Sour Mash vs Sweet Mash, Who’s the Real Winner?
There are some articles about bourbon for the casual reader and there are some that are for the bourbon geeks. This article is for the later. I want to dive deep into the huge debate about sour mash vs sweet mash and which one is better. Before diving into which type I think is better let’s start by laying out the facts for both.
Helps to start fermentation like a starter.
The “bugs” from the previous bath help keep the batches consistent without much work.
Ph level can kill unwanted bacteria that is bad for whiskey production.
Helps get rid of some of the stillage.
Contamination can be a problem because of lower PH
So why would you want to use a sour mash? When bourbon was in its infancy the sour mash route was the only feasible way to make bourbon. Sanitation was an issue, yeast was not fully understood, and the backset put into the new mash made sure that the live yeast would continue its life. A lot like sour dough bread. The “bugs” or contamination or other bacteria would continue into the new batch of mash and make sure it was somewhat consistent. I say somewhat consistent because once you keep adding backset from the previous batch the bugs will never be the same. They will be similar but can very. Surprisingly what usually gives each bourbon its own unique taste is the other bacteria in the mash. Some of the bacteria is good some is bad. With sanitation not being what it is today the high ph would kill off all of the bacteria that would spoil the mash. If you have ever stuck your finger in a sour mash tank and tasted it then you will easily recognize the sourness. Sour mash is a lot easier to get a somewhat consistent mash, with little to no monitoring and doesn’t require a lot of scientific equipment to keep it running.
So why would you want to use a sweet mash? Sweet mash requires a lot more maintenance. You don’t have the higher ph. so bacteria can thrive and spread very fast. Much more care needs to be put into the yeast, so it propagates correctly and efficiently. The risk of contamination is very high and great care needs to be put into sanitation and controllable. However, the there is much more control over your mash. You can control everything that is in your batch because you decide what is in your mash. You are not relying on the previous mash, but your own decisions and bugs. Specific equipment is needed to regulate what bacteria is put into your mash. With great power comes great responsibility. This quote not only applies to Spiderman but also sweet mash.
So, which one is better? Well that is up to debate. Most distilleries work with sour mash. Its easy to produce large quantities of mash that are consistent and hard to mess up. Sweet mash is not the norm but gives the distillery unimaginable control. Wilderness Trail is blazing the trail for future sweet mash production. They prefer sweet mash because they like controllables. Their original company Ferm Solutions specializes in yeast production. They run a laboratory to help other distilleries solve mash problems and yeast identification. They specialize in the scientific method. Sanction and controllable are second nature to them. Samples of every mash take are taken, and the bugs are recorded for future use. They can figure out what bugs give what flavors and tweak their bug cocktail to add to their mash recipe to their liking. They are not relying on their previous mash to add the bugs, they are taking control and adding what they want.
Is sweet mash the winner? Well, for wilderness Trail it is, but everybody else prefers sour mash. Wilderness Trail possesses a unique set of circumstances that set them up perfectly for sweet mash production. Many bourbons that I really like are made in sour mash production. However, I like what Wilderness Trail is doing and I see their process as the future. You can’t expect your product to get better unless you can finetune your process. You can’t finetune your product until you can control your controllables. There isn’t a clear winner like there is in a football game, but I like the ideas presented with sweet mash. In a industry laden with 100’s of years of tradition sometimes a little science cant hurt.