Beer-cask-aged whiskey is a bit of a separated-at-birth notion. After all, whiskey basically begins as beer. So, why not bring it all back home?
“It essentially sanded down the rough edges that can come with bourbon,” says Brad Kamphuis, the director of operations for New Holland Brewing in Holland, Michigan. He’s referring to his beer barrel bourbon and beer barrel rye, which are aged in barrels that once held the brewery’s popular Dragon’s Milk stout, adding a roasty finish to both spirits.
The American progenitor of the technique, however, is Old Potrero, which has long made use of its own whiskey and beer barrels at Anchor Brewing and Hotaling & Co. in San Francisco. While Potrero only released 80 cases of its stout-cask-aged whiskey, the bottling was nearly 12 years in the making. It began with two new charred American oak barrels—one held rye for five years and the other housed founder Fritz Maytag’s beloved apple brandy for five years. After that, the barrels snuggled up with stout for a year and finally lingered with the recent Old Potrero malted rye for about four months.
“Over the history of our distillery and whiskey making, we’ve experimented with a lot of barrels,” says master distiller Bruce Joseph, who has been with the company since 1980. “That was something Fritz wanted to do when we first started distilling.”
Others, too, have played around with the idea on a small scale, like Great Lakes Distilling, which stashed its Kinnickinnic blended whiskey for two years in barrels initially used for Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s Admiral Stache Baltic porter. It sold out almost instantly after it was released in May 2017.
Another, Onyx Moonshine in East Hartford, Connecticut, used the technique as the impetus for a scholarship fundraiser for local college-bound kids. Owner Adam von Gootkin partnered with 25 local breweries to use the barrels from his Secret Stash whiskey to create 25 individual expressions of barrel-aged beers. In turn, the brewers gave the barrels back when they were done, and Von Gootkin refilled them with the Secret Stash, creating two-dozen-plus unique beer-cask-finished versions of his aged whiskey. “It was amazing fun. [It] allowed us to partner with local breweries and create an interesting range of aged whiskeys, each with their own flavor profiles.”
It’s surprising to think that, with all the myriad barrel finishes the whiskey world dabbles in, more producers haven’t connected the beer-soaked dots. But these are six who have and are worth checking out.
Glenfiddich launched its Experimental Series in the fall of 2016, upping the ante by actually having a beer brewed and aged in American oak casks for the purpose of circling those casks back for the whisky. Master Blender Brian Kinsman partnered with Speyside Brewery’s Seb Jones, who brewed several different versions of an IPA for Kinsman to experiment with. The result plays up the herbaceous and citrusy notes in the Speyside single malt, rounded out with a little apple and barrel-centric vanilla.
Kinsman is also responsible for a beer barrel-aged whisky from Grant’s. He started tooling around with different cask finishes, looking to add another layer of interest to this blended scotch. Four months in a cask that once held scotch ale afforded the flavor he sought: lip-smacking maltiness, honey and (perhaps from the hops) a satisfying citrusy ping at the end.
Trying to capture the wave of American IPA love, Jameson collaborated with Wicklow Brewery’s Shane Long on this 2017-launched project. The barrels Shane fills with his IPA begin at Midleton and then wind up back with the distiller, where they’re filled with whiskey again, yielding an interesting, snappy finish to the usual mellow-sweet trademark Jameson dram.
After 21 years in business, New Holland found a ringer with its extra-popular Dragon’s Milk stout, but the residual barrels they used to age it in were crowding the brewery floor. The solution: Use them to finish its bourbon (40% ABV) and rye (44% ABV). “It was really having a distillery a-ha moment of innovation based on necessity,” says Kamphuis. “It took three months to really take on the character we were looking for.”Continue to 5 of 6 below.
Only a few bottles of this whiskey are left floating around, so if you come across one of these unicorns, grab it. “What surprised us about this, after all the stuff that the barrel went through, was a hint of some apple,” says Joseph. “But we also got what we expected from a stout—that maltiness. That was something we wanted. And we thought we got a hint of the fresh fruit apple character, too.”
Master distiller Tom Anderson of Pinckney Bend Distillery in New Haven, Missouri, starts the process for his stout cask whiskey by loaning 15-gallon Missouri white oak barrels to 2nd Shift Brewing in St. Louis for its Liquid Spiritual Delight imperial stout. “We then took the barrels back when they were finished and filled them with our Rested American Whiskey,” says Meyer. “Since then, it has become one of our most sought after whiskeys, rarely lasting long once we release the next batch.”