Innovation has not come easy to the American whiskey industry, and usually when it has, it has either been in terms of production technology (automation, the introduction of computers) or it has been disastrous (oh, Frost 8/80). When the craft distilling boom swept the country a beginning a few years ago, small boutique whiskey makers had to find a way to compete with the established macro-distillers, and unlike the craft brewing trend, they couldn’t position themselves as the better, more carefully made alternative since the big distillers have hundreds of years of experience and heritage and make an exceptionally high number of incredible whiskies.
The whiskey makers that emerged as the big success stories from the early days of craft distilling succeeded because they decided the point of craft distilling wasn’t to beat a Buffalo Trace or a Heaven Hill at their own game; it was to ask what niche the big distillers aren’t filling. What could be done differently? And it turned out, even with the restrictive laws governing what can and cannot be called whiskey, things could be done differently. One of the most interesting developments pioneered by micro-distillers was a willingness to play with the mashbill.
Scotch has to be made from malted barley, but they can tinker with the barrels (ex bourbon, ex sherry, ex pickled herring) to their heart’s content. In the United States, the barrels for bourbon, Tennessee whiskey and rye have to be brand new and used only once, but we have much more leeway with the grains. Traditionally, however, distillers have screwed around with the tried and true big four: barley, wheat, rye, and of course, corn. The products they made with those four grains were extremely popular, and introducing some new element into the equation was simply too risky to justify. With micro-distillers, however, there is a lot more room for experimentation. Smaller batches, smaller risk. And so all of a sudden, you had oddball and intriguing experiments, like Koval’s Dark Millet whiskey and Corsair’s Quinoa whiskey. If craft distilling didn’t correlate with craft brewing in terms of challenging an inferior macro product, it did correlate in the ability to offer consumers something they weren’t getting from the big distilleries: variety.
Among the more interesting variations of the whiskey theme is the use of hops, either as one of the grains in the mashbill or via the distillation of finished, consumer-ready beer into whiskey. “I mean, whiskey starts as beer,” says Mike Reppucci, one of the founders of Rhode Island’s Sons of Liberty Spirits Company, which recently released a hoppy “summer” whiskey distilled from an IPA brewed by Connecticut’s Cottrell Brewing.
My first experience with whiskey that employed hops as part of the distillation process was a whiskey made by California distillery Charbay. To say that I warmed to it immediately would be a lie. It was so…different. Although not the least bit similar in taste, it was a lot like the first time I went from bourbon and well-behaved Speyside single malts to the wild-eyed mania of Laphroaig. The experience was eye-opening, perhaps not enjoyable, but definitely unforgettable. And it grows on you as you become more accustomed to those peat-heavy scotches and more adept at understanding that “tastes like you’re licking a muddy motorcycle engine; also, toffee” can be a positive thing.
Since my initial experience with Charbay, other craft distillers have emerged that use hops and/or distill beer. Darek Bell, a former home brewer and current distiller at Corsair Distillery who studied at Scotland’s maverick Bruichladdich, has an obsession with hops and whiskey. His book, Alt Whiskey, devotes a substantial amount of space to his experimentation with turning hops and finished beer into whiskey, and Corsair’s young, but eventful, history at the forefront of American craft distilling is full of experiments — some of them for production, some of them for competition, some of them just for personal curiosity — involving hopped whiskey.
Mike Reppucci cites his time working at the Mount Vernon distillery in Virginia as proof that hops have a much older role in the history of American whiskey. At Mount Vernon, under the watchful eye of distiller David Pickerell (also the master distiller at Makers Mark, and Reppucci’s mentor in learning the distilling business) they distill to the best of their ability with the same methods that would have been used when the distillery was owned by George Washington, and Reppucci found that included using hops to filter and purify the water that went into the whiskey. So why not reintroduce them to the process now?
The whiskey distillation process includes a step, after the mash has fermented but before distillation has begun, in which the thick, somewhat sour liquid is known as distiller’s beer. Technically speaking, it is beer, but hardly one you would want to bottle and sell, what with the funky flavor, clumps of grains, and a consistency akin to watery oatmeal. For distillers like Bell, Reppucci, and Charbay’s Marko Karakasevic, the connection begged the obvious question: what happens if you just start with a finished beer? For Sons of Liberty, their Seasonal Summer Hopped Whiskey is their first go, but Corsair and Charbay have both been around long enough to have several hopped whiskies to their name. Charbay currently has two “made from beer” whiskies on the market, both made from distilling finished beer (a stout and an IPA) from nearby Bear Republic.
The ties to brewing at Corsair go deeper than Bell’s background as a home brewer. The space in which the Nashville distillery is located, as well as much of the equipment with which they launched Corsair, was purchased from Nashville craft beer company Yazoo. Corsair’s production hopped whiskey is Rasputin, and they make it by first brewing an Imperial Russian Stout, which is then distilled, with the vapor from the distillation passing through hops (in much the same way gin is infused with its botanicals), a process which both Bell and Reppucci admit can be difficult. Hops don’t always behave the same as other grains, and achieving the proper balance can be a tricky game of trial and error. Other than Darek Bell’s own book about distilling with hops, there’s no real manual or established process on best practices.
Despite that, other craft distillers have given hops a try as well. Michigan’s New Holland, which started as a brewery before giving distilling spirits a go, makes Hopquila, an unaged single malt stepped with Centennial hops, and a Seattle distillery called 3 Howls also recently entered the hopped whiskey market. It’s a weird thing, but if you are given to experimentation, hopped whiskey is a fun space in which to play. It’s not going to be for everyone, both because it’s strange and because it still comes with the lack of age that is the hallmark of most craft whiskey. Having had several of them from several makers — Corsair was even kind enough to send along an entire tasting kit containing many hopped whiskies they made but did not submit for consumer production — it’s evident that there are a lot of styles of beer and a lot of styles of hops, which makes for a pretty wide variety of whiskies. Some, like Corsair’s Rasputin, come out with rich chocolate notes. Others, like the Sons of Liberty Seasonal, are crisp and citrusy, more obviously influenced by the hops.
Given that it’s such a departure from what people expect American whiskey to taste like, is bringing a hopped whiskey to market a risk? “For a dude like me,” says Reppucci, “I think it’s way riskier to make a straight bourbon. You’re not going to ‘out-Makers Mark’ Makers Mark.”
Darek Bell thinks there is room for growth in the hopped whiskey space, a way to build on the popularity of and interest in variety present in both craft distilling and brewing. Reppucci is confident that there is a market for it as well, though he expects it to be niche. He is also excited about the prospect of seasonal whiskey, and specifically, a summer whiskey, especially if hops and distilling from an IPA create a lighter, more floral spirit. Whiskey, which even at its lightest has something of a burly character, is traditionally regarded as a cold weather libation, but Reppucci and Sons of Liberty hope to change that.
“There are seasonal beers,” he remarks. “Summer beers and winter beers. Hops can create a lighter tasting whiskey for summer; for the outdoor BBQ, not the fireside chat.”