Monday, May 12, 2014

Whiskey-Flavored Pigs and Other Not-So-New-Fangled Inventions

"You reek of whiskey!"
There's been a bit of press and social media kerfuffle over the recent announcement by the Templeton Rye Distillery that it's going to bring to market a selection of heritage breed hogs fed a diet of spent Templeton Rye mash--that is, the grain leftover in the still after the alcohol has all been distilled away. The details direct from Templeton can be found here.

Somehow, the story got slanted by Quad Cities television station KQAD into something much more dramatic sounding: "Iowa distillery raises pigs to taste like whiskey." If you read the information from Templeton, I don't think they are claiming that exactly--just that it will be interesting to see how pigs raised on spent mash turn out.  But, that didn't stop Vox from jumping into the fray with a detailed explanation of exactly why a pig fed rye mash won't taste like whiskey.

KQAD indirectly quoted Templeton co-founder Keith Kerkhoff as saying "their pork experiment has never been done before," which isn't exactly true. Down here in Charleston, for instance, the guys at the Striped Pig Distillery have been sending their spent mash to feed the heritage breed pigs at Holy City Hogs for about half a year now.

But, that's splitting hairs. The reality is that feeding hogs on spent mash is not only not a new thing in the past year or past decade, it's not even new in the past two centuries. By the early 19th century, hog raising was a common side venture for distilleries. The proprietor would purchase hogs for the express intent of fattening them on the “pot ale” from the stills. Samuel McHarry, the author of the 1809 guide The Practical Distiller, estimated that a distillery owner could purchase 50 “poor” hogs at four dollars a piece, fatten them during the year, and sell them in the fall for seven bucks each, netting a clean $150 profit for the lot. 

Raising hogs remained a big part of the distilling business straight through the end of the 19th century, and it was quite common for distilleries to be surrounded by huge hog pens that let the owners squeeze a little extra value out of all that grain.

And, no, no one in the 19th century ever noted that the pork took on any specific flavor from the spent whiskey grains. There was one added bonus, though. Those hogs provided a source of much-needed entertainment for bored Kentuckians, for when the spent pot ale was thrown to them, the pigs would gorge on it and, in the words of bourbon historian Gerald Carson, “get the staggers on, and squeal with such delight as to arouse the envy of the loafers.”

So, no, what Templeton is doing is nothing new, and it certainly won't result in whiskey-flavored pigs. But, I think it's quite exciting that mash-fed pork is on its way back, and I would certainly be quite happy to give their Duroc pork a try. 

No word yet if Templeton will sell tickets for folks to watch their pigs get their staggers on, but boy do I hope they do.

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