Welcome to the American Whiskey Podcast where we talk about the intersection of American history and American whiskey. This time around we are going to talk about the Genesis of American whiskey. The first time corn was ever distilled into an alcohol. It happened before the United States was the united states, but no matter. We’ll be talking about George Thorpe, an early colonist who came to the colonies and spoiler alert, he winds up dead. At the end of this, we’ll be drinking some Mellow Corn. Which isn’t really a bourbon at all, it’s a Corn whisey, but regardless, it’ll be different and maybe fun, anything will be better than that Rebel Yell I had last episode.
So put on your Time Enforcement Commission uniform, practice doing the splits on your kitchen counter, less you catch a stray bullet and let’s hope our future isn’t altered. We are traveling back to the year 1620, or there abouts. If anyone gets that time travel reference I will be incredibly impressed. Like INCREDIBLY impressed. Setting the scene for you. The colonies are very much still a part of England at this point. George Thorpe had travelled over from Bristol by boat. So check this out, the sea voyage takes three months. THREE MONTHS. I just took a 3 day tuna trip and that was way too long on a boat. I missed so many instagrams and so many snapchat streaks ran out on me. There’s no way in heck I am travelling for 3 months on a boat. To make matters worse Thorpe had left his wife and 3 kids back in Europe and had planned to send for them once his plantation was established.
He had travelled to the colonies to experiment with new crops. The record is a bit spotty here, there are sources that talk about George Thorpe studying Law back in Europe and presenting plans about economics to local parliaments. Why he would travel 3 months to take up crop expirmentation is far beyond me and there is no historical documentation telling us why. Nonetheless, he came, and at some point along the way, he developed a fondness for Native Americans that was often ridiculed and misunderstood by his fellow Europeans. Regardless, George Thorpe had strong family ties to some pretty strong figures in the Jamestown settlement. Because of these ties he was given control of a parcel of land equating to 11,000 acres. The plan was to build a school for the Native Americans, develop trading relationships and introduce them to the European lifestyle.
This always strikes me as fanciful. What is with white men and their obsession with introducing their way of life to people. That crap happened in Rome and obviously that didn’t turn out to well. Somehow we keep on doing this, even to the modern day middle east! Seriously, what is wrong with us?!?
Anyways, enough white man is the devil talk. An interesting bite of information is that the Native Americans in north eastern America had no traditions built around alcohol. Other Indians like those that Columbus had encountered, had long dabbled in getting crunk, but for whatever reason, north eastern American Indians did not. This was another way early colonists would trick Indians into take advantage of innocent Indians. One settler, Christopher Newport, reportedly got a local chieftan drunk in 1607. When the chieftan drank the offered alcohol, he fell into a drunken sleep, Newport cast a “spell” and said he’d be better in the morning. When the drunkenness wore off the Indians thought Newport was a witch doctor. He was able to use this power to trade greatly in his benefits. He wasn’t the only one to do this and Indians often drunkenly traded away huge portions of land with very little in return. There were certainly no flawed trade agreements in place like today with our acronym heavy deals. There was an egregious quote found in a book entitled: History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations that goes a little something like this: “When the object is to murder Indians, strong liquor is the main article required, for when you have them dead drunk, you may do to them as you please, without running the risk of losing your life.” He goes on in the book to describe a statute of limitations that could be avoided by crossing over the nearest river and waiting for the anger to blow over.
So shady dealings were afoot, but Thorpe was a different sort of man. He was tasked with building relationships with the Natives and he took that along with his Christian foundation very seriously. He was convinced that the way of coercion and trickery were detrimental to any sort of long term partnerships. He was very strict with other colonists and admonished them for any sort of behavior that would hurt the Natives feelings or showed any amount of disrespect. HE changed rules that would welcome the Indians into the plantation, allowing them to rome free, rather than be kept off the property. He even went as far as to hang dogs. Apparently there were some dogs that were acting pretty aggressively to the natives. No doubt trained by colonists to hate the natives. When the Indians complained of the dogs to Thorpe he took them and hanged them. He was very serious about making the Indians feel he was their ally.
Now several reports talk about there being a ton of beer on the ship over. The record indicates 51 tuns of beer. Tun is a strange word, but one tun equates to 252 gallons. That means for a 3 month trip they brought along 12,852 gallons of beer. Ya, these dudes really liked beer. Typically this is created with barley and hops. And the new American landscape had neither of these. What it did have was corn. Lots and lots of corn. Most of Europes attitude toward corn was it wasn’t even fit for the beasts they raised for livestock. I have a feeling that most of Thorpe’s opinion was the same, but when in rome, do as the romans do. He quickly started experimenting with the corn and was surprised at how resilient it was.
When the barley and hops ran out, he sure as hell wasn’t going to stop drinking, so he turned to corn. Now we don’t know how Thorpe developed his brew, but we can look at other methods of the time to get an idea of how he did this. Here’s the breakdown, and surprisingly it’s not much different than what they do today, other than adding other grains to the mixture. So Thorpe would take a bunch of his corn and grind it down to a cornmeal type. They’d take the grinded corn and add it to hot water, stiring it to create a type of gross corn soup looking thing. This is called mash. They’d put this in open tanks and allow wild yeast to fall into the mixture. So this is also a difference from today, we’d mix several types of grains together into that soup and we take great pride in the yeast we add to this. In fact, Four Roses has 5 different types of yeast strains it uses in this process, all with different flavor profiles. So as the yeast falls into these open tanks, it begins to eat all the sugars that are present in the corn mash. This then turns into alcohol. If you’ve ever visited a distillery then you’ve seen these huge tanks with fermenting mash. It sits for several days and if it worked properly, there will be thousands of bubbles at the top of the fermentation tanks. Nowadays, distillers have perfected this stage and there is never any failure rate. However, in 1621 they couldn’t guarantee the yeast would fall in the tubs and there were plenty of failed batches. Sometimes they’d even throw dead animals into the mixtures if the mixture didn’t ferment.
If the yeast did land, they’d let it ferment for a few days, then move it into a still with sealed lid, thered be a straw that then ran into a cooled bucket. They’d build a fire under the still and the mash would evaporate, the gas would travel through the tube, called the worm, and through the cooling process turn into a clear liquid with alcohol content. Modern distillers would then run that through a doubler, that would increase the alcohol content, but in the 1620s, they would run their first distillation then clean out the still and run the clear liquid, we call it White Dog in the States, Scots call it New Make, through the still again. This would increase the proof of the whiskey and viola, it was ready to drink. Of course, now we add it to barrels and age it, the wood adding multiple properties and greatly increasing the taste. Thorpes whiskey probably tasted like crap, but they’d improve it by adding spices or fruit to it. You can still get white dog today and buffalo trace has one that’s surprisingly drinkable.
So Thorpe had done it. He literally created the first American whiskey, solely out of corn. This would later fuel the creation of bourbon and other whiskey varietals out of local grains grown in the colonies. But the story does not end well for our innovator. You see, even though Thorpe had worked really hard at developing relationships with the natives, they were quickly becoming fed up with the Europeans imposing their way of life. In fact they viewed it as a threat to their very heritage, the culture they had created. And one fateful day, which would become known as the Indian Massacre of 1622, the colonists were attacked. George Thorpe was actually warned by a servant that the natives were acting suspicious. However, George Thorpe dismissed this as his servant not understanding the native culture. Shortly after this warning, the Indians attacked. Killing 347 settlers, which amounted to a quarter of all the settlers in Jamestown.
Now before we move onto tasting Mellow Corn, I need to do a shout out. Most of the time when I do research for these episodes I use a ton of sources and cross reference them and come up with a bunch of information. I did that with this episode, but a large portion of the content came from a book called Bourbon Empire, by the author Reid Mitenbuler. I’m probably not saying his last name right, but if you head to the site, you can find the link to his book. It’s incredibly fascinating and really well written, including poetic lines such as, “being stabbed in the mouth with a screwdriver used to pry the lid off a gasoline can.” For reals, go buy it and give it a read.
Now on to Mellow Corn! I first heard about Mellow Corn in a Wired magazine article in 2014 that talked about it as a spirit that all the new york mixologists ordered when they went out drinking. I looked it up and was intrigued by it’s stats, but was saddened to find it was actually kinda hard to get here in California. Until one day I walked into Total wine and they had 1 bottle sitting on the shelf for a whole $11 an 99 cents.
Mellow Corn is not a bourbon, it’s not a rye, it is in fact a corn whiskey. So unlike bourbon that has to be at least 51% corn, Corn whiskey has the requirement of being at least 80% corn. Mellow Corn is in fact 90% corn, with rye and barly making up the remaining 10%. And unlike bourbon or rye whiskey, corn whiskey can not be aged in charred barrels, it has to be stored in new, uncharred barrels. Mellow Corn is aged for 4 year. Because it’s aged in new barrels as opposed to charred barrels, it’s color is actually pretty light compared to other whiskeys. It’s bottled at 100 proof and currently comes out of the Heaven Hill distillery. Another cool fact is that it’s Bottled in Bond. Which, if you don’t know what that means, you’ve been slacking and need to go back to the first episode of the podcast and give it a listen.
The nose of this whiskey is so bright. There is an overwhelming scent of vanilla and corn. But not like, corn if you’re driving up the 5 freeway, this is like a sweet corn, like a creamed corn. There are some light citrus notes too.
The palate pretty uninteresting, more of the same sweet corn and vanilla notes. But nothing else. The finish is dominated by a chalky corn taste that isn’t very enjoyable. The good news is it finished very quick.
So here’s the thing with mellow corn, is it an incredible whiskey that you’ll want to visit over and over again. No, it’s not. It’s kind of bland. But here the thing, it is very different from the normal bourbon profile. The corn notes are incredibly unique. And because it’s one of the only bottled in bond corn whiskeys available, you really cant afford not to try it. For me, this bottle sits in the cupboard designated as “mixing whiskies” because it makes an incredible whiskey sour. So for the uniqueness and the interest factor, I think it’s worth it for you to pick up a bottle. It’s not really hard to miss, it’s bright, garish yellow and has a cartoony barrel sitting on top of corn stalks, the bottle is in fact, corny as hell.
Well guys, that’ll do it for this episode. I’ll have you know I wrote this while sitting in a treehouse for cats, built by cats. I hope you enjoyed this episode. Catch ya on the flipside.
Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler: https://www.amazon.com/Bourbon-Empire-Future-Americas-Whiskey/dp/014310814X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1474958652&sr=8-1&keywords=bourbon+empire