We’ve known they pair perfectly together for generations yet the line between whisky and beer is becoming increasingly blurred. As brewers finish their beers in ex-whisky casks and distillers use beer as their base product or age their finished whisky in ex-beer barrels the flavours typically associated with each product are becoming increasingly fluid.
The crossover of flavours may sound daunting but in reality it’s unleashed a whole new category of buttery, vanilla, oaky strong beers and whisky with notes of coffee, cocoa and butterscotch.
It’s also leading the way in new techniques and the boundaries between brewer and distiller breakdown, starting conversations on fermentable sugars, distilled hops and roasted grains.
As drinks writer Kenny Herzog pointed out earlier this year “The experimentation seems long overdue, considering that most whiskey actually originates from beer (specifically, an unhopped, unsavory beer that’s malted with the sole aim of being siphoned for its alcoholic potency) and that microbrewers have been messing around with aging beer in whiskey barrels for more than 20 years.”
Cost wise, actually distilling brewer’s beer is quite pricey. In America you’re looking at around 35 cents to make 4.5 litres of mash for distilling. That’s about 24 pence. If you start to use actual hopped-beer it rockets up to £2.70 or US$4.
But the flavour opportunities are incredible and whatever comes off the still is going to be packed with aromas and tastes.
Beyond using the base product, however, there is ample opportunity in aging whisky and beer in each other’s casks and barrels. For centuries the used bourbon barrels are sent off to Scotland and Ireland where they’re put to use for as many as three fills. Nowadays some of these barrels make their way to craft breweries instead. Rather than ending the journey there, however they’re starting to reach that final destination in Europe where after a bourbon and beer fill they’re then used to age Scotch and Irish whiskey, carrying those beer notes with them.
We’re not just talking out-of-the-way distillers and brewers here either. In 2014 Irish whiskey heavyweight Jameson launched its Caskmates series where they aged their spirit in Franciscan Well stout barrels.
On the other side you have the beers such as Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale which is made from Alltech’s signature Kentucky Ale (a brew of malt typically used for an Irish ale and hopped with traditional English pale ale hops) that has spent at least six weeks aging in bourbon barrels from nearby distilleries. These include Woodford Reserve and Maker’s Mark among others.
On the palate there’s still plenty of malt and hops but with enough caramel and bourbon notes to make you sit up and notice a difference.
There are plenty of other examples out there in the market. St. George Spirits’ Single Malt Whiskey is made from an ale by Sierra Nevada; Charbay Winery & Distillery used Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA for their Doubled & Twisted Light Whiskey; Harviestoun Ola Dubh 18 beer has been aged in casks from Orkney's Highland Park Distillery; Tennent’s Beer Aged with Whisky Oak is, as it says on the label, aged with Speyside Single Malt Whisky infused oak; BrewDog Paradox Jura is aged in barrels previously used to house Isle of Jura whisky.
Keen to try this wonderful new world of whisky-aged beer and beer-aged whisky? Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is one of the brews featuring on the DrinkUp.London Boilermaker Bar during London Beer Week while Jameson Caskmates is one of the festival’s Boilermaker partners and can also be tried at the pop-up. See you at the bar.