Never mind the impending wave of tequila casks, or getting into baffling trouble for daring to mess around with ex-cider barrels – there’s a rich vein of cask diversity out there which to my mind has yet to be fully explored. Beer casks and beer finishing have taken somewhat longer than I expected to truly find their way into the whisky world. Despite virtually every nation on the planet having their own signature brew (some more celebrated than others), the integration of all things beer with all things whisky has only really taken flight over the past five years. I guess this might not be all that surprising when you take the look at craft beer scene across the UK – it too has flourished over a similar time period. But, look further afield and you’ll see that other countries have been way ahead of us with the beer thing for much longer. Those jokes about domestically produced American beer just aren’t true anymore. East coast, west coast or down the middle – trust me, there’s some truly astonishing brewing taking place.
The production process for beer and whisky are, of course, largely familiar – different scales, different ingredients (no hops permitted in whisky – though obtaining them through casking is fair game), but up until fermentation has finished - largely going through a comparable process. And that’s saying nothing of the cask symbiosis that’s possible to achieve when breweries and distilleries combine forces – more on that in a bit.
The recently revised SWA rules permits all manner of beer/ale casks – but they’re not without their limits. Beer made from stone fruits is completely out, as are any brews that have had their adjuncts (additions outside of hopping) added after fermentation, such as fruit, flavourings or sweeteners. The beer also needs to have cask maturation as part of its ‘traditional process’. Tradition clearly being a set measure of time.
This all sounds straight-forward enough on the surface – but dig deeper, and it’s actually a baffling array of yes’s and no’s. When you’ve reached a situation where finishing in a mango IPA cask could be allowed, but a peach version is immediately ruled out – because stone fruit – you’re into muddy waters. Lime gose finished whisky? <shudder> So long as you added your fruit (not stone – yay!) and any of your adjuncts before fermentation has finished - this potentially disgusting combination could be on the cards.
Regardless of the current vaguery of the SWA rules when it comes to newer forms of precursor liquids - the palate of ale-based aromas and flavours available to weave into whisky production are as myriad as the number of different styles of beer. We’ve seen plenty of IPA finished whiskies – and at least two of them have actually presented some well-defined hoppy character. But beer is not all about hops all the time – many brews (stouts for instance), primarily use their hops in the boil for bittering, and not during fermentation - as opposed to the intense aromas that IPAs (particularly some newer styles which utilised radically aromatic US and NZ hops) can produce. As such, the selection of base profiles – from the light all the way through to the dark presents whisky makers with a multiplicity of aromas and flavours with which to experiment with.
This is not to say that all styles of whisky will respond positively to being matured in ex-beer casks. Nor that they even need to be. There’s tons of scope for messing around already – and I’m still waiting for folks (those who are not all about the LPA) to pick up the chalice and experiment with some interesting yeast strains. But, I’d be very surprised if we didn’t see a continued proliferation of beer vs. whisky going forward. Not only does it broaden the canvas of flavours available to distilleries, but it also comes from a currently sustainable source of eager breweries - many of whom have learnt their trade underpinned by the cooperation and collaboration required to make true innovation happen.
Today’s beer-finished Chichibu is going to turn some heads – some for the right reasons (interesting beer and a collaborative approach) and some for the wrong ones (a potential flipping field-day).
The Whisky Exchange’s 20th anniversary is starting to look like an ageing rocker’s never-ending farewell tour. Such is the way when casks and bottlings are earmarked months and years before, but the finer details of logistics simply get in the way. TWE have had a reasonable bead on snaffling up some of Ichiro-san’s coveted single casks over the past few years – and this latest exclusive release will be eagerly sought after. Just like all the others.
Similarly to previous Chichibu beer cask endeavours, there’s a neat story of symbiosis here. It starts back in 2012 when Ceodo Brewery (NW of Tokyo and on the route out of the city towards Chichibu) produced a collab brew with San Diego’s Coranado Brewing Company. If you’re not yet down with beer parlance, a collaboration/collab is simply where the team from one brewery bowl up to another, have a chat and drink loads of beer. Oh and someone on the hosting team gets lumbered with the job of making some actual beer. They’re good opportunities for brewers to broaden their networks, but also sometimes result with an exchange of techniques and styles producing truly unique (often one-off) gyles and some tasty results for the beer lovers to tuck into.
Anyhow, in 2014, Ceodo and Coronado produced a special edition of their ‘Coedonado’ collab – a 9.5% ABV black ale made with kuromistu (Japanese sugar syrup – akin to molasses) and kinako (roasted soybean four) as adjuncts to their base brew. Both of these additions are inherently fermentable (I.E. possessing sugars for conversion into alcohol), but also bring in their own unique flavours to layer into the recipe. The Coedonado ale was aged for several months in an ex-bourbon/Ichiro’s Malt cask. You can see the end result on Uptappd.
The cask was returned to Chichibu where it was utilised for a 4 year finishing period. The final product is now available in the form of the Whisky Exchange Exclusive Chichibu 2011 Ex-Coedonado Cask.
A mere 124 bottles will be available to purchase online (with a handful of bottles set aside for their bricks and mortar stores) – and seeing as anything Japanese, and especially anything hailing from Chichibu seems to drive people potty – TWE have taken the (wise) decision to offer up the bottles via a ballot. This opens today – so watch your inboxes and then head over to The Whisky Exchange, but note - you’ll need to be signed up already to their mailing list to enter. Fairs fair. Bottles are priced at £225 and have a healthy ABV of 59.2%.
Nose: Opening with prominent honeydew melon and green Jolly Rancher hard candy, then moving swiftly through peaches with cream and fondant fancies. Running throughout – cracker bread, vanilla and desiccated coconut. In the background, some unusual aromas – umami paste, dried paper and musty earth. Dilution reveals light, estery white and yellow fruits alongside barley and toasted bread.
Taste: The arrival is rich and viscous and with plenty of impact. Fruits are forward with melon, pear juice and peaches – then comes the spice, and it’s not messing around – cayenne pepper, turmeric, and chilli. The mid-palate offers rye bread and sunflower oil before mustard seeds and a near-horseradish nasal-ness intermix with sustained white fruit juiciness. Water takes down the punchiness (quick quickly) and it also lessens the expressiveness of some of the more left-field notes. But at the same time, it reveals apple peels and vanilla alongside grassiness and drying herbal tea.
Finish: Medium with breadiness and drying oak punctuated by fading cask spicing.
This TWE exclusive Chichibu offers an intriguing combination of bright, fresh fruits and creaminess alongside some challenging and unexpected accompaniments. Arguably complex, highly distinctive and in places a little eccentric. But I have to say, I very much like it and also admire it. In a world where the sheer volume of liquid being produced invariably results in countless near identical run-of-the-mill expressions – it’s a rare pleasure to sample something which dares to be different.
Review sample provided by The Whisky Exchange