It’s getting harder and harder to have a coherent conversation about bourbon barrel aged beers these days. It used to be called the “dark arts” for a reason—it was a pretty sloppy enterprise! You get a bourbon barrel, whatever you can get your hands on, you put a big sweet Stout in there, and you wait for it to be “ready.”
But a lot’s changed since the mid-'90s era of bourbon barrel aged beer. And a lot hasn’t, too.
Like any innovative approach to beer-making, some people take the ball and run with it. They do us all a service by finding out what else is possible and worthwhile. The more seasoned BBA beer makers—Goose Island, Brooklyn, Great Divide, Avery—have honed their process over time, favoring certain techniques, ingredients, and bourbon makers from which they source their all-important barrels. Like two stones that sharpen each other, the barrel and the beer recipes evolve to best take advantage of what the other is offering. This produces very high-quality, predictable bourbon character from a blend of barrels from one or more distilleries. The particular distiller from which these barrels are sourced is sometimes mentioned if there’s a relationship involved. Otherwise, it suffices to market these beers with typical bourbon characteristics, not a single distiller or bourbon. Most of that specificity is lost to the blend anyhow.
But these days, some brewers are aiming even higher. Folks like Side Project, Hill Farmstead, Perennial, Fifty-Fifty, and others have been pushing for more specificity in their finished product. A big reason for that is their experience with bourbon itself. Cory King of Side Project, for example, develops specific beer recipes for specific distillers' barrels based on the results he’s gotten over time. This requires a consistent and attentive relationship with great bourbons, their process and ingredients, and an understanding of their differences. These are akin to a single-origin approach to BBA beer making. And the resulting flavors can be traced back to the bourbons in those barrels. It can be a more pure expression of the original bourbon, but the beer itself has a lot to say about how that gets expressed.
Then, of course, there’s the vast majority of BBA beers that get made by brewers who have no relationships with distilleries, no say as to what barrels they really get, have a generic sweet stout recipe they utilize over and over, and blend the results into something “bourbony.” In other words, the '90s are alive and well, and that’s still most of what’s on the shelf. (And some of them tasty pretty great!) Most of the brewers I've met in this camp may have a causal relation with bourbon, they may like it or even have a favorite, but they aren't investing in the furthering of their knowledge of bourbon and bourbon making. For their purposes, the vanilla and oak, chocolate and char they coax out in the aging process of most barrels are serviceable characteristics.
All of this is to say: which aspects matter in the final product of a BBA beer vary greatly depending on which school of thought you come from, and what capabilities you have.
The bourbon—in the more pure expression of a single distiller, this is paramount. You’re creating a rather direct line between the original bourbon liquid and the resulting beer. In fact, the wetness of the barrels, sometimes dampening the wood and sometimes downright sloshy, means that the bourbon isn’t just a vestige of the barrel, but an actual liquid ingredient, like a fortified beer.
The wood—the wetter it is, the more of the original bourbon character is in there. But these days barrels are showing up drier and drier as distilleries work to pressurize the wood and extract more of the liquid for themselves (The Devil’s Cut). That means the bourbon itself isn’t as much of an ingredient in the final beer, but the wood character, a blend of the bourbon traces and typical char and oak tannins, comes to the forefront. Brewers going through brokers to get their barrels, rather than direct trade with the distilleries? They're dealing with this more and more.
The beer—it’s easy to lose site of the importance of the actual beer in something marketed so heavily as “bourbon barrel aged.” But, of course, the base beer is crucially important. Goose, for example, has often said that the base beer for BCS isn’t all that balanced. Rather, it was designed specifically for how it would age over the course of a year in bourbon barrels. Many other brewers with enough cycles of experience now do the same. This can mean that a beer is designed to be generically successful—or adaptable—to the variety of barrels it’s aged in. Or it can mean that a recipe is designed specifically for a single distiller’s barrels, or even a single bourbon profile
Age—there’s the age of the beer, which can vary from a few months to a couple years. Those early months generate bourbon character quickly depending on how sloshy they are. The longer it’s in there, oxidative qualities build (barrels breathe, after all), and wood character comes in to play more. Then, of course, there’s the age of the bourbon that was in them to begin with. The longer the bourbon aged, the more it evaporated, and the drier the barrel becomes. Most bourbons are between four and 23 years old, which is an enormous gulf. Most bourbon makers will tell you the sweet spot is around 8-12 years for character and balance. But, of course, there are plenty of exceptions. The tricky part is that, beyond that 12-year mark, you tend to win some and lose some. Certain characteristics can become more pronounced and preferences decide which are pleasurable and which aren’t. Some people are full-on geeks for the weird old stuff.
The pedigree—this is mostly for curiosity and storytelling, depending on your approach. If you’re a single-origin BBA beer maker, the pedigree is synonymous with quality and character, and it can distinguish one of your BBA beer offerings from another. But if you’re blending a large number of barrels, it’s more about averaging things out, eliminating age cases, and increasing predictability—it’s not a specific expression. And if you’re blending multiple distilleries together, well, then you’re essentially blurring out any sense of pedigree or expression beyond “bourbon character,” and you probably aren’t bothering to disclose the source.
You and I buy coffee—single origins, blends, or “large”—this way every day.
Shortly after I published this piece, a brewery wrote in to remind me of yet another differentiator among BBA beer producers, something that has nothing to do with the making of the beer, but the marketing. Most brewers, upon purchasing their barrels directly or through brokers, are required to sign non-disclosure agreements whereby they agree not to mention the distillery in the marketing of the beer. The biggest reason for this is that most breweries and distilleries have no direct relationship, and as I've been told by distillers previously, they don't want to take the risk of having a poorly made product, in this case a beer, on a shelf with their logo or name attached. And even if that risk wasn't very great, it would become an expensive and time-consuming process to manage and audit the authenticity of all those permissions and approvals with so many breweries producing these beers.
In the few cases where this kind of co-marketing has been approved (as in Goose Island's Rare), the brewery has established a strong relationship with the distiller over time, proven themselves to be a partner in quality and standards, and/or has an upside in terms of marketing alignment, which requires its own sort of financial and communications agreement. In this regard, those BBA Stouts that do mention the pedigree, have both the relationship and the operation that supports such an alignment. And advantage goes to Goose Island on that front, for sure.
There was a pretty gnarly debate on Twitter about all this yesterday, mostly resulting from a poorly defined terminology—I'm as guilty as anyone in that conversation—and the difficulty of the medium. Depending on which school of thought you’re coming from, opinions on what matters in a BBA beer can be quite different. And most of that debate originally stemmed from Goose Island’s Rare, which is often misunderstood. That beer violates a lot of our conventional wisdom about BBA beers, for better and worse. It sort of brings it on itself, I suppose.
For starters, the base beer was BCS, same as the previous Rare in 2010, and it was also aged for about two years. But that’s where comparisons end. The barrels this time around were 35-year-olds from Heaven Hill, barrels that had been lost in the Rick House. When they showed up, they weren’t the sloshy, big-nose bourbon barrels most brewers are used to. These things were dry and rough. Master Distiller Denny Potter said that the bit of bourbon left in them was long past its prime and wasn’t used. There were a lot of wood tannins and not a lot of the other good stuff. But they still thought the barrels could be interesting to a brewer who would want to try something with them.
So for Rare, the quality of the original bourbon was a non-issue at best, and possibly problematic—no one knew for sure until they gave it a try. So the brewers were working with a one-of-a-kind set of barrels, not a bourbon they could reference for flavor in this case. The results were far different than the original Pappy-barreled Rare of 2010, which is still my greatest memory of any BBA stout—pillowy, chocolate velvet for days. Rare 2015, by comparison, was edgier, more tannic, and a touch vinous. I drink it more like a sherry or a port than a beer. It’s almost a secondary point that these were bourbon barrels, really. I don’t think that was the intent at the outset (which was more exploratory than anything else), but that’s certainly the result.
A few other breweries got ahold of some of those barrels. Pipeworks in Chicago made a beer with them, and thought it was “good not great.” Side Project's King struggled with them as well. It’s impossible to say what could be made of those barrels with enough experience because we’re unlikely to see anything like it again—everyone took a shot and got what they got.
I sampled one of the Rare barrels about a year in and the vinous character was strong—prevalent to the point of concern. But after the blending of all the 35-year-old barrels, that single-barrel experience mellowed out quite a bit and rounded off into something quite interesting and unique. I like it. And I’ve bought a couple bottle since then to share with family and friends—not as an example of the pinnacle of BBA stouts, but as something singular.
In a BBA Stout contest, original BCS at $10 a bottle would probably beat it out every time. That beer is still the biggest bargain in BA beer. And that’s where a lot of people still find the idea of Rare 2015 at $60—and then at $80 a bottle a year later—to be problematic.
For me, the comparison that helps resolve that cognitive dissonance is my experiences with single-barrel Scotches. I’ve had a few dozen over the years, these weird turn-your-idea-of-Scotch-upside-down kind of bottles. One can smell and taste like pure candy, others like tennis balls. They’re all fascinating and intellectually stimulating, and, on occasion, really pleasing to drink. I enjoy the ride. And for that ride, you pay a serious premium. There’s a scarcity element built into the price, for sure. But there’s also the sense that it’ll simply never exist like this again, no matter how much is made.
On occasion, when I’m in that mood, I’m more than happy to pay the premium. I’ll try a few with friends, share, and discuss the uniqueness of what we’re tasting. But when I want a really nice Scotch to drink, that’s not what I’m reaching for. I’m reaching for something more in the heart of the category that plays to my general preferences for sweetness and peat in harmony. And lucky for me, that’s generally much more affordable.
But even today, the ones that most stick in my mind are the curveballs. And that makes me happy that I at least stepped into the box and took some swings.