• Thu. Aug 18th, 2022

Are hops – not wheat – the secret to Maker’s Mark’s signature flavor profile?

ByRandall B. Phelps

Jul 12, 2022

Trevor Bowles was walking around the grounds of the Maker’s Mark distillery one day in the spring of 2019. He had just been hired as what the brand calls a “bourbon diplomat”, essentially a brand ambassador for the whiskey company up close 70 years old. . And that’s why he walked around the campus of Loretto, Kentucky, learning about everything that constitutes the National Historic Landmark – its limestone cellars, the double-barrel copper stills, the Chandler & Price manual printing press. dating from 1935. , and all its charming Victorian-style buildings painted black with red shutters.

In front of Star Hill Provisions, the distillery’s restaurant and bar, Bowles came across a small garden. There, things like pumpkin, squash, corn, okra, watermelon, and tomatoes are grown for use in the restaurant’s farm-to-table dishes and as infusions and garnishes for its signature cocktails. But he quickly grabbed a plant that looked a little out of place, though he’s more than aware of it from his life in the craft beer mecca of San Diego.

“Are those hops?!” He asked.

Get the latest in beer, wine and cocktail culture straight to your inbox.

never questioned

When Denny Potter first joined Maker’s Mark as Quality Manager in 2003, he immediately noticed that retired Master Distiller Steve Nally seemed to have every step of the esoteric production process stored in his brain, and nowhere. somewhere else.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘We don’t have anything in writing,'” says Potter, who often speaks in colorful language.

Ready to take over distilling operations one day — he actually became master distiller in 2018 — Potter wanted to further formalize the distillery’s production guidelines, or at least put things into a simple Word document. So he asked Nally to walk him through each process several times, especially when it came to propagating the yeast – the first, and arguably most vital, step to creating their signature bourbon.

Yeast is needed to ferment anything that will one day become alcoholic. Many distilleries buy commercial yeast, often sold in dry, powdered form, but some, like Maker’s Mark, continually propagate their own homemade yeast; in other words, intentionally increasing the volume of yeast as needed so that the same initial strain never dies. Potter followed Nally’s steps, which towards the end of the process included adding hops.

“I question a lot of things, but I’ve never questioned this,” Potter says. In fact, he claims that our interview is actually the first time he’s been asked about it in his entire career. “I knew why [Nally] used them – why would anyone even know how to use them. Because hops act as an antimicrobial,” he explains.

While today hops are primarily seen by the layman as what provides the incredible, fruity and sometimes piney and moist aroma and flavor present in beers, and especially IPAs, they have long had a dual objective as a curator. The high concentration of so-called iso-acids found in hops prevents bacterial contaminations that could drastically alter the flavor profile or even ruin a beer or whisky.

“It has long been known that adding hops will control the growth of bacteria in beer,” said Matt McCarroll, professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of the Fermentation Science Institute at Southern Illinois University. Porch to drink Last year.

While these antibacterial qualities aren’t necessarily necessary in a modern distillery that emphasizes cleanliness, why take the risk? Potter claims Washington State cluster hops — which contain 7.5% alpha acid — are deployed as pellets during the initial propagation phase, when attempting to sanitize the yeast.

“I don’t need to order a lot because we don’t use a ton,” Potter says, although it’s enough to fill the room with the distinct aroma of hops every time it’s added. . Potter says he orders a pallet of these hops maybe twice a year. (To be clear, Potter says that while the distillery garden can produce fresh hops, those plants aren’t typically used for their yeast propagation these days.)

“I don’t know of anyone else in distilled spirits that uses hops,” he says.

Who knows?

Was it true? Why had I never heard of it before? Why hasn’t anyone written about this before? Was it possible that hops, and not Maker’s Mark’s unique wheat mash, was the secret to its iconic flavor profile?

If you’re familiar with bourbon brands, they love to tout the family-owned, historic, and sui generis nature of their house yeasts, but it can be hard to separate fact from antics. On the Maker’s Mark website, they claim “a heirloom yeast strain over 150 years old” and have been used to create every bottle the brand has ever produced. Potter has no idea if that’s actually true, but he confirms that it’s been there for at least as long as he’s been.

“There is a lot of truth in these old stories,” he explains. “In my experience, [our yeast] is at least three generations old. Did they get it from ‘Pappy’ [Julian Van Winkle, III, who also made a wheated bourbon], did they borrow it from Beam? Who knows?”

I eventually tracked down Steve Nally, Potter’s aforementioned mentor and now in his seventies, who started at Maker’s Mark as a night watchman in 1972. The distillery was already using hops by then, he recalls. Nally claims they would get “bullets” of fresh hops from Washington State; hop cones were ground weekly and then used at the start of the propagation process. Just a small amount was added to the dona jug where the mother yeast was stored.

“The aroma of this was wonderful, a bit like ground coffee, when you first grind it, even though the hops were 10 times stronger. [aromatic] than that,” recalls Nally. “I was so new to the process, to the industry, that I didn’t question it. Sam Cecil was the general manager of the plant, he was a chemist and such a smart guy that everything he did, I really thought was industry standard.

In fact, Nally believes that Maker’s Mark has been using hops since day one in 1953 when it was founded, attributing the practice’s origins to Cecil or the Samuels family who started Maker’s Mark. Although, admittedly, other distilleries of the time also used this practice.

“[It was] not ubiquitous but common, even more common in yeast porridges that ‘hands-on’ distillers use to catch wild yeast,” explains chuck cowderyBourbon historian and author.

You shouldn’t need it

Either way, it’s not a technique that’s still prevalent today, either.

Coming out of retirement to work for the craft company Wyoming Whiskey in 2007, Nally did not continue the practice, instead using commercial yeast. He also doesn’t deploy hops today as master distiller of the Bardstown Bourbon Company. He just doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“An older facility like Maker’s has so many cracks and crevices in and around the building, so much wood for bacteria to grow in. It can be hard to keep clean,” says Nally, comparing it to the pristine Bardstown Bourbon which is mainly made of stainless steel and concrete.

But, as Potter notes, Maker’s Mark now has such high-tech labs that there is little fear of accidental bacteria problems. Dr. Pat Heist, a fermentation expert, agrees that the use of hops is a relic of the past that is simply no longer necessary.

“Most distilleries, outside of fuel ethanol plants, use dry pitch yeast (add active dry yeast directly to the fermenter), so they don’t have propagation tanks” , explains Heist, co-owner of Wilderness Trail Distillery and FermSolutions, which provides yeast. strains and fermentation products to breweries and distilleries. Of the hundreds of distillery customers he deals with, he doesn’t know of any who add hops. “Maker’s and Beam are exceptions,” he says. “If you keep your tanks clean, you shouldn’t need any antimicrobials, including hops.”

Yes, as Heist suggests, Jim Beam also uses hops in the propagation of his yeast. A fact all the more curious when we know that Maker’s Mark has also belonged to Beam Suntory since 2005 (after having belonged to Hiram Walker & Sons from 1981 to 1987 and to Allied Domecq from 1987 to 2005).

“This process was documented as far back as 1935 and we’ve been using the same strain of yeast ever since,” says Freddie Noe, the distillery’s eighth-generation master distiller. Other than those two, however, I really couldn’t find any other whiskey distilleries currently using hops, even if they propagate their own yeast like, say, Wild Turkey.

Yet Nally never sees Maker’s Mark give up the practice. No one I spoke to, including Nally, felt that hops influence the Maker’s Mark flavor profile. But he also doesn’t think anyone wants to know for sure.

“I think whatever influence the hops may have on the product is something you don’t want to change because it might affect it,” he says. “It’s been done since they started and even with all the different companies that bought out Maker’s, no one said, ‘Let’s cut the hops. “”

This story is part of VP Pro, our free content platform and newsletter for the beverage industry, covering wine, beer and spirits – and beyond. Sign up for VP Pro now!