Tuesday 12 January 2010

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel-Aged Beers

Barrel-aging beers has been the brewing in-thing for the last few years. I’ve had plain oak, god-knows-how-many whisky-barrels, rum-barrel, cider brandy barrel and wine barrel and each adds its own unique quality, some of it from the wood and some from what aged inside it.

Whisky barrels are the most common and the affinity of the grain makes them natural partners. BrewDog’s Paradox series is a great way of showcasing how one beer can be changed dramatically by aging it in different whisky barrels, and the finished beers are understated but still full of character. American versions tend to be more punch-you-in-the-face with bourbon - Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout is probably the quintessential casing point. Whether subtle or not, I have a bit of a thing for the barrel: I love what the aging can add if it’s successful; I love the extra texture, the wood flavour (oak, vanilla, coconut, a dryness), the spices and sweetness, smoke and earth. But what exact characteristics are transferred from the whisky into the barrel and then in turn from the barrel into the beer?

To try and find out I opened some beer and whisky side-by-side. First, BrewDog’s Paradox Springbank with the Springbank 10 whisky and then Harviestoun’s Ola Dubh 12 with Highland Park 12. Here’s a video (my first in ages) of me opening the Ola Dubh and Highland Park.

The Springbank whisky has distant smoke, a slight saltiness, a floral lightness, dried fruit, spices and ginger. The beer carries over the earthiness and the salty-smoky flavour as well as fruit beneath and some of that spice and coconutty wood to round it all off. I think this is one of the best in the Paradox range with a great balance of sweet and smoky.

The Highland Park 12 is so smooth, it has a great sweetness to it and then hints of earthiness and smoke. It’s incredibly well-balanced, I think. The Ola Dubh 12 is packed with raisins and smoke swirls around inside it adding great complexity. The woody barrel dryness also comes through, lending a near savoury touch at the end. It’s a great beer and a great whisky.

Tasting beer and whisky side by side is an interesting challenge. The barrel imparts certain characteristics into the beer, some of this is from the wood itself (a texture-thing as well as a flavour) and some is from the whisky; some of the whisky flavours are probably dulled by the wood, but others will be amplified. Oak, vanilla and coconut are prominent in barrel-aged stouts and these are from the wood. Smoky flavours seem to elbow their way through to the front of the beer, even when it’s subtle in the whisky, and extra sweetness folds itself in, balancing the roasty-bitter stout (for it is most often stout in the whisky barrels). As for other flavours... I guess I need to drink more beer and whisky!

I’m trying to learn more about whisky. My interest in it has come from drinking beers aged in whisky barrels. For me, it’s the wood character that interests me the most in the finished beers. I love the vanilla and coconut flavour and the toasted oak quality. Lovely. My enjoyment of gueuze is based on the savoury-woody quality that adds such fantastic depth to the beer. Gadds Reserved Barely Wine is a great example of a barley wine aged in an old red wine barrel, another twist on aging, this one with wild yeast character.


  1. nice one fella, I too am finding my self getting into whisky more, we should have a trip somewhere for a tasty and then go on a bit of beer hunt too...

  2. Is it cold in your house then? (-;

  3. Actually it probably is if mine is anything to go by. Bloody weather. I liked the written reviews a lot. I think you captured the subject pretty well, though I personally tend to regard wood as an off flavour (in beer anyway.) Still I'm not a whisky man, which probably explains why ageing in whisky casks isn't likely to ring my bell.

    Not so sure about the vid though. You'll have Sausage after you.

  4. Just had Ola Dubh 40 on Monday night, fantastic beer, unfortunately didn't have the Highland Park 40 to try with it! If you are after a good Whiskey tasting, the Jamesons Distillery in Middleton, Cork is great, there is a tour of the old distillery talking through all the processes and how Scotch & Irish differ, then you get to do a tasting afterwards...

  5. Very interesting, often reach for the whisky at the end of the night if I'm feeling a bit "full up", but rarely drink them side by side. Are there examples of lighter, golden ales being aged in whisky barrels? I imagine they might work well with lighter more subtle speysides like Glenlivet or similar?

  6. mybrewerytap : The only lighter ales I can think of is the Innis & Gunn beer, but frankly I think it's poor compared to the brewdog or the harviestoun stuff - it's too 'whiskey' if you're not a whiskey person, like myself, you want something to balance it out. I&G is like drinking whiskey-beer.
    Mark - Good piece, it made me want to try the whiskey again.

  7. Rabidbarfly: I'd forgotten about the Innis & Gunn, I have had it and didn't like it either. I'll have to try it again, but maybe it is only darker beers that suit barrel ageing.

  8. Whisky, Whiskey, Potato, Potaaaaato, I never remember who spells it which way, not being a wiskie drinker I probably never will! ;)

  9. AS I understand it; Whisky is for the Scottish stuff and whiskey is for Irish stuff and most other "distilled beers". However as with any spelling convention it is there to be messed around with.

  10. Andy, a whisky tweet up?!

    Tandleman, it was pretty cold but it was more in vanity - I'd had the hat on all day and my hair was flat to my head! As for the video... would you believe that some people actually emailed and left messages asking for them to return?! So here they are!

    Mitchel, I might go crazy and get myself a bottle of the 40 next time I get the chance. As for the whisky, I don't think there's much chance of getting that one!

    mbt, I'm a whisky at the end of the night drinker too. I've only done the side-by-side on these two as it seemed right. I'd lik to try a few more but it's quite rare to find/know the whisky and the beer.

    I've had a few pale whisky-aged beers. I&G as Glyn mentions and Brewdog's Zephyr and Storm (both awesome). I've had some oaked pale ales, but these are plain oak and probably chips, not barrel.

    Although, on the I&G thing... do they actually use barrels which held whisky or are they just fresh oak barrels? They are too sweet for me.

    And I love the flavor of good American whiskey... but you can't beat sitting down to savour a nice Scottish whisky.

  11. And I thought the hat was a homage to BrewDog James :D

  12. Much as Paradox and Ola Dubh are good beers well executed, I've come to the conclusion that I prefer my beer and whisky in separate glasses. I drank an Ola Dubh last week and I was thinking "I wish I just had a bottle of Old Engine Oil and a dram on the side".

    I think the original Innis & Gunn was whisky-matured, some of the later variants may just be wood, or sherry or God knows what. The owners are old hands in the trade, having worked in the whisky business for years and then part of the group that rescued the Caledonian Brewery, so it's a shame the beer doesn't really come up to scratch.

    I wonder who'll be first to make beer matured in an old Tabasco barrel?

  13. I might have known! Those crazy Yanks, etc. etc. http://elliottbaybrewing.blogspot.com/2009/11/december-barrel-aged-beer-release.html

  14. Great vid Mark. I love whisky aged beers although I haven't had too many of them, I sadly don't have any in the house but there is a bottle of Highland Park in the cupboard which is getting ever more tempting! I too have been getting into my whisky more recently, mainly since I had a trip to TB Watson's in Dumfries! http://www.drambusters.com/

  15. Barm, that's crazy!! I'd like to try but I have a terrible problem with tabasco (a nasty shot at uni which contained milk, oyster sauce, tabasco and too-much alcohol, hideous)

    ChrisM, find a bottle of the Ola Dubh and have it along with the Highland Park. It's a great experiment.