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 Western Pennsylvania in the Monongahela River Valley. It was usually a heavy rye mashbill whiskey (50-80% or more rye mixed with malted rye or malted barley, though other grains are known to have been used) 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 very similar in the 19th century, but saw the addition of more corn with malted barley in the 20th century, especially after Prohibition. This is the style of American whiskey that would have made its way down south and morphed into a corn heavy mashbill that would one day become bourbon. (Early whiskey mashbills in America reflected the crops that local farmer grew for the purpose of distilling.) 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 spirits before laws were put into place to differentiate the types.  Production guidelines and quality control wasn’t fully put into place until after Prohibition. In 1938, the law regarding only the use of new charred oak barrels to create whiskey was put into place. 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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