What was Monongahela whisky?

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What was Monongahela whisky?

Unread postby gillmang » Wed Feb 28, 2007 12:26 pm

I thought this might be a good place to collect thoughts and citations of what Monongahela whiskey or whiskeys were like from inception until their demise as classic output of Pennsylvania distilleries. Also, mention here is warranted of Kentucky whiskey past or present felt to represent the (or a) Monongahela style.

In a historical discussion of Richmond, Indiana, under the heading "liquor store", an 1825 ad is included which offers, "Monongahela whisky", "Cincinnati rectified whisky", and "country whisky". I think Monongahela whisky was rye whisky aged at least for a time (how long would it have taken to ship it in barrels from Western Pennsylvania to Indiana in those years? I am not sure where Richmond is in Indiana either). Rectified whisky may have been like a 1970's light whisky or even vodka. Country whisky was probably young Kentucky corn whisky or bourbon mash whiskey.

This shows Mon whisky had a reputation very early on.

I cannot figure out how to attach it but here is how to find it. Search "Monongahela whisky" (without the "e") in Google. It will appear about 5 entries down, called "Dr. Plummer Part III". In that document it is near to the end, under the heading "liquor store". They even had French brandy, and rum in Richmond, Indiana in 1825. Rum was clearly different from Monongahela whisky!

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Unread postby bourbonv » Wed Feb 28, 2007 7:47 pm

Gary,
This is what the author of a book on rectifying whiskey thought it should taste like:
Monongahela Whiskey: Neutral spirit, four gallons; honey, three pints, dissolved in water, one gallon; alcoholic solution of starch, one gallon; rum, half a gallon; nitric ehter, half an ounce; this is to be colored to suit fancy.
Some consumers prefer this whiskey transparent, while others like it just perceptibly tinged with brown; while others, again, want it rather deep, and partaking of red.

It is easy to see that sweetness was the main characteristic since 3 pints of honey and a gallon of rum are the main flavoring agents. I would say this is considered white rum since the recipe goes on to say that many consumers prefered it transparent or with only a tinge of color. To me this says that Monogahela rye was mostly an unaged or only slightly aged product in the 1860's and only part of the consumers wanted it red like an aged bourbon.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Wed Feb 28, 2007 11:45 pm

Gary,
Richmond Indiana is about 45 miles due west of Dayton, Ohio.

The Dr. Plummer reference you mentioned quoted an advertisment which announced the availability of
... ..a quantity of foreign and domestic liquors,—consisting of French Brandy, Peach Brandy, Rum, Wine, Gin Cordial, Cherry Bounce, Monongahela Whisky, Cincinnati Rectified Whisky, Country Whisky...

I would guess that, in 1825, "French Brandy" was aged Cognac-like brandy, and "Peach Brandy" was unaged white-dog-like local spirit.
"Cherry Bounce" was also a very popular local-style alcohol beverage at that time.

But the descriptions of the whiskeys are REALLY revealing, as they make a very clear distinction among the three types available from this obviously well-stocked dealer...

"Country Whisky" was, of course, unaged white whiskey -- which, even as late as 1825 was still probably the most popular variety.

"Cincinnati Rectified Whisky" would have meant a vaguely bourbon-style blended product which MIGHT have resembled today's blended whiskey, but might also have been quite stronger and more flavorful, as it hadn't yet developed into the bottom-shelf item it has become since then.
Think "Crown Royal".

"Monongahela Whisky", listed first and most prominently, most likely meant, "the real thing".

You'll undoubtedly notice that the word "bourbon" is not included in the advertisement.
It's quite likely that few or none in the Richmond area would have been familiar with the word.
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Unread postby gillmang » Thu Mar 01, 2007 12:32 am

Thanks gents, I agree with all you said.

Mike, as you know, that recipe is for imitation whiskey but you are right too in what you said in the other thread, that this may be a way to understand what the palate was of what was being imitated.

So who will brew up a batch of white Mon whiskey from 1860?!

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Unread postby bourbonv » Thu Mar 01, 2007 8:02 pm

John,
I think you might be thinking to far ahead with the use of "rectified" in this advertisement. I doubt that the "rectified" whiskey was made to be anything other than clear in appearance in 1825. At that time period, The documents I have seen refered to "rectified" whiskey as white dog that was either sweetened with a sugar or filtered through a charcoal vat before being sold, or both.
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 02, 2007 9:29 am

Here is an extract from another period ad, this one from a Baltimore trade directory of the 1850's:

"Extra fine old Monongahela Whiskey, from two to five years old, the flavour cannot be surpassed".

This ad also contained descriptions of many kinds of wines, brandies ("pale and dark"), and offered both "Irish whiskey" and "Scotch whiskey".

Search under Archives of Maryland + Monongahela whiskey" and it comes right up.

I suspect those Baltimore trade directories would reveal much more information and I'd like to find a way to access them methodically.

In this ad, there was no reference to corn whiskey or Kentucky whiskey or bourbon.

The references are only to "choice old rye" or "old rye whiskeys".

It seems evident that old meant 2-5 years even before the Civil War and if it did, the same had to be true for old bourbon.

The "red critter" was probably 4 year old or so in Kentucky.

Were new charred barrels being used for this "extra fine" Mon whiskey? I would think so. That is likely what made it extra fine.

Did it taste like Jim Beam rye does today, or one of the other 4 year old ryes...?

If you offered a merchant of Baltimore a taste of our rye whiskeys, would he recognise them?

I think John's pre-Prohibition Old Overholt (which really is pre-pre-Pro) probably was close to - or was - that "Extra Fine Old Monongahela Whiskey". It seemed about 4 years old. It was made only about 60 years after the period discussed. 60 years isn't so long for a traditional product.

That Overholt was darn good, better than most rye I know today but it was recognisably straight rye whiskey. If Beam would release some 100 proof Overholt single barrel aged in unheated warehouses it might resemble more closely the 1910's Overholt and therefore the 1850's.

It was "extra fine", the ad writer took pains to state... the "flavour" could not be "surpassed"...

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Unread postby bourbonv » Fri Mar 02, 2007 10:29 am

Gary,
I think your theory about Beam Rye might hold some water if they also distilled it at a low proof and put it in the barrel at 100 proof. I think the big thing missing in modern whiskey that 19th century had was stronger grain flavor.
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Unread postby gillmang » Fri Mar 02, 2007 12:28 pm

True, but still there should be a connection.

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Unread postby gillmang » Sat May 12, 2007 11:12 am

Gents, I am bumping this thread to show trade advertisement references to Monongahela whiskey I found earlier: one is from the 1850's (it rfers also to contemporary aging conventions) and the other from 1825. But afisher has shown that even in 1805 the term was being used in commerce. If that was so, it must have been used and earlier by distillers. I would think the term goes back to the earliest days of farm and craft distilling along and inland from the Mon river.

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Unread postby cowdery » Sat May 12, 2007 8:06 pm

Frontier producers don't have any reason to name a style. They're making whiskey and, where they are, it's the only whiskey there is, so they call it "whiskey" and leave it at that. A "type" name (e.g., Monongahela) only emerges when the product enters commerce in markets away from its point of origin, where the merchants and consumers need to distinguish one product from another.

I also believe that at this time it described a place of origin and not a "style" as such, in that someone was not making a "Monongahela-style whiskey" in Indiana or, for that matter, in Pennsylvania. It meant "whiskey from the Monongahela region" but that doesn't mean it wasn't stylistically distinctive.

"Rectified" meant "corrected," which typically involved redistillation or filtering through charcoal or bone dust, which was done to eliminate more of the undesirable congeners, but it would be going too far to equate that with neutral spirit or with what we would consider blended whiskey today.

Since this was before the introduction of the column still, there probably were issues of whiskey straight from the distillery often being too low in alcohol content and what the rectifier was "fixing" through redistillation was bringing the whiskey up to proof (i.e., 50% ABV).

I am convinced that Monongahela was made primarily from rye and thus, even aged, had a stronger and rougher flavor than corn whiskey. I also suspect that some of the first corn whiskey, or bourbon, in commerce, where it would have been compared to Monongahela and other spirits, was either 100% corn or made with corn and barley malt only, and thus had very little flavor. Modern bourbon evolved when people discovered that a little rye went a long way in a corn spirit, in terms of giving it a pleasing flavor that was not as overpowering as the Monongahela.
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Unread postby gillmang » Sun May 13, 2007 7:30 pm

Well, in the early days of (modern, revivalist) craft brewing, Americans called a pale ale made with large amounts of hops grown on the West Coast "American pale ale" or "West Coast pale ale". This was to identify their product as against others in the market (cream ales, imports like Canadian and U.K. ales, etc.). In the late 1700's, I would assume that even in the frontier let alone the nearby established towns, there was whiskey from elsewhere - those who could pay would have known where to find it. Even Scots and Irish whiskey must have been known then. I think locals called their whiskey Monongahela to identify it as their own. I don't discount the influence of export markets but I don't think it was exclusive.

As for rye, I agree rye was a component of this early whiskey, but not an exclusive one and often not a predominating one. This is clear from Samuel M'Harry's Practical Distiller from 1809, he worked and wrote in Lancaster County, PA but often spoke of the practices of his State, clearly referring to it as a whole. I confess he does not use the term Monongahela in the book but I am speaking of the market (even local) for the whiskey, not the supply side.

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Unread postby afisher » Sun May 13, 2007 9:34 pm

A couple of interesting points from Chuck's post:

cowdery wrote:I also believe that at this time it described a place of origin and not a "style" as such, in that someone was not making a "Monongahela-style whiskey" in Indiana or, for that matter, in Pennsylvania. It meant "whiskey from the Monongahela region" but that doesn't mean it wasn't stylistically distinctive.


I think in addition to meaning "whiskey from the Monongahela region" it probably specifically meant it was stylistically distinctive; otherwise who cares? Why bother specifying?

cowdery wrote: Modern bourbon evolved when people discovered that a little rye went a long way in a corn spirit, in terms of giving it a pleasing flavor that was not as overpowering as the Monongahela.


I would have thought that the pivotal development was the use of new charred oak to age a mostly-corn whiskey; after all, even a rye-free wheated bourbon is recognizably bourbon. I don't know if anybody has made a corn-only spirit in new charred oak (oops, not true, Tuthilltown does), but I bet it would taste like bourbon. I am a rye fan, but I don't think it's the defining characteristic.
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Unread postby EllenJ » Mon May 14, 2007 12:35 pm

cowdery wrote:Frontier producers don't have any reason to name a style. They're making whiskey and, where they are, it's the only whiskey there is, so they call it "whiskey" and leave it at that. A "type" name (e.g., Monongahela) only emerges when the product enters commerce in markets away from its point of origin, where the merchants and consumers need to distinguish one product from another.

Absolutely! That seems like such a simple and obvious concept, but it's amazing how often it gets overlooked. That's one reason why I've always held that the original distillers of what became known as "Monongahela" had no idea that it had turned red/brown and wood-flavored by the time it was served up in Baltimore taverns. Nor did the distillers of the corn whiskey that would become Kentucky bourbon. The merchants, with their Louisville warehouses, knew, because they'd already dumped all that "farmers' whiskey" into barrels, along with the rye whiskey that came down the river from Pittsburgh (maybe one barrel of rye for every four of corn, perhaps?) and let it sit in the warehouse for a season or two before sending it down to N'awluns.

cowdery wrote:I also believe that at this time it described a place of origin and not a "style" as such, in that someone was not making a "Monongahela-style whiskey" in Indiana or, for that matter, in Pennsylvania... ..It meant "whiskey from the Monongahela region" but that doesn't mean it wasn't stylistically distinctive.

I don't understand what would make you believe that, though. Gary's original post for this thread concerned an 1825 Richmond, Indiana advertisement referring to "Monongahela whisky", along with two other kinds, all identified by type, not place of origin (unless you equate "place of rectification" as "origin"). Also, note that this was apparently before people in Indiana were familiar with whiskey called "Bourbon".

Another telling point is that there wasn't any Monongahela coal, or Monongahela woolens, (or Bourbon tobacco, or Bourbon leather, either, for that matter). Any reference to Monongahela, or Bourbon, is known to mean only the spirit and nothing else, despite the fact that many products were associated with and shipped from those areas.

afisher wrote:I think in addition to meaning "whiskey from the Monongahela region" it probably specifically meant it was stylistically distinctive; otherwise who cares? Why bother specifying?

Absolutely. That's why the term also included whiskey from the many distilleries along the Allegheny river valley, too. The often-quoted reference in The Whale (Moby Dick) is owed entirely to the descriptive value of its distinctive type; of what possible value would its place of origin have been to Melville's story? After all, the Ishmael character was not from western Pennsylvania; he was native to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Where we was apparently familiar with Monongahela.

cowdery wrote:"Rectified" meant "corrected," which typically involved redistillation or filtering through charcoal or bone dust, which was done to eliminate more of the undesirable congeners, but it would be going too far to equate that with neutral spirit or with what we would consider blended whiskey today.

Since this was before the introduction of the column still, there probably were issues of whiskey straight from the distillery often being too low in alcohol content and what the rectifier was "fixing" through redistillation was bringing the whiskey up to proof (i.e., 50% ABV).


Here's another place where I agree completely with you, and I wish others could see it our way. Rectification got its bad connotations from what I call the "whiskey wars" that began in the 1870s and lasted (sort of) until the Taft decree of 1909. I say "sort of" because about that time the Temperence movement shifted into high gear and went on the attack against all forms of beverage spirits, rectified, straight, or whatever.

cowdery wrote:I am convinced that Monongahela was made primarily from rye and thus, even aged, had a stronger and rougher flavor than corn whiskey. I also suspect that some of the first corn whiskey, or bourbon, in commerce, where it would have been compared to Monongahela and other spirits, was either 100% corn or made with corn and barley malt only, and thus had very little flavor. Modern bourbon evolved when people discovered that a little rye went a long way in a corn spirit, in terms of giving it a pleasing flavor that was not as overpowering as the Monongahela.

I think that says it pretty well. Let me recall what I wrote a couple of paragraphs ago about what might have been discovered in mixing (i.e., rectifying) rye whiskey which had been acquired from ships (especially steamboats by the 1840s or so) that chose not to continue past the Falls of the Ohio and corn whiskey purchased locally. A fair estimate might be one barrel of rye whiskey to four of corn whiskey. Why, that would be about 20%, wouldn't it? Sound like a familiar proportion to you?
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Unread postby gillmang » Mon May 14, 2007 1:34 pm

John, in M'Harry's 1809 Practical Distiller, he indicates familarity with all the perms and combs (practically speaking) of corn and rye in mashes. It is evident when you read him that distillers in Pennsylvania used both grains or one or the other in varying proportions. The choice was dictated by i) availability, and ii) economics (yield and value of slops).

If this was so in Lancaster County it had to be true (more or less) elsewhere in the State. M'Harry indicated familarity with many drinks which were not even American, so he had to know how whiskey was made further west in his State.

As for the name Monongahela whiskey being applied initially from far away, that may have been so, but I believe the news about aging and preferred types reached the home turf pretty fast. I don't think farmer-distillers (and it is evident anyway by 1809 that distilling was not farming as such for many but was a craft or artisan business) were in the dark about what their product was like when shipped. M'Harry notes the beneficial effects of shipment on the quality of spirits. He specifically states that storage in barrels would impart "color" and "maybe some taste". These guys weren't unsophisticated, they knew exactly what their whiskey was like when shipped. I believe they would have called it Monongahela whiskey early on and this meant (we know this from other sources) two types of rye, corn or mixed grain whiskeys: new whiskey and whiskey that was aged. In export markets (e.g. Maysville, KY) flatboat shipment would have ensured that colored whiskey was the norm. But we know from other sources, many quoted on the board in the last two years, that a distinction was drawn between aged and new or common whiskey until (it seems) after the Civil War.

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Unread postby cowdery » Mon May 14, 2007 3:13 pm

My point may have been somewhat misunderstood. The initial use of names such as Monongahela and Bourbon was to identify places of origin, but it was significant to do so because the whiskeys were, in fact, stylistically different. If they had been commodities such as lumber or flour, no one would have bothered to name them.

It also is significant that we see repeated evidence of the term Monongahela (referring to whiskey) being in common use well before the term Bourbon appears.

However, I stand by my other point that the makers of Monongahela whiskey were simply making whiskey in the manner known to them and with the materials available to them. They weren't making Monongahela whiskey as a deliberate "style" and probably didn't start to call it that until remote customers began to ask for more of that Monongahela whiskey, as later occurred with Bourbon whiskey.

All of this is on a continuum, but in the earliest days, while the gentry may have received shipments of spirits made on the East Coast and even in Europe, most people had to make do with local production, which they would not have had any reason to name beyond basic type, i.e., whiskey or brandy. I consider it self-evident that names like Monongahela and Bourbon were originally given by customers out of the region and only subsequently adopted by the producers. That's why the names were place names, and very generalized place names at that, rather than something more personal (a producer's name) or fanciful.

As for barrel aging, I have often made the point that barrel aging and even charring didn't need to be "discovered" on the American frontier as their benefits were well known from antiquity. Two points to consider. Whiskey that traveled east, on wagons or pack animals, was likely in small barrels, whereas what was shipped down river by flatboat likely was in larger barrels. There was ample timber in the Monongahela River valley and so at some point, when the volume of barreled exports began to exceed the volume of barreled imports, there would have been insufficient barrels available for reuse and locally-produced new barrels would have become more important, which, whether or not they were charred, would have had more effect on the whiskey.

I feel least confident in saying that mash bills were different or becoming set during this period, since everyone agrees that distillers would have used whatever they had. My research into the early days of settlement in Northcentral Ohio has shown that maize was as dominant there as it was in Kentucky. It's possible that the main difference between Monongahela whiskey and Bourbon whiskey was neither mash bill nor aging but water, since the water in western Pennsylvania would have had a significantly higher iron content, I suspect (in lieu of actually researching it).

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?
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