Hops have long been ruled under beer’s sole domain, but not anymore: this bitter botanical has been steadily creeping into the realm of craft spirits.
Hops are the seed cones of the Humulus lupulus plant and have been used for centuries as both a flavouring and preservative agent in beer and other liquids: hops are naturally antibacterial. The India Pale Ale beer style, as the famous story goes, was created when British brewers stuffed beer casks with hops to preserve the brew on the long sea voyage to India in the 19th century. Hops are pungent, contributing a bold, bitter flavour and wide range in aroma to both beer and spirits. There are many different types of hops, each with their own unique flavour profile ranging from fruity and citrusy to floral, spicy or earthy. I often find that they taste very green and herbaceous, even piney or weedy—often quite literally; fresh hops can smell like marijuana (the two plants are from the same family, Cannabaceae).
The taste for hop bitterness and flavour has reached peak levels in the craft-beer world with the rampant popularity of heavily hopped styles. Combining spirits with hops was inevitable and not as much of a logical stretch as it might seem: a number of spirits, including whisky, are distilled from a beer-like base of malted grain and water, called a wash. Hops can be incorporated in this wash, or they can be added post-distillation. Anchor Distilling in San Francisco has taken this one step further with a vodka that’s distilled from hops themselves (as opposed to the more usual bases for vodka like grain or potato).
Hopped spirits have an obvious and ready market: beer drinkers who also enjoy the occasional tipple. Cocktail geeks have also naturally jumped on board, as hopped spirits are not only a niche product—almost all are made in small batches and limited or seasonal releases—but they also provide a brand-new flavour profile with which to experiment. Mixing cocktails with hopped spirits requires an open mind and a lot of experimentation, though, as the bold flavour of the hops will be predominant in any drink. It’s best to stick with simple, classic cocktail recipes when you’re just starting out (such as the sour, Manhattan or old fashioned) and see how the spirit responds to different preparations, before building up to more elaborate drinks.
Choosing a cocktail recipe to showcase a hopped spirit is also largely driven by what that base spirit actually is, since they can range from vodka to gin to whisky. A hopped gin will marry the hoppy flavours with the rest of its botanicals, so it might be just fine in a classic gin and tonic, or mixed up into a bitter jasmine cocktail. Hopped whiskies often incorporate hops from the earthy/nutty/spicy flavour spectrum, and can be delicious neat, over ice or mixed up into cocktails that complement this profile.
Hops have also found their way into some bitters, which are used to finish a cocktail with a dash of bitterness and corresponding hop essence. Interestingly, some makers of bitters have suggested adding a dash of hops bitters to a pint of beer, presumably when it just didn’t have enough of that hoppy goodness already. Beer purists will undoubtedly shudder at the idea, and certainly adulterating a fine craft beer with such treatment is ill-advised, but these bitters might just elevate—or mask—the flavour of less-than-stellar brews.V
Anchor Distilling Hophead Vodka
Arbutus JuniperusLupulus Harvest Hopped Gin
New York Distilling Chief Gowanus Gin
Wiser’s Hopped Canadian Whisky
Dillons Hops Bitters