You probably haven’t tasted too many whiskies like Charbay’s R5 (Lot No. 4) from St. Helena, CA, which is double-distilled from Bear Republic Racer 5—a sharp, hoppy California IPA. Ditto for San Francisco-headquartered Seven Stills’ peaty, sweet Chocasmoke whiskey, which is derived from—per the name—a chocolate oatmeal stout.
The two distilleries are among a number of producers who are closing the loop between craft beer and whiskey by either distilling from finished craft beers, or aging their whiskies in barrels that previously held beer. The experimentation seems long overdue, considering that most whiskey actually originates from beer (specifically, an unhopped, unsavory beer that’s malted with the sole aim of being siphoned for its alcoholic potency) and that microbrewers have been messing around with aging beer in whiskey barrels for more than 20 years.
“I’ve drank the beer that’s distilled into Wild Turkey or Jim Beam, and it just tastes like a crappy pale ale or something,” says Esquire beer-and-spirits writer Aaron Goldfarb. “So I’ve often wondered why normal distillers don’t try and make a superior beer and distill it.”
Or, to expand on that notion, why not simply partner up with like-minded thinkers on both sides of the aisle, à la Charbay collaborating with Bear Republic? When it comes to distilling from finished craft beer, the answer, as with most things, typically comes down to dollars and cents. Even if a whiskey, like Charbay’s R5, is only aged for 28 months—a babe by many industry standards—the cost and attention to detail required in distilling from quality beer can become prohibitive.
“When you make a ‘distiller’s beer’ out of malted barely without hops and without making it so that it’s delicious, it’s usually around 35 cents per gallon,” says Charbay head distiller Marko Karakasevic. “When you make a finished, bottle-ready beer with hops, it’s more like four bucks. [But] you have an amazing opportunity to make super-flavorful whiskey when you use super-flavorful beer because it’s a 10-to-one reduction of whatever you’re distilling.”
Having been in business for more than 30 years, Charbay’s cultivated enough of a following that they can make those kinds of refined choices. For startups, being selective about distillation methods can be more of a gamble and particularly impact pace of production. “We’re really strapped for cash, so we really have to think about everything we do,” says Tim Obert, co-owner of Seven Stills, which, in addition to Chocasmoke, produces small batches of whiskies distilled from IPAs, coffee porters and even a sour beer. “That’s why we’ve been so slow about putting out new whiskies. If I had an infinite bankroll, I’d be experimenting with every kind of beer I could, distilling it and seeing what happens.”
“For hundreds of years, American distillers have been sending their barrels to Scottish distillers,” says Walker. “And all of a sudden, American craft brewers are intercepting them for their own use, so it’s like, ‘Why don’t we keep them rolling to their destination in Scotland and see what the effects are on Scotch?'”
Falling down the rabbit hole of this train of thought, others are aging their whiskey in barrels that once held everything from barleywine to stout. This past December, Calabasas, CA, Scotch auteurs Alexander Murray & Company debuted the limited-release Polly’s Casks, which rounds out its Alexander Murray’s Highland-outsourced, single-malt bite with an unexpected, nutty sweetness akin to candied pecans. The trick? Placing their Scotch inside oak bourbon barrels donated by Left Coast brewer pals Firestone Walker—who had last appropriated them to punch up their barleywine-style ales—and letting the different accents intermingle for a year before corking the results. For Firestone Walker co-founder David Walker, the paradoxical nature of widening a whiskey’s profile by effectively bridging the gap between brewer and distiller was irresistible.
“For hundreds of years, American distillers have been sending their barrels to Scottish distillers,” says Walker. “And all of a sudden, American craft brewers are intercepting them for their own use, so it’s like, ‘Why don’t we keep them rolling to their destination in Scotland and see what the effects are on Scotch?’ We’re all fascinated with the riddle of flavor and wood and beer, so it all made a lot of sense.”
It also addresses the practical matter of how to reclaim barrel wood rather than have it languish and rot in a warehouse after one use. That’s what led Holland, MI, distiller and brewer New Holland Artisan Spirits to a pioneering awakening in 2012 about how to repurpose the bourbon barrels used to enhance their Dragon’s Milk Stout.
“We started to have barrels that we used to age beer stacking up and we just didn’t know what to do with them,” says New Holland Head Distiller Brad Kamphuis, summing up the brainstorm for their Beer Barrel Bourbon as “resourceful, but innovative at the same time.” In other words, the decision was not a gimmick, but the result of necessity (and you know what they say about necessity).
The real stamp of credibility for this fledgling movement might have been affixed with Jameson’s contribution. In 2014, the Irish whiskey heavyweight brought its Caskmates series—reputed to have sprung from an informal chat among friends, as is common lore for these collaborations—stateside. For Caskmates, the venerable distiller finished aging its signature spirit in Franciscan Well stout barrels, lending the original whiskey a welcome roasty overtone. And while Jameson’s senior brand manager Patrick Caulfield admits that, unlike smaller competitors, “We’re not reliant on this new innovation,” he describes the underlying motivation as, “Hey, if we feel good about this, then let’s go for it.”
With or without Jameson’s deep pockets, the unifying thread for any distillers playing around in this new sandbox of innovation—whether it’s whiskey distilled from finished beer, or whiskey finish in beer casks—seems to be a “Why the hell not?” mindset that’s good news for drinkers and, potentially, smart business.
“’Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it’ is the attitude,” says Chuck Cowdery, editor and publisher of The Bourbon Country Reader and author of several guides to American whiskey. And for all those closed-minded purists forecasting the doom of whiskey tradition, Cowdery offers the most common-sense advice of all: “If it doesn’t taste good to you, don’t drink it.”