Saturday, February 21, 2015

A little tale about corn mash

Nectar of the Gods?

Devil's Brew?

White Lightnin'?

Whisky, with or without the "e" ... straight, no chaser.

Among the products most traded in the Whitewater Valley in those early days, alcohol was high on the list.

And why not? It comes from corn and corn was a staple crop. One of the problems with corn in those early days was storage. And in come cases, just harvesting it was a challenge. There were no machines, no pickers, no conveyor belts, no Kellogg's Corn Flakes.

What was planted came up and grew, and eventually was harvested. The good corn was ground into cornmeal, the worse corn was fed to the hogs. The really bad corn was thrown into a vat and ... well, they just cooked it.

When produce and goods were traded, whiskey was often one of the mainstays. First off the boat, first up the valley ... and, as it was once described: "Whisky was almost legal tender for all business transactions in those days."

The 1882 Franklin County Atlas describes liquor in some rather glowing terms:

Much has been written and said concerning the common use of ardent spirits in pioneer times. Many good people of to-day are inclined to think these legends somewhat fabulous, or that the story has been tol for all it is worth, at least.

Nothing is more clearly established than that whisky was a common article of "produce;' the old newspapers contain advertisements wherein it is quoted, and named as a companion to beeswax, maple sugar, flax and other country produce. Whisky was "concentrated grain," and as such it was both portable and marketable, and brought in exchange what the farmer needed for his use and comfort.

Whiskey production is as old as the Whitewater Valley itself, and the best stills were from copper kettles that the more affluent farmer could afford. "Commonly there were two of these stills, of 120 gallons capacity each, in one house, mashing four or five bushels of corn and making from 2-and-a-half to 3 gallons per day, using a little rye occasionally,  and making a much better article than  is now made and less injurious to those who used it."

Preachers made whiskey and often sold it. And why not? There was profit in the product. Eternal salvation was their other product, but the concept rarely paid the bills in those rugged times.

"In fact, it was respectable to drink in those days," according to an interview with a man named William McClure.

As the valley matured socially, that began to change as some families "did not dare keep whisky  about their premises with some of the members having too strong an appetite for it."

Stills were found in several areas of the county, including "one up toward Fairfield."

The report continues: "There was hardly a store in Brookville that did not keep liquor for sale by the quart."

Federal regulations, while in place, were vague in those days. Whiskey taxes were difficult to collect and production almost impossible to control. As if the county sheriff had any reason to bother.

Whiskey sales were frequently restricted on Sundays except "for travelers."

To some end, the product was used for "medicinal purposes" and was occasionally flavored with various native roots or plants, "and made more palatable by a little sugar." Various fruits could also be added or substituted, including apples, which made a hard cider.

Native Indians were frequently given to alcoholism and many were tricked into bartering valuables in exchange for poorly distilled whiskey.

The Indiana History Magazine adds some other details:

Whiskey was plentiful, there being no restriction on its manufacture, and could be bought for 20 to 30 cents per gallon. Merchants kept for sale copper stills, and people made whiskey for sale and for their own use. There was so much whiskey in the country that the market was usually overstocked.

Distilled spirits and the knowledge of their production moved westward with each advance of the frontier and in Kentucky distilling spirits from native fruits and grains began with the first permanent settlements in the 1770s.

Flatboats carried whiskey and other produce.
By the 1790s coppersmiths in Kentucky were producing stills and the corresponding apparatus necessary for local production. Although a temperance movement swept the state in the 1830s, a number of early distillers were also prominent members of the clergy.

Brookville, in the 1810s, was considered a mecca for newspaper publishing. The history magazine includes this interesting detail about an 1816 Plain Dealer edition:

A yearly subscription was two dollars if paid in advance, but if the subscriber did not have cash, the Plain Dealer would accept country produce — wheat, whiskey, wool, sugar—and presumably any other item that had utility. The Plain Dealer's advertising rate for a notice "not exceeding one square" (approximately four square inches) was one dollar for three insertions and 25 cents for every subsequent insertion, with "larger ones in proportion."

But we'll take the whiskey if that's all you have.


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