City Guide Maggie Kimberl Whiskey History

Learning Distilling History through Historic Distilling Practices

What can we learn about the modern distilling industry through practicing historic distillation methods?

There’s been a movement in recent years to bring back historic distilling practices. Of course it isn’t terribly practical to distil this way for commercial purposes, though places like George Washington’s Mount Vernon Gristmill and Distillery are making a name for themselves doing just that. But there’s a lot to be learned about the history of the distilling industry by learning and emulating early distilling practices, and much has been lost to history for the simple fact that nobody bothered to write it down. This means people with highly specialized knowledge of these historic distilling practices have been tasked with collaborating to piece together their bits of knowledge until a clearer picture of historic distilling methods emerges. At Locust Grove in Louisville, Kentucky, experts from all over the nation are working to teach visitors about historic distillation methods, a new piece of the bourbon tourism puzzle.

“Other than enthusiasm for the product of it, I actually had no hands on exposure to distilling – not even a distillery tour – prior to training on period equipment for this project,” says Locust Grove Program Director Brian Cushing. “When we were in the research phase for the Locust Grove distillery, Steve Bashore at Mt. Vernon was kind enough to host Melissa Alexander and me in their distillery to get familiar with the equipment and the process. The time I spent immersed in the process there with Steve and his crew formed the cornerstone of our understanding here and a jumping off point for our own research. While I may have a lot of catching up to do compared to the amazing modern distillers I have met since then, the advantage for me and for our interpretation at Locust Grove is that I did not have any modern habits or preconceptions that needed breaking; thanks to Steve and the Mt. Vernon staff, I essentially learned the process in the 18th Century. Since then, both Wilderness Trail Distillery and Spirits of French Lick have been kind enough to donate training, which did a lot to flesh my understanding of the science behind the process and other skills that go into the trade. The most surprising thing to me after my first day working in a modern distillery? That I left nearly as clean as when I arrived. Distilling in the 18th and early 19th Century was completely hands on- every ingredient and every part of the process. It will run you ragged but I prefer it.”

Boiling water for the mash at Locust Grove

“I think we can learn a lot about how Bourbon became common industry via these historic methods and tools and in a lot of ways,” says Spirits of French Lick head distiller Alan Bishop. “I think we can also learn about some of the agrarian pieces of the puzzle and practical distilling methods we might have left behind in the preceding 200 years. We more effectively get to experience how agriculture, weather, and seasons had their effect on grain, fermentation, and distillation. To this I would add that we have the ability to take a look at what became Bourbon in terms of what ingredients and styles of whiskey were common at the time. Whiskeys that by modern standards might seem odd to us now we’re common standards due to their efficiency, ease of work, and availability of staple and cheap grains. 100% malted corn Whiskey is an example of said type. Nearly every farm-distiller would have known the method for malting and also how much more efficient the conversion of starch to sugar became and subsequently would have noticed the larger output of alcohol. For distillers using these methods is “grounding” in a lot of ways.  It certainly makes us appreciate how far our industry and technology has come as well as the ease we have in our modern distilleries vs fighting the elements.”

The methods being used at historic distilling sites such as Locust Grove had to be extrapolated from small bits of historic data available, and even something like fire management was not well understood at first.

“Of course spending time at Mount Vernon last year was extremely helpful as well,” says Bishop. “I always learn something from Steve Bashore and Lisa Wicker. The big thing they helped me understand was fire management which in itself is an art form.”

Historic stills are very hands-on.

“Surprisingly most of these techniques aren’t so far off what many in my family were doing in Kentucky and Indiana the past few generations,” Bishop continues. “The technology and methodology of old school farm Distilling was very closely reflected by later day moonshiners, particularly those who prided themselves on making true corn Whiskey and not sugar based Moonshine. I learned a lot of what I know from books published in the early 1800’s as well as from my research into the farm distilling industry of Southern Indiana at The Alchemist Cabinet but just as much of the knowledge if not more is gleaned by practicality and experiments. Some of the old books have ideas that work and some never did and never will, but nothing compares to getting your hands dirty and trying it out.”

“Again, I can’t give enough credit here to Steve at Mt. Vernon; I don’t know how we could have even gotten started building an understanding without him,” says Cushing. “Susan Reigler and Mike Veach were a great help consulting on and pointing us to resources on what was going on in our region, specifically, versus Virginia. The networking of Locust Grove board member Sally Van Winkle Campbell got us in touch with a broad range of industry professionals and led to a very helpful discussion about the role brandy likely played with the guys at project sponsor Copper and Kings. Alan Bishop of Spirits of French Lick and the Alchemist Cabinet has been very generous with consulting based on his research into historic distilleries and practices in Southern Indiana and Kentucky and leading us through some of the processes that his research has shed light on. Of course, no research project around here Is complete without digging into the archives at the Filson Club, which holds the one extant document known that relates to the Locust Grove distillery, and Jim Holmberg was kind enough to facilitate. And finally, one of the most exciting things to me when researching historic trades, whether it’s tailoring, cooking, building, or distilling, is sitting down with manuals written on the subject by people during the period and going back to them over and over again to gain new insights as my understanding of the subject gradually improves. This has been a true community effort fueled by shared passion; it has been a true privilege to be part of it.”

It should be noted that, while the distillery at Locust Grove is fully functional, they have not yet decided to pursue the proper licensure that would allow them to operate it as a distillery. So at this point in time, demonstrations are done with water instead of mash, though mashing has taken place on the grounds for demonstration purposes only. The mash was later transferred to Kentucky Artisan Distillery for distillation.

“Our greatest goal for the Locust Grove distillery is for our visitors to understand distilling not as a standalone luxury but as an integral part of farm economy in the past,” says Cushing. “From there, we hope they will explore the vast world of the intricately interconnected aspects of farm economy in the past with us, hopefully be more aware of agriculture’s role in distilling today, and maybe even get some ideas that they can apply to their own lives from old farm skills. This is also a great way to get information about slavery at Locust Grove and in this region to our guests. Enslaved African Americans comprised the majority of the workforce at Locust Grove between 1792-1856 to the point that they were necessarily working the distillery and all other aspects of the farm. While people might come see us to share our excitement about exploring early distilling, we hope it leads them to discover all of the skills and processes that went into making life on an early 19th Century farm work and the stories of the real people who got it done.”

19th Century Apple Brandy at Historic Locust Grove, Courtesy of Townsends

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

0 comments on “Learning Distilling History through Historic Distilling Practices

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.