Thursday, July 3, 2008

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Moonshiners’ Toolbox: The Mason Jar Turns 150

Be it known that I, JOHN L. MASON, of the city, county, and State of New York, have invented new and useful Improvements in the Necks of Bottles, Jars, &c., especially such as are intended to be air and water tight, such as are used for sweetmeats...

~ John L. Mason's jar patent, 1858

2008 is the sesquicentennial of the Mason jar, the iconic container of 20th-century moonshining (the pottery jug, complete with its triple-x rating, is arguably an emblem of distilleries—licit and otherwise—from the latter part of the 19th century). Though I’ve seen homemade brandies and whiskeys stored in repurposed empty bottles of Jack Daniel’s, Crown Royal, Bacardi, and Voss water, most of the examples with Appalachian appellations that’ve been pressed into my hands come in old school Mason jars with two-part, screw-on lids.

See, Mason jars, for distillers of a certain mindset, are part and parcel of an authentic moonshine experience. For some, it just isn’t really shine at all unless it comes in crew-top jar. In fact, there’s an old joke in distilling circles that you can tell the confirmed corn drinkers because they have a permanent indentation on the bridges of their noses, right where the rim of a jar might bump during deep quaffs.

I’ve found homemade liquor in such jars in New England, the Mid-Atlantic states, the upper and deep South, the Midwest and mountain states ~ even here on the west coast. It’s especially true of illicit spirits said to be from the South. Hell, if it’s from the South AND in a Mason jar, it’s GOT to be the real deal, right? Right?

Well, sometimes that’s true, but I’ve also seen local whiskeys passed off as Southern far, far away from any former Confederate stronghold.

Whence the Jar?

Philadelphia-born metalworker John Landis Mason (1832-1902) patented his jar in 1858 and promptly sold the rights to produce it to several companies, thus hosing himself out of a lot of future earnings. The trade-off? His name is synonymous with the jarring industry and even if Ball, Kerr, or some other company manufactured the containers, we all know that, as a class, they are Mason jars.

Lindsey Nair lays out Mason’s story in her Roanoke Times article Well-preserved: The Mason jar turns 150.

The prime innovation in his design was a threaded neck that allowed a metal cap to be screwed directly onto the jar. Before his invention, home preserving jars might be clamped down, not unlike a swing-top closure such as Grolsch beer’s, or merely sealed with waxed paper. Spoilage rates were higher than summer cotton, Snoop Dogg, Harold, and Kumar all rolled together. His jars were a boon to home preservers because the design helped lower the number of put-up vegetables, fruits, and condiments that went bad.

They were also a boon to liquor haulers. Before the canning jars were taken up by moonshiners and bootleggers, pottery jugs—especially those from Ohio kilns—were one of the favored containers used to transport liquor. But they were thick and heavy. When the crew-top jars came on the scene, they turned out to be lighter and thinner, so a hauler could fit more of them in his wagon and, later, sedan, truck, or van. Plus, you can also look right through their clear glass to the spirits within to make sure no obvious contaminants are afloat. It’s no guarantee of purity, but it was an improvement over jugs.

So in honor of John Landis Mason, go put up some peaches with brandy, house bitters, or good old mountain dew. Or, you can follow my recipe for piquillo ketchup on Lindsey Nair’s blog for decidedly kick-ass ketchup for your grilling this weekend.

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