We’ve all had our fair share of bourbon barrel-aged beers. While many are worth waiting in line for and hunting down, great ones are becoming more commonplace. This week, we asked the Fervent Few what other spirit barrels they enjoy having their beers aged in, and what they’d like to see to keep this category moving forward.
William Weber: “My favorite barrel experiments lately have been with different woods rather than different spirits—especially what Against the Grain has done with amburana. Amazing stuff!”
Barnabas Schickling: “I think rum barrel stuff can be underrated. If the barrel is well taken care of, Ommegang rum barrel-aged Siren Song is really good—the spice notes worked well with that dark plum/fruit/estery flavor of the dark Belgian ale. I was also a big fan of [Founders’] Barrel Runner. Letting Mosaic kind of play the pineapple/tropical fruit flavor was awesome. Also, really smooth.”
Virginia Thomas: “Anything in port or sherry barrels is intriguing to me. I like scotch finished that same way—can be nutty, vinous, and complex.”
Jim Plachy: “I’m a huge fan of apple brandy barrel-aged Stouts. That little bit of tart apple flavor mixed with oak is something I wish more breweries did. I think I’ve had maybe three apple brandy-aged beers, and they’ve all been phenomenal.”
Rob Steuart: “I've had some interesting beers aged on aquavit barrels, which is an herb spirit. The savory notes from the herb flavors in the barrel worked really well with the strong Wheatwine base. It stopped the beer from being overly sweet and added a great layer of complexity. For non-spirit barrels, I really like white wine barrels for lighter styles of beer. The fruit and punchy acidity you can get is great.”
Alex Marsh: “Odell did a Fernet barrel-aged Porter that was delicious.”
Caldwell Bishop: “I like scotch on scotch, I suppose.”
Wayne Pelletier: “Spirit barrels are great when done well with subtlety. Wine barrels are much better. Barrel master ranking: white wine, port, sherry, scotch, red wine, bourbon, whisky, dark rum. These barrels are better used for rubbish: white rum, tequila.”
Lana Svitankova: “Oh, where to start. And why limit it to spirits only? It can be question of what was where and what wood the barrel is made of. Just a week ago, I did a trial with soaking American oak chips and French oak chips (both medium toast, first use) in the same beer for a week and the flavor profile of both samples are unmistakably different.
But back to beer. I'm a sucker for everything in sherry or madeira barrels—oh, those nutty notes make me nuts. Amburana is a fantastic wood, I have only two beers with it, but it heavily reminds me of tonka beans—loads of cinnamon, dark cherries, vanilla, amazing stuff. But good ol’ bourbon is still unbeatable if the barrel is fresh and base beer is good. That is to say, every base beer should be good and the barrel should have no flaws.
But I have to admit: it all comes down to high-alcohol beers, so they can extract more from leftover flavors. If we talk about sours and barrel aging, barrel is a subtle background and canvas for microflora and is not as prominent in beer. I think the most impressive changer of flavor of sour beer was Cantillon’s La Vie est Belge aged in white wine barrels. And this was exceptional. I have never experienced a sour/mixed-ferm/wild beer influenced by a previous barrel content so much.”
Matt Paonessa: “Bourbon barreling is like barrel-aging with training wheels. It's a good style, but I think I've grown bored with them. These days, I'm a real big fan of sherry, port, and rum barrels. You can get a lot of fun flavors and nuance from these without all the campfire and vanilla palate fatigue from charred American oak.”
Jake Rajewsky: “There are so many types of spirit barrels that lend a ton of awesome flavors other than bourbon. One of my favorite things to do as a brewer is come up with barrel/beer combos that work together and I’ve never had before. So many brewers stick to the standard sour, Stout, or Barleywine in barrels no matter what the barrel is. It makes more sense to me to match the beer to the barrel, trying to use flavors that complement each other or balance out. We’ve used Islay scotch barrels and they’re super smokey, but scotch drinkers loved the nutty Imperial Porter from that one. We’ve used port barrels to age a Belgian Golden Strong, and that one rocked, too.
We have a Weizenbock with a massive ester profile in cognac barrels right now. I can’t wait to try that big banana flavor with the sweet, grapey cognac. We’ll be filling some peach brandy barrels with a Double Honey Kölsch in a few weeks. The sweet, bready, honey flavors of the Kölsch should be perfect with the the massive fruit flavors of the barrel.”