Rye whiskey origin

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Rye whiskey origin

Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Oct 15, 2004 3:31 pm

In the early 1800's john Corlis owned a distillery in Providence, R.I. During the War of 1812 he complains in letters about not being able to get rye for his distillery because of the Coastal Embargo saying "this embargo seems to be aimed more at the New england than the old". Was he making rye whiskey? No. He was making gin. Has rye always been the grain of choice for gin? and if so did the American rye whiskey industry grow out of a gin tradition? Did some American who wanted to make gin decide to sell the raw distillate when he could not get juniper berries?

What do you think John, Chris and Howie? I know you are rye whiskey fans who have looked into this type of question.

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Unread postby tlsmothers » Fri Oct 15, 2004 5:51 pm

I thought that English gin was based on a mostly corn mashbill. Very interesting series of questions you pose, though, and I sure hope to hear more in depth response from someone more in the know.
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Unread postby Strayed » Fri Oct 15, 2004 11:12 pm

:D

Hi Mike!!

Rye was the grain of choice for the Dutch, and the original genevere used rye schnapps as the base spirit. English (London) gin is made with GNS. Probably corn but it doesn't matter; the botanicals in the gin are the important distinction and any taste from the base spirit is negligible. Although gin made with a brandy base might be interesting; brandy has a different mouth-feel than grain spirit.

Anyway, in 18th/early-19th century New England Dutch gin might have been more popular than it is today. I don't know what the social status of Dutch gin was, but in England gin was thought of about the same way we think of crack cocaine today; and for pretty much the same reasons.

As for the American rye (and bourbon) traditions, I think you're very much on the right track looking at Europe. As you already know, my own feelings are that the origins of our style of whiskey lie in Switzerland, a country that ordinarily doesn't spring to mind when one mentions Old Bourbon or Monongahela. But there are connections. :drink:
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Oct 16, 2004 12:28 pm

John,
Could gin made in the early 1800's in England be made from rye? I doubt that they were using corn at that time in England. They certainly did not have GNS as we know them back then (It took the column still to make that type of alcohol for the market). Could rye whiskey be an English traditional distilling product that simply left out the botanicals?

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Unread postby Strayed » Sat Oct 16, 2004 5:24 pm

I agree about the Coffey still; the GNS wouldn't have been completely N, like it is today. But corn (maize) was in widespread use in Europe by 1800.

I do have to correct an error, though, about the original question concerning rye. After posting my reply to you, I thought I'd check out my sources and I found out that, while it's true most of Europe east of the Rhine had already been making schnapps out of rye and wheat for centuries, that's not what Dutch genever was made of. According to H. Paul Jeffers (High Spirits, Lyons & Burford, NY 1997) English (London & Plymouth) gin is 75% corn and 25% barley, while Dutch (Scheiden) gin's base is equal parts corn, barley, and rye, which is what I think bourbon might have been prior to the adoption of Dr. Crow's recipe as the standard for straight whiskey.

I don't understand Mr. Corlis' problem, though. Was he upset about the difficulty of IMPORTING rye? Why would he want to do that? I'd be more inclined to think he was lamenting the lack of RUM, both because the recent end of the triangle trade affected Rhode Island more than any other state and because rum would make a perfect base for ersatz gin (if there can be such a spirit). By the way, there are records (albeit from later decades) of Westmoreland County (Pennsylvania) distilleries shipping rye whiskey to Philadelphia for use in making "French" brandy :wink:
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Unread postby bourbonv » Sun Oct 17, 2004 10:23 am

John,
John Corlis is lamenting the fact he can not bring rye grain in to feed his distillery. He points out that there are local rye growers but not near enough to meet the demand of the distilleries (there were about six) in the area and must bring rye in from New York and Pennsylvania. He even complains that he can not pay his taxes to pay for the war if he can not distill something to be taxed.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Nov 11, 2004 11:05 am

John and others,
Here is an interesting tidbit about the origin of rye and maybe even the bourbon recipe. We have a researcher here at the Filson, Wil Verhoevern, who is Dutch and teaches at a University in the Netherlands. I was asking him about the traditional grain used to make gin and enlightened me some on true Dutch Gin as opposed to English Gin. Dutch gin does not use botanicals for flavoring - instead they depend upon different grains to give flavor to their product. He is going to bring me a bottle of gin from the distillery in his home town when he returns in January.
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Unread postby cowdery » Thu Nov 11, 2004 6:12 pm

I have had Dutch Gin (which is available here in Chicago, but I've also had it over there) and it tastes somewhat like bourbon white dog, very unlike London Dry Gin.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Nov 12, 2004 11:45 am

Chuck,
My point exactly. If Dutch Gin gets its flavor from the grains used thenin all reality it is whiskey, but it can not be called whiskey in a modern sense unless they put it into an oak barrel. If the colonials were making "Dutch Gin" it would explain the experimentation with other grains that eventually became the basis for bourbon.
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Unread postby gillmang » Tue Jan 25, 2005 4:33 pm

I think gin and whiskey evolution are not related in the U.S.

Gin in The Netherlands and elsewhere in Flanders has been treated with juniper for a very long time. In the 1870's M.L. Byrn discussed in detail (in The Complete Practical Distiller) gin production in Holland and Flanders. He stated that juniper usually was used to flavor new spirit. If juniper wasn't used another flavoring often was. He said some genever, still retaining that name, used no flavoring, but he made it clear that juniper flavor (and it was added in different ways) was widespread in the business. It is clear too from his remarks that this was a means to rectify, to mask off-flavor.

Apparently, juniper-flavored spirit was discovered, or developed methodically, at Leyden University as a supposed medicament in the 1500's. No doubt originally spirit was made in The Netherlands without flavoring but people found early on juniper was a rectification agent and it suited their taste.

When the column still and other techniques allowed for rectification without use of juniper - the word genever (and its contraction, gin) is derived from various European words for juniper - it seems makers started to dispense more with the plant. This resulted by the early 1900's in "jonge genever" - young genever - young in the sense of being the newer, more industrial kind made from cheap molasses, potatos or maize corn. It was neutral in character and did not require juniper to mask off-taste. Of course, by then many people acquired the taste for the juniper flavoring so some jonge genever retained the plant as a flavoring. "Old" genever or "oude genever" was in contrast the original type, not old in the sense of being aged before sale. This original style meant it was made from mixed grains including traditionally a component of rye. The rye element seemed important since Byrn gives as a typical genever mash of quality 2/3rds rye and 1/3rd malted barley but mixed grains (e.g. wheat, rye, malt and/or, later, maize) likely was always an alternative. Again traditionally, oude genever was low proof spirit, retaining some flavor from the grains but this was problematic because wood aging was not a usual component of genever production, hence the wide use of juniper and other flavorings to rectify. Yes, today some oude genever (a small part of the genever market ) is aged - maybe old got transmuted in peoples' minds into the sense of long-matured. But as far as I know, genever gin, old or young, wasn't and still is not typically a barrel-aged product like whisky and brandy. It gets its character from juniper or other, rather non-whisky-related, flavorings. In contrast, whisky has typically been a long-aged, unflavored spirit since the mid-1800's at least.

Also as far as I know, the one genever type in Holland that never was flavoured with juniper is "korenwijn". This is a cereals-derived "moutwijn". Moutwijn (malt wine) is the technical name for the aforesaid traditional, cereals-derived distillate which all genever was originally. Yet korenwijn does not have a taste resembling any whisky I know (even very young rye whiskey); rather it has rather a characteristic light, spicy flavor which shows I think that spices or flavorings of some kind are used even if juniper specifically is eschewed. Bols makes a well-known "Corenwijn" of this type. These products clearly are assisted by modern rectification methods (e.g. , triple or more distillations). Before these refinements spirit produced from cereals would have been a strong-tasting beverage and would I think have been submitted to rectification treatment of some kind other than (typically) long barrel aging. The signature flavoring in Dutch distilling was and is use of juniper. I do not think korenwijn, even supposing it was originally unflavored, was the original genever or at least I have seen no evidence of that. In any case korenwijn seems an atypical example of genever. Byrn refers to non-juniper-flavoured genever as the exception, not the rule of Dutch distilling. Today, advanced distilling and other techniques have made much jonge genever taste like vodka but of the flavored types still extant they, from my experience, have a juniper or another spicy characteristic that seems unrelated to whisky of any kind.

Dutch gin was known widely in Britain and North America in Colonial and post-Colonial times, it was a by-product of the world maritime trade in which Holland played a key role and of certain specific international political developments. It makes sense some distillers in the new world wanted to imitate Hollands or Dutch gin since it had an international reputation. E.g., Jan Melchers - a Dutchman originally - made one such imitation in Quebec Province starting in the mid-1800's. The product survived until after the Second World War, in stone bottles to boot . Genever in the feisty juniper Dutch style is still made in Quebec, under license from de Kuyper, for example.

Whisky, the very term, was in origin a Celtic cereal product, sometimes flavoured but increasingly not so as the 1800's moved on. When it was flavored a variety of herbs and other flavorings (and sweetenings) was used, certainly not limited to juniper if that was used at all. Byrn gives a recipe for a flavored Irish whiskey in which a wide variety of spices are used but no juniper. The long aging in wood of unflavored whisky caught on in Scotland, Ulster and America in the early-to-mid 1800's; long aging has never been a hallmark of Dutch genever which traditionally was a flavored drink.

I have tasted (and can bring to the next Sampler) aged, unflavoured Belgian genever made from a mixed grain mash including rye. The brand is Filliers. This is in effect a type of korenwijn, an all-cereal distillate supposedly in a traditional style but Filliers chooses not to use any flavoring whatever. I am not clear whether Filliers used juniper at one time or never did so. Its genever is aged in wood, although not new charred wood I am quite sure, in two versions, a 5 year and 8 year old. It is a good drink but no way does it taste like any kind of American rye whiskey I know. There is a passing resemblance to some Canadian whisky or Scots grain whisky, but that hardly assists an argument that unflavored genever influenced American straight whiskey development. I believe in any case such unflavored, barrel-aged genever type was a rarity in the early 1800's if it existed at the time at all.

I am no academic or historian and this is simply my opinion from some 30 years of reading about and sampling international spirits. I believe American rye whiskey was influenced to a degree by rye distillation in the German lands whence certain immigrants in parts of 1700's Pennsylvania came. Mennonites from Switzerland probably did bring to the new land the ancestor of rye whiskey. 1970's and 1980's Michter's was likely its last vestige (in somewhat altered form). But we must recall: rye whiskey was aged in America from the mid-1800's on. By definition, informal and later formal, that is what straight whiskey is, low proof spirit aged in wood barrels (newly charred, preferably) with no additional flavor added. So the Swiss-German rye spirit import, if it was that, quickly morphed into a version of Celtic/American whisky.

Therefore, I cannot see how the main features of traditional genever production, namely, juniper flavouring and sale as unaged spirit, connect to the whiskey tradition of Western Pennsylvania and by extension Kentucky. There, the Scots-Irish developed whiskey probably with help with German fellow-immigrants but the latter were I think not making genever and in any case their influence was limited because long aging in wood, never mind new wood, was not a genever production technique. (I should add here that the use of the term, "geneva" for genever gin is a corruption that has nothing to do with the city of that name in Switzerland). Was the East Coast and well into the interior not settled mainly by English incomers? Many of them would have known the good Dutch gin, "Hollands" or "Schiedam", brought to England in the 1600's (through old King Billy of Orange and all that), and the distiller cited by Mike was I think trying to reach that market. To them whisky as known to the Ulstermen going to Appalaicha was probably an unknown quantity.

I perceive or can infer no connection to American whiskey from genever gin but this is a conclusion by a non-expert and I welcome further ideas and discussion.

Gary
Last edited by gillmang on Thu Jan 27, 2005 7:56 am, edited 2 times in total.
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Unread postby gillmang » Wed Jan 26, 2005 8:34 am

Some additional thoughts: I agree that if Western Pennsylvania distillers in the 1700's knew that on the East Coast distillers made a palatable liquor using rye or corn albeit it was called gin or Hollands, it might have encouraged them to try such grains to make whiskey. However we are speaking about different regions, and interraction between them at the time, especially in such matters, would have been unlikely. Possibly though George Washington's venture was influenced as to the suitability to use rye for whiskey by observation of what gin distillers not far away were doing and I am mindful Washington's whiskey was (it seems) mostly sold young.

We should recall though that in Ireland until relatively recently whiskey was made not only from barley (malted or unmalted) but from a mash which also incorporated other grains such as rye, oats or wheat. Therefore, I believe the Scots-Irish were not unfamiliar with distillation of whiskey from grains other than barley (or rather its commonly used predecessor in Celtic distillation, bere) including rye, even before they got to our shores.

German speakers in Pennsylvania such as the first Oberholtzer (later, Overholt) or Beam may in Europe have made rye spirit, possibly even a juniper-flavoured one (the Germans today have their juniper-flavoured korns amongst other types). They may have followed such practice here and influenced arriving Scots-Irish and existing American distillers, in fact I view this as probable. Still, such influence was in my view limited because American rye whiskey, except for concoctions like rock and rye, didn't become a juniper- or other-flavored drink. Second, I don't think it was grain choice so much as long barrel aging in new charred barrels which defined U.S. straight whiskey from quite early on (say, from the 1820's). Grain choice in Byrn's mind was something related to availability, cost, yield, only indirectly does he speak (in any positive way) to the different flavours produced. I am fairly sure corn and rye were used in North America predominantly because they were cheap, not because the practice was borrowed specifically from recently arrived European schnapps makers or coastal gin makers.

But again I think the arriving Scots-Irish and existing American distillers in Western Pennsylvania and later Kentucky knew they could work with a broad range of materials. If rye grew well in Pennsylvania, well, hey let's use that, Gramps said he always used some rye in the mash in Derry so let's add a whole bunch more here. It seems to me things likely happened that way, but that Continental European immigrants or gin makers blithely made mashes of rye or rye and corn would have been a reinforcing factor to the degree this was known by whiskey distillers. That factor may have operated at Mount Vernon due to relative proximity (I assume) to coastal gin distilleries. I doubt farmers on the Monongahela would have known much about gin production back East, though..

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Unread postby bourbonv » Sat Feb 12, 2005 7:52 pm

John,
I met at the Bourbon Academy at Woodford Reserve today a guy who has lived in Cincy for the past two years, but is from Switzerland. He tells me there is no tradition of grain distilling in that area (including Alsace) but instead fruit distillation. Grain distilling tradition is further north.

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Unread postby Strayed » Sun Feb 13, 2005 12:16 am

Mike,
You might be surprised at how little I know of Cincinnati history. (well, after spending a day with you at the library, I guess you wouldn't). I know *I* certainly wouldn't. Nor would I be surprised to learn that a Swiss bourbon-lover was not familiar with the obscure history of distilled spirits in Switzerland.

Besides, my idea places the birth of American red whiskey in the brandy-making Alsace / Palatine / Rhineland area, north of Switzerland.
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