Skaneateles Whiskey

The manufacture of whiskey flourished in Skaneateles from 1800 to 1875, but before I talk about the distilleries, I want to share a few notes from Whiskey 101.

Whiskey begins as grain, e.g. corn, wheat, rye and/or barley. Some portion of the grain is malted, i.e., moistened to trick it into starting to sprout, and then dried quickly to stop germination, thus releasing the enzymes that turn its starches into sugars, but stopping the sprout from using that sugar for energy. This malted grain is ground into “grist,” a kind of a coarse flour, then cooked in a soupy porridge called “the mash.” This brings all the grain’s sugars into solution.

The mash is then filtered, separating the spent grains from the sugary solution, called  the “wort.” When the wort cools, yeast is pitched in to feed on the sugar, and the subsequent fermentation produces a solution that is roughly 5% alcohol. The fermented solution is then distilled to concentrate the alcohol.

The distillation of alcohol dates from the 12th century. The principle is simple: Alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. When a solution containing alcohol is heated in a “still,” the alcohol turns to vapor before the water; the vapor is then condensed by cooling and collected. For whiskey, distillation may be repeated until the resulting liquid is 65% to 80% alcohol.

This alcohol is put into charred casks to age, mellow and acquire color and flavor from the wood. But before it’s ready to drink, this “barrel proof” whiskey is diluted with pure water to bring it down to the customary proof (level of alcohol), such as 80 proof (40% alcohol) to 100 proof (50% alcohol).

Now that you are a scholar in these matters, you will readily see why the manufacture of whiskey flourished in Skaneateles.

Water is one of the most important ingredients in the process of making whisky. Skaneateles had an abundant supply of pure and excellent water.

Water power enabled a distillery to work profitably, moving the millstones that ground the grain, mechanically stirring the mash as it cooked. Skaneateles had abundant water power where streams flowed downhill into the lake and the lake’s water flowed out through the outlet into Skaneateles Creek.

Grain of every kind was grown in the surrounding countryside, readily available to distillers. And livestock were fattened on the spent grains from the distillers’ mash, so the grain was twice valuable.

Barrels were made in Skaneateles. Local coopers produced barrels for whiskey, cider, apples, salt pork, fish, flour, crackers, et al. First among the coopers was Thaddeus Edwards, who had two shops on the north side of East Genesee Street between 1825 and 1876. Local merchants also sold barrels; Charles Pardee advertised his cooperage stock as being “made without the contaminating colored hand,” a reference to an African-American cooper who worked with Edwards. (There is no account of whether Pardee’s sales went up as his reputation went down.)

Demand was the final element. Drinking in America: a History notes, “The period from the 1790s to the early 1830s was probably the heaviest drinking era in the nation’s history.” The average annual alcohol intake for people aged 15 & up was 5.8 gallons of absolute alcohol in 1790, which rose to 7.1 gallons in 1810, staying at that level through 1830.

Of the 7.1 gallons of absolute alcohol, distilled spirits accounted for 4.3 gallons. Since whiskey is only 40% to 50% absolute alcohol, one had to drink 10 gallons of whiskey a year to reach the average. And here’s the kicker: Actual figures for individual use were higher, because the “average” was lowered by those who did not drink at all.

In New York state, even as the demand was declining in 1840, 212 distilleries produced 11,973,815 gallons of spirits in one year.

Why did people drink so much? Early in the 19th century, whiskey was thought to be a dietary staple, as essential as bread, a vital part of a healthy diet. Unlike water, it kept well and did not carry disease. People drank a glass of whiskey at sunrise, and had another at 11 a.m. and at 4 p.m. They drank whiskey with every meal and as a nightcap. And, of course, on social occasions, such as the opening of a door.

Skaneateles whiskey was not sold by the bottle. If you wanted whiskey, you brought your own gallon jug to the seller, who might be the distiller or a merchant. In 1825, a gallon of whiskey cost 38 cents. And you could buy whiskey by the drink in a tavern or saloon. The earliest Skaneateles distilleries served the immediate area; the later distilleries were huge operations that sold the majority of their product elsewhere, shipping barrels by rail and the Erie Canal.

Two factors ended the run of distilleries in Skaneateles. First, safer drinking water and the success of the Temperance movement led to people drinking less whiskey. Second, new federal taxes placed on whiskey (to pay for the Civil War) cut deeply into profits. On July 1, 1862, a tax of 20 cents per gallon was levied; March 7, 1864, this was increased to 60 cents a gallon; on June 30, 1864, $1.50, and on December 22, 1864, $2.00. The wholesale price of whiskey had been 46 cents a gallon in mid-1863; the rolling increases up to $2.00 per gallon sounded a death knell for all but the largest distillers.

Worse was to come. The act of July 20, 1868, levied a special tax of $4.00 for every barrel, and $2.00 a day for every 20 bushels of grain used, and the distillers were charged with paying the wages of the federal agents who monitored their output and calculated the taxes due. Most distillers couldn’t wait to get into another line of work.

In this, the distillers of Skaneateles were typical of those in every small town in America.

Robert & Jonas Earll Distillery (1802-?)

Distilling was, not surprisingly, one of the first industries to accompany the settlement of Skaneateles. About 1802, brothers Robert Earll (1760-1833) and Jonas Earll (1751-1847) built and operated the first. It was on what is today Old Seneca Turnpike, just west of Jordan Road, between the “Red House” (built by Robert Earll in 1796) and Skaneateles Creek. Using six bushels of wheat a day, the distillery’s daily output was 12 gallons of whiskey, which sold for 75 cents a gallon. Because the distillery was not on the creek, we can assume that it was not powered by water, and that most of the work was done manually.

Robert Earll, known as General Earll, fought in the Revolutionary War as a private. However, he continued to serve in the New York Militia after the war was over, and was appointed Captain in 1797, Lt. Col. in 1801, and Brigadier General in 1804. He left the Militia in 1808 when he was appointed Sheriff of Onondaga County.

It is interesting to note that at the time the Red House was built, there was no road from there into the village, only a pathway through the woods from the Red House to the outlet of the lake, no doubt well-trod by those purchasing whiskey.

Winston Day Distillery (Prior to 1806–circa 1831)

Winston Day, who opened the first store in Skaneateles in 1797, also owned a distillery, which was located along the west bank of the outlet near what is today the municipal power station. Day probably owned the distillery as a part of his partnership with Isaac Sherwood, but some time after 1806, their partnership was dissolved, with Sherwood keeping his inn and Day the distillery. Day apparently leased the land from Thomas Gibbs, and purchased it outright from Gibb’s estate in 1816.

Around 1806, Day was buying corn for his distillery at forty-eight cents a bushel, and Jeduthan Newton worked as his distiller.

Of Day’s whiskey, John D. Barrow observed in 1876, “It was very fiery stuff… but from local patriotism and pride some of the townsmen confessed that they felt it their duty to learn to love it.”

Norman Leonard’s Distillery (1808-1818)

Directly across the outlet from Day’s distillery, on the east bank, was a distillery owned by Norman Leonard, one of the village’s early merchants. His distiller was Daniel Vail. By 1818, his stillhouse had passed into the hands of Warren Hecox, and in 1830 it was no longer in use.

Deacon David Hall’s Distillery (Circa 1830)

Sedgwick Smith’s unpublished history of Skaneateles notes that David Hall had a distillery to the east of the outlet near the head of the lake, i.e., in the village, around 1830.

Earll, Tallman & Co. a.k.a. Earlls & Tallman Distillery (1857-1882)

In 1857, the Earll, Tallman & Co. Distillery was established by Col. Daniel Earll (1803-1889), the eldest son of Abijah Earll, and a nephew of Robert Earll. Over time, he had many partners, including his brothers, John H. Earll and Deloss Earll, his sons, Augustus P. Earll and Leonard H. Earll, Charles Tallman of Syracuse (Daniel and Charles were married to sisters, Caroline and Elizabeth Peck), and John Kellogg, who also had a distillery in Marcellus. This distillery was along Skaneateles Creek near Mottville.

This distillery was by far the largest and most lucrative industry in Skaneateles. An idea of its size comes from tax reports during the Civil War. In April of 1864, the distillery paid $18,578 in taxes, a sum only surpassed by the Earll Brothers Distillery (see below), which paid $27,488. The next largest taxpayer that month was the woolen mill of Dorastus Kellogg, which paid $414 in taxes.

Another indication of the size of the operation came in 1864, when a storehouse burnt in Jordan, N.Y., and the Earlls lost 30,000 bushels of grain.

In 1865, the Syracuse Standard noted acidly, “It is a monster still in either sense.” The writer went on to observe that the distillery fattened many hogs, and they were just as bad as the distillery’s other products. Another account noted that the distillery was fattening a herd of 125 cattle; in 1864, the sale of 75 head of cattle brought $7,000.

As with any other industrial plant, the distillery was not without its hazards. In May of 1863, Henry H. Fry fell into a mash tun during the boil and was horribly scalded. He managed to pull himself out and was carried home, but he died within 12 hours.

In 1869, the distillery reduced its capacity to four fermenting tubs, due to the lessening in demand. In 1872, they announced they would run just one mash per day.

In 1882, the distillery was purchased and converted to use as a paper mill by Forest G. Weeks, becoming the Lakeside Paper Company, adding to Mr. Weeks’ previously established paper mills.

Distillery at Willow Glen (1850s)

At Willow Glen, a flour mill was conducted by John H. Mabbitt; Arthur Mott; Earlls, Kellogg & Co.; and others. It was converted to use as a distillery, run by various parties, among whom were Wickes, Horton & Co. who purchased the mill in 1851. (The Horton of Wickes, Horton & Co. may have been Alexander Horton, who was a partner in the adjacent Kellogg woolen mill.)

In 1855, the Skaneateles Democrat reported on one of the hazards of the business:

“HOGS DYING WITH CHOLERA. – We learn that within the last week the firm of Wickes, Horton & Co. have lost eighty to one hundred hogs at their distillery, situated at the outlet of the Skaneateles, one mile and a half north of this village. The disease is said to resemble the cholera—they vomit up a green substance and soon die. They bury their carcasses in trenches. The loss is considerable.”

After several years the distillery was converted to a paper mill.

Earll & Kellogg (1840-1864)

In1840, Solomon Earll’s grist mill was converted into a distillery by Earll & Kellogg. It operated until 1864, when Earlls, Thayer & Co. made it over into a paper mill. This was said to be on the site of the later Skaneateles Paper Co. on the outlet between Mottville and Willow Glen.

Legg, Earll & Co. a.k.a. Legg, Tallman & Co. (1850s)

In 1851, this advertisement ran in the Skaneateles Democrat:

OATS! OATS! WANTED, 5000 bushels of Oats, for which the Highest Market price will be paid by the subscribers, delivered at their Distillery. Legg, Earll & Co.

And in 1853, the newspaper ran an ad noting that claims against the estate of John H. Earll were to be presented at the Distillery of Legg, Tallman & Co., the name change presumably being occasioned by the death of John H. Earll. The Tallman in the company would have been Charles Tallman of Syracuse, who was linked to the Earll family by marriage.

I believe this was the distillery in which Joel Thayer had an interest, as he was Legg’s son-in-law. In 1853, Thayer’s distillery was fattening cattle, and some of the beef was being sold to the Auburn Prison and served to the prisoners there.

Hezekiah Earll & Co. Distillery a.k.a. Hart Lot Distillery a.k.a. Earll Brothers Distillery (1855-1868)

In 1855, on the outlet at Hart Lot, a distillery was established by Hezekiah Earll (1790-1863), a son of Robert Earll. Hezekiah Earll had earlier been a partner with W.T. Graves in a distillery in Jordan, N.Y., and in this new distillery Hezekiah was joined by his sons Julius and George. This, like the Earlls & Tallman Distillery, was a huge operation.

In 1862, to pay for the Civil War, which was costing the Union $2 million a week, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed the Tax Act of 1862, which included a tax on all whiskey manufactured after the first day of July 1st. Every distillery in the country, including the Earll distillery, knowing when the law would go into effect, ran day and night until the last hour of June 30th, accumulating a large stock of whiskey, which at midnight rose in value, netting Hezekiah Earll’s sons thousands and thousands of dollars.

In 1865, Julius and George began converting the distillery into a paper mill, and this was completed in August of 1868, the business becoming the Hart Lot Paper Co.

Moseley & Greenman Distillery (? – 1864)

On December 31, 1863, the Skaneateles Democrat noted that A. Wood & Son of Elbridge had leased the Moseley & Greenman Distillery for use while building a new distillery to replace their own, which had been lost to fire. I am guessing that Daniel T. Moseley and Samuel Greenman were the owners. In August of 1864, the distillery was sold at auction.

George Earll Distillery (1863-1871)

On the death of Hezekiah Earll in 1863, George H. Earll built a distillery on the north side of the outlet, just north of the Community sawmill. The distillery was said to have cost forty thousand dollars and had all the modern improvements, but it was built too late to be profitable to run—due to a decrease in demand and an increase in taxation—and eventually proved a disastrous investment.

However, George had something to fall back on; he was one of the largest dairy farmers in the area, owning 800 acres and keeping 75 cows. With his cousin, Andrew J. Earll, he was also a hop grower. He was president of the Hart Lot Paper Company, one of the first stockholders in the Skaneateles Iron Works and a director in the Skaneateles Savings Bank. George Earll died in 1871; the distillery was purchased by Forest G. Weeks and converted into a paper-mill in 1875.

Carpenter’s Distillery, New Hope (1834-1875)

The History of Cayuga County (1879) by Elliot G. Storke notes that in 1834, John H. Carpenter (1806-1865) and Kenyon Wicks purchased a distillery that had been built by a man named Townsend near New Hope, in the township of Niles. It was one of many businesses using the water power generated by Bear Swamp Creek as it flowed down to Skaneateles Lake.

Carpenter bought out Wicks in 1844, and added a grist mill to the distillery in 1845. In 1848, he added a sawmill. In 1855, the distillery used 12,000 bushels of grain, produced 550 barrels of whiskey, and fattened 85 hogs with the spent mash.

However, while running the distillery, Carpenter incurred the wrath of Thurlow Weed Brown (1819-1866), a temperance advocate who edited and published The Cayuga Chief in Auburn, N.Y. from 1849 to 1856. I cannot let pass this chance to share some of Mr. Brown’s impassioned prose:

“To the record of murders already committed, we add a fresh one. On the 8th of May, a citizen of Niles was found dead with a jug of whiskey by the side of him. The corpse had lain a week. An inquest was called, and testimony taken. We copy the testimony of the witness—that witness the bloated proprietor of the notorious Distillery at New Hope.

“J.H. Carpenter: — Lent him a jug and gave him about two quarts of whiskey—saw him last about evening—did not drink any in the Still—was not much under the influence of drink. Witness let him have the whiskey under the earnest request of the deceased, saying he should die if he could not obtain it. Let him have the whiskey thinking it might do him good for mornings use. Deceased payed 38 cents for molasses, didn’t pay for jug or whiskey—let him have the whiskey with the understanding that he would pay for it at some future time.

“The witness is as impudent as reckless. Carpenter knew the deceased was under the influence of liquor when at the distillery, and also knew that he had a wife and a large family of children at home. He knew another thing, notwithstanding he swills liquor himself, or his barefaced swearing. He let his victim have his liquor and then over the corpse of the man his whiskey killed swears before God that he thought it would do him good for ‘mornings use’!

“No writhing can separate the link which binds the corpse of the dead man to the living destroyer, and the wife and children who have no legacy but poverty and sorrow can point to him whose whiskey consigned them to widowhood and well-nigh orphanage and say, THOU ART THE MAN.

“The fumes from his reeking pest house where he’ll smoke in miniature will rise like an incense of wrath against him, and ever bring to the mind of the passerby the end of those who die from drinking from jugs of whiskey obtained at the Distillery of JOHN H. CARPENTER.”

— From “Murder in Niles” in The Cayuga Chief, May 21, 1851

“It is not long since we recorded the death of one of the patrons of Carpenters Distillery at New Hope. Another one has gone to his grave… Were we a relative of the unfortunate deceased, we should esteem [consider] the man who sold him the whiskey a worse murderer than him who shoots or stabs. Commend us to the man who kills outright and leaves no legacy of infamy. We would bless a man who would shoot our friend while sober—instead of basely killing him with rum. A number of similar circumstances… have given the New Hope Butchery a name which will live while Carpenter moulders in the same earth which has closed between his cold blooded clutch and his victims.”

— From “Another Murder” in The Cayuga Chief, April 20, 1852

John Carpenter transferred the business to his sons, James and Charles, around 1862, and died in 1865. The taxes levied during the Civil War were not warmly received by the Carpenters, as this article from the Skaneateles Democrat, April 26, 1866, makes clear:

“MADE TO DISGORGE – We learn that Mr. Carpenter, who runs the distillery on the west side of the lake, in the town of Niles, was recently made to disgorge, through the Government detectives, about $24,000 for tax and penalty, for making fraudulent returns. Milton Roakes, the Inspector, handed over some $3,000, which he had received from Mr. Carpenter for hush money. Most probably they are now wiser if not better men.”

The business continued for some time; a newspaper account of 1871 notes that Charles was interviewed “in the still,” rather than the sawmill. Today, people still walk along the old “Jug Path” that was taken by people coming up from the lake with empty jugs and back down to the lake with full jugs; whiskey barrels were also brought down from the distillery to the New Hope steamboat landing for shipment to Skaneateles.


The distillery circa 1892, from A Souvenir of Skaneateles Lake and its Shores by Henry D. Rumsey

Photo of the ruin of Carpenter’s Distillery from Niles (1983) by Mable L. Crosby

John R. Kellogg Distillery, Marcellus ( ? – 1836)

John R. Kellogg (1807-1883), who was a partner in one of the Earll distilleries, had his own distillery in nearby Marcellus, along Nine Mile Creek. He is worth recalling as one whose attitude towards whiskey changed after he had made his bundle. In 1867, Kellogg wrote to E.N. Leslie from Michigan, where he had moved in 1836, as follows:

“But by your paper of three or four weeks ago I was rejoiced to see that those accursed stink-pots (excuse me for using the right name), whisky-mills, are to be abated, cleared out, purified, and their places to be made meet for the legitimate uses of that pure stream, beside which lie dead men’s bones, like Sol. [Solomon] Foster and others, poisoned, it is to be feared, even to the second death. Awful to contemplate.

“* * * Hold! for thou thyself wert guilty of being engaged in that accursed traffic on a neighboring stream, six miles east. True, true! But a righteous God in his great mercy to me and mine cleaned me out by fire; and I trust he gave me grace to say ‘Amen.’

“While my property was burning, I thought many of my neighbors were more sorrowful for my loss than I was. I had reduced my insurance from $7,000 to $700, which the company promptly paid, and offered me a loan to enable me to rebuild, as there was much other property connected with it to be saved; but I said ‘No.’ I had long waited to get out of the business (it was rented then), but I received it as God’s way of getting me out. So I pocketed a loss of eight or ten thousand dollars, closed up my affairs, paid off my debts, took the leavings, came to Michigan, where I have had better health, and my full share of prosperity, and have no disposition to go into that miserable traffic or advise others to.”

:: A Few Footnotes ::

In the early 1850s, Skaneateles played a role in the history of the Molson company of Canada, which was engaged in both distilling and brewing. The Barley and the Stream: The Molson Story (1955) notes:

“As the younger sons approached maturity, they were apprenticed to their trades… young Tom to Hiram P. Sherman, a distiller in Skaneateles, New York, to ‘be taught the art, trade, secret, or Mystery of Distilling and making yeast by the method now used by the said Sherman.’ The cost of the instruction was $1,000; the penalty for its unauthorized divulgement, $10,000.”

“Young Tom” in this case would have been John Thomas Molson (b.1837), a third-generation member of the family. (Founder John Molson noted in his will that the concern would pass to “my grandson John,” so his sons named their sons John.) John Thomas’s father, Thomas Molson, had first toured New York state and Great Britain in 1815 to learn brewing and distilling first-hand, and he wanted his son to have the same experience.

“Hiram P. Sherman” is a little harder to place. Skaneateles records show us a Hiram C. Sherman living here in 1855, but his stated occupations were coal dealer,  railroad investor and banker. Perhaps he was a man of many talents, or there is another Hiram Sherman waiting to be rediscovered.

* * *

In “Canal Bride,” a chapter of Samuel Hopkins Adams’ Grandfather Stories (1989), a woman traveling on the Erie Canal in 1827. She describes an enterprising peddler, Whiskey Johnny from Skaneateles, with a large barrel on wheels, selling whiskey with the slogan, “It’s prime. It’s pure. It’s cheap.”

* * *

Skaneateles historian Sedgwick Smith noted that the combination of whiskey and hard cider was known as “stone wall” and it was very powerful. The combination today bears the same name.

* * *

This piece from the Skaneateles Democrat, September 15, 1859, illustrates one more trial of the local distilling industry:

“Excitement in Aurelius – Wild Hog. Two years ago a hog broke away from the Throopsville distillery and put for the woods on the farm of Henry Underwood… where he succeeded in eluding all search, and became wild as a hawk and fleet as a deer. During the last month he has committed great depredations on the corn fields about town and more than one hundred citizens have been all night for several nights together in search.”

On the third night, the hog was apprehended, and the men who dispatched it were awarded the pork.

* * *

Special thanks to E.N. Leslie’s Skaneateles: History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (1902); The Barley and the Stream: The Molson Story (1955) by Merrill Denison; Niles: 1833-1983 by Mable L. Crosby; Drinking in America: a History (1987) by Mark Lender and James Martin; Industries Around the Old Mill Pond (1993) by Helen Ionta, and the Skaneateles Historical Society.


2 thoughts on “Skaneateles Whiskey

  1. Pingback: Great Pancakes Are All in The Mix « FingerlakesSummer's Blog

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