Nov. 1, 2012 at 1:29 PM ET
There are many great craft beers that are aged in Bourbon barrels — Founders Kentucky Breakfast Stout and Goose Island Bourbon County Stout spring to mind — but there’s only one Bourbon I know of that’s aged in beer barrels: New Holland Artisan Spirits Beer Barrel Bourbon, a smooth 80-proof whiskey that combines the rich malt essence of a dark beer with the powerful charms of Bourbon.
This is one of my favorite spirits, probably because it’s aged in wood that once held one of my favorite beers, New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk ale.
Each barrel begins the useful portion of its life in Kentucky, where it’s filled with newly distilled whiskey and left inside a rick house for several years to mature. Over time, the whiskey infiltrates the charred innards of the barrel, picking up flavors of oak and smoke, and leaving behind a distinct Bourbon flavor.
After the whiskey has been bottled, New Holland buys these flavor-infused barrels from the distiller, and ships them to their Holland, Mich., brewery where they are filled once again, this time with Dragon’s Milk ale.
For the next 90 days or so, the Dragon’s Milk soaks up luscious tones of vanilla, oak and, of course, Bourbon. But it’s a two way street. As the beer permeates the wood of the barrel and extracts these lovely flavor notes, it’s also leaving behind delightfully malty tastes, like rich threads of caramel and toffee.
As they started getting into the spirits business, the folks at New Holland had the bright idea to see what would happen if they refilled these used Dragons Milk barrels with Bourbon once again.
“Using Dragon's Milk barrels to finish a spirit was inspired by our friends in Scotland,” Rich Blair, National Spirits Manager for New Holland, told TODAY.com. “They have been finishing whiskey in wine barrels for a long time, and we had a feeling Dragon's Milk barrels would make wonderful whiskey.”
The basis of Beer Barrel Bourbon is a blend of 110 to 115-proof Bourbons that come from Lawrenceburg Distillers in Indiana. New Holland places this whiskey in the used Dragon’s Milk barrels, and 90 days later it emerges, transformed into an incredibly smooth 80-proof taste treat.
“Through exploration and experimentation, we decided that we loved the character the Dragon's Milk Beer Barrels imparted,” Blair said. “Notes of biscuit and roasty malt intermingle with the traditional toffee and caramel undertones of Bourbon.”
A sip starts out cherry sweet, and then begins to unfold with tastes of rich caramel and toffee, followed by a slightly sweet and very dry cocoa finish. Count to five, and a gentle warmth blossoms in your chest.
The essence of a good Bourbon left intact, but the harsh edges have been smoothed out by the caramelly character the whiskey picked up in the Dragon’s Milk barrels. This is an imminently drinkable and delicious adult beverage, one that’s satisfying for whiskey aficionados as well as an excellent place to start for someone new to the ways of whiskey.
While New Holland’s Beer Barrel Bourbon might be the only Bourbon aged in beer barrels, it not the only spirit offered by a craft brewer.
Many craft brewers have started to dabble in spirits, fueled in part by the restless creativity that defines the American craft beer scene, and in part by the lure of a profitable extension of their business.
Dogfish Head has been playing around with spirits for years, making a Brown Honey Rum and “jin,” a funky gin distilled with juniper berries, cucumbers, peppercorns and cascade hops. Pioneering craft brewer Anchor Brewing has a full line of spirits, and Rogue Ales offer a whiskey version of their popular Dead Guy Ale, created with the same four grains used in the beer.
While most spirit offerings created by craft brewers are worthwhile, there’s something special about New Holland’s Beer Barrel Bourbon for a barrel-aged beer fan like me. It’s like they’ve taken the essence of what makes these brews special and (pardon the pun) distilled it into its purest form.
Beer Barrel Bourbon is just now rolling out to liquor stores in Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, New York and New Jersey.
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