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.