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Water is the alpha and omega in whiskey making. From fermentation to bottling, its ubiquity persists to the moment of consumption, sweetening and diluting whiskey in soft drinks and ice.

Occasionally this symbiotic relationship can produce a fascinating story. One hundred and fifty years ago such an occurrence happened between Bourbon whiskey and Boston water a world away.

We may never know when the first consignment of American whiskey was exported to an overseas market. Since the early days of American whiskey Maryland and Pennsylvania ryes were carried to the four corners of the earth as a sailor’s rations and ship’s medication. Herman Melville recalled American whiskey from his whaling days when he wrote Moby Dick in 1851. He describes Stubb’s declaration when he harpooned a whale, with the sight of the blood reminiscent of whiskey’s ruddy color, ‘Tis July’s immortal Fourth; all fountains must run wine today! Would now, it were old Orleans whiskey, or old Ohio, or unspeakable old Monongahela!’ Melville was part of a new generation of Americans who had replaced rum with whiskey as their spirit of choice. His home of New England during the 18th and early 19th century had been America’s leading center for rum distilling. Whiskey was now in ascendency.

New England whalers and traders plied the world’s oceans, exporting whiskey and rum to markets as far flung as Australia and New Zealand and returning with whale oil and luxury goods from the Far East.

Intriguingly, back in the 1850s there are references to American whiskey in Australian newspapers. At the commencement of the Warrenheip whiskey distillery near Ballarat in Victoria prompted a reporter at the Melbourne Argus to write in 1863 ‘We may soon expect to find our Colony producing whiskey far superior to the Monongahela and Old Bourbon of the United States, where the raw material mainly used is sugar and Indian corn, and equalling the famed produce of Islay itself’. The journalist may have been misinformed about liberal use of sugar with rye and corn whiskey and confused that Islay is a Scottish island; however, it does reveal Melbourne readers must have had a familiarity with American whiskey for this comparison to be mentioned.

The rise of rectifiers after the Civil War, the advent of the continuous still and the proliferation of new large distilleries produced whiskey in such large volumes that it encouraged some companies to seek export opportunities. Audacious companies first started looking to export markets beyond the continental United States before the War Between the States. S N Pike, a wholesaler in Cincinnati Ohio began exporting Magnolia whiskey overseas in the 1850s, as did  Hiram Walker who surprisingly had another Magnolia brand of whiskey named after a town near his East Sandwich distillery in Massachusetts. Walker began international exports of his Magnolia brand in 1858. By the 1870s America was competing with the Irish distillers who had until then dominated the world’s export whiskey market with a 90% share. Scotland also began to export their new blended whiskey to their Empire countries, for they too were generating excess capacity from their new distilleries on their new continuous Coffey stills.

How was whiskey drunk back then?

Most whiskey was consumed neat or with water. Given the high degree of adulteration the standard 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume) contained significantly less whiskey and more added water. Whiskey was sold in bulk, distributed in barrels and jugs to stores and saloons for sale to the public. The Government’s chief chemist from 1882, Harvey W Wiley reported before 1906 more than 90% of American whiskey was adulterated in some form by the time it reached the drinker. Rectifiers, distributors, shippers, saloon keepers and store merchants were compounding, diluting, flavoring or substituting the whiskey with other substances. A cocktail of chemical additives were used to mimic or disguise a colored contrivance sold as whiskey. Ersatz ingredients such as prune juice, tobacco and caramel were used for color. Potentially deadly substances such as sulphuric acid, potassium and benzene were added for flavor. Later when bottles were economically mass produced and the Pure Food laws enacted (1906) this minimize tampering and adulteration.

In America a new mixed drink trend was emerging in the early 19th century. Part of its appeal was that it masked the unpleasant side taste of adulterated spirits. This new trend also introduced a new ingredient to the cocktail mix: ice. New England entrepreneurs began shipping ice to southern American towns from 1816 to Charleston, Savannah and later New Orleans. When added to cocktails it gave a refreshing edge and palatability helping boost their popularity. The blending of alcoholic beverages with spices, herbs and sweeteners had been practised for centuries, creating punches, mulls, toddies and slings. The new cocktails used crushed and shaved ice to make juleps, cobblers and smashes. These cocktails were given an export nudge to Australia when the Californian 49s crossed the Pacific Ocean to the newly found goldfields of eastern Australia during the 1850s.

Cordial prospectors, Ballarat, T S Gill c1852- 53

Cordial prospectors, Ballarat, Samuel Thomas Gill c1852- 53

Fortunes were to be made on the Australian goldfields. Flush with instant money miners spent extravagantly. Champagne, whiskey, caviar – in Australia’s 100F summer temperatures before refrigeration how could such products be preserved or chilled?

The ice they used came from New England’s frozen lakes, shipped in wooden sailing vessels from Boston. Since 1840 there was a profitable trade of shipping blocks of lake ice cut from Massachusetts and New Hampshire then sent on a 4-month, 13,000 mile voyage across the equator to the ports of Sydney and later Melbourne. During an Australian summer the ice would be off-loaded at Port Melbourne onto bullock drays and carted another hundred miles in the blazing sun to the gold mining towns of Ballarat and Bendigo. There saloons could serve ice and other exotic imports to celebratory miners and wealthy merchants. They would light cigars with paper currency and inebriate colleagues with glasses of chilled drinks, joined by women and song in convivial abandonment.

The ice trade was started by the enterprising Fredrick Tudorof Boston in 1806. He became known as the Ice King controlling over half the volume of ice in the United States as well as venturing into overseas markets, beginning with the Caribbean, expanding to South America and then into Asia. In 1833 he started his annual shipments to Calcutta which amused the solitary Henry David Thoreau during the winter of 1847/8. Watching the ice cutters work his Walden Pond he reflected in Walden and Civil Disobedience ‘the pure Walden Pond is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges’.

A few years after writing this observation Thoreau may have been equally tickled to learn that in an equally distant town of Ballarat his precious Walden Pond ice was being mingled with Kentucky’s Old Bourbon to make juleps. This demand for imported whiskey in Ballarat and others towns soon spawned a number of distilleries in the district, giving birth to the Australian whiskey industry..

Chris Middleton, Contributor

Chris Middleton, Contributor thanks Chris Middleton for sharing this content. Chris Middleton is a friend of Jack’s and a drinking acquaintance to Jim, Johnnie and all the good whiskeys around the world. Chris lives a charmed life in the world of whiskey and beverages, having recently worked as the global account director for Jack Daniel’s where he spent many enjoyable and learned years with one of the world’s greatest brands and in the company of many wonderful people. He now lives in Australia, surprisingly the highest capita consumers of American whiskey where he writes about whiskey/whisky, advises on brand strategy and is working on distilling a new and distinctive whiskey, an Australian whisky. But that’s another story, for another day

Copyright Chris Middleton 2009

contact Chris: [email protected]


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One Response to “Bourbon Whiskey and Boston Water, a Curious Story by Chris Middleton”

  1. Andra Zickuhr

    Hey there! This post could not be written any better! Reading through this post reminds me of my old room mate! He always kept chatting about this. I will forward this article to him. Fairly certain he will have a good read. Many thanks for sharing!