Beer on Whiskey: A Match Made in Heaven?

Jameson Irish whiskey has recently released a series of whiskeys called Cask Mates, where Irish whiskey has been aged in wooden casks previously used for beers such as IPAs or Stout.

No doubt you have heard of beers aged in bourbon or whiskey casks, but the other way around?

The Irish distiller aims to appeal to the craft beer lover (and possibly a younger demographic) by combining fresh hoppy flavors with mellow Irish whiskey. The IPA Cask Mates whiskey offers those hoppy grapefruit citrus aromas while there is also a Stout Cask Mates Jameson for those who prefer their darker beers.

You would be forgiven for thinking all that whiskey shares with beer is the wooden casks and the word malt, but they have a much more complex relationship.

Some countries even make beers that use whiskey malts to add aroma to the beer, a classic example being the Adelscott beers of France.

Even the Scots have got in on the act with brewers like Tennants and Brew Dog producing whiskey beers. The Scots know a thing or two about whiskey, so if they’re mixing it with beer it can’t be a bad thing, right?

Beer and Whiskey – What Are the Similarities and Key Differences?

brown wooden barrels
Photo by Brian Taylor on Unsplash

The most obvious similarity, which you are probably aware of, is the use of malt in both whiskey and beer. Both whiskey and beer are made from starchy grains like barley, wheat, millet, rye, and oats, with water and yeast added.

Both involve a mashing stage before the brew is fermented. In essence, all whiskeys start as beer really. Maybe that’s one of the early meanings of the phrase “beer before liquor.”

That’s about where the similarities stop. While beer will have hops added to balance the sweet maltiness, a whiskey mash is never intended to be drunk in its natural form. The resulting fermented wort is distilled into a higher ABV spirit of 40% or more before being aged or blended with other malts for more flavor.

Whiskey From Beer – Distilled Beers

the person pouring beer into glasses from the bottle
Photo by Dylan de Jonge on Unsplash

Believe it or not, the Germans, the great beer-loving race, have been distilling beer into the hard stuff for generations. Spirits like bierschnaps or bierbrand are their versions of schnapps and brandy that started life as a beer.

Japan has also been distilling beers for the last decade with famed Kiuchi Brewery making a boozy spirit from their well-known Hitachino Nest White Ale called Hitachino Kiuchi No Shizuku (Shizuku is Japanese for “water spirits.”)

Here in the US, brands like California’s Essential Spirits have been making bierschnaps distilled from their very own California Pale Ale since 1999. As the number of craft brewers in America has reached a record high interest in distilled beers has also resurged.

In 1999, Charbay Artisan Distillery & Winery experimented with turning a pilsner into whiskey and six years later took Bear Republic’s Racer 5 IPA (one of the most respected IPAs at the time) and distilled it into what was maybe the first – but is certainly the most famous – whiskey from an American IPA, Charbay Whiskey R5.

Basically, distilling something reduces the liquid at a ten-to-one ratio, so if you start out with a very drinkable beer, you’re going to concentrate all that deliciousness and complex flavors of the beer into a shot of whiskey.

Whiskey Beers You Need to Try

At the other end of the scale, you have whiskey beers – these are beers that either have had whiskey added to them or aged in wooden casks which have been used for storing whiskeys. Although they don’t yet have their own BJCP classification, whiskey beers are proving to be very popular commercial beers on the craft beer scene.

Harviestoun Brewery of Northern Scotland produces a dark ale called Ola Dubh, Gaelic for “black oil,” which is aged in casks from Orkney’s Highland Park Distillery. The finished beer features a bold, smokey aftertaste with a sweetness of toffee and hints of dried fruit – a nod to the use of sherry and whiskey casks.

Tennants, one of Scotland’s oldest breweries, makes Tennants Beer Aged with Whisky Oak, a lager/ale hybrid that uses the oak barrels of Speyside Single Malt for the aging process. The infusion of oak gives a warming effect on the palate with fruity aromas coming from some unexpected American hops.

The much-beloved craft brewery, BrewDog, has been producing a fine range of whiskey beers for a few years now, and one of their latest releases is Paradox Jura. A dark Imperial Stout, it has been aged in barrels that previously housed whiskies from the Isle of Jura for a stout that features oaky, smoky, and coffee flavors with a rich caramel undertone.

Here in the US, there are many stouts produced by craft breweries that have used bourbon barrels for a similar effect. Founders Brewing Company cave-ages and matures their Kentucky Breakfast Stout in barrels from Kentucky bourbon whiskey. You get the vanilla and oak notes from the barrel with flavors of roast malt and what the Head brewer describes as a kiss of sweet Kentucky Bourbon.

Is It Okay to Mix Beer With Whiskey?

I’ve talked about whiskey beers and beer whiskeys, but what about mixing a shot of whiskey directly into your glass of beer? The old “boilermaker” tradition.

A DIY beer cocktail, the boilermaker is thought to have originated in the 1800s, with factory workers who were coming off shift (often fabricating the boiler part of locomotive engines) wanting a strong end to their day.

There are no hard and fast rules about which type of beer you should use when making a boilermaker, and you could just use whatever favorite beer you prefer drinking. However, certain whiskies will pair better with certain beers.

Rye or a classic bourbon whiskey will work well with a light lager beer, while the bold Irish whiskeys will enjoy that extra hoppy flavor of an IPA. If you’re looking for something to go with a session lager or ale, a blended Scotch like Famous Grouse is an ideal choice with nice, gentle flavors similar to a lighter style of beer, maybe with the odd suggestion of hops.

American red ales are known to go well with bourbon, as something that reflects back on where the whiskey originated from.

The way you drink your “shot” and a beer can also be open to interpretation. Traditionally, when making a boilermaker, you would half-fill a pint glass with beer before dropping the shot glass of whiskey straight into the beer, and then slamming the contents in one go.

Another option is to dump the shot of whiskey straight into the beer, keeping the shot glass out of your beer – although not as much fun. And finally, there’s the “liquor before beer” method where you serve the shot and the beer separately. Start by shooting the liquor then quickly chase it with the beer.

All the above methods of making a boilermaker result in rapid consumption of alcohol and can be very popular at bar games, especially at student frat parties. If you order a boilermaker at your local hangout, chances are the barman will serve the two drinks separately.

How you chug them is your choice. Many bars even serve a complete lineup of beer and shot pairings such as tequila and beer (a Mexican beer as it’s known) or a herbal bitter amari with a crisp pilsner to name just two.

Whiskey and Beer – A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell?

If you’ve ever overindulged in a session of boilermakers, you probably think beer and whiskey is a marriage made in hell, especially when suffering the hangover effects the next morning.

Whiskey beers and beer whiskeys can add an extra depth of flavor when drinking from the aging oak casks used in each. Jameson actually ages their whiskies in barrels, which are then sent to a brewer in County Cork to store a stout before sending them back to Jameson to mature their Cask Masters range of whiskies. A double shot of oakiness and beer flavors.

Of course, you could always just pour yourself a beer and a shot of whiskey side by side to sip at your leisure. Although it’s not a boilermaker, it is another fine way to enjoy whiskey and beer. A marriage made in heaven some would say!

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