Independence, Liberty, and a Distillation of History
Our 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 hundred 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.
In 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 in 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.