Whiskey-Aged Beers, Craft Brew's Newest

risen april29 casks.jpg

Photo by Ben+Sam/FlickrCC

There was a time when beer was beer, wine was wine, and that was that. Those days are gone. Today we have beer distilled into schnapps, bourbon finished in wine casks, and vodka infused with God knows what. It's a good marketing move: Do you like wine, but not Bourbon? Well, maybe you'll like Buffalo Trace's cab franc-finished whiskey. Such cross-breeding is also the result of the extreme craft movement, which started with beer but now includes distillers and vintners, trying out crazy stuff just to see what sticks.

Nowhere is the trend more pronounced that craft beers. The legend of Sam Calagione and Dogfish Head is an oft-told tale, but there are hundreds of Calagiones around the country. And while you never know what will come out of left field, these folks tend to experiment in packs. Coffee stouts were big for a while. German-style beers were hot; now everyone's copying the Belgians.

Another trend is barrel-finishing: aging a beer for a few months in oak casks, to give it a woodiness that rounds out a beer's edges. Sometimes the cask is new, but oftentimes it's an old Bourbon or Scotch barrel. As with all craft beers, the results are uneven; unfortunately, they're also uniformly expensive.

To judge which ones are worth their weight in clams, I gathered some friends for a tasting. My panelists included Paul Bolstad, Charlie Clark, Natalie Khalia, Jeff Lewandowski, Alex Orr, and Joanna Osborne, who doubles as my wife. The panel's experience with beer is uniformly a recreational one--no brewers or "beer-eliers" among them. (I'll be relying on these folks for future tastings, so get used to them.)

The scotch's peatiness sits aggressively forward, followed by the hoppiness of the IPA. To the brewer's credit, they coexist instead of one drowning out the other.

We sampled five beers: Brewdog's Storm IPA, finished in an Islay whiskey cask; Harviestoun Brewery's Ola Dubh Special Reserve 16, a porter aged in 16-year-old Highland Park barrels; Orkney Brewery's Dark Island, an ale finished in scotch barrels; Allagash's Curieux, an abbey Tripel ale finished in eight-year Jim Beam barrels; and the St. Louis Brewery's Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout, aged in bourbon barrels. All of these I found on the shelf of Washington, D.C. liquor stores. (There are several others out there, including the elusive "Black Ops," finished in Woodford Reserve barrels, from Brooklyn Brewery.)

The Allagash won the day. The Jim Beam influence is clear but not overpowering, giving it an extra, smoky sweetness. It has a heavy natural carbonation and a light color. The aroma is of lemon and apple, and the mouthfeel is thicker than one might expect--Charlie found it a bit syrupy and said it had a "slight, sticky burn." But most of us liked the smooth ale finish, highlighted by notes of white pepper and a pleasing bourbon aftertaste.

Most of us enjoyed the Ola Dubh as well--Paul liked its dry, coffee, and chocolate notes. The scotch influence wasn't immediately noticeable, though it finished with a surprising bite. Natalie, who detected dark rum notes, didn't like it at all, while Lee said "it was too much like an Irish car bomb for me to enjoy."

We did reach consensus on the worst of the lot, the Schlafly. The nose is a mix of chocolate and talcum. Most of us immediately tasted soy sauce and chocolate; we certainly didn't taste bourbon, despite its 10.5 ABV. There was no depth to the finish; Joanna found it too carbonated, which "drowned out other flavors that might be apparent otherwise."

The Storm IPA was fun, in a gimmicky way--the scotch's peatiness sits aggressively forward, followed by the hoppiness of the IPA. To Brewdog's credit, they coexist instead of one drowning out the other; that said, they aren't the best complements. Lee said the aftertaste reminded him of an Ashton cigar. I liked the Dark Island, which I found had a licorice-heavy nose and notes of fig, chickory, and bitter chocolate. But others thought the mouthfeel was too thin and the scotch elements too weak.

As with most craft styles, barrel-finishing has yet to reach its ideal--though the Allagash comes close. And while it's pricey, it's also a large bottle, and it would be a novel accompaniment to a dinner party dessert. For the rest, keep watching--as their master brewers get a hang of aging, expect their products to get better. Unless they get bored and move to the next extreme-beer trend.

1. Curieux
Allagash Brewing Co.
$21.95, 750 ml

2. Ola Dubh Special Reserve 16
Harviestoun Brewery
$8.95, 350 ml

3. Dark Island
Orkney Brewery
$23.99, 750 ml

4. Storm IPA
$12.95, 350 ml

5. Schlafly Reserve Imperial Stout
St. Louis Brewery
$12.95, 750 ml