In looking again at The Practical Distiller by Samuel M'Harry (1809), I saw the following statement:
"Malt for distilling ought to be dried without smoke".
This requires that I amend or qualify my theory earlier stated. It is an intriguing statement in many ways. Since the book contains recipes for beverage beer as well as for whiskey, one can read M'Harry as suggesting it is okay to use smoked malt for brewing beer but not for whiskey-making. Indeed many have speculated that beers of the time must have been smoky because it is known wood was used to dry barley malt (however, other sources I have, from England, going back to the 1700's and earlier suggest that smoked beers were regarded as faulty or a regional taste and malt should be dried with materials which did not impart a smoke taste to beer, so this is unclear). But one thing is clear and I acknowledge it - M'Harry did not like smoky whiskey.
Since I posit that the whiskey heritage of Ulster-people and Lowlands Scots was the main influence on American whiskey, where does this leave my theory? Is it possible M'Harry personally did not like a peat reek? Many Scots today do not - most malt whisky made today is not strongly peated and much of it uses no peat at all. Maybe other 1809 American distillers liked this effect, however. This is possible. However I will accept that probably M'Harry was speaking to the general practice. However, this does not mean that the influential Dr. Crow, working some 30-40 years later, did not want to impart a smoky taste to American whiskey such as he had known at home - and Crow is associated with the methodical use of the charred barrel. I do not know from whence in Scotland he hailed. If he was a Highlander, maybe he liked the peat taste of Islay Scotch whisky, for example...
But let's assume Crow did not intend to impart a smoky palate to American whiskey.
In that case, I offer this thought and modification to my previous ideas: since the Scots-Irish and Lowlanders were the predominant immigration to America from Britain in the 1700's, is it possible whiskey production there, legal or not, had dispensed with or never used peated malt? Today the surviving Scots Lowlands distillers, and Bushmills distillery in Ulster, use no peated malt at all. In general in Ireland whiskey is unpeated (except for the Scots-leaning Connemara and that is made by Cooley, a distillery established only in the last 20 years or so). The Lowlands and Ulster by the later 1700's may have used straw or coal to dry their malt. I am not sure when coke became a commercial product, it was available in 1809 since M'Harry advises how to make "coaked malt". My point is, the specific social and economic background from which whiskey spun-off to America may have been smoked malt-averse or even ignorant of its use. Peated or strongly peated malts are associated today with the Highlands fringes of Scotland, so possibly even in the early 1800's strongly peated whiskey was regarded as a regional or crofter's practice and people in Ulster and the Scots Lowlands used non-smoky materials to dry their malt. And I have noted that Fischer in Albion's Seed states that emigration from the Highlands of Scotland to America was not the pattern in the 1700's, subject to some exceptions, one of which I have already mentioned in relation to North Carolina. Therefore, smoked whiskey might have been regarded by the American Scots-Irish and their forbears as a fault or a curiosity and to the extent practiced in the Highlands it was something foreign to their tradition and understanding of whiskey.
In sum, one might conclude that American whiskey is a legacy, adapted, of Scots-Irish and Lowlands distillers who in general at the time did not use smoked malt to make whiskey.
In M'Harry, there is no suggestion that whiskey should be made from all-malt - malt is advised only in small quantity to effect a conversion of the starches in corn and rye. The mash bills given by M'Harry and taken for granted by him are blends of rye, corn and malt in proportions that are used today or in recent memory (e.g. 2/3rds corn, 1/3rd rye, half corn, half rye, etc.). His beer recipes (for beverage beer) call for all-malt and he specifies "pale" or "brown" (he says pale is the best - - looks like predicted the American yellow lager trend early on.
). He does offer some fruit beer recipes and other variations but one can see these are secondary.
In this regard, he clearly was influenced by yield. He repeatedly states that corn and rye offer high yields, especially corn, and the classic 2/3 rds corn 1/3rd rye recipe (with malt to convert) is his staple recipe and is used in the section where he works out profit calculations for a common distillery - this is the bourbon mash recipe of today. The only difference to modern practice - not a small difference - is his output was mostly unaged or little aged.
We have spoken in other threads about the charred barrel but I'll say here it receives little attention in this 1809 book. He mentions charring (by burning of straw in the vessels) to "sweeten" tubs and hogsheads but seems to be referring to the vats and other vessels used to mash and distill the product, not to store finished whiskey. Although, in extended comments in the common gin section he advises to store clarified spirits, in effect whiskey, in "sweet" casks - which by reference other parts of the book can include new charred barrels - and states a couple of years aging will greatly improve them - this may be an early form of bourbon. He refers also more than once to a natural "aged flavor" and gives recipes to emulate it, including filtering in maple charcoal, brick dust or through flannel (just as JD or GD do today in the first stage of processing) and adding coloring. However, he notes a disadvantage to aging too: he says it imparts some "flavor" and this is not wanted by people whose speciality it is to blend foreign liquors with domestic. He is referring to the practice of adulterating foreign brandy, say, with clean young domestic spirit to extend it and make it cheaper to sell. In sum, bourbon as we know it today seems to have existed and M'Harry knew about it and ways to imitate it but American aged whiskey was still in its infancy and certainly bourbon had not emerged fully as an acknowledged, separate type of spirituous drink. Then too, M'Harry was a distiller whose business was to make and sell - quickly - whiskey. The aging of whiskey was evidently a different matter or, perhaps, a different specialty and one (as other evidence has shown) that was performed initially by grocers and other intermediaries including shippers. Other sources might establish that aged whiskey, in effect bourbon as we know it today, was an established trade category albeit (probably) prized and costly. I seem to recall that George Washington's extant distillery records show that a small proportion of his output was aged and almost all his whiskey was different grades or strengths of common whiskey, i.e., sold as produced (the vodka of its time). The true bourbon may have been initially a small part of the whiskey market vying with and perhaps influenced in its origin by, good French brandy, but here we get even further afield from this thread.
Finally, and although we must remember M'Harry's book is one book, by one person, in one place (Pennsylvania), I acknowledge there is no foreign air about the book. He is all-American making what was by 1809 an all-American product. He rarely refers to foreign liquors except to suggest American liquor properly made is as good or better. In this he was right.