Decades before Julian Van Winkle was on the scene, Oscar Pepper hired James Crow as a distiller, who set about modernising the sanitation practices of distilling. Crow was said to have been university educated back in Scotland, but there is evidence he may have learned by sitting in the pub after the university’s classes let out and buying drinks for anyone willing to share the day’s lessons with him, according to Bourbon historian Michael Veach.
Either way, Crow had a good understanding of the impact better sanitation would have on the final product. Veach says that among Crow’s innovations were keeping livestock further away from the distillery (they were kept in close proximity to their food source, spent grains from mash), using a saccharometer to measure the sugar content in the distiller’s beer, and the sour mash process of using backset to control the pH of the distiller’s beer, which prevented unwanted bacteria from taking over the mash. These practices are largely still in use today. While sweet mash whiskeys, which use no backset, are gaining popularity, almost every distillery still uses the sour mashing technique. Sour mashing takes some of the last batch of distiller’s beer and throws it into the new batch to ensure that bacterial colonies aren’t able to take hold and harm the necessary yeast colonies.
At the start of the pandemic I began to see concern that we were running out of yeast in stores. I went to Conor O’Driscoll, master distiller for Heaven Hill Brands, to get his take. Aside from his history of managing the yeast at Woodford Reserve, he’s also a baker of some fantastic sourdough breads. I had learned from him years before that yeast was everywhere and wanted to get his historical perspective not only on how to capture and cultivate it, but also how humans were able to harness it before there were even microscopes to see what was going on.
Interestingly, O’Driscoll told me that throughout history people knew there was a certain process they could follow that would yield certain results. As far back as Ancient Egypt (probably even before that) people were fermenting beer, and there are fermented products like pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, mead, and more in every culture throughout human history. By the time chemists came around, folks like James Crow and Julian Van Winkle were already doing a pretty good job without them.
But in all things, it’s best to maintain an abundance mentality, and this especially goes for anything that can be improved through science. Sorry, distillers of the 1800s and early 1900s; chemistry has played a big part in improving the process of distilling. Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris once told me that he’d done a chemical analysis on some older whiskey and found all kinds of not-great stuff in there, including fusel oils, which are part of the natural distillation process that we now know to get rid of.
Science has taken the already wondrous process of distillation and dialled it in to maximise yield, safety, quality, and more. Science has also created space for women and People of Colour to thrive in this industry. The story of Elmer Lucille Allen, the first Black chemist hired by Brown-Forman, was recently highlighted in our local news in Louisville, Kentucky. After graduating from college with a chemistry degree in 1953, she had difficulty finding work as a chemist before finally being hired by Brown-Forman in 1966, where she worked until she retired. Brown-Forman was also where Peggy Noe Stevens, founder of Bourbon Women, was trained as the first woman master taster in the Kentucky Bourbon industry.
There’s definitely an art to making whiskey, and that art is enhanced by scientific knowledge. Science, as they say, still exists even if you don’t believe in it.