Beer casks have taken longer than I expected to be adopted into the wider whisky world. Despite virtually every nation on the planet possessing a signature brew, the integration of all things beer with all things whisky has only really started to find traction over the last past few years. Early experiments were in my view less than successful, with a handful of whiskies proclaiming beer influence on their labels, but then not really delivering on that promise inside their bottles. However, more recent forays, from Scotland, through Japan and into the US have upped the ante considerably – and whilst I don’t expect beer casks to become any type of everyday norm – the mastery of them and the appreciation of them is certainly growing.
The combination is one where I’ve got some skin in the game. I firmly believe that the shared initial ingredient bases of whisky and beer, and the similarities in their preliminary productions lend the two drinks to naturally drink well side-by-side. And I also believe that this adjacency also allows the two to drink well when sympathetically combined.
The 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 hops) added post-fermentation - such as fruit, flavourings or sweeteners. The beer also needs to have had cask maturation as part of its ‘traditional process’. So that would immediately rule out certain styles that are more normally either tank or bottle conditioned. But outside of Scotland, there’s considerable flexibility available to both brewers and distillers in terms of the combinations that are possible.
The profiles derived from beer can be woven into whisky production via a large number of highly distinctive brewed styles. But the most utilised forms at present come from either IPAs or stouts. Two styles are somewhat polar – and as such they can lend an entirely different complexion into a whisky – either from a full-term maturation or from a finish. The innate hoppiness of an IPA has been presented in a fair number of whiskies to date – some with considerable success. However, despite a fair whack of beer enthusiasts looking at hops as a peathead might look at ever increasing PPMs – beer is not all about hops all of the time. Darker, richer beers will use hops in the boil (the hot side) for bittering, as opposed to during or after fermentation as a dry addition (the cold side) where the oils and strong aromas of the hops can add considerable influence – particularly when it comes to some of the newer, radically aromatic US and New Zealand hops. And those differences (should) feed through into a whisky – in my view offering something of that beers' inherent character and not just a sense of vague ‘beeriness’.
But as much as I’m quite the fan of combining beer with whisky, not all integrations will work. Some styles (sours and lambics would be top of my list) are just too diametrically opposed to whisky to prove sympathetic in any combination. And likewise, as with any type of precursor cask - not every palate will enjoy the aromas and flavours produced from the union. Cask selection should always be a careful consideration for distillers – and so too should the length of maturation. Whilst I’m exceedingly happy with the results of my first adventure combining beer with whisky - it was a carefully controlled 10 month finish. There are a few casks sitting lurking in North Acton where the same imperial stout casks have been used for a full-term maturation. And in all honestly that’s a completely different kettle of fish – the results of which I won’t be able to judge for several years. In this form, that same beer may or may not work quite so well. Ask me again in 2024.
Nevertheless, there’s a ton of scope for distillers to mess around with here – and I’m certainly watching eagerly to see which producers will pick up the chalice and really push the boat out with beer cask experimentation. In doing so, the flavour canvas of whisky can be ever broadened – appealing to both spirit and beer drinkers alike. And likewise, a raft of eager breweries – who possess many of the same ideals and values as distillers in terms of the pursuit of flavour, quality and innovation – can in turn trial brews utilising a diverse selection of whisky casks types. There’s potential here for a growing and exciting symbiosis.
Door 10 of the 2021 Boutique-y Advent calendar allows The Dramble to complete its coverage of Boutique-y’s sorties into James E. Pepper. And there’s few (any?) other Boutique-y batches that we’ve managed to do the same with. Batch 3 takes the same rye base as Batch 1 and Batch 2, but this time goes for a finish in an ale cask. Which ale and how long – I don’t know. But the end result is a release of 356 bottles (which seem to now be sold out everywhere) and an ABV of 50%.
Once you’re done here, both Sorren at OCD Whisky and Brian at Brian's Malt Musings and undertaking the 24 days of Boutique-y this year - so go check them out for some alternative views.
Nose: Immediate rye impact with tangible caraway, clove and cinnamon spicing. Cream-filled doughnuts, vanilla fudge and buttered toast fill out the rest of the nose, alongside toasted cereals, brown sugars and shaved oak. Dilution presents roasted carrots, reed and flax and caramel – an interesting melange of savoury with sweet.
Taste: Sharper, tarter and far weirder. Opening with fruity wild berries, then moving swiftly into the rye spice from the nose before moving towards burnt caramel and a host of pre and post fermentation beer notes – yeasty conical fermenters, maltiness and a sense of ‘green’ hops and resin. Interesting. And a very nice foil for the rye. Reduction retains the potent combination but brings the rye forward whilst sending the ale back. There’s additional maltiness and a tart drop of lemon juice.
Finish: Medium to long with ‘floral’ ale notes, malt loaf and lingering pepper.
This wild ride of a James E. Pepper will surely divide the crowd even further than the “like rye” / “don’t like rye” gulf. But those that do like rye whiskies will find both a palpable beer cask influence here as well as an excellent integration between the cask and the underlying spirit. Easily my favourite of the three Boutique-y James E. Pepper released, but then they are preaching to the perverted with this one 😊