You can't make alcohol without yeast. Yeast also contributes to the flavor of alcoholic beverages. About one-quarter of the flavor in a bourbon or rye comes from the yeast. Before yeast-making was a science, it was an art. In Kentucky, master distillers were master yeast makers too.
Yeast for making whiskey could be propagated, grown from a starter, but that didn't last forever. When your yeast ran out, you had to make a new batch from scratch.
Since yeast isn't so much made as caught, you need bait, your particular yeast mash recipe. Yeast makers also had favorite fishing spots, although Jim Beam famously made his on his back porch. When a captured yeast began to work, the maker would look for certain smells and other cues to judge if it was a keeper.
In honor of the one-year birthday of their micro-distillery Limestone Branch, Beam descendants Steve and Paul Beam will attempt to extract a sample from a yeast storage vessel, known as a dona jug, that was donated to the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History in Bardstown by their uncle. “It just depends on if, or how well, my Uncle Walter (Toddy) Beam cleaned out that jug,” said Steve Beam.
The public is welcome to watch. Just come to the Getz Museum next Thursday, 2/28, at about 11:00 AM.
Paul and Steve are descended from Minor Case Beam through his son, Guy. Both were master distillers and yeast makers. Their particular yeast strain has been lost for more than a hundred years. White Labs will analyze the sample and see if it's possible to duplicate the strain.
The next day, March 1 at noon, at their distillery in Lebanon, the Beams will release their first barrel-aged product, MCB Revenge, a sugar shine aged in used bourbon barrels. The brothers will be on hand to sign bottles between noon and five.