The sweet mash process is a very old process. It differs from the sour mash process in that they don’t use any set-back in making the mash. There is a recipe for making sweet mash whiskey in the Kentucky Historical Society’s archive. Catherine Carpenter of Casey County, Kentucky wrote down her recipe for sweet mash whiskey in 1816. The difficulty in making sweet mash whiskey is that you have to be very meticulous in cleaning the mash tubs between batches or bacteria infects your mash and gives your mash a very unpleasant taste. A little bacteria can be a good thing, but when it gets out of hand it can ruin a mash.
These distilleries making sweet mash whiskey today benefit from modern technology, allowing them to clean their mash tubs very effectively. They also benefit from modern science in that if a bacteria infection gets out of hand, they can detect it at an early stage and take steps to get it under control. Even so, it is more difficult to make a sweet mash whiskey than it is to make a sour mash whiskey. Three distilleries making good sweet mash whiskey are as follows:
- Wilderness Trail Distillery, Danville, Kentucky. Wilderness Trail Distillery was formed when the founders, Shane Baker and Pat Heist, decided to make whiskey. They had created the company Fermsolutions, that specialized in growing and maintaining yeast. They consulted with all of the big distilleries when they had trouble with their fermentation. After doing this for a couple of years, they decided to open their own distillery and make whiskey. They have three mash bills – a traditional Bourbon using rye as a flavoring grain, a wheat recipe Bourbon and a Rye whiskey. All three recipes are sweet mash whiskeys. They use a lower barrel entry proof of 115. They are making some very good whiskeys that have a full bodied flavor.
- Kentucky Peerless Distillery, Louisville, Kentucky. When Corky Taylor decided to get into the Bourbon business, he was restarting a family tradition. His great grandfather had owned the Peerless Distillery in Henderson, Kentucky until prohibition forced them to close the distillery. He did his research and hired a young distiller, Caleb Kilburn, to make his whiskey. Caleb worked with several distillers while the Louisville distillery was being built and was impressed with the Wilderness Trail sweet mash process. They built the Peerless Distillery with the sweet mash process in mind. The fermenters are small compared to most distilleries and easier to keep clean. They make a traditional Bourbon and a Rye whiskey. Both recipes are made using the sweet mash process. They also use a low barrel entry proof of 107. They are making some excellent whiskeys.
- Hard Truth Distillery, Nashville, Brown County, Indiana. The Hard Truth Distillery grew out of a small brew pub in Nashville, Brown County. Indiana. They are still making beer in Nashville, but have built a distillery just outside of the town. When they decided to make whiskey, they sent their distiller to study under Pat Heist and Shane Baker at Wilderness Trail. They contract-distilled their recipe at Wilderness Trail while their distillery was being built in Nashville. They fell in love with the sweet mash process and designed their distillery with that in mind. They have released several versions of their Rye whiskey – many of them using beer malts such as chocolate or caramel malt, in their whiskeys. They have made Bourbon but have yet to release it. They released the Rye whiskeys at two years old but are waiting until the Bourbon is at least four years old to release it. They are using the sweet mash process with their whiskeys and have a lower barrel entry proof of 118. Their Rye whiskeys are very good at two years old and will only get better as their whiskey ages.
These three distilleries are making excellent sweet mash whiskey.
Photos Courtesy of Rosemary Miller