Craft beers have been taking a bath in Kentucky’s finest barrels. The results, in the right brewers’ hands, can be delicious. Americans have enjoyed bourbon for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that craft breweries began tinkering with bourbon-soaked barrels. The brewmasters at Samuel Adams and Goose Island, for example, discovered they could impart their favorite bourbon flavors – vanilla, caramel and even dried stone fruits like cherry – into beer by letting it mellow in the charred oak barrels formerly used for bourbon. Over the last three decades their experiments have helped fuel one of the hottest, if polarizing, trends in brewing (and a tasty way to recycle). It’s fascinating to experience how a humble bourbon barrel can transform the flavor and aroma of a good craft beer—provided those powerful flavors don’t completely overwhelm the beer.
Some of the top-rated bourbon barrel-aged beers—Founders’ “KBS”, or Kentucky Breakfast Stout, for example—are scarce, due to fervent local popularity and limited runs (all that time in the oak is expensive). Similarly sought-after elixirs include Deschutes’ The Abyss, Dieu du Ciel!’s Péché Mortel, Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Ops, and Firestone Walker’s Parabola. But there are some bourbon barrel-aged brews that can be a touch easier to find.
What’s your favorite bourbon barrel-aged beer? Tell us here.
And read on for details on two standbys.
We found a new favorite on a recent road trip through northern California. After passing through Sonoma, we spotted the Anderson Valley Brewing Company in tiny Boonville. Brewmaster Fal Allen told us proudly how A.V.B.C. scored an exclusive right to buy Wild Turkey barrels for their Bourbon Barrel Stout. To create it, Anderson’s Barney Flats Oatmeal Stout rests in Wild Turkey barrels for no less than three months, adding deep toffee and vanilla flavors to an already rich brew.
Another delicious standby: Curieux – a bourbon barrel-aged tripel from the always-innovative Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine. While most brewers are barrel-aging stouts and barleywine, Allagash starts with their creamy Tripel Ale and stores it in Jim Beam barrels for two months. The result is a complex beer with a smoky punch followed by flavors of coconut, vanilla, and yes, bourbon.