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Roll out the Barrel
Brewers across the land are ditching kegs for something a tad more refined.
By Darby Doyle
Brewers and distillers have a lot in common. Almost every distiller I've met has spent some serious time homebrewing beer. And the distiller's mash—basically the different types of grain that go into a particular booze recipe, mixed with yeast and water—is essentially beer that'll go into the still to become booze. Look no further than SLC's own Waterpocket Distillery (2084 W. 2200 South, waterpocket.co) for a collaboration using Belgian White IPA from local Toasted Barrel Brewery (412 W. 600 North, toastedbarrelbrewery.com) to make a unique beer schnapps.
Schnapps made in Utah! What a time to be alive.
Historically, brewers and distillers have utilized wood barrels to age and transport their respective spirits.
A bit about the barrel: Although much of whiskey's flavor comes from the mash recipe and type of yeast used in fermentation, a big chunk of what you taste and see in the final product comes from the wood barrel itself. As whiskey ages, alcohol soaks into the wood, and that back-and-forth relationship between the wood's vanillin and tannins and the liquid creates whiskey's distinct flavors. It imbues the amber color versus the "white dog" colorless base spirit that originally was poured into the barrel. Oxygen also comes in to play. As the spirits slowly evaporate over time, a greater percentage of oxygen enters the barrel, taking the bite out of whiskey, mellowing and rounding it out. Bourbon, for example, must be barreled in charred new (never-before used) American oak, and it's believed that the carbon from bourbon barrels' heavy original char helps filter and soften the whiskey, as well.
And, yes, if you're thinking the bourbon industry goes through a helluva lot of brand-spankin'-new barrels if they're disposing of them after one use (even though that might take anywhere from two to 25 years), you'd be right. Those once-used barrels go out in the world to age Irish whiskey, Canadian whisky, rum and malt whiskies of all stripes. More to our issue: Quite a few of 'em are used by the beer industry. Check out local options like Wasatch Brewery's Bourbon Barrel Polygamy Porter, or Red Rock Brewery's Furlong Bourbon Barrel Aged Stout. Epic Brewing has incorporated several barrel finishing iterations in its program, like the Triple Barrel Big Bad Baptist (Imperial Stout aged in both rum and whiskey barrels, with aged coconut and Columbian coffee beans aged in fresh whiskey barrels—hot damn!) and Whiskey Barrel Aged Barley Wine, an English-style Ale.
So, some things to keep in mind when you hear the term "barrel-aged." Every time a used barrel is filled again, that back-and-forth wood absorption/oxygen transfer saps some of the barrel's potency, but it also adds back into the wood staves whatever is added next—whether that be sherry, beer or another type of whiskey. Some barrels might house many types of spirits before they start to fall apart and become someone's garden planter box. Breweries keep this trend of diminishing flavor returns (or, to spin it another way: increased subtlety) in mind when they're using whiskey barrels for aging, maybe starting with a heavy stout for the first round then refilling with lighter styles in subsequent uses.
In a delicious turn on the trend, local grain-to-glass booze-maker Sugar House Distillery has collaborated with a couple of Utah breweries on its Boilermaker series of beer barrel-finished bourbons. While it's not a new concept—check out the tasty Caskmate series from Irish whiskey magnate Jameson—it's always exciting to see more local options available on the shelf, and both of these 92 proof bottlings showcase some pretty bold ambition that's paid off in badass flavors. The No.1 Boilermaker used SHD's housemade bourbon and finished the booze in Uinta Brewing Co. Cockeyed Cooper beer barrels. Offering No.2 took the same small batch bourbon base and entered it into used Epic Brewing Smoked & Oaked barrels. "Over the years, many of our barrels have migrated to local breweries. The Boilermaker series completes the circle," SHD owner James Fowler says.