Podcast Episode: My Favorite Whisk(e)y Stories (2020 Edition) Part 2
Take a trip with me to both sides of the Atlantic for more of my favorite stories from Scotland, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Joining me this week are Wally Dant of Log Still Distillery, Richard Paterson of Whyte & McKay, Andrew McKenzie-Smith of Lindores Abbey, Andy Nelson of Nelson's Green Brier, Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest, and Duncan Bryden who showed me around Strathdearn, near the Tomatin Distillery. This was a fun year of interviews, I hope you enjoy.
Listen to the Episode
As we close out 2020, I still have lots of stories to share with you from this amazing year (at least in terms of gathering whisky stories). In this week's episode, we will continue to explore some fun anacdotes and hear from some of the great guests that have appeared on the show. And if you're interested in more behind the scenes material, join the Whiskey Lore Patreon account at https://www.patreon.com/whiskeylore
Here are some of the people we will meet along the way:
- Andrew McKenzie-Smith of Lindores Abbey talking about King James IV of Scotland and his interest in whisky.
- Duncan Bryden who helped me with the Tomatin Cu Bocan story, talking about the Highlands and its ties to moonshine and American whiskey.
- Richard Paterson of White & McKay lets us know if he used his normal tasting technique for that 100 year old bottle of Shackleton's whisky.
- Fawn Weaver of Uncle Nearest talks about being an honorary Green.
- Lucy Armstrong of Glenturret suggests that information is coming that might confirm the oldest distillery in Scotland and possibly the first solo female distillery owner in Scotland.
- Andy Nelson of Nelson's Greenbrier tells of the impact Louisa Nelson had on the distillery at the turn of the 20th Century.
- Wally Dant of Log Still Distillery talks about the ruins of distilleries in Kentucky and the challenge of chosing a name for his whiskey when his family name is owned by someone else.
Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.
One of the great mysteries, possibly the greatest mystery of whisky is when it evolved from a medicinal cure to being a pleasurable drink.
Back in season 2, I had the distinct honor to visit the spiritual home of scotch whisky, Lindores Abbey in Fife, Scotland. A place that earned its nickname due to a resident named Friar John Cor whose name appears in the Exchequer Rolls as the producer of 8 bols of malt for King James IV of Scotland back in 1494.
At the time Andrew McKenzie-Smith’s grandfather purchased the property where Lindores Abbey Distillery now sits, no one was aware of this magical tie between scotch whisky and the abbey. But after a famous whisky writer named Michael Jackson appeared at their doorstep asking to see this hallowed ground, Andrew and his family went to work building a distillery and have set up a preservation society to protect the ruins of the abbey. For the last couple of years, they have been selling aqua vitae and patiently waiting and this December, their first aging spirits will reach the age of 3 years and a day - officially becoming scotch whisky.
During our talk in the distillery's beautiful tasting room, I asked Andrew when the story of John Cor and the Exchequer Rolls was actually discovered and who discovered it.
Andrew McKenzie-Smith: “”Is a booklet called the Bond Thrown Brocha and now the Bond Throwns were distilling molting family going back several centuries of were based in Falkland, they don't exist anymore, but they were still distilling and molting in the early 19th century. And so this thing called the bond thrown brochure is the first I certainly read of it's the earliest I've been able to trace it back when it's actually talking about Fraudulent call lindos a be able to mold. So that's the earliest I've been able to trace it back as I say no one to the best of my knowledge knows who first uncovered it in the exchequer roll. Mmm. So would James the fourth maybe have been the first Enthusiast of drinking it for something other than medicinal purpose. He could well have been what we do know about James the fourth. He was very highly educated spoke several languages. He was an alchemist. He was Keen. I don't know the technical word but on explosives, you know, he like fireworks and things like that. So again the aquavit a could ignite so there was all sorts of its multi-purpose. There's multi-purpose. You can't help but thing that in a Royal household or any wealthy household of that time where wine was drunk in Scotland at that time, but I definitely stronger. Our Spirits were drunk as well and whiskey as we know it. I mean, I don't think I'm sure aquavit. I was never matured again. That's there's so much to learn about the history of scotch and there's far more educated people than I am that would know some of these answered but when people decided Well, actually, you know, what whiskey tastes better after has matured for a bit. Yeah. It doesn't taste like Firewater. So yeah, that's why such a nice industry to be and there's so much to look forward to the future but there's so much to learn from the past as well.”
Well, due to the travel restrictions here in late 2020, I spent a lot of time scouting out whiskey that isn’t far from my home in the Carolinas - and this led me to Tennessee. And many times, when we think of Tennessee and spirits, we think of moonshine. But moonshine actually got its name and reputation in Scotland. And during a walk through the hills of Strathdearn, near the Tomatin Distillery, Duncan Bryden and I talked about the beautiful tree lined landscape of the Highlands and the moonshiners who ran elicit stills in the area.
Duncan Bryden: “Well, the hills would have been quite Bare still then because the probably wasn't as much tree cover unlike many other countries in Europe. Scotland has been very poorly covered in trees until relatively recently a bit about 17% of Scotland is now covered in trees the average. Cost Europe's more like 30 and in the United States aspect. It's about that if not higher and this partly reflects climate partly reflects activity or grazing animals stopping trees growing. But what it means of course is that we had these Wild open hillsides so you had to be quite clever and so many of the illicit Stills were tucked down in gullies where R streams and things were because what you needed for illicit distilling was a source of water a source of wood to heat your water to allow you to evaporate off the spirit and then obviously your source of green. So like any good industry you worked out what was heaviest which was usually water and fuel and then developed your your operation close to
And you carried in your your barley. I could be brought in the back of a horse or a pony and then you'd set up your illicit still and obviously crucially you wanted to be far enough away from the main the main road so you couldn't be seen by the customs of the excise men, but not too far from your markets because you then had to put it into bottles or jars or barrels and then take it to Market. So Like any good industrialist you had to go? These factors about right and not get caught and that's really where illicit Stills came in and so they were quite careful as to their locations. So they were mostly using what they produced for trade kind of as their means of financial stability or what was the I think you're probably right there Drew. I mean, I think that the whiskey He was a very good additional source of income because living as a small farmer up in this area. We're up at about a thousand feet quite far north often in poor weather conditions in the winter. It was a tough hard life. And so whiskey enabled you to actually probably survive because it gave you that additional income that you had to supplement that the basic livestock.
Another small elements of crops that you could you could sell most of the time your livestock and crops were just there to keep you alive. The the whiskey manufacturer was giving you a be a little bit of an extra income in that allowed you to continue to live in places like this and as a result, of course when we had developments in the economy when we had transport roads Railways improved There was quite a large Exodus of the population out of the Highlands and other countries similar countries, like Ireland many of them ending up in in North America and a lot of the Moonshine skills that I developed a North America were owned in the in the hills of Scotland and they took those skills and that knowledge over there because they thought they could get a better living.
And possibly the first settlers didn't but their subsequent Generations probably did so that that massive economic Exodus was quite a factor in in the Scottish Highlands. Some of them were cleared by the landowners in a more forceful manner, but a lot of the more economic migrants as we call them today. They were seeking a better life.”
One of my favorite visits while in Scotland was when I stopped off to meet Richard Paterson and Gregg Glass of Whyte & McKay. Richard is a great student of history and his passion for the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton was unmistakable. Part of our conversation went to his technique for tasting and scientifically testing those 100 year old bottles of whisky that had been preserved in the ice of Antarctica. And of course, I was curious as to the fate of those bottles.
Richard Paterson: “Well, I have to say to you immediately. I'm a bit sad because I really did want to retain these three bottles in Scotland and I have to tell you that we opened all three of them. And why did we do that? We want to be quite sure that our analysis was correct because we discovered that the first two had detergent levels in it, and we wanted will where did that come from? And we discovered of course that these bottles had been cleaned out, but the last bottle actually had a little bit more. War and it was just an extra clean that probably going through but we had to be absolutely sure that not just one was the analysis we had to do all three to see that was a general analysis of it. So when we had finished they said right we want the bottles back and I said, of course you want them back. I wanted to keep them. No. No, you can't keep them anything that you take or remove from the Antarctica must be put back. So I understand the prime minister of New Zealand. She took them back to Antarctica and it's once again under the Hut. Yes. I know I can see that I guess because i'm to go. Yeah, because because it was is quite sir. But again, we are respecting history. It's going back to earn a shackles inside and that is being preserved. Never forget all the bottles from that was produced from the 50,000 to 100,000 to even the present ones. The money that has been raised for buying these goes back to preserve that history not only of Ernest.
Shackleton but off scott as well to preserve the future. To keep the place neat tidy, but lots of memories of these great Explorers. So you do some scientific research on it and you run it through an analysis. And you also do the nosing in the tasting what percentage of that comes from one and from the other both both. It's great to nose and to find the different flavors and the different nuances, but it's even better. When dr. James pray did these analyses and I was able to say yes, it's 3.5. It's gone come from orkney. We've had this going to Whiskey that's had cast there are Wayne orientated. We think it's a Sherry we can just detect certain notes the analysis proves that but more importantly is that she's showing you that our forefathers their distillation Methods at that time were almost comparable with the ones that we do today. And that was something pretty exciting. So it really, you know, my hats goes off.
Our forefathers to say they got it right did Shackleton go away with a great whiskey he went to somewhere that they knew were going to give you a whiskey at 47. They knew that it wasn't going to freeze. So these were professional people helping to stimulate and to help with exploration for the future. In watching how you teach people how to drink and knows a whiskey. Did you have a moment when you wanted to swirl that and throw it out of the glass not on this occasion? No, I wanted to I wanted to say for that moment what you mean by that is I normally just so people are fully aware. I do swirl the whiskey around the glass and then I do throw it in the carpet as you can look around here.
Scotland this is the most expensive carpet in the world. But what I do purposely when you throw it on the carpet or throw it out the glass it removes any possible bad odors that might be lingering on the tip of the glass. So that's why although I do it people say You're really don't do that back in Scotland. Actually I do but when that particular one with it being so valuable so, you know important I was not tempted to throw it.”
Coming up next week for the season finale, I’m honored to have as my guest Fawn Weaver. Four years ago, Fawn came across a controversial story about Jack Daniel’s and his first master distiller, a black man named Nearest Green. The story was controversial because several newspapers had taken an initial article by the New York Times and injected their own narrative - leading to some tense times for the Tennessee distillery.
Fawn, a successful entrepreneur and lover of history, felt like there was more to the story. She ended up heading to Tennessee and meeting both Jack Daniel’s and Nearest Green’s descendants, in an effort to learn more about America’s first documented African-American master distiller.
Having done family research for some of my own episodes, there comes a point where you almost feel like you are part of the family because you drill in so deep. I asked Fawn if she had a similar experience when working with Nearest’s descendants.
Fawn Weaver: “Oh, well, it's not AI it's not it's not that I had to feel that way. They will tell you that and if you like I have them all on on text message. Obviously, we all text a lot and on social media a lot and whenever they addressed me on social media. It's always as cousin always that's very rare or if they if they say something, you know Fawn whatever. It's our cousin Fawn. Yeah, and so there's a running joke that I am a Green and I just don't know it yet. I'm going to uncover it and I tell them I promise you I did the family tree it is done. I am absolutely not on it. But the thing that's really interesting is is there was another Green family here and because we pay for all of nearest descendants to go to college what ended up happening is is there was another Green family here who actually thought they were from Nearest his side of the family because they're family refer. To Nearest as Uncle Nearest and so In their family people would always talk about Uncle Nearest and that was one of the hard things is that I would get these messages about the scholarship program. And I'd say who is your who's your parent who your parents who are their parents? And do you know, you know their parents and very easily because I know the tree frontwards and backwards at least who's on it. I would know immediately that they weren't on the tree and I had to be the one to break the news to them that they were from another family William Green's family ali Aras has grandchildren married one of William’s grandchildren. But outside of that there was no relationship between the two families, but even that family was under the impression and it wasn't until I shared with them that they weren't that they began pulling out their own family trees and realizing that they weren't able to connect them to Nearest.”
One of the challenges of doing distillery research is the time period in which many of these distilleries began. In the case of Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire, Scotland and Strathisla Distillery in Moray there has been an unsettled question of which distillery is actually the oldest in Scotland. I had a nice long conversation with Lucy Armstrong, the Development Manager for the Distillery - she has been charged with hunting up a lot of the distillery’s history and not only did she find the subject of our Season 2, Episode 7 female worker Grace Gow, but she has a lot of other fascinating stories she’s chasing including one that might affect the findings from my Season 3 episode around female distillery founders and another that might settle the question of the distillery’s age.
With Lucy Armstrong of Glenturret (Development Manager): “Did you find anything else in your searching through the archives that kind of surprised you or there's lots that they're certainly some Icy ghoulish tales and as well, I mean there's been everything from a fire near what we call the bothy and we're all the Stillman basically sit down have their pieces when they they get they get changed into their they're still then them see outfit they're working here. They'll kind of gather there and we call it a bossy but both these could be up in the highlands. It could be a weekend if almost like a we shared of Eastern shed and it's often we are a few drums were consumed as well. But we also tell them at the bothy where they are now, so there was a couple of instances of fire and during the distilleries Heritage. There was also very sadly by Drowning of a three-year-old. Old and boy, it was be at least we actually more more can a to dutifully and he they saw they died in the lead and just further along from the little Barn. Yeah, and you also have a wonderful history about the fact that was another Distillery just literally a stone's throw away from this Distillery, which was at one time called the Horse and we had the silly called the whole schmell and just behind us, so one points you had two family members and an uncle and nephew who ran the distilleries at the same time. So we're like to think that they had a read Ramen the still house and chatted about each of their Productions. You've also got harsh Mill was eventually dismantled and re-erected down in an area of critical dreary The Distillery was actually when it was re-erected was called Glen Todd its up with another reference to our name that we have now. And that was erected by female and the Stellar called Elizabeth Phillips. So it looks highly likely that she was one of the first females in Scotch whisky to erect a brand new distillery. So I another amazing Discovery we of course have the quirky history as well with the cats and Heritage with with animals. But yeah, we're discovering great things.
Pretty and I mean it's looking more and more likely that we are actually a lot older than than what the D above our doors. So we're discovering very early history as well and rentals that go further back. So we just want to really finalize everything before we can release it all and let people really read it and more depth. But I mean, it's like a lot of distilleries. It's just fascinating. ”
But as we get to the 1890s this starts to become a bit more clear. However, for female distillery owners, there still seemed to be a lack of interest in their impact, and even for the male founders - precisely knowing the size of the bigger distilleries is sometimes difficult to discern. Andy Nelson, owner of the distillery that bares his ancestor’s name has faced both of these challenges in researching Nelson’s Green Brier’s past.
Andy Nelson: “During that time period me Jack Daniels and George Dickel were around. I think George Dickel was actually bigger than Jack Daniels at that point you Were bigger than both of them were yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We were we were Far and Away the largest in the state of Tennessee and they yet both both George Dickel and Jack Daniel were contemporaries of Charles Nelson, although they weren't none of them were the same age as each other. I can't remember the age difference. But I mean, it's within I want to say Charles and George Dickel were I think within 15 years don't quote me on that. Internet but something like that and then Jack was a bit younger I believe but but yeah, I mean they were all certainly familiar with one another. So it's just a really fascinating cool time, you know, some of the stories that we've heard about about them coming across each other and you know, George Dickel I know had a this is again, not official George Dickel historian here, but I'd just sort of story that you know, Charles Nelson's spot was on right
Basically in the center of Second Avenue or Market Street rather back then and at the corner of 2nd and church there it is. Now a candy store or at least has been in the past. I've been down there in a while. But the thing was that George Dickel had like a saloon there like right in that building and maybe there was a brothel on the second exam like that. Well because he had sort of a similar start as well. He was he was kind of a Salesman. / rectifier I think it one point also I have dug enough into his story but it's interesting to see some of the correlation between your two businesses because he also, you know the story of when your great-great-great grandfather passed away. It was not too long after George Dickel had had passed away and he passed it on to his wife, but he had told
His wife to sell it although she defied him and decided to keep the business and you did you ever hear any of the details about the move over to Louisa that he want her to continue on the business or do you know what that's a really interest? I have not heard that before but we have not we have not found any evidence to suggest that he didn't want her to do, you know anything with it it It just shows, you know, we that it's actually it's really interesting thing because that's Louise's role in all this is something that we have found extremely important and and honestly, very a big motivation and inspiration because when Charles died in 1891, she took over, you know control and she she didn't sell it. She kept running it and kept growing it up until Statewide prohibition hit 18.
Later, which is 1909. And so the thing about that that we find so fascinating is that over the years and doing our research. There was so little about Louisa and what she did. I mean we knew that Charles his wife was named Louisa and then we came across her obituary and it was it said Mom kind of paraphrasing but it said essentially like, you know Born This Day died this day son. Or daughter of so-and-so and blah blah blah and here's what her husband did and the point it was like, all right. Well, that's kind of insulting it, you know on one level. It's like okay, that's that's the time they lived in but it doesn't make it any less insulting to us in the modern day. Right? And so we kind of thought that like we have this is an opportunity here to highlight her story and be able to like get that out there and be proud of it because she helped the
Company grow, you know in a big way and the strength of her knowing all the obstacles. She had in front of her was pretty astounding. ”
It was a lot of fun digging into the story and history surrounding Nelson’s Green Brier and Charles Nelson - but even more exciting to see the re-release of their family’s 110 year old brand. And throughout North America there has been a major push to bring back some of these heritage brands, and so you are now seeing Kentucky Owl, Old Elk, Chicken Cock, T.W. Samuels, and others returning to store shelves.
In another, very unique case, Wally Dant is working to restore his family legacy in the industry with Log Still Distillery in New Hope. But if you head to Kentucky, you’ll see his family’s name already on a bottle of whiskey - J.W. Dant - so I asked Wally what the the story was behind this brand.
Wally Dant: “Our families the dance family sold out of this Distillery that were sitting at 1940 and and then the original JW dant Distillery sold out in 1943. So our family at that point in time, we're no longer owners of The Distillery company that bore their name. Okay. And so that JW dant Distillery was then owned by first. Armand Hammer and his company called National distillers, which was a you know, a company of his and then he sold this facility here and the JW dance brand in 1953 to a company called Schenley. If you had to run across them. Yeah, I guess in your in your goings on and then gently eventually sold back to United. Sometimes I think in the early 90s, which was Then you know a few years later United became Diageo right? But but the damp brand at that point in time and 1993 was then sold to Heaven Hill distillers. Okay, which are here in in Bardstown. So Heaven Hill owns the brand today. So how tough or is it something you want to pursue and trying to get that that name back because I know they so yeah, I mean no Heaven Hill.
Been gracious we've had conversations, right? We've had a number of conversations with that as they tell me. They're in the brand building business, not the brand selling business and you know, they've done a fantastic job with a number of their brands that they have, you know, if you look at what they've done with old Fitzgerald and Henry McKenna and some of the old distillery distiller names out there. They've done a nice job and and bringing that around and bringing those Brands into a national basis. All that being said, you know JW dance a bottom shelf branded a not sold in many states not sold in many quantities. And so if there's an opportunity for us to work with the Shapiro family, we're we're open to it. Let me just put it that way.
You know, I know over in Versailles area that they were doing some excavation around some of the old distillery sites over there doing the same same Rose. This was across the street from there, right? Already that they have the foundation of Rights anyway, right right, and if you can go into like castle and key and kind of see what they've done and I think I can remember who the other one has right now, but you know, there's a lot of them are using China some of the quote-unquote old equipment like an old, you know, old Furman fermentation tanks, which probably I think more looks like a pool right then necessarily tank, but you know, you've got some of that and so we've got the same thing. I'm down here. You could go, you know just down over the hill, right, you know less than 200 yards and you'd be on top of what the foundations of the old fermenting tanks. Right and you can see those are well made out and actually do if you do a Google map on our location and then just to zoom in you can actually see some of those outlines of the fermenting tanks that were down there interesting to see you know, it's there's another one. That's literally right?
During the interview Wally and I started chatting a bit about all of the old Kentucky distillery ruins, including the one his family is currently excavating.
Wally Dant: “Side A New Haven, which is a third Anvil and Atherton Ville had a big Distillery owned by the Atherton family one time which guy is called a third Anvil but Seagram's owned it as well, but it's a big brick building you cannot miss it. Just the only place where literally it's two miles outside of New Haven and it's going towards Hodgins Ville where President Lincoln was born and raised but right in Atherton value, Antsy, you know Existing brick building that used to be the Distillery there and then behind it used to set a number of brick warehouses and they're all gone now, but that old distillery is now repurposed for making bourbon barrels, right? And so it's called Zach Cooperage. And so they're making they're actually making barrels for the bourbon industry and you know, if you walk through there which you can do, they'll give you a tour and things like that, but it's”
Regardless of what happens with the name, the process of restoring part of the old Gethsemani property continues. If you check Log Still’s social media, you’ll see a lot of earth movers, the historic water tower, and part of the old botting house that is being converted for use in the new distillery.
Last time I was in New Hope, I brought along with me GPS coordinates for the 9 former distilleries in the area and Charles and Lynn Dant took me out to see several of the locations, so I could see if I could spot any remnants of the former distilleries. One spot we came across was down the railroad tracks where we think the old T.J. Pottinger Distillery was. See what the layout of it used to look like and how it's being repurposed today. It's pretty it's pretty building from the outside you go. Okay, what was that? It looks like an old distillery, right? And then and then there we've repurposed it for them Barrel making it's interesting seeing the pictures when you sort these old distilleries look like and there's not a lot of pictures. So, you know, I think we've been fortunate that for whatever reason U of L archived and number of photos from here. Or of the operating distillery in the 1960s. So they're actually aerial shots at that time. We've got there's about five or six of them that actually take you through different views of The Distillery, but it was an operation. You can actually see the, you know, the the boilers that were working at the time and the lake that was operating and the steam that was coming off the lake because that's where they used to, you know, take cool down the water coming off the boilers so you know it
I said it's a pretty cool site then you know, then you can overlay that with ruins and then you can be in begin to see and our plans then you can begin to see. Okay. Well, here's what this building was used for heels, right? So it's pretty cool little little thing.
Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life
Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush
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Well, thanks again for joining us in 2020 and don't miss next week's season finale when I'll be telling the story of America's first African-American Master Distiller, and I'll be also telling you about Fawn Weaver's quest to restore his name and legacy to the history books through her Uncle Nearest whiskey and Nearest Green Foundation.
Until next time cheers and slainte mhath.