I went into GABF week with two or three half-baked ideas that I trusted would morph into a story for Colorado Brewery List—perhaps a deep dive into porters (because that style was my gateway to craft and I don’t see enough of them), or writing about the newly-added hall space (which was, in reality, beneficial and appreciated), or maybe I’d write about all the Scotch Whisky barrel-aged beers that were available (not Bourbon, not Irish Whiskey, not Rye—Scotch). I imagined there’d be at least a few of those in the hall.
I’ve been a Scotch drinker most of my adult life, and though as I’ve aged such proclivities have receded (with beer emerging as my drink of choice), Scotch is my spirit animal. I’ve only tasted one Single Malt Scotch barrel-aged beer, Islay from Avery, that employed Laphroaig barrels to age a stupendous stout. I appreciated it for what it was, and loved the richness of the stout hitting a wall of peat, but my tastes track more toward the Highlands or Speyside regions. (Visiting the Oban Distillery is on my bucket list.) I imagined that seeking out these beers from a specific type of barrel would be a revelatory homecoming of sorts, like visiting an old friend in a new town. I also wondered why didn’t I see more of them.
Some preliminary research uncovered one thing I’d suspected: Obtaining Scotch barrels isn’t easy. In order for them to be true Scotch barrels, they must be made in Scotland. Numerous Scottish distilleries work with American whiskey producers— Jack Daniels is one, for instance—Glenmorangie still uses Jack Daniels barrels for some of its whisky. Reversing that course (because something like bourbon must begin in a new oak barrel or it’s not bourbon) makes zero sense economically. There appear to be plenty of bourbon barrels on the market for this very reason, and breweries snatch them up, coveting their flavor power. I’ve also heard that Scotch barrels are too intense for aging beer for any length of time. It was still hard for me to understand why, after all these years of American craft pushing the boundaries of beer, there were so few Scotch barrels being used by breweries.
I already felt like this story wasn’t going anywhere.
When I searched my GABF app, 12 beers with “scotch” in the name came up. Some I could tell were actual Scotch ales, not barrel aged, but a few looked promising. I marked them and entered the fest on Thursday fully intent on finding these rare birds.
I found one. The beer was “Tears of My Enemies,” an Imperial Milk Stout aged in Scotch barrels, from Monday Night Brewing Company. I didn’t see a brewer when I was at the booth, and no one knew the exact barrel. It was likely a blended barrel (the internet was no help in this regard), and though the smokiness was minimal and I didn’t get much body, at least I could tell it spent time in an actual Scotch barrel because I could taste that telltale peat.
Bean Me Up, Scotchy, a Rum barrel-aged oatmeal Stout from Florida Keys Brewing, Good City Brewing’s Rye Barrel-Aged Lord Lyson Scotch Ale – the only other beer that tasted even remotely like scotch was Bancreagie Scotch Ale from Brau Brothers Brewing, made with genuine peat-smoked malt. Out of 4,000 beers in the hall, there were two I could find that exhibited Scotch-like characteristics. TWO.
It was then that I fully accepted my failed search.
Around 8 pm I entered the gate of the Jameson Caskmates section. I’d lost my friends (again) and the fake grass floor felt amazing compared to the concrete I’d been walking on for hours. I’d heard about this new addition to GABF, but didn’t fully grasp “the experience” until I stood in the center of it and got my bearings. Divided into two distinct sides – one for the Stouts, one for the IPAs – the entire 12,600 feet contained 17 breweries, all of which had aged/finished their beers in Jameson barrels. At one end was the entrance and on the other a huge stage. There were tables and cornhole in the center. Jameson swag was scattered about, koozies and keychains, and the lines were pretty short, considering. It was an impressive set up.
There won’t be exhaustive tasting notes or an in-depth analysis of Caskmates’ presentation, the booths, etc., in this article, but I will preface it by saying this: I love IPAs. I like them more than Stouts. I don’t drink a ton of barrel-aged beers, and if I do, it’s a short pour, or I’m trying something at a bottle share. IPA is my go-to style, I admit it. I am not ashamed. (Insert maniacal laugh here.)
It quickly became apparent that lines blurred in this fest-within-a-fest. This was no stout-first-IPA-later-to-save-your-palate scenario. It was all about the marriage of a particular barrel and a particular beer, and hop bombs weren’t exactly designed for aging anyway. I came to learn that the I.P.A. style was very loosely employed, if at all. And so, as my mother would say, “I zigged and I zagged.”
Because I grew up in Ohio, and they just opened an outpost in my hometown of Canton, I started my Caskmates journey with Fat Head’s. Their offering was a Mexican Hot Chocolate Stout – roasty, spicy, and that Mexican hot chocolate grittiness, all kissed by wood. 10% ABV. If they’re all going to be as smooth as this, I thought to myself, I’d best take it easy. I wended through the Stout section, savoring each sample. I went slow. Great Divide‘s Yeti dude passed by, looking around furtively, as if trying to hide. He darted for the exit, two women following, videoing the whole scene.
Over the course of two and half sessions and more than XX beers tasted (I have no idea), I had exactly four that made me stop and say, “Wow!” aloud: Head Full o’ Dynomite New England Style DIPA from Fremont Brewing (WA); Blackberry Cobbler Berliner from WeldWerks (CO); Galaxy Bowl, an all Galaxy-hopped DIPA from Hop Butcher for the World (IL); and finally, one of the most surprising and complex beers I’ve ever had, the Golden God Blonde Ale from Green Flash Brewing that I found in Jameson Caskmates.
Golden God Blonde Ale is brewed with Irish ale yeast and, according to Jameson’s info pamphlet, is a “twist on one of our recent beer creations, ‘Albino’.” (I couldn’t find any info about this elusive Albino, but I’m assuming its also a blonde.) Golden God pours just like it sounds – golden, like light honey. As I waited my turn (the person in front of me was quite chatty), I read the description of the beer, and noted that it listed green apple in the tasting notes. I got my pour, moved out of the line, took a sip, and immediately stopped.
I can only imagine the look on my face. I got right back in line.
Three tasters later I finally felt like I could tease out the flavors playing in my mouth. Mango. Watercress. Apple, yes – not as tart as a Granny Smith, and more like caramel apple, but not in a buttery sense, more like…sweet orange marmalade? Coconut. That came out of nowhere! Was it the yeast? And the million-dollar question: Could I taste the Jameson barrel?
I could – it warmed everything, but more like a light jacket than a wool coat. Dissipating slowly, there was no harshness or bitterness. The barrel imparted a rich, full quality to the beer—I couldn’t get over how well it all came together. Golden God isn’t an everyday drinker, at least not to me, but that’s hardly the point. It was a beer I wanted to pick apart, talk to the brewers about, geek out on. It was different and completely unexpected. After finishing that final ounce, I jotted down a few notes, certain that I’d be writing about Jameson Caskmates, absence of Scotch barrels be damned.
Suddenly things got busy again. The line at Green Flash was much longer and several lines for beer on the Stout side were connecting with ones on the IPA side, making it harder to move around freely. I didn’t get to continue the conversation I’d started with a gentleman I’ll call Dustin, because it was either that or Justin or Darren or…he didn’t have any business cards, but he told me that he’d been the one who brought Caskmates to Green Flash. I thanked him profusely.
I had some other standout beers in the Caskmates section: the Imperial Stout from New Orleans’ Parish Brewing Company – a 12 percent masterpiece of charred walnut, chicory and carob, black as tar and thick, like BA Ten Fidy but not quite as oily in appearance, and with a more pronounced oak character than many other Stouts I had; and Jamo-Nilla from Revolution out of Chicago, a Nitro Vanilla Imperial Stout that was smooth as hell (of course) and much drier than I’d expected, plus it wasn’t too sweet.
But my very favorite was Great Divide’s “The Smoothness,” a dark lager that absolutely blew my ever-lovin’ mind. It wasn’t viscous like some stouts, but it was full-bodied, rounded, no jagged edges or heat. Whiffs of burnt toast, because there was a biscuit quality to it, or more like biscuits cooked over an open flame, singed. Smoke is one of the easiest words to fall back on when talking about a whiskey barrel-aged beer, but it was present in all instances at Caskmates, and so it became apparent that this whole exercise was about how smoke teases out different flavors, the interplay as well as the fight. The Smoothness was so well balanced I found myself looking around for someone to share my enthusiasm. The line, by that time, was too long for me to keep going back for thirds (and at such a high ABV, I didn’t need to), but I sure as hell wanted to.
Several of the beers in the IPA section were Reds. There was one true IPA (Heavy Seas’ flagship), then two Belgians, a Dubbel, a Doppelbock, and the Golden God Blonde. As my list of favorites can attest, with the exception of one, I only really liked the Stouts created for by this mini-fest. This is perfectly fine, of course, because I so thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I’m so glad I lost my friends for a solid hour and a half while I explored 17 Jameson-inspired barrel-aged beers.
These types of collaborations are one of my favorite things about the brewing industry. Give brewers a single constant and have them use whatever that is— in this case, a barrel from the Jameson distillery in Midleton, Cork, Ireland—to create a wide variety of styles, all of which share a common bond.
If you missed it at GABF, and want to jump on the Caskmates train, check out the schedule for the Jameson Caskmates block party tour throughout the U.S. at JamesonWhiskey.com. Dates run through June of 2019. It’s a delicious, eye-opening ride.