If you're primarily a beer lover and not ombibulous -- a great H.L. Mencken coinage that describes lovers of all things alcoholic -- then your knowledge of bourbon may be much like mine. Most of us know the bourbon basics: what it is and how it's made. But I was so intrigued by a bourbon-beer connection I set out to learn more.
Bourbon is a distilled spirit, of course, an American whiskey made from mostly corn. Bourbon is generally around 80 proof, or 40 percent alcohol by volume, though some go higher.
Bourbon's flavor comes from its ingredients -- corn, water, wheat and rye malt -- and what's imparted by the wood. The color results from its aging inside a charred oak barrel. There are no added flavors or coloring. The spirit itself harks back to the whiskeys made in Scotland and Ireland, which early settlers brought to the new world in the 18th century. The bourbon name -- most likely a nod to Bourbon County, Kentucky, though some people think it was inspired by New Orleans' famous street -- came into use in the 1850s and people began calling it "Kentucky Bourbon" a couple of decades later.
Whether you prefer the flavor of Jack Daniel's, Jim Beam, Pappy Van Winkle or another of the many famous bourbons on the market depends on the mix of the three grains most commonly used to make them. The most traditional use around 70 percent corn and 15 percent each of rye and wheat to yield a bourbon that calls to mind sweet toffee, fruit, vanilla or pralines along with the unique spiciness from the charred barrels. But other bourbons emphasis either the rye or wheat to subtly change the flavors. Rye makes the bourbon spicier; wheat makes it softer and a little sweeter.
But one of bourbon's most interesting quirks -- and the reason you're reading about it here -- lies in the rules for making it. According to federal law, bourbon must be made in the U.S. using a minimum of 51 percent corn and -- most importantly -- it must be made in "charred new oak containers." American bourbon distillers make a lot of bourbon. That means a lot of bourbon barrels -- barrels that can be just used once.
So what do they do with these massive oak barrels once they're done with them? Some are made into planters or used as rain barrels, others are made into furniture or even art. Still more are used in the making of maple syrup, vinegar, fish sauce and even Irish whiskey in Ireland and Scotch in Scotland. If you haven't guessed by now, they're also used for aging beer.
Beer in bourbon barrels
In recent years, brewers have begun aging their beers in used bourbon barrels to great effect. It's difficult to say which brewer was the first to try it, but the first one I can recall trying was Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout, which was first made in 1992. Samuel Adams was experimenting around the same time with a new bourbon barrel-aged beer they called Triple Bock.
Theoretically, any beer can be aged in a used barrel. But some styles make more sense, usually bigger, heartier beers, which can stand up to the strong bourbon flavors -- which is why you see so many imperial stouts and barley wines that are barrel-aged. Lighter styles can be overwhelmed; I doubt we'll ever see a bourbon barrel-aged hefeweizen.
Big, bold, bourbon barrel-aged beers have grown in popularity to such a point that many breweries have begun experimenting with bourbon barrels and other barrel types as well.
I think the best are those that don't overwhelm the beer with the bourbon character. Some beers have so much bourbon character that their essential beeriness is lost, instead of enhanced with layers of flavor and complexity. But that's a personal preference. Many of these beers could almost be considered bourbon light. They also are among the most popular, so it's clear there's a place for both kinds in the beer world.
Four of the 10 highest-rated beers on Beer Advocate's list are aged in bourbon barrels -- and 15 of those types of beer are in their top 50. RateBeer touts similar rankings with four of their top 10 -- and 17 of their top 50 -- aged in bourbon barrels.
Curious to try them for yourself? Here are just a few of my favorites:
Goose Island's Bourbon County Stout is sold throughout the Bay Area, though it tends to sell out quickly. Others to keep an eye out for include AleSmith Speedway Stout Bourbon Barrel Aged, Allagash Curieux, Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout, Firestone Walker Parabola, North Coast Old Rasputin Anniversary Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout, The Bruery's Black Tuesday (which is very rare) and The Lost Abbey's Angel's Share Bourbon Barrel-Aged.
Another worth seeking out is the Eclipse Barrel Aged Imperial Stout series from FiftyFifty Brewing in Truckee. Brewer Todd Ashman makes an amazing series of barrel-aged beers each year, aged in as many as 11 different barrels. He uses different colored wax to seal the bottles, which are coded so you know what kind of bourbon barrel it was aged in. A 2013 release with a silver wax top, for example, was aged in Maker's Mark barrels. A 2012 vintage edition with blue wax was aged in an Old Fitzgerald bourbon barrel.
Contact Jay R. Brooks at BrooksOnBeer@gmail.com.