The Grains Used in Historic Southern Distilling

A talk delivered at the Grain Gathering, Lexington KY 9-16-19

by David S Shields

What kind of corn, rye, and wheat was used in the first century of whiskey making in Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, and the hills of North Carolina? Can this information be supplied despite the fact that there exists no reputable written explanation prior to the 1880s for the precise varieties of corn, rye, and wheat employed in distilling? 

I won’t talk about barley today because I discussed  the historic prevalence of 6 row Winter barley in southern fields in my last talk to the Southeastern wheat breeders.

What do the documentary records provide from the first half century of whiskey distilling from Kentucky and Tennessee?  This: “Whiskey is made either with rye, barley, or Indian corn. One, or all those kinds of grains is used, as they are more or less abundant in the country. I do not know how far they are mixed in Kentucky; but Indian corn is here in general the basis of whiskey, and more often employed alone.”

This is from Anthony Boucherie’s The Art of Making Whiskey, published in Lexington,Ky., in 1819.[i]  Indeed his chemical orientation immediately translates all grain into saccharine matter in his process, so it really doesn’t matter whether spirits are concocted from all corn, or any mixture of grains.  In all the early recipes — corn is designated as corn or Indian maize; no specification of variety; the same is true for rye and wheat. This is also the case for the one 18th-century whiskey recipe from a resident of Kentucky, Jonathan Taylor’s diary of the 1794,[ii] or the most reliable printed instruction available before Boucherie’s Art. Pennsylvanian Samuel M’Harry’s 1809 manual The Practical Distiller.    

M’Harry’s handbook mirrors Taylor’s recipes in having one for all corn whiskey, and others for mixed corn and rye.  In his main rye whiskey recipe he presents the early optimum formulation of one-third rye and two-thirds corn that would be standard for the first half of the 19th century.  When it comes to character of his ingredients M’Harry conveys one thing that it is consequential — “Indian Corn cannot be ground too fine for distilling.”[iii] A fine grind insured best results for cooking in the still.

This sentence enables us to make a preliminary judgment about what corn was used in early distilling. Of the general categorizations of corn at the end of the 18th century, flint corns, pop corns, flour corns, gourdseed corns, and sweet corns.  Flint corns and pop corns because of their granularity in milling would have been too troublesome to process.[iv]  Sweet corn was too rare and highly valued as a table corn to put in a still.  You will perhaps note the absence of dent corns here — created from the crossing of gourdseed and flint corns,[v] they did not become a general feature of the southern agricultural landscape so called until the second quarter of the 19th century — in the 1830s and 1840s  to be precise when Carswell White in Georgia, Cocke’s Prolific in Virginia, Kentucky Yellow, Leaming Yellow, and Bloody Butcher became standardized.  Reid’s Yellow Dent emerged in Illinois at the same time. 

When we look to Tennessee and Kentucky in the post-Revolutionary settlement period, there are several things to consider.  After modest beginnings in Jonesboro, Tenn., distilling took off in 1790s in Davidson and Robertson counties — that is from Nashville north to the Kentucky border.[vi]  The Shawnee had inhabited the area until 1745, the Cherokee had a temporary presence, and it was largely vacant when settlers began camping along the Cumberland in 1760. Corn does not naturalize, so Shawnee red corn and white flour corn were not growing in the region as a resource.

Settlers used corn they brought with them from North Carolina and Virginia. The same might be said of Kentucky. The Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia settlers of Bourbon County in the 18th century, came from areas long expert in distilling. Historian Henry G. Crowgey in the second chapter of Kentucky Bourbon supplies a roll call of early distillers who brought knowledge and technology from parts East into Kentucky:  John Hamilton, William Calk, Col Evan Shelby, Evan Williams, William Shiell, and the legendary Elijah Craig.[vii]  One presumes they brought seed of their favorite corn and rye varieties with them as well. William Caulk of Boon’s fort is one of the earliest recorded corn planters in the territory cultivating a patch in his first year of settlement, 1775.  So what were people growing at the end of the 18th century in North Carolina north to Pennsylvania?

They brought Native landraces — old strains improved by the indigenous peoples. In 1837, just before the emergence of the Dent Corns, Dr. Peter A Browne published “An Essay on Indian Corn,” that supplied as orderly a taxonomy of varieties that were stable enough to be recognized during those decades when growers were growing multiple varieties contiguously, and cross-pollinization was rampant.[viii]  It was widely republished and established itself as the word on the subject. He organized them by color — Yellow, White, Red, Blue, and Particolored. Color sorting was the second common method of conceptualizing maize after the type categorization into flint, gourdseed, flour, sweet, and pop corn. For our purposes it is important because the only stated preference found in advertisements by distillers buying corn in Kentucky and Tennessee is this:  “Corn, Rye and Barley, for which the highest market price will be given in cash — to be delivered at the Distillery formerly occupied by Mr. Benajah Bosworth, one mile from the city, convenient to the Railroad. N. B. Yellow Corn would be preferred.”[ix] This 1833 ad by distillers Daniel and Henry McCourt of Lexington states a preference that could be said to pertain to this very day, when #2 Yellow Dent is the default corn employed by most distillers. 

Turning to Dr. Peter A Browne’s section on Yellow Corn, we encounter first and most extensively listed, Yellow Gourdseed Corn. 

“A. Yellow Corn.

A.a. The genuine gourd seed Indian corn, so called from the supposed similitude in shape, between its grains and the seeds of the gourd; the spike contains, when thus unmixed with any other variety, twenty-four rows, which is the highest number of rows on any cob of Indian corn I have ever seen. I have heard of twenty-six rows. When this corn is mixed with any other variety, its spike gradually diminishes in its number of rows until it arrives at the maximum of the variety with which it is mixed. Examples of these mixtures are seen in #2 of twenty-two rows; #3 of twenty rows; #4 of eighteen rows; #5 of sixteen rows; #6 of fourteen rows; and #7 of twelve rows.” (“Indian Corn,” 84.)

Two other yellow corn varieties are listed: 8 row King Phillip Flint from New England and 12 row Sioux Flint Corn from the upper mid-west.  Prior to the emergence of yellow dent corns in the 1840s—Leaming’s Yellow  (originally called Clinton Corn)[x] and Yellow Dent in Ohio and Kentucky,  Yellow Gourdseed corn was the preferred variety for distilling.

The three cultivars in the USDA GRIN collection that most closely approximate the description provided by Browne are PI 414179 and PI 414183 and PI 608456 .  Until the 1870s agronomists believed that  the Yellow gourdseed “produced greater yield than any other variety in proportion to the size of the ears.  They had more starch and less protein and oil than the flint kinds.  They had more oil and flavor than the white gourdseed varieties. 

So we come to the question — why the preference among distillers for yellow corn? Ohio agronomist William D. Emerson observed, “distillers say it is richer in material for their product”.[xi] Richer both in the sense of capacity the generate spirits, and also to impart flavor.  This was a judgment formed before the orthodoxy that corn supplied neutral spirit, while wheat, rye, limestone water, and toasted barrel were where a product’s flavor derived.

Even in Samuel M’Harry’s The Practical Distiller, there is a recipe for all-corn whiskey, with the comment that sometimes one’s rye crop fails. Are there corns whose intrinsic chemistry imparts sufficient flavor in a spirit — in white dog — that no additional grain additives are needed?  This is a rhetorical question among multi-generational moonshine families.  Of course there are and the shine families maintain them: whether Leaming, Kentucky Yellow Dent, John Hauk corn, or the Appalachian Red Dent called “Master Corn”.[xii] This red corn is of historical interest because it is a parent of both Bloody Butcher and Jimmy Red, the former being a hybrid of Master and Hackberry Corn, according to antebellum botanist John Klippart,[xiii] the latter being a hooch corn that came to the Carolina Lowcountry in the post Civil War period.  Both these red corns are presently the focus of much craft distilling experimentation.[xiv]  

From the 1840s to the 1890s corn production for distillation were governed by two competing impulses: a desire among farmers to collect varieties, cross, and improve corn — a penchant that in open pollinated countryside led to more than a little chaos[xv] — and the desire to have a reliable, prolific variety that performed in predictable ways — as feed, as fodder, as mash.  While new varieties proliferated in the seed catalogs ever year post 1865, fewer and fewer corn varieties were employed by farmers for mass planting, until in the 1890s Reid’s Yellow Dent (like all dents a cross between flints and gourd seed corns), became the default corn of the Midwest corn belt, and by happenstance the go to corn of twentieth century distillers before Prohibition.[xvi]  

The end of the 19th century saw a conception of product take hold among large scale distillers. Product doctrine held that consistency was the highest good — a consistency achieved despite differences in weather, terroir, grain variety, and formulation. Food chemist David Wesson had proposed a new model for constructing mass products — there should be a taste neutral palate upon which flavor was admixed.[xvii] Wesson made cotton seed oil flavorless so that it could be universally applied to any product than required a lipid. A similar kind of reasoning took hold among distillers — the corn spirits should be a neutral basis into which rye or wheat or both would be intermixed to supply the basis for taste. There were two consequences of this reasoning — a group of distillers who realized that white dent corns provided consistently less flavored spirits than yellow dent embraced Hickory King Corn, a variety introduced by A. O. Lee of Hickory Virginia in 1880, or the higher yielding Johnson County White, when it became available in the early 20th century. Others thought that the distilling process could mute the distinctive character of yellow corn, provided that the corn employed  was grown on such broad scale in such large production that differences wrought by time, soil, and temperature were averaged out.  This contributed to the large scale  adoption of Reid’s Yellow Dent and its descendants such as No. 2 Yellow Dent. 

Since rye and wheat were so important in flavoring whiskey, bourbon, and rye, what types of rye and wheat supplied the savor?  Let’s talk about rye first, because in the two decades before Prohibition an agronomic sea change in rye cultivation took place—traditional varieties were supplanted by two introduced varieties: Abruzzi from Italy and Rosen from Russia.  In 1900 USDA Plant Hunters dispatched to Italy found Abruzzi Rye, a productive strain growing east of Rome.  Through the promotional efforts of Coker Seed and the USDA, Abruzzi had become the standard rye grown in every part of the South except West Virginia and Kentucky which embraced Rosen Rye after its introduction in 1909.  

One old rye was not supplanted — in the Lowcountry, Florida, and the Gulf coast of Alabama a heat tolerant landrace, black seed rye proved better able to withstand the growing conditions than Abruzzi. In 1986 the University of Florida released a select version of this ancient rye, FL 401, extensively used for winter forage, cover, and as a wind break, since it is tall growing.  There is reason to believe that black seed was the first rye grown extensively in the South, brought from Europe and cultivated in the colonial period.  In 1856 an agricultural historian recalled the sequence of rye varieties grown in North America:

            “The varieties of Rye are much fewer in number than those of oats, but still deserve our notice.  And first upon our list we find our old and once very “Common Blake Rye,” so called after the dark color of its grains, which made a correspondingly dark flour. This is process of time, gave way to our “Small White Rye,” and our “Large White Rye,” varieties of whose origins I can saying nothing, but I know that they have been displaying the old, little hard-grained black variety . . . , And now our country also has the famous “Multicole” Rye or Poland Rye, which was introduced to our country twelve or fifteen years ago by the Hon. William C. Rives of Virginia.”[xviii]

While the Multicole, or tillering rye is greatly important in the history of rye breeding, for our purposes, chronicling the distilling grains, the important successor to black seed rye was the large white.  Though our historian did not know the origins of this variety, there is a rich paper trail for the plant. In 1811 the first notice appears in New England, “White Rye, an entire new kind this part of the country.”[xix]  Contemporary reports give it another name, “Egyptian White Rye” and a source, Richard Peters of Pennsylvania. It was “beautiful” and it was “large.”[xx]  

E. S. Thomas of Baltimore in 1821 began the extensive shipment of Egyptian White Rye across the South, with the Carolinas a particular focus of sales.[xxi] People knew that Egypt was a fictional provenance for the rye. 

“George Albrecht raised a small amount of fine Egyptian rye this year on his place north of town.  The berry is clear and bright, almost like wheat in appearance and of large size.  The see came from Russia and the flour makes a bread almost like corn.”[xxii]  Indeed the fictional Egyptian origin became a feature of fantasy such as this Reidsville, NC, rhapsody: “Mr. W. R. Vickers . . . set his famous Egyptian rye whiskey with the pedigree.  He ways ‘the soil was ploughed and planted by Methuselah’s father — the grain was reaped by Methuselah himself — distilled at the Pyramids of Egypt by the Sphynx —watered by the river Nile — dripped through a copper worm a thousand miles long — heated by two volcanoes — shaked up by four earthquakes — drawn through the great desert of Sahara and refined —stored in the Catacombs until the flood-rescued by the Egyptians, put in Noah’s Ark, landed on top of Mount Ararat, rendered respectable by age — crowned with glories of antiquity, sampled by the monks — inspected by ten thousand revenue officers, glorified with stamps, and covered with the cobwebs of creation, was drawn by elephant teams to Vicker’s saloon in West Market street.”[VSD1] [xxiii]

So we have Egyptian White Rye Whiskey in western North Carolina in the 19th century, what about Kentucky. Well in the Bourbon News of Paris Kentucky from August through September of 1899 (a year before the discovering of Abruzzi Rye) ran multiple notices of white rye seed for sale. No other rye seed was mentioned. One notice indicated a batch came from Michigan. That speaks to a development in terms of seed supply — northern farmers took up rye seed production and managed to create lines with mammoth seed heads.  These varieties remained in cultivation until 1930. 

Now white rye is gone. There are analogs to the old Egyptian-Russian large white winter rye that endure, including the oldest regularly planted rye cultivar in the world, Sangaste, bred in 1875 in Estonia by Friedrich Georg Magnus van Berg  (then a part of the Russian empire) out of local large white rye landraces.[xxiv]  It is a divergent development that approximated the same tall habit, large head configuration of the white mammoth rye produced out of Egyptian White in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and the Dakotas at the end of the 19th century. 

And what of wheat? The American Revolution set in motion a number of developments that would cause the eclipse of the old settler wheats of the colonial era — yellow lammas and Old English White — and the rise of a trio of wheats that would dominate grain cultivation in the early republic—early white wheat (Isbell’s forward, white May wheat, rare ripe), purple straw Wheat (blue stem, mountain purple straw, early purple straw), and red may wheat (Red Wheat).

War disrupted seed production, leading to a scramble for wheat seed in the 1780s procured from every possible source.  Second, the war saw the introduction of a major pest, the Hessian Fly reportedly conveyed in the straw bedding of Hessian hired soldiers with the British Army, but just as likely to have come with English supplies. It appeared first on Long Island in 1784, and in eastern Virginia in 1785.  It spread across New York and New England, and the eastern seaboard, traversing Virginia by 1798.  The Fly had fall and Spring hatching cycles. It infested young wheat stunting its growth, inducing straw collapse and inhibiting grain formation.  Finding seed not infected by the fly, and that sprouted at times when the larval flies were not active became the foremost agronomic aims of wheat growers in the early United States.

Planting times later in autumn and harvest times earlier in Spring (late May or early June) became the keys to a wheat’s ability to make a bankable harvest.  The first of the early wheats was discovered in Carolina County Virginia by Henry Isbell III in 1787. He sent away for a batch of white wheat seed from a merchant. (In the years after the Revolution mercantile grocers handled much of the seed business in the United States.). “When his wheat was in flower,  [he] observed a single early almost ripe.  Hence he conceived an idea it might be a different species. To determine this, he carefully preserved the wheat produced by this solitary ear, which has now multiplied to such a degree, as that several thousand bushels will be produced at the next harvest, having been distributed into many hands.”[xxv]

The new wheat had a number of striking qualities:

  1. “This wheat ripens from 15 to 20 days earlier than any other”

  2. “The straw is short by one third, than that of any other kind”

  3. “The straw is encumbered by very little fodder”

Isbell’s wheat became known as “forward wheat” or “Virginia early wheat” because of the first quality; it’s short stature gained it a following because it minimized lodging (the blow down of grain in storms—a problem with tall grains).  But the greatest consequences of these attributes were that it escaped the infestation cycle of the Hessian Fly and it also evaded infection by the dreaded disease, rust. By 1796, Isbell’s seed was being shipped across the United States. Agricola of New York reported in 1800, on a comparative planting of Virginia early and red chaff:  “The Virginia wheat ripened ten days earlier than the other, its straw was one fifth less in height, and scarcely on half in bulk.  The berry was yellow, hard, large, plump and handsome.  That of the red-chaff wheat was shrunk, and did not yield more than half of the quantity of Virginia wheat on the same space of ground.”[xxvi]  Agricola calculated the Virginia yield at 42 bushels an acre. He planted on November 3.

Virginia’s great agronomist John Taylor of Carolina County in 1818 summarized its virtues and pointed out a signal liability:  “Isbell Wheat.  There are two varieties of this species bearded and unbearded.  .  .  .  Having cultivated both for many years, I have preferred the bearded for very slight reasons.  .  .  .  The characters of both are 1st. Great forwardness. —2nd. A liability once in 20 years to be injured but not destroyed by frost. —3rd. To produce every year a few black rotted heads, which do not injure the other wheat or materially effect the crop. —4th.  To be far less liable to rust than any latter species. —5th.  It requires strong land and produced on poor, worse crops than late wheats, —6th.  It is hard wheat to get out. —7th. It makes very fine flour.  —8th. It is one fourth lower than late wheats. I have for many years partly cultivated it. The high repute it once had, has diminished as lands have grown poorer.”[xxvii]  

Taylor pointed out the great problem taking place in Virginia: extractive farming (the planting of staple crops in the same fields without rotations for successive years) was leaching soil of its nutriments.  Certain grains were more sensitive to this depletion than others.  Isbell’s early wheat (which began to be called White May wheat in the 1800),[xxviii] suffered the greatest decline in productivity.  Rather than amend the soil  (the geoponic crisis would not influence southern farmers’ field practices until the mid-1820s).  A farmer from Orange County, Virginia, told what happened in 1817:  “The old White Wheat cultivated by our Fathers yielded to the forward May Wheat—that lasted a few years and the Baltimore bearded expelled it.  The latter in turn gave place the purple straw.”[xxix]

Planting staple grains in fields repeatedly until nutrition was stripped was only one dimension of the problem.  The amount of wheat being grown in the upper South exploded in the 1790s as tobacco gave way to small grains.  In 1796 an observer noted, “double the number of acres are now put down to wheat that were four years ago; and, on account of the extraordinary propitiousness of this season, it is expected that she will turn into market nearly double the quantity this year that she did last.”[xxx] Expansion of acreage and mono-cropping wheat gave rise to a host of problems: the accelerating spread of Hessian Fly, outbreaks of rust disease (in 1800), smut, and mildew. 

Rust, a fungal disease caused by Pucinnia triticina-black leaf rust, or Pucinnia striiformis-yellow leaf rust (aka stripe rust), could cause anywhere from 20 to 50% crop loss.  “In wheat ripening by the 12th of June the rust scarcely ever makes its appearance; when it ripens later than the 20th it seldom escapes.” .”.   From the 1790 onward only two wheats dependably ripened before the outbreak: “ the old white May wheat, and the early purple straw.  They came to the scythe in a very few days of each other, the former being a little the earlier of the two.  The white May was sometimes cut in the last week of May; generally the first week in June, scarcely ever later than the 10th.  It was, without doubt, the most perfect wheat ever grown in this climate, making a flour superior to any manufactured in these days, and often weighing sixty-six pounds to the bushel.  It was also very productive on rich land, frequently yielding upwards of thirty bushes to the acre.  The purple straw was equally productive, perhaps rather more so, and weighed well.”[xxxi]

A beardless soft red wheat that grows erectly atop stiff straw that colors from dark red to purple to blue when the grain achieves the dough stage, Purple Straw Wheat was developed in the Virginia Piedmont at about the time of the American Revolution.  “The blue stem or purple straw originated in Fauquier county, having been distinguished in its growth by a Mr. [Robert] Embrey.  Not being particularly acquainted with the facts in detail, I would beg leave to refer to the gentlemen living the neighborhood of Embry’s family—among others, are gen. John Blackwell, John C. Scott, and William Shuke, Esqrs and others, near the Falmouth post office.”[xxxii]

What variety of wheat Embrey was improving is difficult to determine.  Gina Brown-Guedira, the USDA’s small grain geneticist for the southeast has noted genetic similarities to North African Spring wheats.  What can be said without equivocation is that enough seed was circulating in Virginia in 1790 for agronomist John Taylor to make an extensive comparative grow-out of the variety to test productivity: “On the 10th July, 1790, a crop of wheat of 110 loads, the purple straw red wheat chiefly, was hauled home and secure in houses and stacks . . . . The load was estimated at fifteen bushels, giving for the crop 1650 bushels.  In the month of December following . . . the produce proved to be thus—White wheat 495 bushels, purple straw red wheat 1144, making a total of 1639 bushels; exhibiting minus eleven bushels only.  The land from which this crop was raised was 66 acres of fallow and 40 of corn ground, planted in the order of 4 feet by 6, two stalks to a hill; the wide rows always in the direction of N. and S. for the advantage of seeding without digging up the corn crop.” Arator[VSD2]  [John Taylor], “Indian Corn vs. Wheat,” Alexandria Gazette (June 11, 1818), 1. 

 Purple Straw’s ability to thrive on marginal soils, its ability to evade rust, its earliness, its productivity, and the quality of its flour, made it the field preference for farmers in parts of the South throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth.  Numbers of times rival wheats were put forward by farmers with the aim of supplanting purple straw’s place—Lawler wheat, Hunton Wheat, Maryland-Pennsylvania Yellow Bearded—and all failed.  It found strong champions—Edmund Ruffin, the agriculturist and editor, spent the 1830s improving the seed.  He explained why no other wheat could supplant it:  “We prefer the mountain purple straw to any other kind of wheat, and sow of it altogether; not on account of its being considered more productive, but because its peculiar disadvantages may be obviated by using proper care, and it will better withstand the dangers which no care can guard against.  Its great advantage consists in the ripe grain being able to bear more exposure to wet weather, than any white, or bearded red wheat: and where we make large crops out wheat is exposed in the field from the beginning of reaping to the end of thrashing.  Besides this important ground for preference, this kind of wheat is heavier than the bearded, and makes better flour.” Indeed, for yielding flour, it is said by some of the most experienced millers to be inferior to no other kind—though the flour of white wheat sells better, merely because it is of a purer white.”[xxxiii] Ruffin’s efforts insured that enough Purple Straw seed was dispersed throughout the South that the disruptions of seed production in the South caused by the Civil War would not imperil the variety.  The White May would, in contrast, suffer.  

The multiplication of pest and pathogen pressures over the first half of the 19th century set farmers experimenting.  New wheat strains were imported from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.  Planting different kinds of wheat side by side and “crossing” wheat—selecting out mutations—and by the mid century—intentionally breeding wheat for specific traits.  The most important southern breeding initiative involved crossing the landrace yellow lammas with White May to create Red May Wheat. 

The yellow lammas (old lamme, or red lammas) was an English landrace that had a short red berry and produced yellowish flour.  It had the liability of coming to maturity at times when rust plagued southern fields.  Crossing it with Isbell’s Early White May Wheat gave rise to Red May sometime between 1825 and 1830 near Amelia, Virginia.  It had features of both—the sensitivity to soil quality, short stature,  and earliness of the White May, the short head, coloration, and plump berry of the yellow lammas.  Agronomist James Killibrew gave a portrait of the wheat after it had been in general cultivation for a quarter century:  “This is a most excellent variety, but varies very much in yield.  On the alluvial bottoms it will give 20 to 25 bushels, while on rich up lands 10 to 12 bushels per acres is considered a good yield.  It has a short head, short straw, small berry. . . . It is not much liable to any of the diseases to which wheat is heir.  It is a very certain crop, though not the heaviest.  It does not tiller well, and hence must be sown thicker than the usual kinds.[xxxiv]  

The popularity of Red May Wheat arose from virtues not immediately apparent in its two parent strains: extraordinary drought tolerance and great cold tolerance.  An 1843 letter to the Southern Planter attested to Red May’s resilience and won the wheat general admiration including its adoption by the Shaker communities in the South as their standard winter wheat in the antebellum period.[xxxv]  

White May, Purple Straw Wheat, and Red May Wheat were direct responses to the rise of a new set of field conditions that prevailed in the upper South after the American Revolution.  Each possessed virtues that kept it long in cultivation despite the introduction of foreign wheat varieties that promised well:  Canadian white Flint Wheat, Mediterranean Wheat, Yellow Bearded Wheat.  All would survive into the 21st century and have become the linchpins for restored southern heirloom winter wheat. 

In summary, what do we know about what corn made up classic whiskey, bourbon, and rye in the century after the American Revolution?

  •  In the 18th century it was made of whatever corn was available, black seed rye, and red/yellow lammas wheat. 

  • From 1810 to 1850 it was made with yellow gourdseed corn, Egyptian  White Rye, and Purple Straw Wheat or in the 1840s Red May Wheat.

  • From 1850 to 1890 is was made from yellow dent corn, Egyptian White Rye, and Red May Wheat or some other red winter wheat. 

  • All of these components grains survive somewhere in North America, except Egyptian White Rye.  There is, however, an analog for that as well. 


 [i] Anthony Boucherie, “Of the Distiller of Whiskey,” The Art of Making Whisky so as to Obtain a Better, Purer, Cheaper and Greater quantity of Spirit from a Given Quantity of Grain (Lexington, KY: Worsley & Smith, 1819). Boucherie had visited distilleries the United States before returning to France where he published this treatise in French; it was translated by C. M. and published in Lexington.

[ii] Diary of Jonathan Taylor from August 1794 through Oct. 24,1794, Mss. A T243j, The Filson Historical Society.

[iii] Samuel M’Harry, The Practical Distiller: or an Introduction to Making Whiskey, Gin, Brandy and Spirits (Harrisburg: Wyeth, 1809), 65.  See also Michael Krafft, The American Distiller (Philadelphia, 1804), 55-57.

[iv] That being said, distillers in the earliest decades of southern whiskey making tended to use whatever was available and in surplus, including corn husks, in creating their product. It was only when the retail market for whiskey made the quality of produce a price issue (let’s say 1815 or so), that the lessons about grain quality, grind, water quality, and barrel preparation went from principle to practice. 

[v] Some botanical taxonomists have taken to categorizing gourd seed corn as a dent corn, since it was a soft corn suited for milling.  But at no time prior to the creation of gourd-seed / flint crosses was the term dent ever applied to them.  The descriptor “dent” was first used by farmers in the 1830s precisely for those crosses and does not become general in print until 1840 when it begins appearing with some frequency.  

[vi] Kay Baker Gaston, “Tennessee Distilleries: Their Rise, Fall, and Re-Emergence,” Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association 12 (1999),

[vii] Henry G. Crowgey, Kentucky Bourbon, The Early Years of Whiskeymaking (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2008).

[viii] Peter A Brown, “Indian Corn, an Essay on Indian Corn,” The Farmer & Gardener, and Live-Stock Breeder and Manager (July 11, 1837), 84-85.

[ix] “Wanted—Corn, Rye, and Barley,” Kentucky Gazette (April 20, 1833), 3.

[x] Leaming Golden Dent Corn—an improved dent corn secured by Christopher Leaming (1777-1850) “from off a flat boat at Columbia, Hamilton County, Ohio.” The original cobs were a landrace yellow gourdseed hailing from the mouth of Bullskin Creek on the Ohio River, probably of Native American origin. “A Brief History of the Celebrated Cereal,” Wilmington News-Journal (Wilmington OH) 15 Oct 1879, 2.    The original landrace was reputed to be pale yellow and small cobbed.  It was called “little yellow.” Christopher’s son, Jacob S. Leaming (1815-1888) spent decades improving the strain by seed selection until it achieved its prize winning configuration: “A short thick stalk tapering from the ground to the tassel, earing very low on the stalk, that succors but little, but when it does nearly every succor has a good ear.” The stalks bore one or two ears of 16 to 24 rows of golden dent kernels on a red cob. The rows could be quite irregular. Because the kernels were large Leaming had a good reputation as a field/feed corn.  It ripened ten to fourteen days earlier than other dent varieties in the mid-19th century.    It spread into New York and New England during the 1850s.  In 1878 it won the silver medal for corn at the Universal Exposition at Paris. In 1904 it won the grand prize at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

[xi] William D. Emerson, History and Incidents of Indian Corn (Cincinnati 1878). 148.

[xii] “Master is from Tennessee, and is so distinct as to maintain its character when mixed with other sorts, upon which it leaves its impress, and hence the name it bears.  The grains are rather deep, dented, sound, though not heavy.  Each stalk produces one of two ears, and each ear up to twelve rows.  It is from medium to large size, dull red color, early, and is a soft variety.”  John H. Klippart, The Wheat Plant (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, & Keys Co., 1860), 668. It is probably related to the Shawnee Flame corn. 

[xiii] John H. Klippart, The Wheat Plant (Cincinnati: Moore, Wilstach, & Keys Co., 1860), 666.

[xiv] Jill Neimark, “From Hooch to Haute Cuisine: A Nearly Extinct Bootlegger’s Corn Gets a Second Shot,” The Salt NPR (January 2, 2018):

[xv] In 1848 Isaac Fowler of Erie County Ohio wrote to the agriculture secretary of the U. S. Patent office, “In the year 1839, I planted one and a half acrews of ground with three different kinds of corn, half acre of china, half acre yellow gourd seed, half acrew white flint . . . when I commenced with that corn [China] it was a flint corn; from seven years’ use, it has become so closely allied to gourd seed that the kernel is very much dented, and the ears from twelf to twenty rows.  The same remarks hold good in relation to white flint.” “Experiments in the Culture of Indian Corn,” Genesee Farmer (July 1848), 168.

[xvi] C. Wayne Smith, Javier Bertran, E. C. A. Runge, Corn: Origin, History, Technology, and Production (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2004), 167.

[xvii] David S. Shields, Southern Provisions The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 301-04.

[xviii] “Rye Varieties, Dollar Newspaper Philadelphia (May 26, 1858), 4.

[xix] Hampshire Federalist (September 19, 1811), 3.

[xx] Berkshire Reporter (November 2, 1811), 3.

[xxi] Charleston City Gazette (October 20, 1821), 4.

[xxii] Jamestown Alert, (September 19, 1895), 6.

[xxiii] “Rambler at Reidsveille” The Western NC  Sentinel (January 10, 1884), 1.

[xxiv] Rolf H. J. Schlegel, Rye: Genetics, Breeding, and Cultivation (Boca Raton, London, New York: CRC Press, 2014), 236.

[xxv] “An account of a new species of wheat,” General Advertiser (May 4, 1794), 1.

[xxvi]“ To the Editor of the Monthly Magazine,” The Monthly Magazine (May 1800), 328.

[xxvii] John Taylor, “Communicated for the American Farmer by G. W. Jeffreys,” American Farmer (February 2, 1821), 374-75.

[xxviii] The first use of “May Wheat” to designate Isbell’s forward white wheat took place in  “Extract of a letter from Manchester, Virginia dated June 12, 1800,” New-York Gazette (June 26, 1800), 2.

[xxix]“A Farmer, Orange,” Richmond Enquirer (July 8, 1817), 4.


[xxx] New York Herald (July 27, 1796), 1. 

[xxxi] S., “Petersburg Letter,” Richmond Dispatch (October 17, 1868), 5. 

[xxxii] Fauquier, “Mssrs, Gales & Seaton,” National Intelligencer (July 1, 1817), 1.  

[xxxiii] Edmund Ruffin, Farmer’s Register (October 1835), 382.

[xxxiv] James Killibrew,Wheat Culture in Tennessee, (Nashville: The America Company, 1877), 253.

[xxxv]“Red May Wheat,” Southern Planter (October 1843), 236.


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