The Oldest Licensed Distillery in the World – Bushmills

The year 1608. Shakespeare had already written Macbeth. The explorer John Smith became president of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. It was an era of Milton and Galileo. And it was the year that Bushmills distillery was granted a license to distill whiskey. Today, 389 years later, the Bushmills distillery is still producing whiskey. It is now the oldest operating licensed distillery in the world.

A Look Back
Records actually show that whiskey was distilled, and consumed, at the site much earlier than 1608. Sir Robert Savage, ground landlord of the town of Bushmills, was known to have fortified his troops with “aqua vitae” (whiskey) in 1276. And the Book of Leinster mentions a feast in the town of Bushmills back in 1490 where the local spirit helped to “down the food.”

It is quite remarkable that anything lasts nearly four centuries, let alone a distillery. Throughout the years it has endured fires, wars, U.S . Prohibition, and multiple owners-from families such as Phillips, Corrigan, and Boyd, to corporations that included Bass Charrington, Seagram, Irish Distillers Group, and Pernot Ricard. Not only is Bushmills the world’s oldest licensed distillery, it is also the only operating whiskey distillery in Northern Ireland. With more than a dozen active distilleries in the early 1900s, the amount was reduced to three by the mid 1900s. The Comber distillery would close in 1953, and the Coleraine distillery would stop making malt whiskey in the mid-1960s, and close down completely in 1978.

Giants of Legend
The Bushmills distillery is located on the edge of the town of Bushmills in Country Antrim, about an hour’s drive north from Belfast and a short distance from the coast. The town itself is small and quaint, with two streets connecting in the center of the town to form a ‘T’. There you’ll find a small war memorial, a clock tower, and several small shops. The distillery is two miles from the Giant’s Causeway, described as the eighth natural wonder of the world. Its impressive vista of regular shaped stone outcrops of black basalt formed nearly 60 million years ago from the slow cooling of volcanic lava. Mythical legend describes the causeway as a passage across the Channel to Scotland so that the Irish giant Finn McCool could cross the water without getting his feet wet. Also near the distillery is Portrush, a highly acclaimed championship golf course, and Dunluce Castle, which sits along the coastline impressively perched on a rock outcrop since around the year 1300.

Making Whiskey
The distillery itself is very picturesque, with its stone buildings and twin pagoda-shaped roofs, reminders of the floor maltings that were once conducted at the distillery. The distillery uses water from Saint Columb’s Rill to make its whiskey. It is clear and pure, flowing over basalt rock before it reaches the distillery. The distilling process at Bushmills Distillery, which employs about 100 workers, is very similar to malt whisky distilleries of Scotland. They use only 100% malted barley which is mashed in one huge cast iron mash tun to produce wort, a liquid which contains the sugars that are extracted from the malted barley. The wort is fermented by distiller’s yeast in stainless steel washbacks (fermenters) to produce wash (essentially beer without hops). The wash passes through pot stills which concentrates the alcohol and certain flavor components before being placed into barrels for maturation. The whiskey is matured in one of several warehouses. Some of the warehouses are quite modern, while others are more traditional with their low ceilings and earthen floors. However, there are some distinct differences at Bushmills which contrast sharply from most malt whisky distilleries in Scotland. The malted barley is completely unpeated, whereas most Scotch malt whisky has at least a hint of peat. At Bushmills, the whiskey is triple-distilled (i.e . it passes through three pot stills). Most malt whisky distilleries in Scotland are distilled only twice. No doubt this extra distillation enhances the purity of the whiskey produced at Bushmills. The Bushmills distillery is also one of the few distilleries in the world to distill, blend, and bottle the whiskey under the same roof. As I walked the grounds of Bushmills, I was sadly reminded of the lost distilleries of Northern Ireland-Coleraine, Comber, and the rest. Fortunately, this great distilling heritage remains alive in Bushmills, the oldest operating licensed distillery in the world.

The Whiskeys
The first three different expressions of Bushmills whiskey described below can be purchased in the U.S. The ones after that are available in select locations in Europe. Let’s take a look at them.

Bushmills Original
Also known as White Bush. According to Dr. Barry Walsh, Chief Blender, Bushmills Original is a blend of approximately 1/3 malt whiskey to 2/3 grain whiskey. The malt whiskey is matured for up to seven years, while the grain whiskey is aged for about five years. The whiskey is matured primarily in ex-bourbon barrels. It is a light, balanced, clean whiskey that is unassuming. The high proportion of grain in the whiskey is evident. I use this one as a mixer.

Incidentally, the grain whiskey used in the Bushmills blends come from its sister distillery in Middleton, County Cork. At one time, the grain whiskey came from the now extinct Coleraine distillery near Bushmills, and it was comprised mostly of barley (something which is unusual for a grain whiskey, which is usually produced with maize or wheat). There is still a hefty proportion of barley in the Bushmills grain whiskey.

Black Bush
The most sherried of the lot, and one sip tells you that this whiskey has a very high malt content. Black Bush contains 70-80% malt whiskey that is 8-9 years old. The grain whiskey is only slightly younger. Approximately 20-30% of the whiskey is matured in ex-sherry casks.

Black Bush is a must try for lovers of sherried whiskeys. Having said this, I still feel it is not overly sherried. Its rich maltiness, grain softness, and a hint of oak, all share the limelight, both in aroma and flavor. I save this whiskey for after dinner in a snifter, or perhaps with a fine cigar.

Bushmills Malt
The age statement on the label is 10 yrs., but Barry Walsh informs me that the lion’s share of the whiskey is 10-12 yrs. old. Introduced in 1984, it has only been available in the U.S. since 1993. Ironically, it is less sherried than Black Bush, but the sherry character is still evident in the delicate fruitiness expressed by the whiskey. Combining with this fruit character is a clean rounded maltiness which is gently sweet and pleasant, with a hint of vanilla. Bushmills Malt is very accommodating to any mood or occasion and universally enjoyable.

Bushmills 1608 Special Reserve
Available only at select Duty Free outlets. It’s worth the trip to Europe just to buy a bottle of this gem. Matured for a minimum of 12 yrs., this whiskey is still a blend, but it contains more malt than Black Bush (80-90%). It appears more sherried than Bushmills Malt, but less than Black Bush. Barry Walsh describes it as “more of everything” referring to its richness of flavor and impeccable balance. All the flavors dovetail nicely, combining the richness of the malt, fruitiness of the sherry, and roundness of the oak. A complex, subtle spiciness also emerges now and then. A splendid whiskey!

Bushmills Distillery Reserve
Only recently has the distillery made this beautiful whiskey available. I’m afraid you’ll have to visit the distillery to get your fingers on this one, since it’s the only place where this expression is sold. It is a single malt Irish whiskey that is matured a few years longer than the standard Bushmills Malt, resulting in a whiskey that is a tad richer, with an incremental increase in sherried fruit, and a drier finish with gentle notes of oak. A nice contrast to the standard Bushmills Malt, and worthy of even the most discriminating drinks cabinet.

Bushmills Millennium
In 1975, a few hundred barrels were filled with whiskey that still have not been bottled. Named “Bushmills Millennium,” the whiskey was only sold by the cask and will not be bottled until 1999, just in time for the new Millennium. At that time it will be a single malt Irish whiskey of nearly 25 years of age.

When I first learned of the Millennium offer, I was a bit hesitant. I was concerned that such a delicate, soft whiskey would not be able to stand up to 25 years on the wood.

I was wrong. A sampling of the whiskey in 1995 offered a glimpse of something most unique and mature that I have never before experienced in an Irish whiskey. Sure, there is more than a hint of oak, but this influence is entirely a positive one. Its contribution to the roundness and depth of flavor is astonishing, without smothering the whiskey. Sherried fruit, malty richness, subtle spiciness, eminent drinkability Ð nothing is missing or out of proportion! The last few years of its life will be spent in ex-bourbon barrels, after many years in ex-sherry barrels, with the hopes that any additional changes to the whiskey will be subtle.

Sadly, the entire lot of Millennium malt casks have been sold, and they won’t be available in restaurants or liquor stores. Start making friends with those that have purchased a cask, and when the Millennium comes to a close, perhaps you will be among the fortunate few to appreciate this wonderful whiskey.

At the distillery, I was fortunate enough to sample a new Bushmills whiskey that has not yet been bottled at the time of this writing, but should be by the time you read this. It is a 16+ yr. old malt whiskey that was first matured in ex-sherry and ex-bourbon casks, before being finished in port pipes prior to bottling. The port influence contributes a richness and fullness to the whiskey in a manner similar to what port has done to the Glenmorangie Port Wood Finish.

As I sip and savor a Bushmills whiskey, I am reminded of the lost distilleries of Northern Ireland Ð Coleraine, Comber, and the rest. Fortunately, this great distilling heritage remains alive in Bushmills, the oldest operating licensed distillery in the world.

Old Potrero

Think of single malt whisk(e)y and you think exclusively of barley, right? Wrong. Think of American whiskey, and if your mind travels only as far as Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana, and Kentucky, then think again. Because if your mind had come to rest in Louisville, a not unnatural thing for it to have done, let it travel on further west. Another 2,330 miles, to be exact.

Over the course of this century, San Francisco may have become renowned for its earthquakes. But now shock-waves of a different sort are emanating from there, reaching as far east as New York and joyously rumbling through those four distilling states en route. The city famous for its Golden Gate is today in a liquid Golden State: California now makes whiskey.

It is no ordinary whiskey, either. This is rye. Not the type of rye which law demands must be a minimum 51% of that grain, the remainder made up of what other cereals the distiller fancies to yield the desired flavor and alcohol. No, this is made from 100% rye that has been malted first before being crushed, mashed, and fermented on its journey to the copper pot. It is called Old Potrero and, as a bottled whiskey, is a world one-off in every way, sufficiently removed in character and much bolder and flavor-explosive than the sweeter, more comparatively bourbony Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and Old Overholt ryes.

Seeing that this is such a remarkable whiskey and one that genuinely deserves that most overused tag of unique, it does not take much figuring to work out the guy behind it all. Step forward Fritz Maytag, President of the ground-breaking and now legendary Anchor Brewery. Yet, in fact, Fritz – who has never been shy in making his point of view known – is for once disinclined to make much of a public song and dance about his newest creation. Not because he is in any way ashamed of this whiskey. On the contrary: “This really is the best whiskey in the world,” he announces with the pride, delight, and unbridled affection one normally associates with first-time fathers. It’s just that the man who pioneered so much in the way of American brewing, only to see his thunder stolen slightly over the last decade by the mushrooming of microbreweries all over the USA, wants to keep the secrets of his latest masterpiece to himself just a little longer.

Masterpiece is not a word to be trifled with here. It has long been my contention that rye whiskey is the world’s one seriously overlooked spirit and probably the finest and most flavorsome of all generic whisk(e)y types. This first battalion of 1448 bottles to leave Anchor Distillery to fight their corner in totally new markets contains some really top rate stuff.

Whiskey drinkers may be pretty amazed, shocked even, to learn that this whiskey exists. So are many in the bourbon industry. Had a Klingon cloaking device been available, there is little doubt Fritz would have invested in one, such was the stealth with which his distilling activities were conducted. In April of 1995 I was the first outsider to be shown the tiny, almost cramped, copper pot still which acted as womb to the embryonic spirit, and be conducted around the maturing stocks. I managed to get a nose and taste of some precociously luscious six-month-old. But all this on the strict understanding I said nothing until the whiskey was on the market. It was a difficult but fair exchange. It is unlikely that any other LEGAL distillation has been carried out amid such secrecy.

In truth, though, Fritz, by accident or design, has successfully added a perfect piquancy to the mystique of whiskey. Dive into a glass of Old Potrero and your tastebuds and not your reading glasses will have to get things in focus and do some working out for you.

This tantalizing glimpse of some world whiskey-making history coupled with Fritz’s single-minded refusal to fill in the details was both exhilarating and frustrating, yet understandably so. Perhaps with the exception of just what spices do go into his differing “Christmas Ales,” he has been open-handed about all his brewing practices, something that may have eventually worked against him. Consequently, brewing has lost a little of its sheen: “It’s not such a challenge,” he says with a definite hint of sadness in his voice. “The waters have become muddied: it’s grown into a stampede.”

From Kentucky to Canada, from Ireland to the Isle of Skye; distillers will fall over backwards to tell you not only all about the grain they use, but how it is malted, even what field the grain came from. In Fritz’s case, there are no details forthcoming on the rye or where it is malted; fermentation and distillation times remain a blank. He wants to keep any potential stampede over his stillhouse as far into the future as possible.

But Fritz still regards himself a brewer above all else. His interests and knowledge beyond beer, however, are diverse. It was his great grand-father who founded the giant Maytag Appliance Company. He can tell you all you need to know about cheese as his father was responsible for creating one of the country’s most appreciated delicacies, Maytag Blue. He and his family still own and run the farm in Newton, Iowa, where it is made, although he lives in a 125 acre vineyard which sits astride the Napa and Sonoma counties, north of San Francisco. Naturally enough, his York Creek red wines have become much prized and Fritz enjoys the thought of being the only man in the USA to commercially make wine, beer, and whiskey. He even grows his own olive trees on the land and although the oil he produces from them is rarely seen in a store, you will find it liberally sprinkled on his salads.

Now he is a distiller, too.

“I’ve been drinking rye whiskies for 25 years,” he says. “I always wanted to do it better.” And with that wish came a train of thought that led to the distilling of Old Potrero. Just like his beers, he wanted to get back to basics and origins: he wished to recreate a whiskey which the pioneers and frontiersmen of the American continent might instantly recognize: a celebration of America’s great whiskey-making tradition. “I carried out a lot of research and found that the first whiskey in America was almost certainly made from rye. Also, that rye would have been malted. The distillers would have worked from a single copper pot and it would have been quite small. Well, that is what I have done here.”

Fritz has let the 20th century in with the use of stainless steel mashing and fermentation vessels (curiously, his is the nearest whiskey distillery to the pine forests of Oregon, so valued by traditional Scotch malt distillers as the material for their washbacks, where fermentation occurs) and in 1994 his first, experimental distillations took place. “We single-distilled, double-distilled, triple-distilled and more – though not on purpose. Our first efforts were not exactly covered in glory, half the time we didn’t know what we were doing.”

But by December 1994 they evidently did. Because it is the small batch of double-distilled spirit from those runs which today appear in the bottle – as a 13-month old Single Malt Rye Whiskey. Fritz had no hesitation at bottling at that age, at full strength of 124 proof (62% Alc/vol.), and without chill filtration: it was fun, different, similar in age to how some of the finest whiskeys would have been drunk a couple of centuries back. But above all, it was ready. Despite its youth, having been matured in charred virgin oak barrels, it had already picked up color enough to turn it honey-gold.

The making of 100% pure malt rye whiskey was not an entirely lost art in America, although even an 81-year-old distiller I know who once made rye in Maryland cannot remember an all malt version coming onto the market in his lifetime. Some Canadian distillers still do it from time to time. Seagram makes it over at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, to blend into their Seven Crown brand. However, unlike Old Potrero, this is distilled through column stills. As an eight-year-old, the Lawrenceburg flavoring whiskey outscores it in aroma: in fact, with its labyrinthine depths it is probably among the finest three whiskey noses in the world, while the San Francisco whiskey cannot quite totally disguise its immaturity. But on the palate the Old Potrero wins, especially when warmed to hand temperature. Then it hits the palate running, and while the Indiana rye feeds splendidly off the oak Old Potrero spreads itself oilily across the palate with very juicy, ripe fruit and soft spices, all neatly underpinned by a subtly brittle hardness, with licorice and very dark, bitter chocolate to finish. It is stunning and, for its age, truly remarkable.

Now the big problem for connoisseurs is in finding it. Because Fritz knew he could never meet demand if he got it on general sale in America’s liquor stores, yet wanted as many people as possible to get the opportunity to try it, he restricted himself to personally selling it to well-regarded restaurants. The sad news for most of us is that it is only those found in the San Francisco Bay area, New York, Washington DC, and Baltimore, where it will be greatly welcomed.

Another batch distilled in December 1995 will be finding their way into more restaurants by spring 1997. It doesn’t come cheap. Being supplied wholesale at $66.50 a bottle, diners are asked to pay anything between $8.50 and $17 a shot: it is probably worth skipping the meal and savoring a double. In a few years time there may be older versions available and more widespread.

And for the whiskey’s name? Well, Potrero was taken from the hill-top part of San Francisco where the distillery is located, in a walled-off section behind the brewery within an attractive, late Prohibition-era building. The “Old” prefix is an example of Fritz’s notoriously dry humor. “I once learned that by law you can’t give any product a name indicating great age unless you can prove its corresponding antiquity. Except for one word anyone can use: Old. . . .”

All this from a man who desired once to do something so very different: “When I was young I wanted to be a chemist. I later wanted to become an alchemist.”

His wish has been granted.

Just an Old Kentucky Custom

While location, location, and location, are the three factors traditionally used to distinguish among single malt Scotches, such factors just don’t apply when it comes to straight Kentucky bourbons. Though a single malt Scotch is always described by its specific area, down in the Bluegrass State, it just ain’t so. The nine Kentucky distilleries that make bourbon rely on some incredibly fine-tuned, fairly modern equipment working in tandem with some true-blue American whiskey-making traditions that have been passed down for, in some instances, over 200 years, in order to make their whiskey’s different styles sing.

Many spirit aficionados will raise an eyebrow when they realize that bourbon goes through its primary distillation in a continuous still–something that would never happen in a Scottish malt whiskey distillery, where the less-efficient pot still, renowned for producing highly flavored spirits, is the only type of alembic used. However, I have seen such eyebrows swiftly relaxed when Scots learn just how their Kentucky counterparts use their equipment. The exact processes can be rather complicated, but if you bear in mind that American whiskeymakers have been tinkering with continuous stills for well over a century, you come to understand that these guys know their equipment like Keith Richards knows his fretboard–they understand every last nuance of their stills. At the bottom of one such still lies a wrench, left there decades ago by a maintenance man. No one dares touch it lest it changes the whiskey that the still produces.

The factors that differentiate the bourbon from one distillery from the next one are many: The water source is a prime factor, as is the mashbill (the grain recipe that denotes the percentage of each grain) and the differing amounts of setback (sour mash) added. Some distillers use a doubler (a type of pot still) for their secondary distillation while others choose a thumper (a different type of pot still), and various other intricacies are employed by each and every master distiller in Kentucky to make sure that their particular whiskey is distinctive in its own right. One of the most fascinating aspects of bourbon-making, however, occurs in the small white-washed rooms where yeast, the lifeblood of every bourbon, is cultivated. They are known as “dona” rooms, and they are somewhat sacred among the distillers who use them.

Up a few rickety wooden stairs at the Heaven Hill distillery in Bardstown, Kentucky lies a dona room where Earl Beam (Jim Beam’s nephew) used to celebrate “jug yeast day” (the day on which the yeast is cultivated) by cooking a “fry-up” for himself and his helper. He may not have realized how significant his ritual was, but some primordial force drove Earl to reward himself with food on the day that he nurtured his yeast. These days, Earl’s son and grandson, Parker and Craig, still cultivate the yeast in that same room, and although they don’t cook lunch in there, they understand that the space is hallowed ground. When I visited the distillery with my wife last year, we were told in no uncertain terms that not many people are allowed into the dona room.

Six distilleries in Kentucky–Maker’s Mark, Early Times, Wild Turkey, Heaven Hill, Jim Beam, and Four Roses–have dona rooms; the others prefer to use specific strains of dried yeast. And although the “dried yeast” distilleries produce distinctive whiskeys in their own right, nothing can compare with the romance of the dona room where master distillers perform intricate procedures to keep their yeast strains alive, feeding it with various grains and adding a pinch of this and a teaspoon of that in order that their particular whiskey remains true to its roots.

There’s a ritual of sorts to the procedures carried out in dona rooms that even the distillers themselves don’t fully understand: each one knows exactly how to propagate their yeast in order that their whiskey will be absolutely consistent, and each one knows exactly what the end product should be, but most carry on this process, step by step, week after week, simply because “that’s the way my Daddy used to do it.” Even the word “dona” isn’t fully understood, although Ed Foote, master distiller at United Distillers’ Bernheim plant, suggests that the word could be tied to the Latin root donna, meaning “mother.” It’s certainly the best explanation I have heard since the distillers are, in fact, “mothering” their yeasts–feeding, nurturing, and watching them grow. But what actually happens in these hallowed rooms? And how does what they do affect the whiskey we drink? We’ll start out by looking at how Steve Nally, master distiller at Maker’s Mark, cultivates his particular yeast strain.

According to Bill Samuels, Jr., president of Maker’s Mark, the yeast strain used at Maker’s was saved by his father and kept alive during prohibition to be used again when the Samuels family re-fired their stills in 1933. Every bourbon man knows that his yeast strain must survive at any cost. Nally keeps his “jug yeast” refrigerated, in a covered brass vessel where it lays dormant in a solution of liquid malt, and come jug yeast day he removes a portion of the yeast mixture and starts the process of multiplying the yeast cells.

To accomplish this, Nally must literally “feed” the yeast: First, he heats some liquid malt in his dona tub, a double-walled container that can be heated or cooled by the introduction of steam or hot water to the tub’s “jacket.” While the malt is cooking, he throws some hops in there. That’s right–hops. How this practice began is somewhat of a mystery, but it’s possible that hops were initially used to ward off harmful bacteria. These days, however, they are used to add certain nuances to the whiskey. (For the record, hops are used by Maker’s Mark, Heaven Hill, and Jim Beam; the alternative, sour yeast mashes, are used by Early Times, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey. Seemingly, if hops are used, the mash shouldn’t be soured.) When the malt has extracted some hop flavors, the yeast is added and the mixture is allowed to stand at room temperature for about 24 hours (actually, the mixture is cooled occasionally since the yeast creates heat as it multiplies and the idea is to maintain a somewhat constant temperature).

Meanwhile, Nally prepares his “day yeast,” quite simply a “porridge” of cooked grains, in this case, malted barley and wheat. (Terms can get rather confusing, some distillers call Nally’s “day yeast” a “yeast mash.”) Most other distilleries use rye as opposed to wheat, but at Maker’s Mark, they prefer the somewhat subtler flavors of wheat to produce their bourbon (the only other “wheated” brands–W.L. Weller, Old Fitzgerald, Rebel Yell, and Kentucky Tavern–come from the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville). Next, Nally transfers the yeast, which has doubled in quantity every two to three hours, from the dona tub to the larger vessel that contains his day yeast. He leaves it there for around three hours to give it a chance to multiply one more time in its new environment. After this period, the yeast mixture is ready to use. It is added to the fermenter where a cooked mash of corn, wheat, and malted barley awaits. In three to four days time, the new mixture, the “distiller’s beer,” will be distilled to make the whiskey. There now, that wasn’t too difficult was it? But what about those hops–do they really make a difference to the whiskey?

If you listen to Lincoln Henderson, master distiller at the Early Times distillery in Louisville, the hops do matter–a great deal. Henderson makes Early Times bourbon (available for export only) as well as Old Forester bourbon, and all the whiskeys he makes use a jug yeast cultivated in a dona tub. At one point Henderson experimented with hops in his yeast mash, and he swears that the whiskey it produced was totally different from his regular style. He stopped the hops experiment immediately; consistency of product is vital to the whiskey business. Was adding the hops a bad thing? No, but it just didn’t work for Henderson. The fact is that each distillery is merely producing their particular style of whiskey, and any alteration in their procedures changes that style. Similarly, if a distillery that uses dried yeast switched to a jug yeast, chances are they’d have a whole new whiskey.

At Early Times, Henderson uses a “sour yeast mash” to cultivate his yeast strain, and he does that by adding lactic bacteria to his yeast mash–it’s a similar method to that used by Ova Haney, master distiller at the Four Roses distillery (another bourbon available only in the export market). Jimmy Russell, however, keeper of the stills at the Wild Turkey plant, sours his yeast mash by holding it at a constant temperature for about 22 hours, popping in to stir it every three hours or so. Once again, we see different methods–largely similar but with small differences–yet each produces a distinctive style of bourbon.

On the technical side of these procedures, each distiller works overtime to produce and maintain an environment that is perfect for its particular strain of yeast. The pH levels are key, and by varying their yeast mashes (as well as by the addition of setback), this level can be lowered to the desired point. Yeast enjoys more acidity than is usually produced by merely cooking the grains, although too much acidity is just as harmful to the organism as too little. It’s the “three bears syndrome”–everyone is out to get it “just right.” And they all have their own way of accomplishing their goal for their specific strain of yeast.

While it would be impossible to sift your way through every nuance used in the making of Kentucky bourbon to discover which methods work “best,” it does pay to look at the care that goes into making each one. The best bourbon you ever taste could be from any one of Kentucky’s nine distilleries–it’s totally subjective, a matter of personal preference. Nevertheless, it is interesting to discover who does what at various stages of production, and the “dona” process, to my mind, is one of the more interesting arts of the American whiskey distiller. So, next time you find yourself savoring a drop of red liquor from Kentucky, spare a thought for the traditions of American whiskey–it’s one of the very few spirits that can be traced back to its origins. Bourbon’s heritage, like most American institutions, is one of tradition and progress, and although those two “factions” are locked in a constant struggle for dominance, the result is purely American.

Holy Water of Life

Where the Romans crossed the river Isere, between two sub-ranges of the Alps, is a corner of Europe that was in Italy before the risorgimento and is now in France. Here, the university city of Grenoble grew among the walnut groves and chestnut trees. One of the ranges is called the Chartreuse mountains. Nearly a thousand years ago, a clergyman walked 20 miles into this “wilderness” in search of isolation and tranquillity. He founded a settlement that became the abbey of Chartreuse, and he was later canonized as St. Bruno. I was recently in Grenoble, and went to take a look at Chartreuse.

Even by car today, the winding, climbing, rocky roads took me more than a hour to negotiate. Monastery buildings dating from the foundation in 1084, have been heavily restored as a tourist reception centre. Visitors can see empty cells, with hatches through which meals were passed, and tiny, walled gardens. The monks could scarcely have talked over those garden walls. Higher up the hillside, it is possible to climb a mound, topped by a crucifix, and look down on eight acres of tiled rooftops. It looks like a medieval town, but it is the present-day abbey of Chartreuse.

From this eyrie, the monks today use computers to blend their famous liqueurs at the Chartreuse cellars 20 or 30 miles down the mountain in the small town of Voiron. This was once a silk-making town, but now manufactures skis. From the monks’ cloistered limestone cellars, lined with ceiling-high tuns of Vosges oak, come a range of fruit liqueurs, and the famous herbal liqueur called simply Chartreuse. The key elements of the liqueur are mountain herbs, but its blend of leaves, flowers, twigs, honey and brandy is a secret said to be known to only three monks. In her 1979 Penguin Book of Spirits and Liqueurs, Pamela Vandyke Price feels certain that sweet cicely (Myrrhis odorata) is a significant ingredient. When I asked my host, he said: “It could be , but I don’t know”.

The most basic form of Chartreuse is a concentrated elixir with intensely bitter rooty, leafy, rindy, flavours. This was originally something of a cure-all, and is still treated in this way, served on a cube of sugar. The liqueur itself comes in a dry, green, version and a sweeter yellow style. The green is still quite bitter, with, to my palate, piney notes. The latter is cedary and limey, with suggestions of anis and licorice.

The green can be taken very cold as an aperitif or at room temperature as a digestif. The green is good as an after-dinner liqueur, but both are used in a wide variety of cocktails. I have particularly enjoyed a dash of the green in Champagne, again as an aperitif, but also been served it with ice-cream or hot chocolate. There is a long, complicated, story to the development of Chartreuse-the most sophisticated of liqueurs, made by the strictest and most private of monastic orders-yet no one expresses surprise that it exists. Nor are eyebrows raised over a liqueur called Benedictine, said to be based on a monastic recipe. So why are people surprised when other drinks are produced by monks?

Holy men have gone into the wilderness since at least the time of Christ , but monasticism was codified by St. Benedict (480-547), who established his abbey at Monte Cassino, in southern Italy. The rule of St. Benedict said that monks should work to support themselves. In pre- industrial times, they farmed, and in Italy grew wine grapes. In any case, wine was customary at the table, and water in those days not necessarily fit to drink. At a time when the church was the only vehicle for literacy, monasteries were havens of study and knowledge, precursors of universities.

In medieval France, monks owned many vineyards that are today famous, and at the end of that period Dom Perignon was credited (dubiously) with having invented Champagne. Even today, there are well known vineyards owned by monks in Italy, Austria and Germany. Even in chilly Britain, the Benedictines of Buckfast make tonic wine. Had the Benedictines spread the gospel far south, they would soon have soon been in the sea. When they moved north, they often found themselves beyond the sunny grape and in the land of grains. That is why Italy’s northern neighbor Austria still has one brewing monastery and another that has beer contract-brewed. The Swiss abbey of St. Gallen had no fewer than three brewhouses in the 800s. Farther north still, the most famous brewing city in Germany is, after all, called Munich, which means “Monks” (if it were in France, it would be called Des Moines). In Munich itself, the present-day Augustiner, Paulaner and Spaten-Franziskaner breweries all take their names from monastic orders. Just north of Munich, the Weihenstephan brewery, dating from at least 1040, has its origins in a Benedictine abbey. Bavaria still has eight breweries run by either monks or (in two cases) nuns, and countless others with ecclesiastical origins. The Jesuit brewer Benno Scharl, born in 1741, wrote a standard textbook on brewing as recently as 1814. Germany is not the only country with a rich history of monastic brewing.

Benedictines from Southern Italy established the first monastery of Orval, in what is now Belgium, in 1070, though it is today a Trappist abbey. The Trappists are a very closed order, and I believe that may help explain the distinctiveness of their beers. In the period after World War II, the Chimay monastery’s brewer, Father Theodore, carried out highly influential work on the selection of yeast. He is now in retirement, but it is open to question whether we will see his like again.

Throughout Continental Europe, monasteries were closed by Napoleon, and in Britain by Henry VIII. Those that survive today are subsequent revivals, but in the meantime the relationship between church and state has changed and industrial capitalism has been born. England’s oldest brewery, Shepherd Neame, founded in its present form in 1698, may have earlier origins in monastic brewing at the beginning of this millennium. The university city of Oxford traces its origins to a convent, and monks made beer in at least the 1400s on the site of today’s local brewery, Morrell’s. England’s present brewing capital, Burton, is also believed to have had a brewing monastery at that time. Scotland’s oldest brewery, Belhaven, founded in 1719, may trace earlier origins to monks in 1415.

What about the distillation of grapes and grains? In his book Drink-An Informal Social History, Andrew Barr explores the theory that Gnostic Christians used spirits to perform a literal “Baptism of fire”. The more common theory has distillation being practised for medicinal purposes, and spirit drinks evolving in the course of the current millenium. In the 1200s, Dominican monks made beer from a spring close to the present-day Strathisla malt whisky distillery. Not far away, a present- day priory occupies what is said to have been the first site of the Miltonduff distillery. The first undisputed mention of distillation in Scotland is in the rolls of the national exchequer, in which it is recorded that in 1494 a friar called John Cor, at an abbey in Fife, bought malt to make aqua vitae (water of life). What of Ireland? The Irish missionary monk St. Columba (521-597) mentions beer in his rule. He is also remembered in a stream or “rill” from which water is taken to distill Bushmills whiskey. The distillery claims that it dates from 1608, though Jim Murray’s Irish Whiskey Almanac makes a good case for 1784. All the same, I like the sense of holy water from St. Columb’s Rill.

I was reminded of it when I visited Chartreuse. The wooded lane to the monastery crossed a creek called Ruis de St. Bruno.

The Birth, Life and Sudden Death of American Prohibition

What do you think you know about Prohibition? Maybe you’ve heard something like this.

Prohibition happened 76 years ago. A bunch of backwoods holy-rollers somehow rammed through a Constitutional amendment while all the drinkers were off serving in World War I. Breweries all made illegal beer, moonshiners made corn likker in the hills, and the police looked the other way. People drank more during Prohibition than they did before, and bought all their booze from organized crime. Then the Depression came, and booze was made legal again to stimulate the economy.

That turns out not to be the case. The amount of good information available on this important social struggle is curiously small, and the amount of misinformation is shocking. To begin with, national Prohibition was a massively popular idea. Many states had already enacted prohibition, but wanted a national measure to stem far remove, it is difficult to understand how a bar could be considered a national threat. Wasn’t this the golden age of drinking, a time of oysters, and cheap delicious beer, and cigars, and fine liquor, all served up in a dark, comfortable, wood-paneled saloon? Perhaps it was for the still-small middle class who had time to read the contemplative drinking reveries of H.L. Mencken, but the working-man’s experience was different.

The working man drowned his sorrows in taverns like those described in Sinclaifar remove, it is difficult to understand how a bar could be considered a national threat. Wasn’t this the golden age of drinking, a time of oysters, and cheap delicious beer, and cigars, and fine liquor, all served up in a dark, comfortable, wood-paneled saloon? Perhaps it was for the still-small middle class who had time to read the contemplative drinking reveries of H.L. Mencken, but the working-man’s experience was different.

The working man drowned his sorrows in taverns like those described in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: seedy, stinking warrens of adulterated, mislabeled liquor and beer, salty ‘free’ lunches which stoked a raging thirst, rigged games of chance, and ready connections to prostitution. These excesses drained the pockets of the working man to a shocking extent, and were sometimes physically dangerous as well. They were repeated across the nation, from wharfside holes in New York to rough lumberman’s shacks in the Northwest.

The ‘three-tier’ system of separating manufacturer, wholesaler, and retailer, developed after Repeal, was a direct attack on the ‘liquor trust.’ This octopus of brewer/distiller and retailer connections made it practically impossible for any saloon owner to run a ‘square house’ even if he wanted to. The taverns were symbiotically entwined with a web of political and police corruption. Calvin Coolidge made his national reputation by busting a Boston police strike which occurred when the saloons were closed during World War I and officers could no longer supplement their low wages with saloon bribes.

It truly was a bad time, by any objective standards. The temperance movement grew from the grassroots as a reaction to these excesses. The temperance movement began as just that, a movement encouraging temperate use of beer and wine. But extremists took over the movement and quickly turned it into ‘bone-dry’ prohibition. The bemused disdain and disorganized resistance of the Wets were no match for the conviction and intensity of the Dry regiments.

The Drys made some apparently convincing arguments. Absenteeism in the workplace, shoddy work, criminal and domestic violence, family problems would all disappear when the demon of alcohol was removed from the picture. Families would be able to save more, and to purchase more of the mass-produced goods now coming off American assembly lines. Farmland devoted to hops, grapes, and barley could be converted to ‘more wholesome’ use for food crops. Industrialists such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller became solid backers of the ASL, captivated by visions of healthy, happy, sober workers.

The concept and reality of prohibition was tightly entwined with money. Money that would be saved by eliminating alcoholism, money that would be lost in alcohol tax revenues, money needed to enforce Prohibition, money donated to and spent by the ASL in their campaigns, and, finally, the money in paychecks which were cashed and spent at saloons. The large sums of money spent on booze-costs, profits, taxes-went underground during Prohibition. All that cash greased the wheels of crime and the palms of corrupt officials. Asked why a man wanted the job of Prohibition enforcement officer (at its low salary), an unusually honest grafter replied “He wants the job to get his [cut], the same as the rest of them in this prohibition racket.”


The huge sums of money to be made and subsequent corruption of enforcement officers was but one factor in the failure to enforce Prohibition. America’s extensive land and sea borders made smuggling by boat, car, and airplane almost impossible to stop. The huge amounts of alcohol needed by burgeoning industries and the millions of barrels of ‘real’ beer destined to become near beer made diversion to the black market a near certainty. The simplicity of the brewing and distilling processes made illicit production easy and cheap. Most of all, ordinary citizens proved all too willing to break the law on a daily basis. This ‘criminalization’ of the populace had far-reaching social effects.

“Thirteen years of Prohibition. Americans turned to bootleg and home-brewed beers frequently made with corn which gave these brews a lighter taste and a sweet flavor. . . the only taste an entire generation of beer drinkers knew.” This recent Anheuser-Busch advertising copy puts the finger squarely on another lingering effect of Prohibition: a sea-change in American’s tastes for beer and whiskey. Gresham’s Law applied to booze as well as money: cheap low-quality booze drove out ‘the Real McCoy.’

‘The Real McCoy’ is a reference to a famous rumrunner, Bill McCoy. Noted for his honesty, McCoy dealt fairly and always delivered his liquor uncut and under its true label. This was so outstanding in a time of rampant fraud that ‘the real McCoy’ became synonymous with a fair deal and the genuine article. This also explains some of our lingering preference for imported booze over American: during Prohibition, imports were practically the only ‘real McCoy’ available.

Even when good quality booze did come into the country, it was ‘cut’ with water, industrial alcohol, and various noxious substances (creosote for ‘Scotch’, oil of rye for ‘bourbon’, and juniper oils and glycerine for ‘gin’) to the point where it was merely the figment of a drinker’s memory by the time it got to the bar. Beer was brewed as cheaply as possible, and using as few beer-related ingredients as possible: the less malted barley and hops used, the less likely it was that the ‘brewer’ would be traced and arrested. This is a major source of America’s turn to less-hoppy barley-poor beers, and the turn from American rye and bourbon whiskeys to light blended Scotch, gin, and Canadian ryes. After thirteen years of drinking these lighter-flavored products, Americans had developed a taste for them.

In the end it was not thirst that killed Prohibition, but a disgust with the hypocrisy it represented. Everyone knew that the law was being broken on an hourly basis by everyday people. The corruption it caused was painfully obvious. Far from keeping working-men sober, it was killing them with doctored rotgut. Repeal organizations gathered strength, and when pro-Repeal women’s groups appeared the Dry forces were staggered. The Depression put the final nail in the Dry coffin: Repeal promised both good jobs and tax revenues. It passed even faster than Prohibition.

Looking back, Prohibition was an extreme measure in the struggle to wipe out the saloon. Like all such simplistic laws (laws forbidding keg sales to private citizens come to mind), it merely pushed down a problem which immediately popped up in a different guise: the speakeasy. Post-Repeal liquor laws proved to be more effective, and more easily enforced.

The Drys did win a Pyrrhic victory. Saloon ‘culture’ was doomed by Prohibition’s glamorization of drinking, which brought women into the speakeasies. It was also left behind by the shift towards drinking at home. New York passed a law forbidding the use of the word ‘saloon’ in the name of taverns, but it was pointless. The saloon was as dead as the speakeasy.


The Alcoholic Republic, W.J. Rorabaugh. Oxford University Press, 1979.

Ardent Spirits: The rise and fall of Prohibition, John Kobler. Putnam, 1973.

Deliver us from Evil, Norman H. Clark. W.W. Norton, 1976.

The Dry Decade, Charles Merz. 1931 (Americana Library, 1969)

The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition, Herbert Asbury. Doubleday, 1950

Pressure Politics: Story of the Anti-Saloon League, Peter Odegard. 1928 (Octagon, 1966).\