By Lew Bryson
You must have friends who are drinking whiskey these days, friends who are quick to jump on a trend, and you’re thinking about joining them… but what about your beer?
Whiskey is, of course, basically beer – usually without hops, that’s been distilled and barrel-aged. Beer and whiskey share grain-based flavor similarities, especially in unpeated malt whiskies aged in bourbon barrels, but years of barrel aging (and four years is considered short) make for major differences.
Yes whiskey is booming, from single malt Scotch, to Irish, to bourbon and rye, and we’re even seeing the once unknown Japanese whiskeys in area bars. There’s an explosion of craft-distilled American whiskeys, and I just wrote a piece about the wave of single malts coming from countries like France, Sweden and Taiwan.
If you’re thinking about getting in on that whiskey action, finding out what all the fuss is about, if you want to be seen as one of the cool kids… you better brace yourself. First, if you want the real flavor, and you want the reflected prestige that comes from being a whiskey connoisseur, you’ve got to sip it straight, or with only a few drops of water. You can’t knock it back in a shot, or dress it up in a whiskey sour; no cred for that. Sip it, and get used to that burning sensation. Truth be told, you do get used to it, and it’s worth it, but it takes a while, and until you get there, it’s kinda painful.
Second, you waited too long. A lot more people are drinking (or at least buying) whiskey now, and it takes years to make more. So the good stuff has gotten a bit scarce, which means the prices have skyrocketed. It’s hard to find a single malt for under $40 these days, or a bourbon for under $25, and the highly-prized ones go up very steeply from there. $120 a bottle is not unusual at all. Kind of puts a $12 sixpack into perspective, doesn’t it?
So maybe… just dip your toe in the waters at first with some beers that bring you the flavors of whiskey.
If you’re looking for that delicious island flavor of Scotch, line up some Belhaven Wee Heavy, an old favorite of mine that gives you the full, sweet, juicy flavors of Scottish malt. The annual release of Samuel Smith Yorkshire Stingo is nigh; there’s a mighty amount of British malt in there, too. If it’s the smoke of Scotch that intrigues you, grapple with the smoky nature of Stone’s Smoked Porter.
Rye whiskey may have launched the rye beer renaissance in America; rumors of Anchor’s Fritz Maytag’s orders of rye malt (for his distilling experiments) led other brewers to jump-start rye beers. The spicy flavor proved popular; get a glassful with Dock Street’s Rye IPA.
If you want some of the flavor that really makes whiskey different, without the big price tag and the red-hot smack in the chops, you’ll want some barrel-aged beers. Brewers have realized that there’s a ton of flavor in those used barrels; distillers do it too, Scotch is aged in barrels that have already been used to age bourbon or wine.
Barrels give flavor in three ways. While the wood is watertight, air slowly passes through, allowing the beer to gently oxidize, and only some beers benefit from that process. The wood itself has flavor compounds developed during the curing and charring processes: flavors very similar to vanilla, coconut, fig and maple are the most common. And of course, there’s the leftover whiskey that’s always in there, because even the distillers can’t squeeze it all out!
Try a big juicy one like Weyerbacher’s Insanity, a malty barleywine wrapped in whiskey wood, or wake up with their Sunday Morning Stout, brewed with coffee and aged in bourbon barrels. To make Curieux, Allagash puts their sweet golden tripel into bourbon barrels, and the beer really picks up the coconut notes. Port Brewing’s Old Viscosity (and Older Viscosity) delivers a powerful punch of malt and boozy barrel character that can still be enjoyed by the mouthful, particularly with an aged gouda or some roast beef.
Many of these beers are limited releases: putting beer in a barrel takes extra time, extra expense, and extra care, not to mention a lot of extra room. Look for the release of Firestone Walker’s Parabola, and reward yourself with its insane complexity.
You don’t have to give up on whiskey, of course. It’s still going to be there waiting after you’ve had some beers, although the price is still going to be the same, or higher!
Lew Bryson has been writing about beer and spirits since 1995. He was the managing editor of Whisky Advocate magazine from 1996 to 2015, and the author of six books, the most recent of which is “Tasting Whiskey”.