Darling ingredient of the craft beer movement, hops are actually flowers of the hop plant, Humulus lupulus. Best known for the bold, bitter, and fruity flavors they impart to pale ales and IPAs, hops have a long history of cultivation, dating back to China and spreading to Europe in the eighth century. Originally, hops were used as a sleep aid and a relaxant, but as they moved west, they entered the brewing process to help reduce beer spoilage; they are a natural antibiotic. Brewers then discovered the happy side effect — that hops’ natural bitterness helped balance the sweetness of malts in the final beer.
Anyone who has been to a decent bar lately knows hoppy beers have become wildly popular, and numbers say IPAs are the best-selling style of craft beer in the country. Hops are so trendy that you can buy hops bumper stickers, novelty T-shirts, and even hops-scented soaps. However, the use of hops outside of the beer industry had so far been very small, limited mostly to obscure soft drinks in Sweden and Latin America, and occasionally in some varieties of kvass, which is a fermented beverage made from rye bread.
Recently, though, hopmania has seeped into the spirits market. A number of American distillers have started playing with hops’ distinctive flavor in their spirits. These liquors generally have what most would consider "hoppy characteristics," including a slightly bitter taste. From there, the whiskeys, vodkas, and gins can run the gamut of aromas and flavors, from floral and somewhat soapy to citrusy and spicy. And because of the proximity of hops to cannabis biologically (they are both from the Cannabacuae genus), some of the spirits even have a distinct marijuana flavor. Overall, this diversity of flavor through the addition of hops makes for a very exciting group of new booze to try.
— Jen Kilius, The Drink Nation
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