First there was beer
Peel away the packaging, forget the fluffy marketing speak, the finishes in an exotic cask, the long years in oak, the dents in the still, the distillery cat…and whisky is pretty simple stuff. Stripped to the bone, it is distilled beer. When and where the first drop of Scotch whisky was produced, and by whom, remains one of the great unsolved mysteries, but one thing’s for sure – it began with a brew and has done ever since. Tom Bruce-Gardyne has more on the synergies between whisky and beer
Being as old as the drink itself, you can appreciate why the relationship between whisky and beer is often taken for granted by those involved. Yet like a marriage that has grown stale where the couple no longer really talk to, listen to, or perhaps even see their other half, maybe it’s time for a reboot?
“What strikes me as a huge opportunity, I’d even call it an oversight, is that Scottish, Irish and Japanese distillers have allowed tradition to overshadow innovation,” says Jason Parker of Copperworks Distilling in Seattle.
The firm he co-founded in 2013, after over two decades as a craft brewer, set out on a mission to brew high-quality beer without hops and distil it into whiskey, gin and vodka. “If you don’t care to make a traditional product, the world is your oyster,” he says.
ABOVE: Jason Parker from Copperworks Distilling in Seattle
“You can do almost anything so long as you follow a few basic guidelines.”
Somehow, tradition has been tied into the pursuit of alcoholic yield, which has become a driving force for big brands. “When you’re competing in a global market, yield and price really matter,” says Jason.
“And one of the first ‘aha’ moments for a brewer-turned-distiller is that if you target yield, you’re almost always not targeting flavour, and if you’re targeting flavour you have to take a hit on yields.”
Given the rich spread of raw materials embraced by craft brewers, he has long been puzzled by the bean-counter approach among whisk(e)y-makers. “Why would a distiller leave out one of the most important opportunities for flavour development?” he asks. “Why would you eschew that just for yield?”
Pictured: Chris Weld, founder of Berkshire Mountain Distillers in Massachusetts
12 BEERS, 12 WHISKIES
Over on the East Coast, Chris Weld, owner and founder of Berkshire Mountain Distillers feels the same way. “For me the variety and style of beer, the yeast strains and the malts that are being used, are a huge resource for us,” he says. In his Craft Brewers Whiskey project, 12 carefully-chosen craft beers were distilled and then aged for five years in cask. Six have been released, with the rest due by the end of 2021. Tasting Smoke & Dagger smoked lager alongside its distilled brother you can pick up the same hit of coffee and chocolate, says Chris, and the same coriander and orange botanicals in the case of UFO beer. He describes the 12 as “some of the better whiskies I’ve ever had” and you would imagine that anyone half interested in the spirit would be curious to try them.
“You could distil any beer, and the good news is that’s now being done by enough knowledgeable people not to be confused by poor distillation or a bad wood programme,” says Jason Parker. “Can you imagine?” he asks on our video call, his eyes almost popping at the prospect. “Can you imagine, if only one per cent of Belgian brewers decided to become distillers and made their incredibly floral, spicy, funky beers into whisky? It would be delicious, and totally new!”
IN SEARCH OF INNOVATION
Scotland’s BrewDog Distilling clearly has access to all BrewDog’s beers, though they tend to be pretty hoppy and that makes it “super-challenging to get a balanced spirit” says distilling director, Steven Kersley. He feels that Scotch whisky has been “process-driven” for much of its history, and that “innovation is relatively new, with the majority of it in the last 25-30 years” and says: “For me, where we’re at, is we’ve innovated with casks and now we’re innovating further upstream with the raw materials. It’s just a natural evolution.”
A key example is yeast, “arguably the biggest contributor of positive flavours in whisky before you get to the cask,” says Steven. “In order for us to create a favour profile we want, the yeast strain is extremely important, and we’ve been using multiple different varieties in the same fermentation.” But his innovation plans for Scotch have been stymied by another spirit, as he ruefully admits. “Right now, we’re a whisky distillery with a big gin problem,” he says. “Everything we make seems to be going out the door in the form of gin.” This issue should be resolved with the move to a bigger space and the arrival of a new 10,000 litre pot still.
Pictured: Steven Kersley at BrewDog Distilling
YIELD TO FLAVOUR
As for the grain, he says “the barleys grown to supply the Scotch whisky industry are rigorously produced to be high-yielding and disease-resistant. Moving to something with a lower yield like Golden Promise or Maris Otter is a problem for the farmer and maybe more difficult to malt. And it’s lower-yielding in the still house, so if you’re not a distiller focussed on flavour that’s not an attractive proposition.” However, he senses a movement among the smaller independent players who “really want to get under the skin of heritage varieties. And the maltsters are on board so long as the tunnage is correct to put through their plant.”
Then, as every brewer knows, there are myriad ways you can kiln your malt to give you that spectrum of flavour and colour from the darkest, creamiest stout to the crunchiest, palest pilsner. All these malts are available to distillers, as are the different strains of yeast, yet most opt for efficiency and yield. For Scotch whisky often the only variable is how heavily peated the malt is.
You wonder how many distillers could recognise their wash in a blind tasting of samples from distillery wash backs. Either way, it might be good to inform consumers about this whole relationship. Chris Weld’s craft brewers project frequently provokes a startled response along the lines of: “What … you can make whisky out of beer?” To which he patiently explains: “Well, that’s pretty much what all whisky’s made of.”