Alan Bishop: Preserving Indiana's distilling history while charting new directions

·11 min read
Alan Bishop works as the head distiller at Spirits of French Lick, where he continues to explore the connections between agriculture and distillation.
Alan Bishop works as the head distiller at Spirits of French Lick, where he continues to explore the connections between agriculture and distillation.

Alan Bishop has always been fascinated by the inseparable connections between agriculture and distillation. From his childhood days in Pekin where his family made moonshine to his search for wild yeast strains, he is fascinated with the distillery history and culture that tied it all together.

Today he works as the head distiller at Spirits of French Lick, where he is leading a revolution in the craft distilling world by using historic yeast strains to bolster the flavor profiles of beverages he and his colleagues produce.

Life's true passion

The Pekin native has been surrounded by distilling for as long as he can remember.

"My family raised tobacco and made moonshine more or less to pay property taxes and pay for Christmas when I was a kid. So I've been around stills my whole life," Bishop said. "I remember being around stills when I was 2 and 3 years old. When I was a teenager, I got interested for obvious reasons but I didn't take it all that seriously."

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Bishop later got involved in plant breeding to produce agricultural and horticultural varieties. This piqued his interest in the values that agriculture can bring to the distilling process as well as the inherent connections between the two.

"In my mid-20s, I converted the tobacco farm into an organic produce farm and was using that for a platform to work on breeding new open-pollinated varieties of vegetables and fruits to match organic agriculture," he said.

From there, Bishop started growing open-pollinated corns that would later serve as the inspiration behind his desire to experiment with various flavors.

"I started breeding my own open-pollinated corns for feed. At the time, we were raising turkeys, chickens and all that stuff. I really couldn't get any levity with that. Even the Amish weren't really interested in growing that stuff, these odd-colored corns," he said. "With distilling being inherently agricultural and me being a huge history fan, I start going, 'Well, these are the kinds of corns that they were playing with back in the 1800s for distillation. So you get curious and ask, 'What does a whiskey taste like that is made from all of these corns with these different amino acids and these different flavor compounds?' From there just sort of became a rabbit hole."

As Bishop grew older, he soon realized he was developing a deep appreciation of history and the distilling process. Today, he combines the two of these by preserving the distilling legacy of Southern Indiana while pioneering for its very future.

Today, he is considered the leading expert on the history of distilling in Indiana, the process of cultivating wild yeast strains and anything having to do with distilling.

Combining old and new yeast strains

Bishop is a strong advocate of collecting and cultivating old yeast strains. He is always eager to identify aged yeast strains that can be used to add character and bolster the taste profiles of spirits he produces at Spirits of French Lick. He has worked there since 2015.

"I knew that history and I wanted to play off of it. I wanted to play in my own backyard where I'm from," Bishop said. "My other interest in coming here was the ability to be able to build a brand from the ground up, where I actually have some input and I could play off of all the historical methodology that I had because that history of Southern Indiana has gone and a lot of people do not really understand that history."

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Bishop does this by visiting abandoned, disused distilleries to search for new yeast strains. This relentless search for alternative yeasts has brought him to several distilleries scattered throughout Southern Indiana, including Mitchell's own Daisy Spring Mill Distillery at Spring Mill State Park.

"The logs are still there, the original pot is still there, the original boiler is still there, they even have two fermentation barrels that are still there on site," he said. "So for me, being the only historian of distilling history in Indiana that I know of, Daisy Spring Mill Distillery is kind of my Mecca as far as somewhere that you can go and you can actually see some of those things that still exist."

Bishop discovered one particular strain during one of his visits to the 1,358-acre state park that he has successfully added to the fermenting process. He has led a local push to incorporate certain strains collected at old distilling sites into the production process at Spirits of French Lick to create fresh flavors that are unique to the region.

"So one of the things about the Spring Mill yeast strain is it has a very pronounced cinnamon cereal sort of note to it," Bishop said. "So think Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It has a very pronounced aroma of that. One of the other yeast strains that we have, which came from the McCoy Distillery here in Stampers Creek Township in Orange County, is night and day. It has a very spicy, almost horehound candy characteristic to it."

Bishop explained that the alternative yeast strains he has found at Spring Mill State Park and other sites are typically related to the original strains that were present in the location at the time when the distillery was in its prime and functioning properly.

"So I knew there was a very good possibility of capturing a yeast strain from there," he said. "I can't prove that it's the exact strain that they used obviously. Yeast does mutate over time. Just by simple practical observation, which is how the distillers would have found this yeast in the first place, and by taking samples of it, then looking at what it does to a very small one-gallon fermentation. Does the yeast work all the way through the sugars? Does it take it down to dryness? Does it smell good? Does it taste good? If so, it's probably a good alcohol strain and we're able to figure out pretty easily that it is at least more than likely a derivative of the original strain that was used there."

Bishop said yeast can thrive in environments for hundreds of years due to its adaptive capabilities.

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"Once it's introduced into an environment, it becomes the most predominant strain of yeast. It's there even once it goes wild or feral because it has the ability to completely convert all the sugar in a substance into ethanol," he said. "So if you have a wooden building and wooden fermenters, your chances of finding that yeast are much more prevalent, because what will happen is that it will basically go dormant in the wood. It can lay dormant for a long time. Whenever it gets any moisture whatsoever, or any sugar source that it can feed off of, so old wood getting wet or starting to rot, it will wake up and start eating that."

Alan Bishop leads tours of the distillery at Spirits of French Lick, where he shares his knowledge of distilling in southern Indiana and the distilling process.
Alan Bishop leads tours of the distillery at Spirits of French Lick, where he shares his knowledge of distilling in southern Indiana and the distilling process.

Bishop collects yeast strains by bringing a jar of mash, which is also referred to as wort. This is the liquid that holds sugars from the grain that will be fermented. He then proceeds to leave this jar open so the nearby yeast can combine with the wort to initiate fermentation. He has also directly swabbed old jars at some of these distilleries containing unidentified yeast strains.

"Yeast is everywhere, particularly wild yeast," he said. "So at Spring Mill, it was very easy to collect yeast because I knew they had those wooden fermenters there. So we made a mash or a wort like you'd make for a beer. After we made it, we boiled it and sterilized it and put it into sterilized quart jars. We took that to the distillery and we took sterilized cotton Q tips and we actually scraped the inside of the barrels, then we put that into the mash."

The next step is to portion off a small sample of the collected yeast and put it in a refrigerator to cut off oxygen. Then the rest of the yeast is split into three separate jars to observe the fermentation process and how quickly the yeast consumes the sugar.

"If it's a good alcohol tolerant yeast, that should be working through that mash in four to five days," Bishop said. "The mash should be completely dry or devoid of sugar by the end of that. Then it becomes, 'Does it smell good? Does it taste good? If it smells good and it tastes good, it's probably going to smell good and taste good when it comes off of the still. So then we can scale up."

Indiana's rich distilling history

Bishop said Indiana is home to rich distilling traditions that have spanned generations. Indiana was one of the leading manufacturers of alcoholic spirits before the prohibition was enacted.

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"People don't realize this but all throughout the 1800s, it wasn't Kentucky, Tennessee and even Pennsylvania trading places for the largest distilling states. It was Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky, particularly the northern tier of Indiana and a smaller southern tier of Indiana, which was called the Black Forest in southern Indiana. That is Washington, Orange, Lawrence, Crawford, Harrison and Perry County. Between 1855 and 1914, there were 155 operational legal distilleries and who knows how many illegal ones on top of it."

Knowledge of the original distilling methods, ingredients and techniques has been lost throughout the subsequent generations due to the prohibition, which was a national ban on the production, importation and distribution of alcohol between 1920-1933.

Despite this, Bishop said he still believes there is much to learn from the approaches and processes that previous brewers used.

"We have this tendency to think that everything old that is not used anymore must not have been any good," he said. "We're also skewed in the brewing and distilling industry because a lot of it went away because generational knowledge was lost when prohibition hit. You're looking at an entire generation of brewers and distillers who are too old by the point the prohibition is repealed to come back and teach any of those old methods."

The future of distilling

Bishop said he believes that fellow distillers are missing out on an opportunity to expand their brand and collection of products if they do not explore the possibility of including alternative yeast strains in their craft.

"I do think it's going to catch on," Bishop said. "The distilling industry is a little bit afraid of septic conditions. So there is this idea that everything has to be scrubbed and cleaned to be perfect and ideal because that's how things are done at large distilleries. It misses the viewpoint of what exactly whiskey was before prohibition, what it was before industrialization and it was all of these things. It was all about making use of the local resources that you had and also those local resources becoming part of the product, even the flavor profile of what you had. So there's a hill to climb to get over that."

He also says that every craft distillery should strive to possess its own yeast strain that is unique to the surrounding landscapes. This can go a long way towards establishing local distilleries as vital contributing members of the local foodshed, strengthening the connection between the distillery and the agricultural ethos of surrounding communities.

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"If you want to be a craft distillery in the United States, you should have a grain that is yours," he said. "They're not that hard to breed. You can pay a farmer to grow it for you and that is local to your future. Because distilleries were always part of a local foodshed, right? Just like cooking, or just like seed varietals, they all had their own taste and their own variety. This is what the Scottish call a character of a distillery. Not only that, I think every one of these distilleries should have their own yeast strain. Why would you want to use the same thing that everyone else is using?"

Diversifying yeast strains can provide a wide range of benefits, and not just for crafting alcoholic beverages. Some of these other services include utilizing yeast to create new scents for perfumes, using genetic markers from yeast strains to create new types of medicine and the emerging use of genetically modified yeast in commercial production. Needless to say, the potential is limitless.

This wide array of possibilities is what has drawn Bishop into the practice of setting out in search of these old, seemingly forgotten yeast strains.

"The real juxtaposition of interest for me is the history aspect of it alongside the practical, scientific aspect of it," Bishop said. "Alongside the many uses of distilling, not just for beverage alcohol, but also for essential oils and all those things, the culture that grows up around it, and particularly the culture and the history of Southern Indiana as a distilling state."

A self-professed lifelong student of the art of craft distilling, Bishop said he hopes that his work can inspire other distillers to push the boundaries and continue growing the industry to new heights.

This article originally appeared on The Times-Mail: Distiller at Spirits of French Lick making history