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?