Hop Craze Hits Hard Liquor

Craft brewers love their hops. Now craft distilleries like Wigle Whiskey are joining in on the craze.

The highly creative Wigle distillers felt it was time for hops to be enjoyed in something other than a brewski; so they called upon their highly coveted wheat whiskey to take on some majorly fresh local hops.

Each batch of Wigle’s craft spirits includes only the freshest ingredients from local farmers in our region. So when this idea of adding hops into the mix arose, Wigle made sure it partnered with a local hop farmer who supplied just that. Last year, several Wigle team members and volunteers hopped into their cars and took a short journey over to Soergels Orchards in Wexford. They hand picked tons of fresh hops to include in this very unique series of craft spirits; Hopped Wheat Whiskey and Hint of Hop Whiskey.

What the heck are hops? Hops are the seed cones of the female hop plant. There are lupulin glands (looks like yellow pollen) inside the hop cone that provides the rich flavor, aroma, and cutting bitterness. The hop cones grow on bines (yes b- think beer vines) and are harvested once a year in the late summer/ fall. The actual word  “hop” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “hoppan,” which means “to climb”.  Photo Credit: East End Brewing Co. 

East End Bines

Once the wet hops are picked, they are quickly brought to a processing facility where they are dried and packaged, or taken directly to a brew house/distillery and used immediately. They have an incredibly short shelf-life; therefore, using them immediately is of the essence. But Wigle is no stranger to this concept of keeping it super fresh, they mill the grains onsite the same day they are ready to brew up one of their signature batches. Here are the grains used for the hopped whiskeys…

Local Wheat Wigle

Hopped whiskey is a dream come true for a self-proclaimed hop head like me. It’s an entirely new boozy beverage that highlights the incredibly unique flavor profile of hops that once could only be found in a hopped beer. Here’s how Wigle pulled this incredible feat off…

Step 1: Mashing and Fermentation

The Wigle distillers grind 1,200 pounds of local, organic grain into flour, which is mixed with 1,850 liters of water. This mixture is called the mash.

The mash is heated to a toasty 180 F, and enzymes are added at various times and temperatures to help convert the long-chain starches into simpler sugars (yeast love to eat simple sugars).

Next, the mash is cooled in the mash tun, and the yeast is pitched into the mix. Then the mixture is pumped into one of their large fermenters to hang out and ferment. They refer to this mixture as the “beer” because its alcohol by volume (ABV) falls between 6%-9% (just like a good ol’ microbrew)

Step 2: Distillation Process

The fermentation process is complete once the yeast eats up all the sugar, about 3 to 4 days. Then the mash is pumped into their iconic copper pot still and is heated to a boil to start the 1st Distillation process.

1st Distillation– is called the beer-stripping run, which basically extracts all of the alcohols from the beer. This crude distillate is known as the low wine. The purpose of the 1st distillation is to extract all the alcohols from it, unselectively. Alcohol boils at 173F, well below water’s 212F boiling point. If the temperature is kept below 212F, alcohol can be stripped from the beer and the water is left behind. Basically, whiskey’s just distilled beer. So the mash is heated and is turned into an alcoholic vapor, which then is cooled down and condensed back into a liquid. After the 1st distillation, this low wine mixture is about 40% ABV.

Beer is Boiled–> Turned into Vapor–> Piped over to Condenser—>Out comes Low Wine1st Distil Final

2nd Distillation– Its purpose is to transform the low wine into a fine spirit by selectively separating specific alcohols. It does this by producing three different types of liquids; Heads, Hearts, and Tails. The still pot is filled, but this time it’s filled with the low wine from the 1st distillation. It is again heated to a boil which produces the initial vapor known as the Heads— these are the lightest, most volatile, and lowest-boiling-point compounds. As the Heads vaporize, they travel up through the column to yield a cleaner (more alcoholic) spirit.

Let’s break this down more, shall we? Alcohol is lighter than water, so the column acts as another purifier that only the lightest alcohols can make it to the top of the column. The heavier ones can’t make it up there so the process yields a cleaner spirit. Once those purified vapors make it to the top, they are piped over to the condenser to become a liquid once again. This mixture is poured out and set aside. The Heads contains a high percentage of methanol and other undesirable molecules that are not very palatable. As the pot continues to boil away…

It’s time for the Hearts run. The distillers turn a lever to allow them to start collecting this liquid in a different container. The Hearts contain the most desirable vapors, such as ethanol. Again, the liquid from the low wine is vaporized, travels up the long column, condenses, and empties into a a large holding container. Typically, the distillers would either bottle this immediately or put into barrels for aging, but not this extra-special hopped spirit. More on that soon…

The final part of the 2nd distillation process includes turning the remaining heavy alcohols into vapor, also know as the Tails run. Again, the low wine continues to be vaporized, travels up through the column, condenses, and empties into a separate container.

Let’s recap here, we have the Heads resting alone in a container. Then we have the Hearts hanging out in a large holding bucket which is now a drinkable spirit. And finally we have the Tails hanging out in another bucket. The Heads and Tails are not typically used for their current batch but are recycled to flavor subsequent batches. Now we have a really clean batch of Hearts ready to be hopped!

Low Wine Boiled–> Turns into Vapor–> Pushed Up Through Column–> Goes Down Condenser—> Out Comes Spirit (separated into Heads, Hearts, Tails)

2nd Distillation

3rd Distillation:  As I mentioned before, most spirits stop at the second distillation. The liquid from the Hearts run are bottled clear or put into barrels for aging. However, their hopped whiskeys are extra-crafty and the Hearts from the 2nd distillation take one last ride through the still.

Step 3: Hopping it

Before the start the 3rd distillation, the distillers set up the pipes to allow the vapor to pass from the still into the hop filled botanical basket. As the vapors pass up through the botanical basket, they pick up all the beautiful characteristics of the hops along the way. The Hint of Hop Whiskey includes Cascade Hops. The Hopped Wheat includes a blend of Cascade, Centennial, and Newport hops.

Hearts are Boiled–> Turned into Vapor– > Passes Through Hops Basket—> Goes Down the Condenser—> HOPPED WHISKEY!3rd Dis Final

Step 4: Barrel Aging the Hopped Whiskeys

The final transformation of the hopped whiskeys occurs during the barrel aging process. Barrel aging gives whiskey its great depth of flavor and coloring. The aging occurs through two major means; extraction and oxidation. Wigle fills their 15-gallon casks with the Hint of Hop Whiskey and lets it sleep peacefully for 12 months. They fill their 10-gallon casks with the Hopped Wheat Whiskey and allows it to slumber for a period of 9-12 months. During this resting period, the hopped whiskeys moved in and out of the wooden barrels and pull the tannins and vanillin compounds out of the wood. This process is called extraction. The oxidation process occurs when oxygen and the compounds in the hopped whiskeys create a wonderful chemical reaction. The amount of time spent inside the barrels is the main contributor to this process.

wigle barrel

Step 5: Labeling and Release Party

Once the hopped whiskeys reach full flavor potential, they are drained from the barrels, bottled, and corked. The next step is to slap some labels on those hopped masterpieces. Wigle throws labeling events, which allows Wigle fans to come together, enjoy some free cocktails and snacks, while they hand label the newest bottles of booze. Here’s a picture of the hopped whiskeys getting their final touches..

wigle label 

I just explained in-depth how to make whiskey. Anyone can do it right? Wrong. Wigle distillers rely on their highly trained senses to distill the best spirits possible. The big distilleries rely on computers to do the distilling process for them. Their entire focus is on mass production and in turn, each bottle will taste exactly the same way as the last one. But with Wigle, it’s an entirely different story. Each distiller relies on their high developed senses of smell, sight, and taste to make the difficult decision cut from Heads to Hearts and from Hearts to Tails. Each batch will taste slightly different from the last, but that’s exactly what makes it a craft spirit. The distillers at Wigle put all their love, passion, and expertise into each one of their signature batches. And that passion tastes absolutely delicious. Come see what flavors you taste when you enjoy the fruits of real whiskey craftsmen.

You can be one of the firsts to enjoy Wigle’s Hopped Whiskeys at its release party on Friday, October 3rd at Wigle’s Barrel House in the North Side. The event is rightfully named Wet Hoptober to celebrate this time of year when brewing and distilling with wet hops is possible. Your ticket purchase includes a take home glass, 3 wet-hopped beers from East End Brewing Co, a hopped Wigle whiskey cocktail, and dinner from Marty’s Market. The proceeds benefit GTECH– a non-profit organization dedicated to reclaiming vacant land in Pittsburgh and turning the land into something spectacular, like the hop field in Garfield. For more information, click here!

Cheers N’at- Devo and Tim

 * A HUGE thank you to Co-owner Mary Ellen and Distiller David for working with us this past week. Mary Ellen, You are one of the (if not the) kindest Pittsburghers ever! David- Thank you for taking time out of your day to thoroughly explain the distilling process to me. You were super patient and so knowledgeable- this post would not have been possible without your guidance. Cheers guys!

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