The Greatest Spirits Book Ever Written
More than a century ago, the British government tried to get to the bottom of what is and what is not whiskey.
The greatest book I know of ever written about distilled spirits is 826 pages long, and it wasn’t written so much as transcribed. What’s more, the printed original is almost unobtainable, even at great price, although it can be found online (here, for example); you can also get a relatively cheap, bound print of the PDF, although it will be reduced to some two-thirds of the size of the original, making the closely printed text, most of it double column, damned difficult to read.
If you have the patience to deal with the PDF or manage to get hold of a legible print copy, you’d better clear your schedule. Hold all calls, disconnect the doorbell, pour yourself a good, stiff drink. The Final Report of the Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (sometimes it’s bound with the title as Interim Report) takes no little amount of concentration, but what’s in there tells you more than any other book how the majority of the spirits you drink today came to be the way that they are (that is, unless you mostly drink vodka and tequila).
The Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits was the result of a loud and very public squabble being conducted in Britain in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries about just what could call itself whiskey (the Commission, by the way, spelled it with the ‘e’ throughout its report, so suck it, “Scotch-and-Canadian-are-whisky-Irish-and-American-are-whiskey” pedants). On the one side were all of the Irish distillers who made their product the old, expensive way, in pot stills, and a portion of the Scottish ones. On the other side were those who used modern column or continuous stills to make their considerably cheaper product; a few of them were in Northern Ireland, but most were in Scotland’s industrial Lowlands. In between were many of the Scottish pot-still malt whiskey makers, who might agree in theory with the first bunch but sold so much of their product to blenders, who combined it with the column-still stuff, that they found it prudent to stay on the sidelines.
Basically, the pot-still people held that the other stuff, whatever it was, wasn’t whiskey, and they wanted the government to say that and stop its makers from labeling it thus. The column still people said that it was, and had 60-percent of the market by volume to prove it. A Parliamentary committee had already looked into the debate 10 years back, but kicked the can down the road. So, in 1908, King Edward VII had Henry James, Baron James of Hereford, impanel a group of experts to look into the question. And, while they were at it, they might as well look into brandy, rum, and gin, the other important categories of spirit in the British market. They were dealing with the same kinds of issues.
By the end of the 19th century, the spirits industry in the industrialized world was at a crossroads. The distiller’s art was an old one, but it had only been brought to perfection a hundred-odd years earlier with a broad consensus that the way to make a quality spirit was to distill your wash—wine, beer, fermented sugarcane juice, whatever—slowly in copper pot stills, cutting out the “heads” and the “tails” (the first and last parts of the distillate) and then take the resulting “low wines,” put them in another still, cut out the heads and tails again, and sometimes even repeat the process a third time. The resulting spirit, which was usually about 60 or 70 percent alcohol (and never much more than 80 percent) would be appealingly oily in texture and rich in flavor, but it took a lot of labor to make and required considerable aging in oak barrels to get rid of the sharper, more volatile compounds in it and become mellow enough to drink.
Meanwhile, in the 1830s a new technology was introduced to disrupt things. Continuous distillation fed the wash into the top of a tall, copper column and, as it trickled down through a series of perforated plates, pumped live steam through it to strip off the alcohol. The resulting product was as much as 94 percent alcohol—it would take Lord knows how many distillations to achieve that in a pot still—and all you had to do was pump the wash in at the top, pull off the alcohol from a tube in the side and let the spent wash drain out of the bottom. You could keep it running as long as you had wash to pump in.
Being so pure, the spirit from these stills lacked many of the extra compounds that made pot-still spirits so rich in flavor. But that also meant it took a lot less aging, if any at all, to make it palatable; in fact, you could easily make a spirit that would be so neutral in flavor that it would be hard to detect if you mixed it with, say, whiskey, rum or brandy. For a great many distillers this presented a devil’s dilemma: Do you stick with a labor-intensive, top-quality product as made by your grandfather and his father before him and watch your market be eroded year in and year out? Or do you ditch the craft and install a column, saving your market, and try to make the best product you can for the price you can get for it?
That’s the battle that unfolds in the Report—although not actually in the Report itself. The book, you see, is in four parts, of which that is only the first and, at 47 pages, the shortest. It is also, surprisingly, the least interesting. The last part is a 67-page set of indices and digests of the proceedings; most useful. The heart of the book, however, is in the two fat volumes that constitute the “Minutes of Evidence.”
Between March 2, 1908, and May 17, 1909, the Commission sat for a total of 37 days. During those days, Lord James and his seven commissioners—a mix of doctors, lawyers, scientists, and government men—heard the testimony of 116 witnesses. The Minutes of Evidence are that testimony, painstakingly transcribed (along with whatever exhibits the witnesses brought, attached as appendices).
As for those witnesses, they include a good many doctors, lawyers and scientists, to be sure, whose testimony is for the most part ass-achingly dull. But they also include James Dewar, Andrew Jameson, John Talbot Power, and Alexander Walker. If you drink Scotch or Irish whiskey, you have drunk the products of their firms. Cognac-drinkers will recognize James Hennessy, Edward Martell, Andre Hine, and Jacques Delamain.
For gin, the witnesses include Herman Jansen, one of the great names in the history of Dutch genever-distilling, Alfred Gilbey, R. C. W. Currie of Tanqueray Gordon & Co. and Henry Gore Hawker of Coates & Co., makers of Plymouth Gin. For rum, there are Frederick H. D. Man, whose family’s firm supplied all the rum to the Royal Navy and in fact controlled, by his estimate, three-fourths to seven-eighths of the British rum trade, and the very feisty James Nolan, representative of Jamaica’s rum distillers.
Among the other current brands represented are Lucas Bols, Angostura, DeKuyper, Teacher’s, and a whole raft of single-malt Scotches (William Ross, head of the Distillers Co. Limited, which owned a number of them, was a witness).
When these men—and they are all men—testified, they had to describe in detail what they did: what their products were fermented from, how they were distilled, how they were aged, how they were sold and marketed. They had to discuss their commercial philosophies, their visions for the industry, their traditions and innovations. If they declined to take a stand on something, they were pressed. Some of the testimony went on for hours. James Hennessy was on the stand for almost two whole days.
Taken as a whole, the Minutes of Evidence are overwhelming. I have not read them all, or even come close: The testimony covers 573 of those tiny-type, double-column pages—some 850,000 words, by my quick-and-dirty calculation. There is a lot in there that is tedious and little that is truly dramatic. But every time I dip in, whether for a paragraph or a string of witnesses, I learn something. Things like the fact that pure pot-still Irish whiskey, now made exclusively from malted and unmalted barley, used to be made from those two, plus significant percentages of rye and oats and sometimes wheat, or that Dutch distillers added lots of juniper to their genever for some of their export markets (e.g., the United States) and little or none for others (e.g., Great Britain), or that Jamaican distillers made their rum not just from molasses, but rather from that with “dunder,” or spent wash, and the skimming from the process of boiling cane juice down into sugar.
What really makes the book sing for me, though, is the fierce pride of the old-fashioned pot distillers, men who had spent years mastering a complex and exacting craft (pot distillation is easy; good, consistent pot distillation is extremely difficult, as anyone who has tasted a lot of micro-distilled whiskey can attest). James Hennessy, the head of the largest, most prestigious firm in Cognac, with more than a quarter of the market, was able to testify in minute detail to every aspect of his business, not just the marketing, the management, the regulation and taxation of it, the winemaking, the distilling, the aging and the blending. His modern successor could not do that.
When faced with a technology that could turn out incredible volumes of clean, if relatively flavorless, product at a fraction of the cost, small wonder some of these men got truculent. John Talbot Power, for instance, who when asked if, according to him, the column-still stuff had “any of the characteristics of whiskey,” replied “none whatever,” adding that “it would not be accepted by any Irishman as whiskey.” Likewise, the aforementioned James Nolan, who maintains over and over that “only pots still spirits [should] be allowed to be sold as rum,” even if that meant disqualifying everything made in Demerara and the rest of the British West Indies. As for blending, let’s just say that they thought “adulteration” was a more accurate term (that’s how Herman Jansen regarded the incorporation of column still spirit into genever).
Against this, the many column distillers and blenders who testified could only say things like, (and here I’m summarizing), “our product is medically sound”; “it is more efficient to work how we do”; “it lets us make an acceptable product at a good price”; and “we only sell it in the Colonies”—and if not the colonies, in Asia, Africa, or America.
Nowadays, of course, blending is a part of the landscape and in most spirit categories the market has found a way to let column spirits, pot spirits and blends of both coexist, all neatly stratified by price (rum, alas, has not). Even the Irish, the most stubborn holdouts, began offering a blended product in the 1950s, although they still made a little of their pure pot still and single malt whiskey.
But that, it turns out, is what the actual Commissioners’ report suggested: At the end, the definition of whiskey it came up with after hearing all that testimony was “a spirit obtained by distillation from a mash of cereal grains saccharified by the diastase of malt”; Scotch whiskey was simply that, distilled in Scotland, and Irish whiskey that, distilled in Ireland. Pot, column, whatever. In declining to take a stand, it gave us the world of drinks we have today.
But boy, to walk through the John Power distillery with Arthur Talbot Power, or the Hennessy warehouses with James Hennessy must have been something.