5 Things to Know About Beer Barrel-Aged Whiskey
With the introduction of its Caskmates series to the world of spirits, Jameson created a style of Irish whiskey that has yet to be recreated. Though several distilleries have experimented with finishing scotch and bourbon in beer barrels, the technique has yet to take off with Irish whiskey. Gary Feeney, one Jameson's brand ambassadors, talked with Food & Wine about the five most important things to know about its beer barrel-aged whiskey before taking a sip.
In 2013, Jameson caught a lucky break. The Irish whiskey distiller’s Head of Whiskey Science, David Quinn, went out for a drink his friend Shane Long, the founder of Franciscan Well craft brewer, just fifteen miles down the road from the Jameson distillery, in County Cork. The pair often enjoy a night out together, but that night was special: Shane had an agenda. He hoped to convince his friend to let him borrow some of Jameson’s used barrels.
“Using his Irish institution, Shane waited until Dave had four or five pints until he started talking about aging one of his beers in whiskey barrels,” Feeney recalls.
Quinn immediately agreed to the plan, and Long took several barrels used to age Jameson Original back to Franciscan Well, where he refilled them with his imperial stout. Long aged his stout in the barrels for 60 days, and found that the Jameson left behind a whiskey finish on his beer. Being that his brewery is a small operation, though, he had to return the barrels once he was finished with them. It was only after Quinn took the barrels back the distillery that the idea dawned on him at last: Why not try aging Jameson in the stout-finished barrels?
The finishing process
Quinn and his team refilled the barrels with Jameson original, and the waiting game began. Feeney calls Quinn's experiment a “risk,” but one that turned out miraculously well.
Jameson distillers tasted the whiskey at least once a month, looking for traces of stout in the whiskey. After about six months, Quinn knew he had stumbled upon an entirely new whiskey flavor profile. Thus, Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition, which initially launched in 2015, was born.
Quinn went back to his friend at Franciscan Well for IPA barrels, and they made a similar trade. First, the distillery sent Long the Jameson barrels, in which he aged his IPA. Long uses the dry hop technique when brewing his IPA, which means hops are added to the beer after the initial fermentation process, imparting it with a much stronger flavor. He then sent the barrels back, and this time Quinn aged Jameson Original in the IPA-seasoned barrels for around three to four months. In November 2017, the distillery released the Jameson Caskmates IPA Edition.
The distillation process is exactly the same as Jameson Original: Triple distilled, as always, aged for anywhere from four to seven years, then finished in the beer barrels.
The flavor profile
In the Jameson Caskmates stout edition, you’ll encounter chocolate, coffee, and marzipan notes, as well as a creamier texture.
“It hangs around your palate,” according to Feeney. “It’s the perfect whiskey to drink alongside a stout.”
The IPA edition, on the other hand, is, as you might expect, going to taste lighter. You’ll pick up citrus, green apple, and grapefruit flavors, as well as hoppy notes.
Feeney explains that the IPA edition is well suited for mixing in a simple cocktail, like a whiskey and soda, garnished with a slice of grapefruit.
Why it’s never been made before
At the moment, beer barrel-aged whiskey is a rarity in the spirits industry. A distillery called New Holland released the first bourbon aged in a stout barrel while Glenfiddich released the first scotch finished in IPA barrels. When it comes to Irish whiskey, however, Jameson is one the few distilleries to experiment with this finishing process.
“Whiskey barrel aging beer has been around quite a while, but the connection [in the other direction] doesn’t seem to have been made,” says Feeney.
He speculates that whiskey distillers might be reluctant to try it because barrels tend to degrade after aging beer (beer obviously has a much shorter shelf life than spirits, going bad in as few as nine months if it’s not refrigerated) which can contaminate the flavor profile of the whiskey. Geographically, however, the Jameson distillery—being only 15 miles from Franciscan Well—was in the perfect position to experiment. The Jameson could team can easily transport the barrels back to the distillery immediately after the beer aging process is finished.
“[Whiskey and beer] start off on the same path and then they go their own separate routes,” he says. “We’re bringing their common characteristics back together.”
Why whiskey drinkers will love it
Feeney says that Caskmates will appeal to craft beer connoisseurs in particular, whom he thinks have become even more adventurous about what they want to drink.
“It’s extra smooth; there’s no bite. That makes it really, really easy to drink alongside a beer,” he adds. “The way that they complement each other, it makes it the perfect pairing.”
Jameson Caskmates also enhances the whiskey’s already approachable, easy-drinking quality.
“We’re never going to do artificial flavor, apple cinnamon or something,” says Feeney. “It’s authentic craft that tries to empower the flavor of our whiskey.”