What was Monongahela whisky?

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Unread postby afisher » Mon May 14, 2007 11:19 pm

cowdery wrote:We know the whiskeys being made in the East were rye-based and because Pennsylvania distillers made rye whiskey in the later period, we asssume rye was grown there early on, but maybe not. Was western Pennsylvania that much different from Ohio or Kentucky in that regard?


FWIW, a bunch of 19c references point to PA being a major producer of rye and OH being a major producer of "Indian corn." I have not seen anything that resolves Western PA specifically. As you point out, Western PA developed later than Eastern PA but before Ohio and Kentucky, so on that basis it could go either way. One argument in favor of Monongahela's having always been rye-based is that later on PA made a lot of Bourbon; if there had been a long local history of corn-dominated whiskey, why would they have used a "foreign" name and retargeted the Monongahela name for a minor player?
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Unread postby gillmang » Tue May 15, 2007 4:32 am

I agree that rye whiskey became the predominant style of Western Pennsylvania and indeed the State as a whole. But in the earliest days (when the business was artisan) I think it depended on the factors I mentioned earlier. John Lipman's fine survey of Western and Eastern PA distillers (see http://www.ellenjaye.com) makes it clear the distilleries ended being largely rye-based. Bomberger's made rye until it closed when Prohibition came in. In the West of the State, Large, Gibson's, Overholt, etc. etc. all made rye whiskey. Michter's Original Sour Mash whiskey was essentially a derivative of straight rye whiskey. I think this development of rye specialisation can be explained by the increasing association (although never exclusive) of Kentucky and Tennessee with corn-based whiskeys and the historic importance of rye crops in the East (it was a cool crop grain suited to the agriculture of the States which specialised in rye whiskey especially Pennsylvania, New York to a degree, Maryland ditto).

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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue May 15, 2007 8:58 am

Just a note here about Mash Bills. Everything I have found written from before 1820 have corn, rye or wheat and malted barley as a Mash bill. No all corn or all rye. These are all of Virginia/Kentucky origin, not Pennsylvania.

At least the people who wrote down their distilling methods seem to have a mash bill of what we describe as bourbon today. There may have been all corn whiskey made here in Kentucky but I could not proove that with written records. The written records imply a more modern bourbon mash. There is also quite a bit of records from the period of people in Kentucky growing rye to support the distilling industry.
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Unread postby gillmang » Tue May 15, 2007 9:44 am

M'Harry discusses all-corn and all-rye (except for barley malt) mash bills, but he was based in Pennsylvania of course.

He preferred a mixed mash too, though, one that is similar again to modern bourbon recipes.

I think the answer, Mike, is simply that people found that the mixed grain recipe tasted best. As Chuck said, all-corn would produce a milder product (although for new whiskey that might be a relative thing), and all-rye would produce in many cases a rougher, too-strong whiskey. The modern bourbon mash formula was probably worked out very early (late 1700's).

In Pennsylvania though, aged rye whiskey had a market and it may have been simply the fact of rye (as a crop) being traditional there. The mashbills however were not always 100% rye (exclusive of barley malt). Some were all-rye, e.g., Baltimore Pure Rye was 98% rye, the "rye-e" rye, it was dubbed. Probably they used malted rye and a little corn or wheat (Irish whiskey, pure pot still, used to be made with malted and unmalted barley and 1-3% rye, maize or wheat). But some distillers would have used I am sure 2/3rds rye 1/3rd corn (plus barley malt), in fact I seem to recall seeing a bottle of Finch whiskey from Pennsylvania, from around Civil War time, that advertised that mash bill on the label (or was it the reverse!?) and Michter's Original Sour Mash was another variation (essentially half corn and the rest mostly rye with some barley malt).

F.X. Byrn, writing in the 1860's in Philadelphia, gives varying recipes for rye whiskey which involve 70%-80% unmalted rye and the rest barley malt. Perhaps by this time, the industry was distinguishing itself in that State by making all-rye whiskey, to set itself apart that is from the Kentucky bourbon industry which was growing by leaps and bounds. But that some rye + corn mash whisky was made in PA at the time seems undeniable and indeed bourbon was made there until the 1970's.

I think really what you found in Virginia and Kentucky became that region's preferred taste with some rye whiskey being made to cater to the older taste for rye-predominant beverage, and the obverse developed in Pennsylvania and Maryland (with Maryland being more blended-oriented), where rye was dominant in the mash. This would have made sense from a business specialisation point of view, the industries would have segmented in this fashion so that Monongahela could retain a market, Bourbon could retain and grow its market, Maryland could retain its (always smaller, more tenuous) market with its rye and blend variations.

Canadian whisky, the least flavoursome of the rye-derived whiskies, ultimately removed most of the market for American straight rye which is unfortunate, it was a kind of usurpation although very much with the concurrence of the consumer (who could have resisted but didn't bother).

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Unread postby cowdery » Tue May 15, 2007 2:22 pm

Does anyone have an idea where we could get a mineral analysis of the water resources in the Pittsburgh area? Are there iron deposits in the immediate vicinity that led to Pittsburgh's development as an iron and steel center, or was the ore always imported? If western Pennsylvania's water supply had iron content significantly higher than that of Kentucky, that alone could account for a flavor preference for Kentucky whiskey over western Pennsylvania whiskey, regardless of mash bill.
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Unread postby gillmang » Tue May 15, 2007 2:41 pm

Microbrewers and some home brewers in the area would probably have a good handle on this. I do not know any in the Monongahela valley or Pittsburgh but maybe other board members would (here or on SB). Water could affect things, less I think when distilled because of the purification that entails, but more with the water used for proof reduction. In the old days, I am sure local water was used to cut, there would have been no de-ionised water or other sophisticated water treatments done. And I would not want to minimise the effect of that water: even Bonded whiskey was composed fully of 50% water (more when calculated by weight, and the fact that water is heavier than ethyl alcohol probably means that water has a more decisive effect on taste than we may think at first blush - something modern vodka producers know well to the profit of many of them).

I still really do not know what Monongahela whiskey was like. I think current Overholt resembled it, and probably WT rye too, with perhaps a stronger hit of rye since those ryes are "legal ryes" or close to it. I think John suggested once that if you added a dash of Potrero rye (or, I'd add, the Canadian Lot 40) to Overholt, that is what Mon whiskey was like. I think that may well be the case. That pre-WW 1 Overholt I was privileged to taste with John was a lot like that (the touch of "varnish" which even some legal ryes have). That is quite a different taste to most bourbon and I think must derive from the higher percentage of rye in the mashbill. Jim Bready's 1990 article on Maryland rye also refers to a shellac- or varnish-like taste in his taste note at the end of the article. (Hence the blending savvy no doubt of the Maryland distillers and the ceaseless rectification innovations of the Canadian ones).

Yet, who really knows, tastes from old bottles are not always reliable, oxidation can produce some odd effects. One day for a change I'd like to taste some 1930's gin or vodka and if it tastes funky I'd know all those historical tastings, interesting as they can be, must be taken with a grain of salt - or not!

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Unread postby cowdery » Tue May 15, 2007 3:39 pm

"What was Monongahela whiskey?" is most likely a moving target, as what it was in the late 18th century may have differed significantly from what it became in the early 19th century and then subsequently. I'm probably most interested in what characteristics it had in the earliest days of its export to other markets and how it compared to whiskey from Kentucky and other places.
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Unread postby gillmang » Tue May 15, 2007 3:55 pm

In the earliest days, on the farmstead, it may have tasted like Isaiha Morgan rye whiskey - which is very good whiskey. If stored or shipped a short time, it may have tasted like Manhattan Rye from Tuthilltown Distillers. But shipped for months or more, it probably tasted (prior to column distillation anyway) like Old Potrero rye (either the 18th or 19th century versions because different barrels would have been used).

By the mid-1800's, the 3-5 year old Monongahela whiskey mentioned in one of the ads I referred to probably was similar to Rittenhouse rye whiskey or Pikesville rye, more or less.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Tue May 15, 2007 5:56 pm

Chuck,
I doubt that there is any iron in the western Penssylvania water. While at United Distillers we acquired several cases of prohibition era rum from New England. It had an off color and a bad taste. The quality control person at U D, Mike Wright, tested it and said he found traces of iron, probably from the water used to make the rum. If there was iron in the water, I doubt that they would have gained a reputation for fine whiskey.

The shallow sea that created the limestone belt under Kentucky (and Tennessee, Indiana, Ohio and probably western Pennsylvania) adds calcium to the water, but also is pretty much iron free. I think Pennsylvania became more a part of the rust belt because it was close to the source of coal than iron ore. Kentucky also is a rich source of coal, a by-product of the same sea that formed the limestone.
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Unread postby gillmang » Tue May 15, 2007 8:26 pm

Mike, what happened to that rum?

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Unread postby NeoTexan » Tue May 15, 2007 9:15 pm

cowdery wrote:Does anyone have an idea where we could get a mineral analysis of the water resources in the Pittsburgh area? Are there iron deposits in the immediate vicinity that led to Pittsburgh's development as an iron and steel center, or was the ore always imported? If western Pennsylvania's water supply had iron content significantly higher than that of Kentucky, that alone could account for a flavor preference for Kentucky whiskey over western Pennsylvania whiskey, regardless of mash bill.

I have no scientific evidence, only anecdotal. I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, New Kensington and Lower Burrell. There where two artisan wells in the area that were accessible to the public. I recall an article in the local paper discussing the properties and I believe it mentioned the lack of iron is the reason people filled their gallon jugs for home use.
Last edited by NeoTexan on Wed May 16, 2007 1:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed May 16, 2007 9:00 am

Gary,
The last time I was in the U D Archive, it was still stacked in a corner - about 5 cases or so of rum and another 5 cases or so of brandy.
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Unread postby gillmang » Wed May 16, 2007 9:53 am

Interesting. I would love to try some sometime since New England rum is kind of a legendary American drink, stretching back (with applejack) to the origins of domestic beverage alcohol production.

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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed May 16, 2007 12:10 pm

Gary,
Trust me in this case - you do not want to try this rum. The iron is a bitter nasty taste.
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Unread postby gillmang » Wed May 16, 2007 12:57 pm

Yeah but each bottle?

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