Choosing to cook with wine or beer adds a dimension of superiority to the chef as he coaxes hidden flavors to the surface. Soft nuances of crème brulee, tropical fruit, dark cherry, and baked challah live within the liquid, crying out to be paired with foods of equal match. A dram of whiskey works equally well with an educated palate. My personal favorite has always included pouring generous amounts of Southern Comfort on a rib-eye cut of beef that had been seared in a hot pan; then rubbing the surface with rosemary, basil, sage and a touch of paprika. Searing seals the juices in, while the alcoholic action of whiskey breaks tiny fissures in the surface, allowing residual sugars to permeate the rich, red meat. It never fails to bring oohs-and-aahs from my guests, who can barely resist the temptation to over-indulge.
In my earlier days, I didn’t quite understand how closely aligned beer and whiskey were to each other. After my introduction to British beer author Michael Jackson, the revered Beer Hunter and Whiskey Chaser, I began to read more about Scottish whisky and how it is crafted, enamored by the language in his books. My imagination soared with descriptions of the shimmering sun on Mull, the sea lochs and seaweed of Skye, and Speyside’s wooded stretches, richly decked in wild sage and woodruff.
The similarity to the process of brewing beer was striking. Barley, gleaned from the Black Isle, the Laich of Moray or Abredeenshire is harvested; then lightly drenched in heathery water from the burns of the Isles. The grain, spread out on a maltings floor, sprouts tiny roots. Transferred from floor to the kiln, it dries over a peat fire, sucking in the air of the land. Within the mash tun, it is again mixed with water where it awakens the inner sweetness. Yeast is added for fermentation, just before distilling and casking. I was struck by the affinity of their origins, transformed at the crook of distillation before coming full circle to the glass.
Is beer just baby whiskey, or is it the other way around? The argument could go either way, much like the chicken and the egg. Without the distillation process, whiskey could find its way into a cask or bottle as beer. But as it undergoes further growth in the still pot, it matures into beer’s offspring. With barrel aging in bourbon or whisky barrels, a special hybrid comes forth, one that is more aromatic, with contrasts of sweet and bitter, mellow and dry.
Some of these hybrids are outstanding. The Angel’s Share from the Lost Abbey in San Marcos, California, emerges from bourbon barrels after a full 12 months. It glows with mysterious density inside your glass, hiding its demure power within chocolate covered caramel and coconut cream flavors. Dangerously drinkable, it may be better sipped from a dram, where aromas of toasted oak can be more concentrated for your olfactory pleasure.
Melange No. 3 from the Bruery in Placentia, California is a blend of three bourbon barrel-aged strong ales that captures the best of each. By merging the colorful flavors of White Oak Sap Wheatwine, Anniversary Series Old Ale, and Black Tuesday Imperial Stout, a complex interplay between toffeeish malts and chocolate quenches the thirst, while figs and cherries spread latent flavors on the tongue. Red meats, a hearty cheese and pecan pie stands up, firm and noble, within these higher alcoholic blends.
Other examples of these superior barrel-aged styles await discovery: New Holland Dragon’s Milk Bourbon Barrel Stout from Holland, Michigan; Allagash Curieux Bourbon Barrel Tripel from Portland, Maine; Bourbon Barrel Quad from Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri; and Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout from Alltech’s Lexington Brewing and Distilling Company in Lexington, Kentucky – all “proof” that a wealth of wonderful aromas and flavors are within reach to satisfy our deepest need for pleasure.