Why Are the Insides of Whiskey Barrels Charred?

Occum’s razor basically states that “the simplest explanation is most likely the right one”. While that may not always be the case, when we address the questions “When did whiskey begin being aged in charred barrels” and “What is the history that led to coopers adopting this technique for whiskey making”, I think we often miss the obvious answers because they’re not clever. The idea that a cow could light a barn on fire and accidentally char the inside of Kentucky’s first distiller, Elijah Craig’s whiskey barrels is…romantic. A complete load of nonsense, but romantic. Leaving aside the fact that Elijah Craig was NOT Kentucky’s first distiller or that bourbon most certainly was NOT the first whiskey to be aged in charred oak…well, let’s just disregard that...

Pre-Prohibition Distillers of Pennsylvania

I have spent the last few years researching and cataloging information on nearly 200 distilleries that produced rye whiskey across Pennsylvania before 1920. The information about Pennsylvania’s distilling history along with the traditions that established Pennsylvania as the leader in American rye whiskey production has been lost to generations of Pennsylvanians, not to mention the many new whiskey drinkers just learning about our country’s distilling heritage. I am making my best effort to reopen the history book of Pennsylvania rye whiskey and bring these distilleries back into the conversation. Bourbon is a whiskey that began its introduction to American drinkers in the early 1800s, joining the rye whiskey that had already been sitting comfortably...

Does Terroir Influence Whiskey?

Does Terroir Influence Whiskey?

When a wine maker talks about what sets his/her wine apart from others, you can be sure terroir will be a part of their explanation. Terroir is “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” So, the same grape varietal grown in southern France, when it is grown in the Napa Valley, will taste very different. The influence of the local vegetation, pollen, decomposed matter and mineral composition in the soil, morning dews, how many hours of sun and shade a location has, seasonal rainfall, among many other things, all affect the grape harvest every year.  The effect of the environment on the grapes will, of course, affect the flavor and scent of the wine that’s made from them. ...

Let’s Talk Bourbon and Tulips…

Let’s Talk Bourbon and Tulips…

Let’s talk bourbon and tulips. I popped into the Philadelphia Art Museum recently to browse an exhibition and found myself wandering the European Art wing.  One of the historically reconstructed rooms is originally from the Netherlands (built in the early 17th century), a part of a brewery compound on the River Spaarne in Haarlem. On the antique table in the middle of the room was a strange looking white, porcelain vase with blue, painted decorations.  At the bottom of the vase, in script, it says “Irrational Exuberance.” It took me a minute to realize that this was a tulip vase and the reference was to the Netherlands’ tulip mania in the 1630s. This vase is a perfect addition to this reconstructed room because Haarlem (the town where this room is from) was the...

New Distilleries in Pennsylvania

New Distilleries in Pennsylvania

The American Whiskey Convention in Philadelphia was a bit of an inspiration for me to spend a bit more time discussing the boom in whiskey distilling here in Pennsylvania.  The “White Dog Row” element of the Convention showed off 11 new make spirits from 8 different local distilleries.  White whiskey is the backbone of any distillery.  It shows the character of the grain, the flavors contributed by the yeasts and the potential of the spirit.  No amount of aging can fix a bad white whiskey foundation.  I think it was important to highlight the potential of our local distilleries through their white dogs.  It also gave a chance for the distillers and representatives from those distilleries to speak directly to the public about their work and their visions for the...

Whiskey and Technology

Whiskey and Technology

Has technology in whiskey production taken anything away from American whiskey? So much of the growth of whiskey production in this country has been wrapped up in innovation and technology.  Whiskey production, early in our nation’s history, was limited by how much your local distiller could make in his/her still.  A distiller was limited by how far they could move product.  Roads weren’t great, and rivers only flowed one way.  Once steam boats were invented in the late 1700’s and started being commonly used to navigate rivers in the 1800’s, whiskey had a new way to get to customers.  River traffic created a need for canal systems.  The 1820’s brought the locomotive and the Industrial Revolution.  The 1830’s saw the invention of the Coffey still and now bulk...

Lets Hear It For The Maltsters!

Lets Hear It For The Maltsters!

One of the most amazing steps in making whiskey is the one of the first steps and is often overlooked in its importance. The first step is farming the grain, of course.  This is incredibly important in determining the quality of the grain.  So much is dependent upon the growing season, weather, rainfall and soil quality.  One harvest will differ from the next.   After the harvest, it’s the maltsters turn… Many grains are used in making whiskey, especially now that so much experimentation is being done to create craft whiskeys.  They can all be malted, but no grain has the diastatic power (enzyme power to convert starches to sugars) that barley has.  It is called the “workhorse grain” because it is often added to a mash in small amounts just for its wonderful...

What is Triticale Whiskey?

What is Triticale Whiskey?

We know that whiskey is made from grain.  A lot of new micro-distillers, in an effort to try something new and set themselves apart, are creating interesting artisanal whiskeys with odd-ball grain combinations.  Americans have grown comfortable with bourbon whiskey made with corn, rye whiskey made with rye, and malt whiskey made with barley.  But triticale whiskey?  What is that? Triticale is a hybrid of rye and wheat.  Rye is booming on the whiskey market today. (Rye whiskey is made of at least 51%rye in the grain recipe/mashbill.) Everyone is tripping over themselves to buy a bottle of the wheated bourbon that is Pappy Van Winkle. (A wheated bourbon usually has a dominance of corn -usually close to 70%- and uses wheat as a flavoring grain- usually 16%.)...