Herman Melville’s Rye Whiskey Reference

Herman Melville’s Rye Whiskey Reference

Today is the day that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was published by New York’s Harper and Brothers in 1851. There is a reference in the book that connects whiskey to the color red, which indicates that aged whiskey was the norm in the mid 1850’s and that readers would make the obvious connection.

“That drove the spigot out of him!” cried Stubb. “‘Tis July’s immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela! Then, Tashtego, lad, I’d have ye hold a canakin to the jet, and we’d drink round it! Yea, verily, hearts alive, we’d brew choice punch in the spread of his spout-hole there, and from that live punch-bowl quaff the living stuff.”

I find this quote wonderfully enlightening because it mentions old Monongahela, a type of rye whiskey made in eastern Pennsylvania along the Monongahela River. It was a heavy rye mashbill whiskey (80% or more rye mixed with malted barley) that was the preferred whiskey style in the north after the Revolution. The other style of rye whiskey made in the north was a Maryland style rye (much like the style made by George Washington at Mt.Vernon) which was still mostly rye, but included more corn as the flavoring grain with malted barley. This is the style of American whiskey that would have made its way down south and morphed into a corn heavy mashbill that would become bourbon. (Whiskey mashbills in America would always reflect the crops that each local farmer grew best and had a majority of.) The fact that Herman Melville used the reference to “old Monongahela” without the word whiskey shows the ubiquity of the style and the trust he had that his readers would immediately recognize the reference.

Some historians have used this quote to show that the production of “bourbon whiskey” was well on its way to popularity. Even though it is not mentioned directly, “old Orleans” is believed to be another name for bourbon. (Perhaps new make rye whiskey from the north was shipped down the Mississippi to New Orleans, where it would have aged in oak barrels and changed over the voyage into a reddish brown sweet bourbon-like product) The question of when exactly bourbon became a commonplace word to describe a particular type of whiskey in America has long been debated. The consensus is that the first references to “bourbon” as a type of whiskey can be traced back to the 1820’s. Whiskey may have described any number of different types of distilled spirit before laws were put into place to differentiate the types.  Production guidelines and quality control wasn’t fully put into place until the Bottle in Bond Act of 1897.  The laws describing what legally can be called “Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey” weren’t put in place until 1906 in the Food and Drug Act. “Pure” whiskey was described in the Taft decision of 1909. In 1938, the law regarding only the use of new charred oak barrels to create whiskey was put into place for political protection of American cooperages. More specific identity laws “bourbon” wasn’t officially described until 1964.

The cultural significance of Moby Dick covers a lot more than American whiskey, but it’s nice to get a shout out to Pennsylvanian rye from Herman Melville all the same!
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