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Where’s all the beer-finished whisky?

  • I recently discovered there are around 10 breweries in Brighton and the surrounding area. For a city that’s penned in by the sea and the South Downs, it’s remarkable they managed to fit so many in. Then again, at least one is situated in a restaurant’s basement and another is operated out of a garage, its beers home delivered to the local community by bicycle. That’s resourcefulness for you.

    Brighton is a city big on drinking – we have one of the highest number of pubs per capita in the UK, which coupled with our Green-voting, sustainability-loving culture, means we lap up local beers like tap water. It’s no wonder our breweries seem to be thriving, but their success is driven by a more widespread love affair with beer taking hold of the entire drinking population of the UK, and that of the rest of the world too.

    In his book, The Ale Trail, beer writer Roger Protz noted that in 1994 there were ‘fewer than a dozen draught beers called IPA’ in the UK, and fewer than 400 craft breweries in the US. In 2015 – some 20 years later ­– America now has 4,269 breweries, 99% of which are small and independent operations, such as microbreweries, brewpubs and regional craft breweries. Here in the UK, as in the US, pubs are featuring new guest IPAs and ales every week.

    Our choice now has never been greater. Experimentation with various hop varieties (there are over 80), kilning temperatures, yeast strains and fermentation times is yielding a rainbow of flavours that’s continuing to swell as interest grows. It really is an exciting time for beer drinkers, but craft beer’s renaissance should also be sparking a fire of intrigue among whisky lovers as well.

    Beer’s characteristic flavours – which range from light citrus and tropical fruits through to malt and sweet oak – are also inherent to Scotch whisky, which started life as a beer after all. The two beverages are a match made in heaven, yet when most people talk about pairing beer and whisky they think of the hauf and hauf, or boilermaker – a dram of whisky accompanied by a beer chaser. Sadly, despite sharing so many complementary qualities, there seems to have been little thought given to beer’s potential use in the maturation process.

    Beer and whisky: so many similarities yet a partnership explored so little

    Cask finishing may be a relatively new practice in Scotch whisky’s timeline, but it has been dominated thus far by wine, particularly the fortified variety. Such is its popularity that just 30 years after its inception, talk is already surfacing of innovation in cask finishing running dry, but beer has barely been given the chance to gift itself to whisky. Many distillers renowned for exploring finishes are still to even experiment with beer casks. I can’t be the only one to think this is a shame.

    So far there have been a measly two releases of Scotch finished in beer casks, and both from the same company: Grant’s Ale Cask in 2001, and now Glenfiddich IPA Experiment, released just this month (edit: thanks to Chris Cussiter for bringing a third occurence, the independently bottled Polly's Casks, to my attention). Earlier this week I had the opportunity to taste the latter, which forms part of Glenfiddich’s new Experimental Collection.

    The IPA, a bespoke beer created by Speyside Craft Brewery (SCB), was barely distinguishable from Glenfiddich’s signature pear, vanilla and citrus character, such was the seamlessness of its pairing. If it weren’t for a slight hoppy note and acidic edge you wouldn’t have known a beer was involved at all, though according to malt master Brian Kinsman that’s the idea. ‘It’s my view that a cask finish shouldn’t dominate,’ he said. ‘If all you’re smelling is IPA, that’s a failure’.

    As with any cask finish, the imparted flavours must complement the whisky rather than dominate it, and above all else be subtle enough to ensure the liquid is still recognisable as Scotch.

    Kinsman and SCB trialled three different brews of varying strengths and hop intensities in American oak casks of different char levels for varying lengths of time, before emptying them and refilling with Glenfiddich. In the end, Target and Challenger hops were used – US hops that have made American IPAs so popular were deemed too sharp to complement the whisky – while the IPA was best left in cask for four weeks, and the whisky finished for three months. A lot of trial and error, as with any good experiment, is key, but is that long process why so few distillers today are interested in beer?

    Surprisingly, considering the lengthy relationship between beer and whisky, this is new territory for modern distillers. While publicans would have historically stored their whisky in whatever casks they could get hold of – beer included – distillers today are more concerned with the quality of cask, and the flavour its indrink imparts.

    To pair an already established cask-conditioned beer with a whisky in the first place, let alone succeed at marrying the two together through the complex process of secondary maturation, is not a simple feat. If distillers must invest in collaborating with a brewery on a bespoke beer to ensure a perfect finish, then so be it. They certainly won’t be short of a brewer or two to work with.

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