Monday, August 01, 2016

Benjamin Franklin: Early Rye Whiskey Advocate

In my latest book Southern Spirits, I discuss the dominance of imported rum as the spirit of choice in the Colonial South until it was eclipsed by domestically-distilled whiskey in the early 19th century. One of the first proponents of making domestic whiskey was none other than that most practical of practical men, Benjamin Franklin.

In 1765 Franklin published in his Poor Richard’s Almanac a tract entitled “How to manage the Distilling of a Spirit from Rye, or other Grain, that shall be preferable to common Rum”.

Franklin's advice was set against the backdrop of increased taxes and greater trade restrictions being imposed on the American colonies by the British crown. His guidance to practical men was that if they could get or afford the products formerly imported from abroad, “to supply ourselves from our own Produce at home.” Chief among these were wine and spirits.

All spirits, Franklin noted, retain some of the general qualities from the “vegetable substances” from which they are distilled. Since corn and grain is more wholesome to the body than sugar or molasses, he reasoned, spirits distilled from grains should be more wholesome than those from sugar. And yet, he noted, “the Corn Spirits made in our Country, have generally a vile burnt Smell and Taste, that renders them very disagreeable.”

Franklin attributed that vile flavor to the fermented grains sticking on the sides and bottom of the still and burning, so he advised distillers to strain the fermented beer through a hair-cloth and press to remove the grains before distilling. As the liquid was coming to a boil in a still, they should stir it continuously so that “the grosser Parts may not settle to the Bottom” and form a sediment that can burn. Only once the liquid was boiling should they clamp the head closed and let the motion of the water keep sediment from forming.

“Thus,” Franklin concluded, “shall it come forth pure and sweet, and in the Opinion of unprejudiced Judges, preferable to common Rum.”

Franklin turned out to be quite prescient. Within a few decades, Pennsylvania rye whiskey—especially the prized variety distilled in the Monongahela Valley near Pittsburgh—would eclipse rum in sales and become the new spirit of choice for Southern tipplers.

As it turned out, that rye whiskey was no more wholesome or nutritious than rum. But it got the job done.

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