ShareThis Page
Food & Drink

First Draft: East End, Wigle gamble on flavor with barrel swap

| Thursday, July 30, 2015, 8:55 p.m.
The Wigle Whiskey Barleywine Ginever next to East End Brewery's Gratitude, which were aged in the same barrel
chris fleisher | trib total media
The Wigle Whiskey Barleywine Ginever next to East End Brewery's Gratitude, which were aged in the same barrel

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me