First Draft: East End, Wigle gamble on flavor with barrel swap
It is the barrel that never runs dry.
First, it held a Kentucky bourbon. Then, a big malty barleywine. And most recently, a Dutch-style gin.
The oak vessel gave something a little different to each one, the liquid inside borrowing from its predecessor. Jill Steiner was still trying to figure it out.
“There's a lot going into this gin,” Steiner says. “There may be leftovers of the original bourbon, although, so far removed, who really knows? There definitely is some minute quantity of the barleywine left in it.”
Steiner works for Wigle Whiskey, which just released its Frankenstein of a gin called Barleywine Barrel-Rested Ginever from a collaboration with East End Brewery. It kicks off a series of experiments with Pittsburgh brewers, which will include Draai Laag and Penn Brewery.
Aging beer in spirits barrels is a long-standing, even traditional, practice that has become more popular in craft-beer circles. But Wigle's partnership with East End Brewery takes it a step further, turning it into a two-way relationship between distiller and brewer that treats the barrel something like a game of hot potato. Wigle and East End brewer Scott Smith will trade the barrel back and forth, alternating beer and spirits, to create libations that will absorb the characteristics of the barrel's previous inhabitants.
The idea began from a casual inquiry from Wigle co-owner Meredith Grelli during a barrel-aged beer festival last year. Smith had a bunch of empty barrels lying around after he packaged his beer, and Grelli asked him what he planned to do with them.
He told her he wasn't sure.
“And she said, ‘How about we put some spirits in, and after we're done putting the spirits in, we'll send them back to you and you can put something else in them,' ” Smith says. “And it's like, the light goes on. We can do that forever.”
The spirits would “refresh” the barrel, lending new characteristics even as the previous generations of flavors dissipated over time.
There is a bit of risk in doing this. Neither Wigle nor East End can be sure what will happen after generations of spirits and beer have soaked the wood. That can be a big gamble on something they've spent months, or even years, patiently crafting.
“There always is that little fly or mosquito in your ear that's saying, ‘What if this tastes really terrible?' ” Steiner says.
The gin did not taste terrible. It picked up the amber color of the barrel and had notes of pine and botanicals that were enhanced by a light woody oak.
The barleywine's sweet malt was present, although it was difficult to tell just how much. I was tasting them side-by-side. And double fisting an 11-percent alcohol barleywine and a 43-percent gin exhausts the tastebuds pretty quick.
You can taste for yourself July 31 at East End Brewery, which is hosting a free event starting at 6 p.m. to sample the gin, as well as some barrel-aged beer.
Smith has the barrel now and has already filled it with his Monkey Boy, a light and fruity hefeweizen that is less than half the strength of the barleywine.
It'll be interesting to see what happens. It's unlikely the oak will impart much, nor the bourbon in this fourth generation. Smith expects the botanicals to pop through and complement the banana esters in the beer. But all of this is just conjecture and wishful thinking.
“That's the fun part,” Smith says. “You get to throw some beer in and see what comes out. It might be completely 180 degrees from what we expected, but we'll get what we get.”
Chris Fleisher wants to sleep in a bourbon barrel to see how he'd age. Follow him on Twitter: @brewsreporter.