A whiskey primer (Fortune, 1933)

June 24, 2012: 9:30 AM ET

FORTUNE -- All whiskey making begins with some sort of grain. Pure rye whiskey, as you might suppose, begins with rye: usually about 85 per cent. It was invented in the U.S. and is made and drunk mostly here. Bourbon whiskey starts with a majority of corn, a minority of some small grain-rye, barley, etc. It came to fame in Kentucky, but the drinking of it is not so local. Irish whiskey features barley (not potatoes). Irishmen who are particular drink Scotch. Scotch whiskey (the Scotchmen spell it whisky) is made largely from barley in pot stills fired by peat. Its success is due to native Scotch ingredients and it is the chief whiskey of most of the world except North America.

You take your grain and add water, malt (partially fermented, kiln-dried grain), and yeast. The combination is called mash. The yeast causes fermentation which produces a liquid called distillery beer, and the Messrs. Pabst and Busch would be insulted if you thought there was any connection. This beer is distilled (heated to produce a vapor, which is drawn off and condenses, forming whiskey). The residue is called slops, which are sometimes used to aid new fermentation. Then the mash is called sour mash. When fresh yeast is used, you have sweet mash.

The alcoholic content of whiskey is known as proof. The standard is 50 per cent alcohol by volume which is known as 100 proof. A proof gallon is a gallon of alcoholic liquor containing half its volume in alcohol. Such a gallon with 75 per cent alcohol would be 150 proof gallons. And so on.

You now have your whiskey. It is straight whiskey and, if you have done the job well, of the best sort. But it contains impurities, so it must be aged. The longer it is aged, the better it will be. Scoth is aged in oak barrels formerly used for whiskey or sherry or both. American whiskey is aged in new, charred white oak barrels. The theory is that during several years' aging, chemical changes purify the whiskey, and the liquor absorbs tannic acid (with coloring and flavoring effect) from the barrel.

If the whiskey is stored in a warehouse under government lock, from which it can be removed only on payment of revenue tax, it is bonded whiskey. Otherwise, it is moonshine. Barrels in a warehouse are placed on racks ("ricks"), hence whiskey men speak of a bonded warehouse as a rack warehouse. If the whiskey is aged in a bonded warehouse for a length of time prescribed by the government (in the U.S. four years, but Congress is expected to change this to two years), it will be stamped by the government as bottled in bond. Keeping whiskey in a warehouse is expensive (because of the investment involved), so distillers used to sell warehouse receipts for whiskey as soon as it was made. This fall, there has been a flurry in U.S. receipts.

Straight, aged whiskey has repute, but blended whiskey is apt to be more profitable, because you can make a lot of blended whiskey out of a little straight whiskey. Blending is either mixing various grades and kinds of whiskey or mixing whiskey with Cologne or neutral spirits plus water and flavoring (sherry, rum, brandy, prune juice, etc.). Bootleggers called this last process cutting. It is also loosely called rectifying, but the strict meaning of rectifying is raising or reducing the alcoholic content of liquor to 100 proof by adding alcohol or water. How much blended whiskey a man wants to make from straight whiskey is a matter for his conscience and business instinct to decide. A great deal of whiskey is blended to some degree because most drinkers don't like and never have liked the straight liquor. Blends using only one part out of five of straight whiskey may still be excellent liquors.

Whiskey may be measured in ordinary gallons of 231 cubic inches. A British imperial gallon is 277.274 cubic inches. During storage, evaporation takes place. A gallon after storage, which is 100 proof or less, is a tax gallon and is taxed as 100 proof. A gallon, for instance, with 60 per cent alcohol (120 proof) is 1.2 tax gallons and is taxed higher accordingly. A wine gallon is an honest-to-god gallon. In the U.S., a case of whiskey usually means the equivalent of twelve quarts. Everywhere else it means twelve bottles of almost any capacity between a pint and a quart.

Whiskey—Costs and Prices

It costs about $1.50 to make three gallons (a case) of whiskey. A barrel to put it in and (eventually) bottles and labels add $2 a case. If it aged four years, storage charges and evaporation raise the cost $3, insurance and protection another dollar -- a total now of $7.50. The government, at present rates, will get $3.30. Grand total, $10.80. Then the various middlemen and distributors go to work and you will be lucky -- for a few years, anyway -- if you can buy a case of four-year-old whiskey for $30. But many a good whiskey man will tell you that by 1937, what with overproduction and one thing and another, you may be able to get a case for $11 or $12, just as you could back in the old days.

Return to Whiskey and America: A post-prohibition reunion (Fortune, 1933)

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