Barrels do triple duty
Bourbon then beer then bourbon, each, in turn, flavoring other
Smooth operator: Beer Barrel Bourbon picks up an admirable web of flavors from the barrel's many lives. BBB is nicely sweet and impossibly smooth. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)
Here's the process: New Holland, in Holland, Mich., regularly buys used barrels from Kentucky bourbon distillers to fill with its venerable imperial stout, Dragon's Milk. The beer spends 180 days in the barrel acquiring flavors (whiskey and wood, mostly), while the barrel, in turn, takes on flavors of the beer.
For years, that would be the last stop for the barrels. New Holland would use them as displays, firewood or sell them to rainwater collectors. But then the brewery had an idea: Why not put whiskey in them for another 90 days?
The result, released this fall, is Beer Barrel Bourbon, which picks up an admirable web of flavors from the barrel's many lives. BBB is nicely sweet and impossibly smooth thanks to the beer's influence, which sands down the whiskey's rough edges with faint notes of roasted barley and chocolate.
New Holland was founded in 1997 as a brewery; in 2005, it started distilling. BBB is its latest experiment bridging the two, following its white whiskey steeped with hops (called Hatter Royale Hopquila). Next year, it plans to make liqueur from beer.
"We are a distiller that benefits from our brewer's perspective," said Fred Bueltmann, one of New Holland's managing partners and its vice president of sales. "We really enjoy finding opportunities for innovation. It's not for innovation's sake, but we look for interesting ways to blend techniques to create new flavors."
For now, New Holland is buying its bourbon from Lawrenceburg Distillers Indiana, a large distiller that makes Templeton Rye, among other spirits. Within a couple of years, Bueltmann said, New Holland will use bourbon it distills itself.
Though BBB is worth drinking with just a few drops of water or an ice cube, Bueltmann has been experimenting with it in cocktails, including a Manhattan that he said brings out the whiskey's coffee notes. (The recipe is simple: 1 1/2 ounces of BBB, half an ounce of sweet vermouth and half an ounce of coffee liqueur.)
"We know a lot more about barrel-aging than the old days," he said. "We have perspective and a ton of wood. This ended up seeming like the next logical step on what we could have fun with."