Monday, March 31, 2008

Distillers Branching Out

I spotted this beer a number of weeks ago in the off license beside where I work, but passed up the opportunity to purchase it on a number of occasions mainly I suppose because of its expense and hefty ABV. I just wasn't in the mood for a heavy beer, and besides this establishment was knocking out the mighty tasty Brooklyn Lager a two quid a pop, so I loaded up on that because it is one of my favourite session lagers.

It is grandly dubbed 'Tullibardine 1488, Majestic Whisky Ale', and is brewed in the Tullibardine distillery, which is interesting to me because I am not aware of any other distilleries that have branched out into brewing beer. Sure, there are any number of breweries that have pilfered whisky and bourbon barrels from distilleries and stuffed their beer in them for a few months, but it's unusual for a distiller to bother himself with brewing beer. In some respects it's not that big a step, after all, the distiller has all the malt he needs, understands how to conduct a mash and handles yeast with skill. All he need do is get a kettle to boil in, purchase some hops and grab a brewing strain of yeast that won't over attenuate the wort (or wash, as distillers call it). I imagine there are any number of vessels lying about the place suitable for fermenting in, and of course he has a ready supply of fragrant whisky barrels.

Having studied a bit about the chemistry of whisky maturation I can see what these guys are driving at. Whisky casks must be made of oak, and usually stem from either Spain where they matured sherry in a previous life, or North America where they did their bit for Jack Daniels or Jim Beam before being bought up by Scottish distillers to mature their wonderful single malts. This goes a long way to explaining why typical North American bourbon is as rough as old boots compared to Scotch. While bourbon is not made from high quality malted barley - and this certainly affects the flavour, the raw woody aromas stem from the first time use of the charred oak barrel. The spirit is put in the barrel for a few years, and the ethanol extracts all manner of interesting compounds like tannins and lactones from the charred wood. Only once this process has occurred is the barrel suitable for the long maturation of Scotch whisky. Many of the rough elements are extracted by the bourbon leaving a more subtle and smoother flavour in the Scottish product. For some of the very flavourful and heavy single malt whiskies old sherry casks are used which are impregnated with potent flavour compounds derived from sherry maturation. During whisky maturation the spirit is often a 60% ABV and readily extracts compounds from the wood, so perhaps the hefty 7% ABV of this beer is intended as a means of getting a bit more character from the beleaguered oak barrels.

The beer itself is the colour of a rich single malt whisky, but the whisky character is not that pronounced; wine seems to be the dominant flavour suggesting that old sherry casks were used to mature the whisky that occupied the casks before the beer. The alcohol content is evident, with a satisfying warmth all the way down the throat. It perhaps resembles whisky more in this respect than any reference to flavour. There is little in the way of hop bitterness, and just enough malt to hold it all together. Interestingly, there is also a distinct lactic tang which likely stems from micro fauna in the cask, but how well bacteria can live in a cask filled with whisky is something I am unsure off. It is a light bodied beer for its alcohol content, and initially feels a little like a Belgian triple, but the over all impression is tart and refreshing, which is surprising for such a strong beer.


Bionic Laura said...

That sounds like a nice beer must try it out. Interesting about the whiskey barrels didn't know that.
The blog looks good!

David Curran said...

We got two bottles of this in the Greyhound off licence in blanchardstown village. Looking forward to drinking it now.

Alan said...

Innis & Gunn beer is not brewed by a distiller but is is also matured in bourbon casks. IT was the first beer I've tasted that's done this way, so I must give the 1488 a try!