Recreating pioneer gold

Recreating pioneer gold

Indian Creek Distillery: oldest stills in America

By Kevin J. Gray
Photo: Joe Duer [pictured] and his wife, Missy, produce Staley Rye Whiskey using the recipe and techniques of their forefathers; Photo credit: Tyler Lukacs

Indian Creek Distillery at Staley Mill Farm, located north of Dayton in New Carlisle, is an anachronism. Grasp the iron latch and swing open the wooden front door and be transported back 200 years, to a time when whiskey and gold were the area’s most stable currencies. The distillery’s tasting room showcases early American whiskey culture, with relics uncovered at the site, including barrel lids, whiskey thieves (used to sample whiskey from the aging barrels) and framed photographs of the buildings that populated the area. There is even a copy of the rye whiskey recipe once brewed at the farmstead.

On a table just inside the door is a book titled “99 Pot Stills.” The Indian Creek stills, bulbous and brilliant copper onions, are showcased on the book’s cover. Little wonder that these stills would be highlighted, since at nearly 200 years old, these distilling workhorses are the oldest legally operating stills in the United States.

The stills, which were built circa 1820 and operated until Prohibition, are once again cranking out whiskey. And not just any whiskey. Owners Missy and Joe Duer have worked to restore not only the stills themselves, but also the original recipe once brewed at the location. “The girls,” as Missy refers to the stills, are churning away, pumping out early American pioneer whiskey.

The distillery, as well as the land that surrounds it, has been in Missy’s family since the early 1820s. The Duers own not only the distillery, but also the encompassing farm. Their land was once, as Missy describes it, an early American agricultural-industrial pioneer complex. That means the farm was much more than just a farm. In addition to the distillery, there was also a gristmill and sawmill and the whole place worked as a commercial operation.

It was Elias Staley, Missy’s great-great-great-great grandfather – that’s four “greats” – who, with his brothers Henry and David, came to Bethel Township and built the original gristmill on the location for a Mr. Rench. The Staley brothers had come from Pennsylvania and were building gristmill in Greene, Montgomery and Miami County.  Elias had also owned a gristmill and a distillery on a farm in what is now downtown Dayton before he purchased the 160-acre farm in Miami County, building the distillery there in 1820.

In the early 1800s, there were thousands of similar complexes throughout the Northwest Territory. The farms and the gristmill often ended up with more grain than could be sold or stored, so a distillery was a natural extension. Distilleries converted the perishable grains to profitable whiskey. The whiskey, at the time cooked over wood flames and aged in hickory barrels, was shipped to Dayton and points south, often as far down the Mississippi River as New Orleans. Today, only one such complex remains: the Staley Mill Farm.

During their heyday, a staff of men operated the stills nearly around the clock. The twin stills could output up to 30 gallons of rye whiskey daily. Then came the dark times: Prohibition. Missy’s great grandfather, George Washington Staley, was the last distiller before Prohibition to use the stills. The distillery building itself was locked by government officials and fell into disrepair. Eventually, the roof caved in, which visitors can see a picture of in the lobby, and the bricks were reused in an addition to the farmhouse. Fortunately, when whiskey was outlawed Missy’s family had the presence of mind to hide “the girls” deep in the barn. Decades later, Missy and Joe Duer unearthed them and put them back in use.

Today, much has changed. Joe is the lone distiller and makes about 30 gallons of whiskey weekly. He heats his kettles using propane instead of wood, and he pumps water in from the springs that dot the site rather than drawing it from the millrace. He concentrates less on output volume and more about getting it right, more on replicating the efforts of the Staley distillers. And in that regard, much has stayed the same.

When they set out on this adventure, Joe and Missy decided they didn’t want to just make whiskey; they wanted to make authentic rye whiskey that their forefathers would have made. So to get “the girls” running again, Joe spent weeks teaching himself how to distill. Joe also spent hours pouring over the Staley original recipe, the one that is framed in the tasting room. And it is this recipe that makes his product unique.

When most people think whiskey, they tend to think of bourbon or scotch. Although rye whiskey has been around forever, it isn’t as well known as the two aforementioned liquors. What is the difference between ryes and other whiskeys? How is rye different from scotch? And from bourbon, the other early American whiskey?

All whiskeys are made with some amount of malted barley. Malted barley is barley that was soaked in water until it started to germinate, then kilned, or malted, before germination completes. This process creates enzymes in the barley that, when activated at a certain temperature (usually around 150-155 degrees Fahrenheit) convert the grain’s starches into sugars. Later, yeast ferments those sugars, creating carbon dioxide and alcohol. In this regard, beer and whiskey have similar origins.

One of the key differentiators among whiskeys is the amount of other products included in the grain bill – the technical term for the grain part of the whiskey recipe. Single malt scotch, for instance, is made with 100 percent malted barley, some of which is smoked during the malting process, giving the drink its signature flavor. Bourbon uses as least 51 percent corn in the grain bill, giving the liquor a sweet flavor.

The grain bill for rye whiskey includes a significant amount of rye grain. In Joe’s case, his grain bill is made up of rye, corn and malted barley. They give his whiskey a spicy, earthy flavor, while the corn provides a sweet foil that rounds out the palate. Rye and corn contain starches that can be converted to sugar, but both grains lack the enzymes that barley contains. Therefore, Joe’s mash also includes amounts of barley in order to convert the residual starches from all three grains into sugars.

Another thing that differentiates Joe’s whiskey from many others is the use of hops. Beer lovers know that hops provide spicy and citrusy flavors to their IPAs and other beers. Hops were originally used in whiskey, and beer, as a preservative – the hops themselves have a quality that stabilizes the liquor and fights off nasty contaminants. This preservative quality would explain why the early Staley distillers included the hops. However, as with beer, the hops also provide flavor. Joe and Missy researched hops extensively and settled on a variety similar to that used by their forefathers. The hops accentuate the spicy rye flavor in the whiskey.

To keep with the original flavor, the Duers have worked hard to source local and, when possible, organic grains. In the batch that this writer helped Joe mash in, we used corn that had been grown on the family’s farm earlier this fall.

There are other ways that Joe is working to replicate the experience of the early pioneer beverage. First and foremost, he has kept the stills in the exact shape they were in years ago, warts and all. The bumps and dents in the top of the stills provide character and differentiate the product, so much so that Joe has noted that if the original stills go out of commission, they will have to try to recreate new stills with the same markings to ensure consistency of flavor. And the stills can be a bit finicky. As Missy notes, “You gotta let those old girls in there do their work, you gotta just rub their bellies and make them happy, like you have to do most women.”

The stills are not the only original equipment the couple found. When revamping the stills, the couple also discovered a 1,500-gallon mash tub, which is not in use but can be seen on a tour of the location. They are, however, using a grain mill found on the farm from the 1880s to grind their own grains. The mill, hulking and impressive, is made of iron and was forged in nearby Springfield, Ohio. Once run on steam power, Joe re-engineered the mill to run on an electric motor.

Joe’s process also mirrors that of Missy’s great-great-great-great ancestors. He mashes in the grains with hot water to let the starch convert to sugar. Then, he adds the yeast and lets the alcohol creation take place. The result is a soupy, murky brown liquid that is about 5.5 percent alcohol. Joe skims off much of the grains, but then pumps the liquid and the remaining grains into the first of the copper pot stills. To prevent the grains from burning and sticking to the sides of the stills, Joe has resurrected an old pioneer trick. He first lines the stills with bacon grease. He then heats the mash in the first still, which is referred to as the beer stripper. The still’s bulbous top collects the steam and funnels it through the condenser, which is essentially a large wooden tub lined with copper coils – called worms. The evaporated liquor runs through the worms, condensing and turning back into liquid form.

When the still is at its peak, it’s almost as if it has come to life. As Missy points out, “when this girl works, you can actually put your ear over to the spout and hear her breathe.” The output is a slow trickle, a stream about as wide as a matchstick, which filters through a flannel cloth (just as the pioneers filtered) and then fills a stainless steel bucket. At this point, the liquor is about 25 percent alcohol.

Joe runs about three batches of mash through the beer stripper to have enough raw material to fill the whiskey still. The whiskey still looks identical to the beer stripper, save for the orientation of the neck, which branches to the right instead of the left. As with the beer stripper, the whiskey still feeds into a condenser where the vapors condense in the worms. Out flows the nearly finished final product. Joe filters one more time through flannel before hand-bottling or aging his whiskey.

Right now, the couple sells only un-aged whiskey. It is a clear liquid, but a million miles away from the white-lightening hooch of moonshining lore. Instead, the end product is spicy, complex and sophisticated. It is definitely a drink to savor, to sip and to contemplate.

In the coming months, the couple will also be releasing their barrel-aged product. The whiskey will have matured in charred oak barrels, which are now the only types of barrels permissible to use for aging. However, to replicate the effect of aging in hickory, as the original liquor would have been, the Duers are contracting with Black Swan cooperage, who sells hickory staves that can be added to the cask. This writer was lucky enough to try a sample. The wood aging adds deeper notes to an already complex beverage. It would definitely be worthwhile to pick up bottles of both offerings to compare.

Joe and Missy are excellent hosts and conduct tours of the distillery every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. You can purchase their whiskey onsite, dubbed Elias Staley Rye Whiskey, but pre-order it in advance of your visit by emailing them through their website (see below). The weekends have been busy and, more than once, the Duers have sold out of the artisanal spirit.

The Staley Mill Farm and Indian Creek Distillery is located at 7095 Staley Road, in New Carlisle, Ohio. For additional information, visit staleymillfarmanddistillery.com.

Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@daytoncitypaper.com

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