The Mud Lick Whiskey Bottle at the Getz Whiskey Museum
Germans are most famous for their wonderful lager beers. They’re also maybe famous for their wide variety of flavored schnapps and digestive liquors like Jaegermeister. But one thing Germans and German-Americans are not famous for is their whiskey, especially if it’s Bourbon Whiskey. Bourbon must be distilled in America (not necessarily in Bourbon County, Kentucky, as many incorrectly think) and be made from at least 51% corn grain mash. The rest could be barley, rye, wheat, or even other grains like quinoa.
I learned this weekend at Dr. Elfa Dona’s lecture at the Cincinnati German Heritage Museum that Germantown, Ohio, had one of the country’s most loved bourbons and largest distillieries in the nation. They were founded in 1847 and operated until the flood of 1913 bankrupted them. In 1847, Christian Rohrer, one of the pioneer settlers in Montgomery County’s Twin Creek Valley, near Germantown, built his distillery on the banks of the Mud Lick Creek.
An early view of the Mud Lick Distillery
The Rohrer family had immigrated from Lancaster, County, Pennsylvania, to Ohio, in about 1830, into a community of largely Pietist German families. The Roher’s farm back in Pennsylvania was deeded by one of William Penn’s colonial land agents. The Germantown Pietists belonged to German Brethren and Dunkard congregations, that, like the Amish are generally called Anabaptists. Unlike German Catholics and Protestants, Anabaptists, waited to be baptized as adults. The thought was that as adults they could make an informed and deliberate decision to stay in the religion. The interesting thing is that Pietists were part of the temperance movement against alcohol, especially hard alcohol. But the Roher family were entrepreneurs and also Universalists – so they had more open minds than their Pietist neighbors. And apparently the local Pietists didn’t cause trouble for the local liquor industry which gave many of them gainful employment.
With all the alcohol flowing in Germantown and nearby German community of Miamisburg, it’s not surprising that there were a lot of court cases involving fist fights, bar brawls and the like in the local courts. In one year in the early days of settlement, over 90 court cases involving fights were heard, according to Dr. Dona’s research.
At it’s height the Mud Lick distillery’s 30 workmen turned out 40 barrels of the bourbon daily. That production fattened 400 head of cattle and 1200 hungry hogs annually with the spent whiskey mash. About 20,000 barrels were kept aging at one time at Mud Lick, representing a $1 milllion inventory. The formula of the bourbon was a secret with the Roher family. Christian’s son David took over the distillery and grain mill in 1861 and produced Mud Lick Whiskey until about 1914.
The rising flood waters of 1913 in Dayton’s Miami River Valley destroyed much of the distillery, and what was left was burned away by gas leaks that set the buildings on fire. With Prohibition looming, and competition growing from distillers in southwest Ohio and Kentucky, the Rohrers decided not to rebuild, and the much sought after recipe of their bourbon whiskey was taken with them to the grave.
What made the secret-recipe Mud Lick Whiskey so tasty was the mineral rich waters of the Mud Lick Springs from which it was distilled. Throughout the 19th century, people came from far and wide to visit the area for the healing waters of the springs and the soothing whiskey of the distillery. The area was known for it’s healthy mineral springs. The neighboring towns of Yellow Springs, and Springfield, Ohio, to the West, were also known for having such reviving mineral springs. Beneath the soil in this area is a limestone deposit of animal origin and a marine deposit which is a consolidation of several differnet species of ancient mollusks that lived in the ocean covering the area in prehistoric times. This is the rock from which the water leaches out the healthful minerals so important for the making of a good bourbon. Woodford Reserve Bourbon in Kentucky, is distilled from a limestone laden creek water as well, giving it’s wonderful signature flavor. And although limestone water is not required for it to be bourbon, most Kentucky distillers say bourbon isn’t bourbon without limestone water. The high alkaline pH of limestone water helps with the fermentation of the mash. Limestone also filters out inorganic impurities like iron, which imparts a bad taste to liquor. It’s kind of like the wine industry’s concept of terroir, or the makeup of the soil and its affect on the end taste of the wine.
The Oscar Getz Whiskey Museum in Bardstown, Kentucky, has an original full bottle of Mud Lick Whiskey made by David Roher in their collection.
The David Roher Mansion, Germantown, Ohio.
What’s cool about Germantown, is that David Rohrer’s house, and the site of the old mill and distillery, is still there to be toured. And, with the craft brew craze sweeping the country, they’ve opened the Mud Lick Brewery, in homage to the old distillery, where you can have a local craft brew, some great food, and ponder over how cool it would have been to take a dip in the mineral springs and sip a glass of David Rohrer’s famous Mud Lick Whiskey.