Whiskey Barrel Beers 

On a ramble through Kentucky's Bourbon Fest a few years ago, I happened across a most Kentuckian innovation: ale aged in bourbon barrels. These days, it isn't as random — or Kentucky — as it seems. Goose Island Brewing has been monkeying around with a Bourbon County Stout since the 1990s. So, bourbon-barrel beer? It's worth a try.

Likely as a result of the bourbon boom in the last decade, brewers have been trying the same technique with lighter styles. With the surge of popularity for bourbon, a "two great tastes that taste great together" experiment seems to be happening, making bourbon-barrel beer the boozy version of a peanut butter cup. The bourbon boom has also done something else — made used whiskey barrels a lot cheaper.

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This is because bourbon distillers, by law, can use those charred white-oak barrels for mellowing moonshine into the nectar of the Gods only one time. Making beer, on the other hand, is a short-term process; no one wants a beer that's a couple of years old. Whiskey needs several years in barrels to take away the harshness of the freshly made stuff. The barrels expand and contract with seasonal temperature fluctuations, so that the whiskey soaks into and out of the charred wood — which makes Kentucky, with its hot summers and cold winters, the perfect place to make the stuff. Wood is porous, so there is evaporation — called the "angels' share" — of up to 1 percent of the volume per year. The angels' share doesn't all go into the air, however; a fair bit stays in the wooden staves.

The barrels are perfectly good, but can't be reused if the product is going to legally be classed as bourbon. Traditionally, these gently used barrels were sold to Scotch distillers to help recoup costs. That still happens, but bourbon production is now so high that there are more barrels than the Scots need, so they are being used to age sherry, brandy, tequila, and, yes, beer.

Storing beer in whiskey barrels draws that angels' share out and into the beer. Traditional stainless steel vats provide more precision in the beer-brewing process. No two used barrels are exactly alike, so what you get when you pull the bung and pour out the beer is always going to be a bit of a mystery. Which is a great story of craft, but how does it taste?

Brewery Ommegang out of New York has a smoked vanilla porter made with light, smoked malt as well as chocolate malt. The porter is aged in bourbon barrels for six months with whole vanilla beans. It sounds expensive, and it is expensive. It is also very deep and — words fail me — luscious. But with an ABV of 8.9 percent, no one is going to be funneling this stuff. It pours and looks like a Guinness, but although rich, sits a lot lighter. The weather and the seasons being what they are in Memphis, I was looking for a lighter version. Which led me to Boulevard Brewing Company's Rye on Rye out of Kansas City. While I'm not a huge fan of rye ales, this one doubled down, aged in whiskey barrels from Templton Rye — which I really do like. Over all, it hit the spot. It was light enough, but had that lovely rye spice imparted by those wonderful whiskey-logged barrel staves. Spicy yes, with vanilla and hops, and a nice clean finish that doesn't leave you looking for a toothbrush.

The great thing is that these two beers taste nothing alike. Barrel-aged beers are all different. To Memphis' craft brewers, I say this: In a few years, Old Dominick is probably going to have a lot of whiskey barrels it can no longer use. Now you know what to do with them.

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