Of Stein Beer, Gruit, Farmhouse Brewing, and potentially early whiskey/spirit styles or new and interesting ones.

2020 has seen a lot of experimentation on my end. I’m constantly trying to dig deeper into the history of the art of distillation in order to re-imagine what the future of the art might be. Unlike many industries, pot still distillation is not easy to computerize nor is it any easy art for others to learn, this makes job security just one less thing on the list of things to worry about. Sure there are Carpetbaggers attempting to normalize the process and remove the human element from traditional whiskey and brandy making, but I am fairly sure consumers can see right through that, after all, a machine complete with AI “learning” capacity cannot determine what tastes good and what is pleasurable to the palate, they can only look at chemical constituents and make a best possible prediction which caters to the largest number of average drinkers. Me personally, I don’t want anything to do with that and nor do I think does the common adventurous drinker, therefore it is in my best interest to keep exploring the Alchemy and to hit on ideas that might in fact inform future distillers about past, present, and future, and to potentially lay out hypothesis on which to build historic understanding and future methodology (even in the areas of the craft that may not be financially rewarding but instead are spiritually fulfilling).

This year I tackled a few really interesting projects. The Locust Grove/Venoge/Alchemist Cabinet historic Hoosier Absinthe project was one. The documentary following that process is well underway and I’ve heard that there may even be a trailer released for it alongside a preview of the new podcast Christi Atkinson and I are working on called “The Veil” come New Years Eve. The Gnosis gained from those absinthe experiments (Including creating an “Amethyst” absinthe using purple corn as the coloring mechanism, and distilling various base alcohols to 170 on a pot still) will in the future further inform not only my distilling methodology knowledge but has also had the effect of greatly expanding my palate in unexpected ways.

There are other irons in the fire of course as well. The results of years of research and work in some cases. The Hells Half Acre Documentary comes to mind alongside a new project that D.J. Henderson and I are working on alongside the extraordinary Bo Cumberland…….but more on that later.

For now we will focus on my current muse; a method which spawned a hypothesis, that in turn inspired an experiment, and which will now be documented and committed to film for posterity.

So, where to begin? A few weeks ago my friend Caleb Michalke of the excellent Sugar Creek Malt House here in the Hoosier state posted to social media about his brewing of a Norwegian Raw Ale using hot stones to heat the mash for conversion of starch into sugar in a wooden cask. Herein he also used a mixture of straw, juniper, and alder sticks as a filter. Around the same time I had began to study a bit more on “Gruit”, beer made before the introduction of hops and often using interesting botanicals in place of the hops. Immediately the distiller in me jumped forth and started thinking of the various possibilities with brewing these “Gruit” beers and subsequently distilling them. How would the Juniper (or in the case of this Hoosier, the Eastern Red Cedar) flavor influence the distillate? How would the individual botanical elements hold up to said process? Can you make a proto-gin? Aquavit? or Absinthe using these processes? What else could you make? More importantly is there precedent for these types of distillates in history?

My interest was piqued by the fact that my recent study of Absinthe had led me to believe that Absinthe was truthfully born of three seperate but related branches of the alcohol based arts; one based primarily in the art of tincturing and closely associated with old world magic, one based completely in Alchemy and later translated into pharmacy, and a third, in between the first two, based primarily on the use of botanical elements in beer brewing and wine making which saw such botanical elements and their inclusion in the craft both as flavoring and as medicine and even occasionally as mind altering sacraments. My interest was further spurred by the book “The Immortality Key” by Brian C. Muraresku as well as my renewed interest in Old World Animism/Paganism and inclusion into the facebook group; “The Gruit Guild”.

Immediately my mind started racing with ideas about how distilling such a malt beer base in this method could have created a spirit not dissimilar to those described in early Ireland and Scotland as Aqua Vitae or Uisquebetha. This early whiskey made primarily by religious monks on the Isles was said to be harsh and as such botanicals were often used as a way to “hide” the harsh flavor; I have seen many of these recipes before in the form of Aqua Mirabilos and various recorded “Elixers of Long Life”. I have always had a hard time believing this early whiskey was so bad that it required in any way to be covered up by strongly flavored and fragrant herbs. After all, these monks were learned of the sacred art of distillation and while compared to todays commercial distillery setups they were certainly working more primitively there was no real reason they couldn’t coax a perfectly palatable spirit from a small Alembic still without such additions. To boot I had heard from a few home distillers in the old world about the addition of such botanicals directly into the mash or even into the wort itself during fermentation to achieve particular flavor profiles. And why not? If for example we have maceration and digestion of botanicals for potable alcohol as a palatable dram or as medicine in the form of Vermouth or Genepei and we have the inclusion of various botanicals in the form of Gruits or even more modern craft beers, why then would such a distilled product be so far off the beaten path? In fact, given the history of Norse and Celtic ancestry and brewing, could it be possible than in fact some of that very early Aqua Vitae might have been made in such a fashion? Can I recreate such a beast?

I talked to my friend, Irish Whiskey author and Ph.D candidate Fionnan O’Conner (who is currently working with Boann Distillery to reproduce various Irish whiskey mash bills from the history of Irish distilling) about his take on the matter. He didn’t have any information on the botanicals being included in the mash but certainly knew a good deal about botanicals post distillation via maceration or even via a bag hung at the end of the serpentine. Fionnan did agree that the botanicals where there for their use in Gaelic medicine, to treat the various Humors of the body and were a part of very old systems of medicine and not in fact included to coverer the harsh flavor of the distillate. Fionnan is also sending me some various literature on early Irish distilling which I greatly look forward to.

I also spoke with my friend Simon Thompson of Dornoch Distillery in Scotland who was kind enough to scan pages from a book on Highland Distilling titled “From Burn to Bottle” published in the early 1920’s which details the use of Heather in bloom in the mash tun at Lagavulin at that time, responsible, according to the book, for the floral character of that whiskey. Simon and I both think that this may be in some ways a throwback to something much, much older in the world of whiskey! I find this particularly interesting because it is exactly in the more rural regions such as Islay and the Highlands where I would expect to find such remnants of a past tradition! Places where it would and could have held on, sometimes even when the makers may no longer have remembered why it was originally practiced but just that it is “the way we have always done it”.

Oddly enough Calluna heather (Calluna vulgaris) or Scottish Heather is one of the several common Gruit herbs! The others include sweet gale (Myrica gale), mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea), horehound (Marrubium vulgare).

Now, this is obviously not “solid” proof, but it gives me a better idea that I might just be on to something with this!

With that in mind I proposed an experiment alongside D.J. Henderson, Caleb Michalke, Christi Atkinson, Bill Hockett, and Brian Cushing. Let’s take a trip to the Sugar Creek Sainhouse and devise a mash similar to what would have been available in those early distilling days using malt as historically appropriate as possible and botanicals that would have commonly been available. Let us film the making of this mash, ferment it using Kveik yeast (as this resembles likely what was probably available at the time) and then bring it back to Southern Indiana to distill it and see what we get and if this is even remotely a palatable option. The ball is rolling and so to shall the filming…..come January.

Until then though, I wanted some practice, and to be honest I wanted to take a traditional methodology as well as my hypothesis about early whiskey and push it to the next level. I set about building a wooden mash tun from an old Bourbon barrel after reading about several of these at The Farmhouse Yeast Registry https://www.garshol.priv.no/download/farmhouse/kveik.html I was also lucky enough to have an old 10 gallon copper kettle (bought from an antique store and retired from it’s service producing old fashioned hard candies) in which to make an infusion of juniper (Red Cedar) water (used for flavor but also to sterilize the mash tun and implements) and happened to have access to granite rocks (which do not explode when heated) as well as a myriad of malts and botanicals.

The first mash was a combination of two row Marris Otter Malt as well as Aromatic Munich and Honey Malts with Cedar as a filter but no added botanicals. D.J. came up to the farm to help with the project and film some b-roll for the upcoming documentary. D.J. and I boiled the mash hard after conversion to reduce the volume and raise the specific gravity. Our finished wort ended up at 1.075. The resulting wort was a beautiful dark brown and had the unique aroma of each individual malt as well as some pronounced cedar, and a characteristic smokiness from the rocks that we heated with hickory wood!

The process was fairly straight forward; We heated 10 gallons of water with about 5-10 cedar bows using wood in the copper kettle. We laid to bricks in the bottom of the mash tun and over these placed a filter bed of cedar. On top of this we took a standard barrel head and drilled many holes to make a false bottom in order to lauter the wort from the solids. We brought the infusion to a simmer and filled everything below the false bottom with this infusion water. We then removed the juniper from the kettle, refilled with fresh water and brought the temperature up to around 155 F. We added our ground malts to the tun and the hot water and mashed in until the mash was thinned out (we used roughly 20 lb of malt). After this we left the mash to work for 15 min. and returned for the boil. We began adding the hot rocks into the mash tun a couple at a time until we got a good and steady rolling boil. This we continued for one hour, reducing the volume of the mixture and raising the specific gravity. After this we removed the plug from the bottom of the tun and drained the liquid into two 7 gal plastic drums. All together we ended up with around 8 gallons to work with. This was taken to a very warm spot in the house to ferment using a mixed culture of Kveik yeast. The fermentation was quick and the beer was finished in roughly 3 days. This beer is waiting to be processed legally through a small 3 gallon pot still as we speak.

The next run a week later was nearly the same with the exception of an addition of a small amount of malted oats and the addition of several botanicals. Otherwise all elements are the same. The botanical used however were as follows:

Star Anise 23 gm

Ceylon Cinnamon 14 gm

Lemon Peel 10 gm

Jasmine flower 10 gm

Licorice root 16 gm

Spearmint 1 gm

Horehound 15 gm. (This is a guestimation as I actually used Horehound candy as I had some on hand)

These were added at the beginning of the boiling process. This will likely be distilled and added to the first batch as well.

Stay tuned as there is obviously much more information to come!!!!

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