Spirit barrel-aged beers are nothing new; over the last nearly three decades, breweries around the world have taken to aging sours, stouts, porters, barleywines, Belgians, IPAs, and other beers in a variety of bourbon, rum, whiskey, tequila, and gin barrels. There's even an entire festival in Chicago dedicated to the art of wood and barrel aging.
Lately, a new trend has emerged, only this time with the barrels flowing in the opposite direction.
Never a hard liquor drinker myself until I started attending the occasional tasting class at William Oliver's in Fort Collins and Lafayette, I encountered my first beer barrel-aged spirit before the Thursday session of this year's Great American Beer Festival. Jameson Irish Whiskey, the first liquor company ever to serve as a sponsor of the GABF, had invited members of the media to attend a special tasting of their new Caskmates series at the 360 at Skyview lounge in Denver.
Jameson Brand Ambassador Lisa McGrath guided the room full of journalists through a tasting of Jameson Caskmates' stout and IPA barrel-aged whiskeys while explaining the distillery's foray into this new frontier.
"Around 2013, our master scientist was in his local bar having a few drinks," McGrath recounted. "He ran into the master brewer of a local brewery and they sat down to come up with ideas on how to take over the world as you do with your friends when you're out on a Saturday night. The next morning, they woke up with a bit of pain in their head -- we've all been there -- but also an idea that had stuck with them from the conversation they had the night before. That idea led to the Caskmates range."
Put simply, the two decided that the brewery would age some of its stout in Jameson Irish Whiskey barrels. Once the beer was finished, Jameson would take the empty barrels back to their Midleton Distillery in the south of Ireland, fill them again with Jameson Irish Whiskey, and allow that whiskey to age for a few more months until it was infused with the flavors of the beer.
"About 80 percent of the color and flavor of a whiskey actually comes from the barrel," McGrath explained. "The Jameson we put back into the empty beer barrels absorbed all of those rich, stouty characteristics. It has a lot of vanilla and coffee flavor and a little bit of chocolate on the nose. It's very creamy and really round with rich stout flavors that coat the mouth and give it a lovely, long finish."
Because the Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition was so well-received by adventurous whiskey lovers, the distillery decided to experiment with an IPA variety. Using the same process, and the same local brewery partner, whose name McGrath said they don't publicize, the Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition was born.
"This was just released in January this year," McGrath said. "It has more grapefruit, orange peel and lemon zest on the nose. The hops shine through to give it really round, robust citrus flavors, and it finishes crisply and abruptly like a beer rather than that usual long whiskey finish."
Having enjoyed both of the Caskmates and intrigued by the process, I asked around and discovered that if you're lucky enough to live in Colorado, you can actually find beer barrel-aged whiskey made right here in Denver.
"We're a big fan of innovation," said Jay Johnson, one of the distillery's co-founders. "We knew that New Holland released a beer barrel-aged whiskey a couple years ago and we wanted to try that and put on our own sort of a spin. Plus, stouts and ryes just go together perfectly."
Johnson said that while their first experiment was good, the latest iteration, released earlier this year, was even better. "For this particular batch, we used two Yeti Imperial Stout barrels and two of Great Divide's espresso stout barrels," he continued. "It picked up a lot of toffee and chocolate this go around and turned out really well. I think we knocked it out of the park this time."
The Bear Creek team hopes to continue with Yeti barrel-aged whiskey releases once a year. "We are definitely planning to keep it in rotation for as long as we can," Johnson added. "And we're certainly open to additional experimentation. We're always willing to try something new."
Angela Rose writes about craft brewing and other manufacturing topics for CompanyWeek.