stills would have been used to make pharmaceuticals, but whether they were used to make whisky might be a stretch. The fact that Europeans were aware that steam heating helped avoid scalding in the 1600s is a good indicator that people were at least aware of the technology.

Chris Middleton said...

Some qualifications are needed to put the use of wooden brewing and distilling vessels into a proper, and very brief perspective.

Wooden stills were relatively common usage throughout Europe for centuries - manufacturing techniques were exported to America where distilling on the grain evolved the type of wooden (later copper & stainless-steel column) stills. One of the first reported in North America was in 1652, when George Fletcher obtained the first distilling patent using brewing and wooden distilling vessels. The Virginia Assembly noted he did not invent this method, all the same they gave him 14 years of patent protection. The first wooden still reported in the British Isles was in Ireland, circa 1324, employing a 'clepsydra', a wooden capital or head, mounted on the cucurbit. Whilst not common, a number of Scottish distilleries used wooden stills in the first half of the 19th century, including Gilcomston, Fettercairn, and Glenmurray distilleries. For British distillers the relatively cheap cost of copper since the 1600s, made England/Wales the world center for mining, smelting, and refining copper, giving the industry near-monopoly on this metal into the 19th century. Copper was used in worms and copper plates in parts of the wooden vessels, often tinplated to preserve the life of corroding the plant. For American bourbon and rye whiskey, wooden stills were the most popular engineering material into the early 20th century. Wood still returned during the Second World war for industrial alcohol production. It is interesting to note, less than a handful of American distilleries used all copper after the Civil War, commanding the highest prices and greatest reputation for the best ‘sour mash whiskey.’ None of these distilleries used the word ‘bourbon’ on the label until the early 20th century (post-1897 Bottle in Bond Act), as this type of manufactured ‘bourbon’ whiskey was deemed inferior due the used of wood, and other biological and mechanical processes. Today, other than rum in Guyana, I am not aware on any reputable distillery using wooden plant.

German, Johann Glauber's 1648 use of steam to heat the singling still in Amsterdam was adapted from other still designs, notably, Claude Dariot La grande chirurgie de Paracelse (1603), and possibly Rudolf Faithr (1640). Glauber's work was later modified by Giuseppe Anglo Saluzzo (ca. 1785), also known as the Anglo-Irish Peter Woulfe’s bottles for compound distillation (1767), Berthollet’s apparatus (ca. 1796), then improved upon by Edwaurd Adams and his 'eggs' (1801). In the US, Jacob Witzel, German immigrant patented the ‘doubler egg’ in 1836. Other engineers/inventors played active roles in developing steam distillation, i.e., Jean Chaptal (from 1761). The advent of steam for heating and power in the late 18th century would transform many industries, including distilling.

John French's 1751 book, Art of Distilling, plagiarized Hieronymous Brunschwig's 1500 and 1507 Liber de Arte Distillandi, published in English in 1512, Vertuose Bok of Distyllacyon. Wooden distilling apparatuses were used in Britain at the time, with his references borrowed heavily from Brunschwig designs and distilling information. Not so virtuous an author.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Always delighted to hear from Chris.