The other week, spurred by what seemed like a healthy crop of whiskey-barrel beers coming to Seattle drinkers, I put a call into a local distillery to see how the barrel-selling business was going.
This was the mixer.
Great, one of the owners told me; for $75 a pop, they haven't lasted more than a few days after their whiskey batches were done.
Then he said something that caught my imagination: "I tell a lot of these guys they'd probably be better off putting a shot of whiskey straight into their beers."
His reasoning was that in making whiskey, part of what a barrel does is pull out undesirable elements; that's why they only use barrels once and then pawn them off to eager brewers and winemakers. But while he had some chemistry-based reasoning behind his recommendation, what I liked about it was it seemed to provide a shortcut to a cheap bourbon-barrel beer.
Of course, there's always been the boilermaker - a beer hit with a depth charge of whiskey and usually taken down in one swill.
But what I was after was truly replicating the experience of a whiskey-barrel beer - a drink where the beer is clearly in the driver's seat and the whiskey is just an ornery passenger in the bucket seat - without stepping foot in a brewery.
My bourbon was Jim Beam. My beers you'll find described below. This column was written in real time. Let's do it.
My first drink is a half a finger of bourbon and a Black Boss Porter in an 8 ounce glass. It works beautifully. The beer - a 9.4 percent alcohol product out of Poland - is big enough to keep the bourbon in check. That leaves the whiskey to give what by itself is an overly chocolatey beer more complex sweet notes. Of course, it also bumped that 9.4 percent alcohol content up a bit.
Hack lesson learned: Chocolate and bourbon are friends.
Next I try a Samuel Smith (Yorkshire) winter ale with a splash of the Jim (again in an 8 oz. glass). Sam and Jim don't seem to get along together, which is understandable and says a lot about Americans and Brits (two nations divided by a common language). While it calls itself a winter ale, most Pacific Northwest palates would consider this closer to a traditional English pale, with a light body and pronounced hop notes. The British invented the boilermaker with precisely this type of beer in mind. But they didn't invent the drink with bourbon in mind. Bourbon is much sweeter than the whiskeys (or whiskys) they prefer across the pond, and with a pale ale, the bourbon introduces sweet notes that are wholly unwelcome.
Hack lesson learned: Bourbon is beyond the pale.
So with an English winter ale performing poorly, how could an Imperial IPA stand up? Delightfully, as it turns out. I've turned to the Dogfish Head Imperial out of Delaware. As hopped up as Imperials are, they need a bold malt flavor to accompany them; in this case, Doghead brings "a ridiculous amount of English two row barley" to the table, and it's hard to distinguish what's what when imbibing the 9 percent beer with bourbon. All you know is you're getting a stiff drink with both a heavy body and enough corn and barley to satisfy all sorts of recommended daily amounts. The hops do suffer a bit, but that's a small price to pay for that extra shot of booze.
Hack lesson learned: Corn mash or barley, they're all killer cereals.
Do you have a liquor-beer combo you think is mondo? Send it my way at email@example.com and I'll try to include it in a future column.