For the last several years, it has become increasingly popular to age beers in whiskey barrels. The trend has become so popular that in 2011, the Wood- and Barrel-Aged Strong Beer category at the Great American Beer Festival was the second-most competitive category (the first was American-Style IPA) with 118 entries.
But now we’ve come full circle. Distilleries now embrace beer and add its palette of flavors to their whiskeys.
New Holland Artisan Spirits of Michigan recently released Beer Barrel Bourbon, the first bourbon to be aged in beer barrels. The bourbon is made from corn, rye, wheat and barley, then aged for several years in new American white oak barrels. The bourbon is then “finished” for 90 days in barrels that previously held New Holland Brewing’s Dragon’s Milk Stout.
“As far as we are aware, we are the only [distillery] doing this,” says Rich Blair, national accounts manager for the distillery. “The beer barrel really sands the rough edges off the bourbon. It just makes everything softer and adds another layer of complexity.”
New Holland also makes another whiskey inspired by beer. Hatter Royale Hopped Whiskey is made from 100 percent two-row malted barley and is double-distilled. According to Blair, this provides a blank slate upon which to layer flavors. Hops are steeped in the whiskey for only about a week, but because whiskey has such a high level of alcohol (it is distilled to 75 percent before being watered down for bottling), even the short period of steeping pulls different flavors and compounds out of the hops than beer does. New Holland describes Hatter Royale as tasting like tequila, though there is no agave in it.
New Holland is just the latest distillery to be inspired by beer. McMenamins Edgefield Distillery in Oregon makes Monkey Puzzle, a malt whiskey dry-hopped with Teamaker hops. Like Hatter Royale, Monkey Puzzle is made from 100 percent malted barley and double-distilled. But unlike Hatter Royale, which is unaged, Monkey Puzzle is aged for three years in new charred American white oak barrels. Teamaker hops, which are low-alpha-acid hops developed by Oregon State University, are then steeped in the beer. Distiller manager Clark McCool explains that even though the hops are not very bitter, “alcohol is a solvent, so it does pull a little bitterness out of the hops. So we balance this against a little blackberry honey harvested from hives on our Edgefield estate.”
It’s not just breweries branching into distilling that use beer flavors in their whiskey. Unlike New Holland and McMenamins, California’s Charbay Distillery is not in the beer-making business. Instead, Master Distiller Marko Karakasevic buys finished beer by the tanker and distills it. Six thousand gallons of Bear Republic’s Racer 5 is double-distilled to become 600 gallons of Charbay R5 Whiskey. R5 comes off the still completely clear and is available in this form, as well as in a barrel-aged version, which has a copper color. Another Charbay whiskey distilled from Bear Republic’s Big Bear Black Stout is in the works.
Beer-inspired whiskeys are not niche products. Darek Bell, owner of Corsair Distillery in Nashville, TN, has built his entire business on them. “From the get-go, our goal was to make very unusual whiskies,” Bell says. “I started as a homebrewer, so our whiskeys are influenced by the brewing arts.”
While most whiskeys start from basic grains made for distilling, Corsair uses ingredients designed for beer. Corsair uses brewer’s specialty malts like chocolate and caramel, and has created whiskeys using many varieties of hops. In fact, Corsair has built “a hopped whiskey library” using the same basic whiskey recipe, but using 80 different hops.
Bell echoes the sentiment expressed by New Holland’s Blair that hops taste different in whiskey. “Some things are lost, and some things are amplified,” Bell says. Now that Corsair has learned what distilling does to those 80 hops, it can blend these whiskeys to create whatever flavors it wants.
People often explain whiskey by saying that it is basically distilled beer. With traditional whiskey, this is only true to the extent that a fermented liquid made from grains is made before distillation. But distilleries like New Holland, McMenamins, Charbay and Corsair really are embracing beer and the brewer’s art. As Corsair’s Bell puts it, “If you like craft beer, you will love our whiskey.”