By Chris Middleton

Copper load of that

Resources, the father of American whiskey invention
At the time Scottish distillers inventively responded to regulatory changes (previous edition) their American whiskey colleagues were dealing with a different set of issues. Namely, a lack of cheap domestic copper, different grain mashes and adopting new steam power.

The American whiskey industry in the mid-18th century was a marginal business due to cheap West Indies molasses imported for making rum and the high prices and availability of domestic grain. The British Parliament’s introduction of the Molasses Tax, leading to the Revolutionary War, and the western expansion of farmlands, resulted in a major economic shift to distilling grain spirits. In the 1820s, the east coast rum distilleries that dominated US spirit production were superseded by rye and Bourbon whisky. Whisky cemented itself as America’s preferred liquor.

During the 18th century, Britain enjoyed a near-monopoly in the copper refining business. They did not permit smelters in their American colonies, and the small amount of copper ore mined was sent to England for processing. It wasn’t until 1814 that North America’s first smelters were built in Baltimore, before this, distillers were dependent upon imported British copper, further burdened by duties. The average still cost as much a hundred-acre farm, so with distilling equipment being a significant financial outlay, many communities shared the cost, especially the high expense of the condensing worm. For many, the most economical and rustic distillation technique was to hollow-out tree trunks, used steam boilers, or even heated rocks to boil the beer wash, colloquially known as ‘running the log’.

By the 1790s, thousands of such crude distilling devices were in use by farmers across rural America. Some log stills were granted Government patents with the last of the log distillers operating until the 1880s. In Philadelphia, Samuel Latham was reputed to have invented the first chambered wooden still in the 1780s. In the major cities such as Philadelphia and Baltimore, triple-chambered stills joined traditional copper stills for distillation and rectification. Traditional small copper stills were commonly tinplated for longevity and remained popular with small and homestead distillers. As larger commercial distilleries and rectifiers entered into whisky production to serve the growing population, larger capacity wooden chambered stills became a business imperative. In the early 19th-century over a dozen wood-chambered steam stills were patented from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania and across to Kentucky.

Distillers also began adding a pipe to connect the singling wash still to the doubler still, making a paired still where a semi-continuous batch process raised the proof. The 1816 Government census reported 650 boiler stills were in use; making whisky, apple and peach fruit brandy and gin. Only two wood stills exist today, and both are late 19th century British Coffey stills built by John Dore & Company, employing twin continuous wood stills with an analyser and rectifying columns. One is in use is at the Diamond rum distillery in Guyana, installed initially at the Enmore Distillery. The other pair of stills are in the Barossa Valley Australia, mothballed in the 1990s.

The development of wooden stills was solely due to the invention of pressurised steam power replacing direct heat and the benefits of steam engines reducing manual labour. Steam also proved more efficient in yield and by increasing throughput volumes, as well as cost-effective in labour and fuel. After the Civil War, wooden stills were superseded by the copper still.

The spirit from wooden stills was not as wholesome as a distillate from copper stills. So most distilleries, from Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee to the Atlantic coast and Canada, charcoal filtered their raw spirit until the late 19th century to help remove unwanted congeners.

In an unregulated market, rectifiers were also at liberty to add flavourings and chemicals to bolster or imitate whisky. Rectifiers redistilled whisky into a purer, more neutral spirit leading to the debate on what is whisky, where ‘pure’ meant minimal flavour in America.