Now there's whisky in the jar

Can't decide what to drink on Burns Night? Why not try a brew of Scottish ale and whisky?
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Indy Lifestyle Online

In a non-smoking pool hall called Chalkies, in Muncie, Indiana; a famous beer-bar in Washington DC; and a Belgian-style restaurant in Philadelphia, I have encountered a sophisticated new manifestation of a renowned English strong (11.5 per cent) ale. Following this out-of-town run, the ale is set to appear in Leeds, Yorkshire.

In a non-smoking pool hall called Chalkies, in Muncie, Indiana; a famous beer-bar in Washington DC; and a Belgian-style restaurant in Philadelphia, I have encountered a sophisticated new manifestation of a renowned English strong (11.5 per cent) ale. Following this out-of-town run, the ale is set to appear in Leeds, Yorkshire.

John Willie Lees's Harvest Ale is produced each year from the new season's Kent hops, Norfolk barley, and Pennine water, at the family brewery in Middleton near Manchester. The new manifestation finishes its ageing in casks that previously contained wines or spirits: thus far, Calvados, Port, Sherry or Scotch Whisky. The last sounds the answer to the question frequently asked about Robert Burns's poem "John Barleycorn". Does it refer to beer (as the English sometimes maintain) or to whisky (as the Scots insist). With Harvest Ale "finished" in whisky wood, the malt lover can enjoy both: beer with a suggestion of whisky.

Yet for those wishing to be more conspicuously Scottish on Burns Night, celebrants can look further north to an Edinburgh ale that has been embraced by whisky. Contact between malt in its fermented and distilled forms has now gone beyond the odd tryst in the Highlands and beer and whisky are now having a serious love affair – the main partners being the Caledonian Brewery, of Edinburgh, and the distillers William Grant, of Girvan and Dufftown (in the heart of Speyside).

Meanwhile, Manchester's wood-aged beer is now being rolled out, so to speak, in the United Kingdom, beginning at the North Bar in New Briggate, Leeds. It's a richly malty beer that picks up elements of peatiness and saltiness from the whisky casks from the Lagavulin distillery, on the Hebridean island of Islay, and Highland Park, on the main island of Orkney. The beer's flavours are predictably smokier in the Lagavulin version, with some spicier notes in the Highland Park one.

The Lees brewery, a pioneer of beers with a wood finish, borrowed the idea from the whisky industry. A whisky matured in the normal way can gain an extra dimension of aroma and flavour if it is finished for six months in a Claret barrique, port pipe or Madeira drum, for example.

Everyday beers are not intended to be laid down for such long periods. Nor would there be much sense in tying up capital in "stock ales". The beer would either go sour or risk being dominated by flavours picked up from the cask. Only Belgian brewers like Rodenbach dare to work in that way.

Richer brews, with more residual sugars to ferment out, and more alcohol to protect them against microbiological spoilage, lend themselves better to a long maturation.

In the days when beer from the wood was commonplace, breweries had their own barrels, but the use of wine and spirit casks to modify the flavour of a beer is a new idea. The cask makes two contributions: the residual flavours of the previous contents (the brandy, wine, whisky or whatever); and the wood itself (almost always oak).

A yeastily fruity beer might find an interesting interplay with Calvados or Port casks. A herbal, hoppy, brew might work better with a cask that has accommodated a grassy, peaty, whisky. Beer and whisky have a particular affinity, both being made from barley malt.

A beer that is malt-accented should meld well with the similar characteristics in an oloroso sherry, but perhaps even more happily with the vanilla-like flavours that typically emerge from oak.

The very small Borve brewery, in Ruthven, Aberdeenshire, has sporadically matured beers in whisky casks, but now the Caledonian Brewery and the distillers William Grant have formed a partnership and begun the process in earnest. The brewery may look Victorian, with its "witches' cauldron" coppers and open fermenters, but is a crucible of innovation. Its products include the first organic ale, Golden Promise; and distinctively American-accented India Pale Ale, Deuchar's; and it is now venturing into wood finishes.

Grant's Ale Cask Reserve (a whisky), the first result of this dalliance, arrived before Christmas, after a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing. First Caledonian brewed a suitably strong ale, which was decanted into empty whisky casks. The ale was left in the casks for about three months, so that it could inter-act with the wood. Then it was removed, leaving behind some interesting malty, flowery, fruity, flavours. The casks were filled with Grant's whisky, which spent months picking up some of the beer flavours.

What happened to the beer that spent three months in a whisky cask and was then removed? Having absorbed flavours from the wood, it had undergone its own transition. Now it has just been released, under the name Double Scotch. A misleading description? "Not at all," says the brewery's managing director, Russell Sharp. "The beer is a Scotch Ale. The maturation was in casks at a Scotch whisky distillery."

It has the colour of a sunset, and a gently sustained warmth from its alcohol (around 9.0 per cent; casks have varied from 7.0 to 11.0). The whisky wood has added a deliciously toffeeish vanilla character, with suggestions of green fruit in a gently tannic balancing dryness. It is available on draught only in Edinburgh's finest pubs, and in London at the White Horse, Parson's Green, as a special for the run-up to Burns Night. Either side of the border, it seems the right beer for the night.

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