Well, that’s a novel concept. I love me some barrel-aged beer. That’s largely because I love bourbon (the primary spirit barrels used for aging beer) and I love what a good bourbon barrel treatment will do for a beer. Oak, caramel, coconut and, of course, bourbon meld together with the base beer to make something special when it’s done right. When it’s not done well, it makes a boozy, bad beer, but that’s no different than making a subpar base beer in the first place. One such bourbon barrel-aged beer is New Holland Dragon’s Milk, a very readily-available (in both 12oz and 22oz formats) imperial stout made in our neighbor to the north (Michigan, for those of you geographically-challenged). I’m not the hugest fan of it, but it’s wide availability, small bottle format, and price point make it a good option for getting into barrel-aged stouts or for picking up when you don’t want to drop the dime or time to find something superior.
This bourbon from the same New Holland takes the concept and flips it on its head. You acquire barrels that once held bourbon and fill them with imperial stout to make Dragon’s Milk. Once you’ve filled those barrels enough times with beer (not sure if New Holland reuses barrels), then what? Break them up? Reuse the barrels for planters or decoration? Toss them? In what seems to be, at the very least, a product concept and profit maximizing burst of brilliance, they went another route. Why not – wait for it – put bourbon back into the barrels? At worst, you end up with a bourbon that isn’t affected by the prior beer in it at all and just tastes like bourbon. At best, you somehow get to impart the spirit with some characteristics of the beer and create something really unique. Either way, you get to sell it for $30.00 or so and the concept is cool enough that people will buy it (case in point: Me).
Concept aside, two important questions: how does it taste and is the beer factor identifiable? To begin with, at 80 proof, this is not a bruiser of a bourbon. My sweet spot is somewhere between 86 and 100 proof, with everything approaching and exceeding 100 to be too “hot” to enjoy straight and most things below 86 seeming too watery and dulled. This is most definitely a mellow bourbon, with no harshness or tannins from the oak present at all. You get a lot of caramel, a little corn, a little oak, a fair amount of sweetness, and some chocolate. It’s not the most complicated bourbon in the world, but it’s fun to try to pick out the impact of the beer. I’m certain that the hint of chocolate is picked up from it and I’m about 50/50 on whether the rounded edges and mellowness is due to the additional aging in the beer barrels or the fact that it’s only 80 proof. It’s definitely an easy drinker, even straight.
So, at $32.99 (Party Source), is it worth it to pick up a bottle? I’d say this: if you see it at a bar, try a pour first. If you really like it, go for it. I’m just hesitant to pay $33 for a neat concept when I live so close to Kentucky and all the variety of bourbon that entails. For that price you can buy a handful of very good single barrel bottles, including a few of Party Source’s Private Barrel Selection. I think that is a better use of money, but hey, if you have $33 bucks burning a hole in your pocket and want to give it a try, I wouldn’t argue hard against you not buying a bottle.
Footnote: In related news, Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar has an event next Thursday featuring a cask of Dragon’s Milk and the Beer Barrel Bourbon. The folks from New Holland who brainstormed the concept and made it a reality will be available for answer questions.