Cast iron whisky

page 254

This is a laundry boiler.

Robert Hosken confessed that he removed an artifact from an historic site. Later, he demanded that his name and even the quotations from Chris Middleton be removed from the story about that artefact. He got his first wish in the publication, not his second. Here is the full story—and more.

The iron pot in-situ

image courtesy Patrick Maguire, Tasmania Distillery

Midwood distillery's "Copper and Chimney"

Image from Heritage Report, 40 Macfarlane Street, 1994 in TAHO

The Corrected Text

Sometime during the early 1990s the pioneering distillery manager Robert Hosken was, he claimed, fossicking along the Hobart Rivulet when he came upon a substantial blockwork of convict bricks hidden beneath overgrown weeds. Embedded in the brickwork was a bulbous iron pot. Hosken concluded that it must be a still, and further hypothesised that it was used to make spirits for the government during the colonial era. He removed the pot and displayed it, in pride of place, in his whisky museum at Sullivans Cove. It was later said that the still might have been in the state’s first distillery, the Sorrell. The pot's provenance is unclear, but the whisky historian Chris Middleton thinks the link to Sorrell impossible. Sale notices state the capacity of the Sorrell stills as 150 gallons and 40 gallons, whereas the iron pot’s estimated capacity is 25 gallons, but more significantly, the universal still material of Britain in the 19th century was copper, not iron. ‘Its cucurbit shape and iron material are too unusual, I think it’s a cast iron laundry boiler installed when the distillery became an orphanage’, Middleton told me.

I concur with Middleton, however, Hosken's iron still theory does have a curious colonial connection.

There are references to iron stills in Tasmania. Around 1827 several newspaper correspondents argued for free-for-all distillation, distallation free from any licence or size restriction as a strategy for quickly boosting production and temporarily reducing prices as well as eliminating illicit stills. Opponents raised the spectre of every kitchen’s cooking pot becoming a still. A Colonial Times editorial suggested that “Nothing is more generally desired than the establishment of Colonial distillation—we mean upon a small scale, where every man, if he chooses, might distil in an iron pot. Colonial spirits would allow every man to enjoy a glass of his own whiskey punch every day…” Another proponent added “…every one with a grain of sense, must know that if Colonial Distillation were encouraged…spirits could not possibly be imported as cheap as they might be made; and as for the goodness, if any Settler in the Island, did not if he chose make a better—that is a more wholesome—spirit from his wheat, in “an iron pot,” (as the Times has it,) than most of the rum generally imported, I would eat him—iron pot and all.”

Rather than support Hosken's cast iron hypothesis, the context of the references confirms Middleton's conclusion. There was no iron still. Myth Busted.

Postscript The vessel in question may be viewed in the Tasmania Distillery at Cambridge.

Bernard LloydComment