In the Taylor diary, written in the first decade of the 19th century, at The Filson Historical Society archive, is this direction for gathering yeast:

“The art of making whiskey in the first place, the distiller must be an industrious man, a cleanly sober man. To prepare the yeast, take two eggs which you break up in three pints of tolerable warm water with a spoon full of salt. Then thicken it with rye meal over shorts so that it won’t turn. Set it where it will keep about milk warm. It will work in about twenty-four hours. This yeast will do for making bread with, but for distillery, after your water in the stills boils, say you want to mash four tubs, put one pint of yeast to each after your tubs are cooler so as to be able to bear your hand in. Then yeast must be put in, it is a fact that the warmer you put your yeast, the sooner your beer will be ready for stilling.”

Frontier distillers also had to be able to capture and propagate their own yeast in a dona tub. A dona tub is usually made of copper and used to grow the yeast in amounts needed to start your mash. In fact, many called themselves “distillers and yeast makers”.  It was a vital skill or the early distillers. In the 19th century, Fleischman’s Distillery specialized in growing yeast and turned it into another branch of their business. This is a skill that some new distillers are reviving today. Wild yeast is being collected and grown to see what strain would make the best whiskey.

The first time I heard about this being done by a new distillery, was at the ADI meeting at Starlight Distillery, about a decade ago. There was a speaker from a distillery in Texas that wanted to find a local yeast to make their whiskey. They prepared a medium to grow yeast and placed them at different places around the state of Texas. They collected a yeast from a pecan grove that they thought would make a good whiskey and started using it. Their Texas Bourbon is made from using that yeast. It does make a good Bourbon.

Royce Neeley at Neeley Family Distillery and Alan Bishop at The Spirits of French Lick Distillery are also collecting wild yeast for their whiskeys. They are using a method that involves making a medium of grain and water to collect their yeast. Royce used a flour with some malt and water medium and placed it in an area where his ancestors made moonshine. Alan used a medium made from the grains of his mash and water to collect yeast from old distillery sites in Indiana. Both have been successful in gathering wild yeast and are using them to make whiskey. 

While this is an interesting project, it is easy to see why more people don’t do it. With companies like Ferm Solutions out there specializing in the making of yeast, it is a real gamble to collect a wild yeast. A distillery can purchase a yeast that has been proven to make not only a good whiskey, but also whiskey with a flavor profile that the distiller wants to make. You can purchase yeast that has a fruity or spicy or some other flavor characteristic you want for your whiskey. However, wild yeast can give you a unique flavor that will help set your whiskey apart from the others in the market.

There is a strong heritage of collecting wild yeast in the distilling industry. It is important that these skills and yeast strains are maintained for the future. It is another way that the artisan distilleries are preserving the American heritage of making whiskey.

Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller