The whisky industry has explored various forms of cask maturation, in pursuit of fresh flavour profiles. Gavin D Smith reports on the use of beer barrels by different distillers, and the challenges of working with beer-seasoned casks
“Beer and Whisky gang thegither,” as Robert Burns didn’t actually write. But he might well have done, if he’d thought of it, as he had a great fondness for both.
For many Scots, perhaps of a more mature persuasion, old-school bar drinking frequently consisted of orders of a ‘hauf’n’hauf,’ a half pint of McEwan’s or Tennent’s and a chaser of Bell’s or Grouse. And maybe a pickled egg.
A number of distillers around the world – most notably in Scotland, Ireland and the United States – have taken the pairing a stage further, however, opting to use casks that previously held beer for maturation or ‘finishing’ purposes.
One keen exponent of the art is Jameson, with its CaskMates Stout Edition and CaskMates IPA Edition expressions. Deirdre O’Carroll, a blender for Jameson’s owners Irish Distillers, says: “Whiskey producers have always had a close relationship with beer. As distillers we rely on cereals to make our whiskey, in fact we use fermented beer in our stills to make new spirit, so there is a natural correlation between the two.
“At the same time, beer and whiskey often go hand-in-hand in the minds of consumers, so it was a no-brainer for us to begin experimenting with finishing whiskey in beer-seasoned casks.”
ABOVE: Deirdre O’Carroll
ABOVE: Brian Kinsman
The pioneer of using beer casks to influence whisky character was William Grant & Sons, which launched Ale Cask Reserve in 2001, with the Grant’s blended Scotch spending time in casks that had previously held Edinburgh Strong Ale, made by Edinburgh’s Caledonian brewery.
More recently, Grant’s Malt Master Brian Kinsman revisited the concept, pairing Glenfiddich single malt with IPA from Speyside Craft Brewery.
According to Brian: “The key thing is to always remember the cask finish is not a direct liquid/liquid interaction. Simply adding a small amount of the beer to the whisky won’t represent what will actually happen in a cask. When the beer is in cask there will most likely be further fermentation, penetration of the oak by the liquid and quite probably a degree of precipitation of solids out of the beer.
“The presence or otherwise of a char layer will also influence the interaction of beer and cask. The flavour compounds that are retained in the oak at the point of emptying, along with any solid debris such as yeast or cereal left in the oak, will then influence the whisky when it is filled.”
Casks on the move in one of Irish Distiller’s warehouses
Jameson’s Deirdre O’Carroll adds that: “Like all new maturation processes, there is plenty of trial and error in whiskey and beer collaborations, and each one is a journey. Considerations that affect the final product include the style of beer used to season the cask and its associated flavours, and the length of time the whiskey spends finishing in the cask, as some styles will lend themselves to longer finishing periods than others.
“However, the most important thing is simply getting the whiskey into the cask and monitoring it regularly and rigorously. As a blender, it’s my job to find that perfect balance, where the flavours of beer and whiskey marry to reach peak perfection, while still embodying the unmistakable Jameson taste.”
Brian Kinsman is of the opinion that: “Certain styles of beer work better than others, but I think the style of whisky is also important so it is about finding a combination that works in harmony and doesn’t create a flavour clash.”
Deirdre O’Carroll says: “Tasting the beer and nosing the cask beforehand will of course give you an idea of what to expect, but it’s not a direct translation. For stout-soaked casks, the whiskey will take on flavours such as cacao, butterscotch and coffee notes. On the other hand, ales tend to be more hoppy and citrus-driven in nature. Although both offer completely different flavour profiles, they work seamlessly with Jameson. We’re very keen to continue to experiment with beer finishes and never rule anything out.”
One newcomer to the Irish whiskey scene embracing the use of beer casks is Hinch distillery, located in County Down, Northern Ireland. They have created three blended whiskeys with beer cask finishes, released in their ‘Craft & Casks’ range last year. The trio were Imperial Stout Finish, Irish Red Rye Finish, and Rye Export Stout Finish. Casks were sourced from Whitewater Brewery in County Down and Kinnegar Brewing in County Donegal – and the whiskey spent a minimum of 12 months in the beer casks.
“Tasting the beer and nosing the cask beforehand will of course give you an idea of what to expect, but it’s not a direct translation.”
Head distiller Aaron Flaherty describes these releases as ‘disrupting the taste profile’ of the whiskey scene, and adds that: “The union of whiskey with craft beer barrels is an emerging trend within the distilling industry, and demand is surging. We are a recognised player in the whiskey scene globally and we always strive to be innovative in the whiskeys we create whilst paying attention to current trends in the category. It’s not news to those in the whiskey business that beer and whiskey are a natural fit and the boilermaker is a classic bar order. Our Craft & Casks take that trend one step further.”
Although the use of beer casks by whisky distillers may be ‘an emerging trend’, it is not always plain sailing, with Deirdre O’Carroll noting that: “Timing is everything. We must ensure that they don’t spoil, and this means that as soon as the beer is emptied out, we need to fill them with whiskey immediately.”
Brian Kinsman cautions that: “It is one of the harder cask finishes to perfect, due to the nature of the beer and judging the flavour penetration into the oak and subsequent influence on the whisky. Also, the logistics of beer casks is tricky due to the ABV, so I think there may have been a few failed attempts that we have never heard about!”
PICTURED: Aaron Flaherty