Early Distilling Papers at The Filson
By Michael R. Veach
The Filson Historical Society has a growing collection of papers and printed material dealing with Kentucky’s distilling past. This industry has always played an important role in the history of the Ohio Valley region, but its earliest records are hard to find. The Filson has a significant portion of these early papers in its manuscript collection.
America’s first excise tax was on whiskey in 1791. This tax would lead to America’s first tax rebellion in 1794 known as the “Whiskey Rebellion.” The tax was later repealed in 1802 during the Jefferson Administration. There was a brief period of taxation between 1812 and 1817 to pay the debts of the War of 1812, but taxation was not again a factor in the industry until 1861. The official records of these taxes were stored in the Federal Building in Louisville and were lost during the flood of 1937, making official accounts of early distilleries hard to find. The distillers were issued a license for their stills and there are samples of these licenses for Evan Williams (Misc. Papers, Evan Williams and Fenley-Williams Family Papers, 1756-1951), Isaac Fenley (Fenley- Williams Family Papers, 1756-1951), John Stone (Eli H. Brown Papers), and Daniel Weller (Weller Family Papers). Examples of the licenses from the second period of taxation can be found in the Eli Huston Brown III papers for Milly Stone and Eli H. Stone. These licenses show the number of stills, the still capacity and the county in which they were located and are often the only record remaining for the distillery.
These early distillers were farmer distillers who made whiskey from their surplus grain. There are some records of this distilling activity in the form of recipes for making their distiller’s beer and recipes for making other products from new whiskey. Distiller’s beer is the fermented grain mash from which whiskey is made. In the Brown collection there is a recipe from John Stone for making whiskey using the “Pennington Method” that is a basic bourbon recipe with corn, rye, and malted barley. This is an undated document but probably dates to the first decade of the 19th century. There is also a recipe for growing yeast and making the distiller’s beer in the Jonathan Taylor diary that dates to about the same period as the Stone recipe.
These early distilled spirits were not an aged product and the farmers often had their own recipes for making the whiskey more palatable. The Corlis-Respess family papers have many recipes for making products such as gin and blackberry cordial out of this un-aged spirit. These recipes called for the botanicals or fruits to be steeped in the whiskey for a period of time, giving the product the desired flavor. The Beall-Booth family papers also include recipes for making cordial, cherry bounce, and punch from the same era, but this undated document goes one step further. It calls for purifying the whiskey before use and describes this purification process. It calls for a 100 gallon tub with a “false bottom” filled with holes. On top of this false bottom place three or four layers of white flannel and then about three inches of clean white sand. On top of the sand place about 18 inches of pulverized charcoal from a sugar tree or hickory. Pour the new whiskey on top of this and let it drain out the bottom. This is a smaller version of the “Lincoln County Process” used to make Tennessee whiskey. The document even has a small drawing illustrating how the vat should look.
Aged whiskey did not become common in Kentucky until the mid 1820s. The Filson Historical Society has the earliest known reference to charring barrels for the purpose of aging whiskey (in the Corlis-Respess Family papers). John Corlis moved to Bourbon County in the late 1810s and bought a farm and a distillery. In a letter dated 15 February 1826, J. M. Pike of Lexington, discusses purchasing 100 barrels of Corlis’ whiskey. He is very pleased with the product and has no doubts about selling all 100 barrels, but states “it is suggested to me, that if our barrels should be burnt upon the inside, say only the 16th of an inch, that it will much improve it, of this however I presume you are the best judge”. This is a Lexington businessman telling a Bourbon County distiller how to make Bourbon Whiskey.
The library at The Filson Historical Society also has resources for those wishing to research the early Kentucky distillers. The best source for such information is the book Kentucky Bourbon: The Early Years of Whiskeymaking by Henry G. Crowgey (University Press of Kentucky, 1971). This book is based upon his dissertation from the University of Kentucky and is a very good source for early Kentucky distillers and distilleries. He also discusses the origin of bourbon and the “first Kentucky distiller” question. His research is very thorough and well documented.
The library also has a very interesting item in its pamphlet collection. This is a section from the Congressional Record for 27 July 1888 that discusses increasing the Bonding Period for whiskey from four to eight years. It gives the testimony of several Kentucky distillers, including John Atherton, who describes the process for making bourbon in some detail. Atherton also states that when anyone in the business discusses Kentucky whiskey, it has long been understood that the whiskey is made for the purpose of aging. Whiskey from other states is often sold new, but Kentucky whiskey is an aged product.
The researcher looking into the early years of Kentucky distilling will find many resources at The Filson Historical Society. These resources in Special Collections and the Library offer a rare glimpse into the history of this important Kentucky industry.
The Filson Historical Society