Whisky Advocate

Independence, Liberty, and a Distillation of History

June 10th, 2013

Sam KomlenicOur copy editor, Sam Komlenic, loves old American distilleries, open or long-closed. He recently had a unique chance to visit one that covers both those bases.

I love distillery history. I’ve been researching it for years. So when a friend suggested we visit a place I’d never heard of, a historic distillery like no other, he said…how could I refuse? We soon found ourselves in the rural countryside of western Ohio.

In 1818, experienced distiller and millwright Elias Staley erected a commercial three-stone, water-powered gristmill on Indian Creek in Miami County for farmer John Rench. Once the mill was complete, Staley purchased the 160-acre property and started an agricultural/industrial enterprise that would include a water-powered reciprocating sawmill and a prosperous distilling business.

Staley built his Indian Creek distillery in 1820 and began making rye whiskey in two handmade copper pot stills of about a hundred630 gallons each. Daily output was between 30 and 35 gallons, and eventually the demand for Staley whiskey would require distilling around the clock.

But while Elias was an ambitious man, he also harbored an intensely independent spirit. When the federal government enacted a whiskey tax to help offset the costs of the Civil War, Staley was indignant. Over the course of his long life he had never paid a tax, and would not submit to one now. In protest, he shuttered his distillery.

After Elias’s death in 1866, son Andrew resumed production and eventually expanded the operation to include a separate mash house and a small bonded warehouse that could age 100 barrels of Ohio rye. The Indian Creek distillery made Staley rye until Prohibition, when those original stills were carefully removed and stored on the second floor of the warehouse, away from the prying eyes of the authorities. While the family continued farming, the original distillery building eventually fell into ruin, and only the foundation is evident today.

648In 1997, sixth-generation Staley descendant Missy Duer and her husband Joe liberated the old stills to use as display pieces on the historic farmstead. Their visible presence got the Duers thinking about resurrecting the family distilling tradition, and by 2011 they had constructed a new building to serve as a home to those ancient pot stills, which needed little more than a good cleaning to get them back to working condition.

Six generations of Staleys have been dutiful caretakers of their collective legacy. The family’s genealogical and business records have been extraordinarily well-kept and chronicled, including every minute detail of the distilling business. Diagrams of the original distillery, process records, sales ledgers, old photos, receipts of purchases and equipment upgrades: all had been painstakingly retained and were referenced for accuracy in this project. A number of these are on display in the distillery’s tasting room.

The nearly 200 year-old stills were bricked into furnaces identical to the originals, though now gas-fired, and were heated up in650 December 2011 for the first time in almost a hundred years. The recipe the Duers use is Elias’s own. Grist is ground on an 1880 mill once powered by a hit-and-miss engine, now converted to electricity. His mashbill calls for rye, corn, and malted barley, plus a “tea” made from hops, which once acted to inhibit bacteria in wooden fermenters. After some research, they chose East Kent Goldings, a hop variety that would have been available back in Elias’s day.

Also necessary for historic accuracy is the addition of a handful of salt and wood ash in the spirit still, which provides clarity to the new make. Neither distills over into the whiskey itself. Four charges of the beer still produce enough low wines for a single charge of the spirit still. Right now, the stills make one run per week, four charges to one. The system includes an early nod to energy efficiency, as the output of the beer still pre-heats water to be used in the next mashing before moving on to the condenser.

The original condensers discharge a white rye of unusual character and smoothness, and bottles are available for purchase at the distillery, open Thursday through Saturday for tastings, with tours on Saturday only. Whiskey lightly aged in quarter barrels was just recently added to the lineup.

For anyone with a penchant for history, this is a place unlike any other; a trip back in time on a multi-generation family farm that still has nearly every original building intact. The gristmill, now the oldest standing in Ohio, has been silent since the early 1900s. It contains all the original wooden gearing and those three great millstones, imported from France in 1818 for a princely sum, around $200,000 in today’s currency. The old sawmill has the last log it cut still sitting on the carriage, another nod to the preservationist nature of the Staley family.

The Duers are planting rye on the property once again, bringing the operation a step closer to its agrarian roots, and re-establishing terroir into the process. Missy and Joe run the place and are assisted by an independent-minded young woman in her own right, the appropriately-named Liberty Watson. She helps carry on the legacy of self-sufficiency established here by Elias Staley almost two centuries past.

Elias would be proud that liberty continues to be a part of his family’s legacy, both literally and figuratively, and that his rye whiskey is flowing again thanks to the ambition, determination, and independent nature of the sixth generation of the Ohio branch of the Staley clan. The deepest roots of American whiskey making are now anchored firmly in the rolling terrain of New Carlisle, Ohio. The Staleys and their long distilling legacy endure.

21 Responses to “Independence, Liberty, and a Distillation of History”

  1. Dr. J says:

    This has got to be one of the best stories ever on this blog. Love the history!

    • JDM says:

      Agreed. Great story.

    • sam k says:

      Thanks! It’s an amazing place that is well worth a visit. These are no doubt the oldest stills in use for their original purpose in the U.S., and possibly the world.

  2. Joan McGinley says:

    Great article, Sam! Makes me want to go visit…

  3. Curt says:

    But are they aging any in full-sized barrels?

    • sam k says:

      Not yet, Curt. A single 53-gallon barrel would eat up two full weeks’ worth of production, and the demand for their white rye is too strong to divert to big-barrel aging at present.

      Besides, for the first 50 or so years of this operation, they sold only white whiskey, so as an accurate representation of 1820 distilling, this is the real deal. Their single warehouse only held 100 barrels during its heyday, so long aging never was a priority for the Staleys.

  4. EllenJ says:

    I first met Missy and Joe Duer a little over a year ago, and have visited them several times at their mill and distillery (about an hour’s drive from us). I also spent four days with them at the ADI conference last year. They are among the most genuine people you could ever meet, and VERY knowledgeable about what they are doing. For Missy, the Indian Creek Distillery is a chance for her to provide her generation’s addition to the family history (each generation of Staleys is committed to making a major addition), but for her husband Joe it has been an opportunity to learn (and very well, indeed) a centuries-old craft and apply that knowledge to produce whiskey exactly the way it was in the early 1800s. Not just “souvenir” whiskey, but the real thing, available for you to taste right now.

    That is the opening of our webpage for Indian Creek Distillery, the Staley Mill Farm, and Elias Staley Whiskey Distilled From Rye Mash. Posting awaits only the advent of wider distribution, which we expect will occur within weeks from now. Their whiskey is currently available only at the distillery and a few local-area outlets.

    Sam’s posting here is a wonderful, and very accurate description of what I’ve learned from and about them. In fact, I’ll probably need to upgrade our own article to incorporate some of what he is reporting. It won’t be the first time Sam has been heavily quoted (and credited) in our own work.

    Sam, thank you for this article. Your blend of history and current methods parallels Joe & Missy Duer’s own philosphy and is a true pleasure to read. And their whiskey is a true pleasure to drink.

  5. Jeff says:

    Would Elias, in fact, be proud that his whiskey is flowing again, given that he closed his distillery as a tax protest?

    I do wish the family, and Sam, all the best, but stories that “gush” a little too much (or attempt to speak for the dead) lose me because they force me to question the objectivity of their perspective.

    • sam k says:

      Hi Jeff, and thanks for your perspective, which I genuinely appreciate. Yes, I was quite impressed during my visit to the Indian Creek distillery, and had hoped to convey that here, but never intended to gush (though I guess I might have, a bit). At the same time, I won’t apologize for my enthusiasm, because there’s nothing else like this anywhere, to my knowledge.

      My assumption of Elias’s potential pride in the farm’s current state of affairs comes from my interaction and conversation with his great, great, great granddaughter, who shares his DNA and also his strong will.

      To quote from an email she sent me, “Elias is very proud, I know, looking down from above and saying ‘Amen, brother…Amen’!”

      I did not attempt to speak for the dead, she did, and it is not appropriate for me to question her sincerity nor her authority on this matter.

      • Jeff says:

        Thanks, Sam, and thanks for taking the comment in the spirit it was intended (I debated commenting at all because of this). It is a very, very well written piece and your genuine enthusiasm is obvious.

  6. Ian Buxton says:

    First rate story; very interesting – and makes me want to go NOW!

  7. Fred Vinon says:

    Hi Sam,
    It’s OK to “gush”. I believe it merely reflects a passion and a respect.
    for history, whiskey, and an amazing effort by a family to share theirs.
    Thanks to the Duets for providing a window into American whiskey history and
    thank you, Sam, for drawing back the curtains. I will make this a
    mandatory visit on my next Ohio visit.

  8. Shane H. says:

    They sent me a bottle… but it didn’t say “hop flavored whisky” on the label, which makes me believe they’re either lying to the TTB about their ingredients or lying to you about their methods. When queried directly, their story changed to one of silence and a mysterious unwillingness to confirm the inclusion of hops in the recipe. Their excuse was that it should be a secret. I’m going to call shenanigans on this one.

    Calling it a rye whisky also ignores the fact it’s really a “whisky distilled form rye mash” and the aged stuff is only 12 weeks old aged in quarter casks… for $65!

    I think the comment about gushy ancestor-worship hit the nail on the head; they’re working the marketing angle more than the quality angle. I’m not a fan. I could care less if you’re related to someone who distilled. Show me your juice!

    • sam k says:

      Jack Daniel’s Unaged Rye…for $60! Tuthilltown Baby Bourbon…a half-bottle for $45! Kings County Bourbon…a 200ml bottle for $24!

      C’mon Shane, where’s your perspective here? There are lots of unjustifiably overpriced whiskeys, and Staley is not one of them. This distillery isn’t in some industrial park or a formerly abandoned building, it is situated in a purpose-built, historically appropriate structure and uses an archaic process that produces all of 35 gallons of early American authenticity per week.

      I think EllenJ below addresses most of your misconceptions. The Duers were very forthcoming about the reason for hops in the still, and flavoring is not their purpose, as I mentioned in the original post. I have no reason to believe they have any need for silence on the subject when it’s already all in the open.

      “Whiskey distilled from rye mash” is on the label of the new make, but “Rye whiskey” is accurate for the aged product and is on that label. Purely semantics, and of no consequence to this discussion.

      As for their intentions regarding marketing versus quality, you aren’t required to like their product…I’m sure many don’t. But until you have been there, met them, and experienced this personally , you have no grounds for making such a cockamamie statement.

      • Shane H. says:

        It says it on the label, distilled from rye mash, even on the aged one. As for the hops, it doesn’t say it on the label. Why? The TTB forbids use of any ingredient other than grain unless you declare it as a flavoring on the label. If I’m wrong and you did the research, then why the omission?

        As for those other ones: also way overpriced. I think your comment serves to illustrate an unfortunate direction in the industry more than justification for charging so much.

        And how exactly does being a good person make your whisky good? Sounds like both dissenters here have bested interest in defending this brand without addressing the real questions.

        • sam k says:

          All I was trying to do here was report on a really, really cool place where an old-timey process is being performed on a daily basis by members of the founding family. I’m not sure why you have so many issues with what they’re doing, but none of them matter at all to me. Pay attention here: I really don’t care.

          I’m not concerned with their label, in the least, as it was approved by TTB and I’m sure there was no deception involved. I’m not worried about their price, because it’s not out of line given the competition in the craft distilling business and the uniqueness and expense involved in what they’re doing. They’re selling out every batch.

          As for research, I didn’t do any for this because it wasn’t investigative journalism. It’s a simple story that I wrote after visiting the place and interviewing the principals. No one ever implied a requirement that anyone like the product just because they happen to be nice folks.

          As for any “bested” interest, I resent the implication. I paid $50 for my bottle like everyone else and have no other affiliation with anyone involved. The article stands on its own merits, and I remain quite proud of it., thank you.

    • EllenJ says:

      Okay everyone, let’s put this to rest. There’s no need for reasonable people to argue over such a silly thing as “what rye whiskey should I be associated with?”

      We already have various iterations of excellent MGPI rye whiskey, bottled under numerous brand names, and each of the Big Box distillers has its own rye whiskey for its loyalists. We even have Van Winkle (sourced from somewhere) for those with no intentions of ever opening a bottle of it.
      Just pick your favorite and be done with it.
      Who needs any more?

      And who, for goodness’ sake, needs Elias Staley, when it doesn’t even taste like any of those?
      Well, perhaps just those of us who want to taste American whiskey the way American whiskey really tasted, before everyone decided to jump on the Japanese and Single Malt Scotch moneywagons.

      With only very few exceptions (and none as dramatic as Indian Creek) NEARLY ALL of the American whiskey — both bourbon and rye — that reappeared after Prohibition was mixed and marketed by a handful of beverage giants, some of whom thought nothing of throwing whatever stock they could obtain into a big vat and bottling it as brands they had purchased that once represented different ways of making whiskey. They had, and their descendents still have, a pretty similar generalized style profile, and that is the one we’ve (or at least the less-informed among us) have come to expect American whiskey to have. That’s not a problem; I prefer many modern (i.e. post-Prohibition) whiskey brands myself. The PROBLEM comes when some ignoramus (and NO, I’m not referring to you, Shane; I’ve already noted that) attempts to “rate” a product that is an accurate example of its type by comparing it to examples of a completely different type of alcohol beverage. Those of us with some years on have already been around this track before, with Single-Malt-Scotchophiles pooh-poohing bourbon because it doesn’t taste like Ardbeg. And later, bourbonophiles complaining that rye whiskey doesn’t taste like ‘Murcun Wisky ought to taste — despite the fact that bourbon was a regionally popular “economy” whiskey that was outsold by rye whiskey everywhere else until National Distillers and Schenley went bust in the latter part of last century.

      Anyway, to switch to another reference example that relates to How To Drink Whiskey, I like tacos. Actually, I like Taco Bell tacos, but a really good, hand-made creation is certainly my preference. However, neither of those is anything like what I would get from a taco-vendor in Guadalajara, is it? Partially filled with mystery meat and dripping with lard, it sure wouldn’t be something you’d find featured in Food & Wine. And my Taco Bell buddies would totally freak if they were to encounter such a thing. For those of us who love real Mexican street food, that sort of thing is a bit of Heaven, a fiesta in your mouth. I wouldn’t be surprised if you (Shane) felt the same way. What WOULD surprise (and disappoint) me would be an article badmouthing the street taco because it doesn’t conform to the standards of either Taco Bell or Conde Naste.

      That’s my take on Elias Staley, and why what the Duers are doing (no pun intended) is important to me. And to others who’d ignore the Guadalajara Taco Bell and go straight for the street vendor.

  9. EllenJ says:

    I don’t want to get into a heated back-and-forth with you (or anyone else) about the whiskey being made by Indian Creek and marketed as Elias Staley. I happen to be a fan of this brand, but not for the same reasons that you are an “un-fan” (Is there such a term? I suppose if I can “un-friend” someone these days, one could conceivably be an “un-fan”). You are blogging about American whiskey, among other things such as food and whisky from that other country, and I really do appreciate your somewhat contrarian observations. In many cases they echo my own, and since I enjoy cooking as well, I appreciate the occasional recipe. I’ve put a link to your site on my desktop, and will be checking it regularly, as I support your commentary, even if I occasionally disagree with it.

    Which brings me to Indian Creek. First of all, looking at what Missy and Joe Duer are producing from one angle (the one your article emphasizes) I can’t really disagree with you. Sorta. Yes, it is somewhat high-priced for a bottle of rye whiskey (aged or not). It also, frankly, doesn’t taste like what we have come to expect a good rye whiskey (again, aged or not) to taste like. It also uses methods that other producers have utilized for cost-saving purposes, albeit for other reasons than that. To that extent, I cannot disagree with you… as a whiskey drinker. However, as a rye whiskey drinker, I happen to enjoy the taste of, among others, E.H. Taylor Rye at about the same price point, and there’s no doubt that Staley is not only not in the same league, it’s not even in the same county as that. The “aged” Staley is three times the price of James Pepper 1776, which is my “go-to” aged rye whiskey, but at least the Duers really make their own whiskey, which Pepper does not.

    And that’s the point of Elias Staley. It isn’t intended to become the Jim Beam of American rye whiskey. Nor the James Pepper or Wild Turkey, either. What it is intended to do is become the definitive example of what American distillers really produced, they way they really produced it, and tasting the way it really tasted. There is a great deal of phoney “reverence” painted all over American whiskey; the words “heritage” and “old-time values” get thrown around a whole bunch in advertising any and every kind of whiskey, American, U.K., or whatever, as if the product in the bottle bore any resemblance to what our ancestors actually drank every day. For most of us, the whiskey of today is far better-tasting than the real deal, but we pretend to value those old values as if we actually held them. You want good-tasting rye whiskey without any of those values? Try (ri)1 (bet most of your readers haven’t – and won’t). That’s a really pretty decent product, but fashionably overpriced and made by a company that is not respected by the whiskey Iluminati. Elias Staley, OTOH, is also unappreciated by bourbon/rye afficianados (or would be, if they tasted it), and priced far beyond what better examples of the familiar-tasting style of rye whiskey sells for. But the fact is that Elias Staley is (1) actually fermented and distilled by the folks who market it, and (2) an accurate example of what they intend to produce and market, that is, 18th and 19th century American whiskey as it really used to be, not the phoney baloney stuff being hawked by DISCUS as “George Washington’s Rye Whiskey”. It is NOT “flavored with hops”. In fact, it’s unlikely you’d ever detect any hop flavor in the whiskey; the hops are added to the MASH, not the SPIRIT. Joe Duer will quickly tell you that he doesn’t believe any of the hop flavor actually comes across in the distilling process, but THAT’s THE WAY IT WAS DONE ORIGINALLY and THAT’s THE WAY THEY DO IT. The value of what is being done with this whiskey is irreplaceable and unobtainable in any other commercially sold product. Until Prohibition, long after other distillers were selling bottled product, Staley was available only in barrels — as were many other brands of American whiskey long since forgotten and never to be seen again. Not oak barrels, mind you, hickory barrels. They still have some of the old hickory barrels at the distillery. Whiskey aged in hickory barrels doesn’t taste like whiskey aged in oak barrels. Especially toasted, but not charred, hickory barrels. And especially when aged only long enough to make it to market, certainly no longer than a few months. People didn’t even LIKE brown whiskey then; whiskey was supposed to be clear, like water. Brown whiskey was for exporting to folks in Boston or New Orleans who thought they were buying rum or brandy.

    Well, you’re not allowed to store whiskey in hickory barrels anymore. Congressional representatives of oak-producing states lobbied for and succeeded in making the continuous use of brand new oak barrels a requirement for any kind of named whiskey (such as bourbon or rye). It’s not likely your going to find a cooperage that produces hickory barrels these days. The Duers were faced with the choice of making their own (and not being allowed to call their product by its historically accurate name), or finding another solution. That solution happens to be the same one that Makers Mark and some other well-respected distilleries use to enhance their own maturation cycles. Except, in the case of Staley, the idea isn’t to accelerate maturation but rather to impart at least a noticeable hickory flavor to a whiskey required by law to be aged in an oak barrel.

    The result is a rye whiskey, or really TWO rye whiskies if you consider the aged version to be an abberation of the real, right off the still, whiskey, that is as close to an exact duplicate of an historical product that was not unique to Staley, but was, rather, the NORMAL whiskey that people in America’s frontier really drank. If one doesn’t care to drink it all the time, well that’s fine. I don’t either. But if one is going to rant about “heritage” and “authentic Americana”, as so many whiskey drinkers and nearly ALL whiskey marketers would have us do, one needs to have a bottle of each of these (aged and unaged) in his/her collection. Either that, or shut up and just enjoy your (ri)1 or Van Winkle Family Reserve or whatever bogus modern rye whiskey taste better to you 🙂

  10. sam k says:

    All I was trying to do here was report on a really, really cool place where an old-timey process is being performed on a daily basis by members of the founding family. I’m not sure why you have so many issues with what they’re doing, but none of them matter at all to me. Pay attention here: I really don’t care.

    I’m not concerned with their label, in the least, as it was approved by TTB and I’m sure there was no deception involved. I’m not worried about their price, because it’s not out of line given the competition in the craft distilling business and the uniqueness and expense involved in what they’re doing. They’re selling out every batch.

    As for research, I didn’t do any for this because it wasn’t investigative journalism. It’s a simple story that I wrote after visiting the place and interviewing the principals. No one ever implied a requirement that anyone like the product just because they happen to be nice folks.

    As for any “bested” interest, I resent the implication. I paid $50 for my bottle like everyone else and have no other affiliation with anyone involved. The article stands on its own merits, and I remain quite proud of it., thank you.

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