Last year, Julian P. Van Winkle, the scion of Kentucky’s celebrated Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery, seemed perplexed but pleased when he told me that almost every day he gets an email from a craft brewer looking for old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels to use for aging beer.
“I’d like to see the difference between, say, a Maker’s Mark barrel and a Pappy barrel aged with the same beer,” Van Winkle said. “That would be fun to try.”
Recently, Crawford Moran, the brewer-owner of Five Seasons Brewing Co. on Atlanta’s Westside, took up Van Winkle’s challenge. Over five days (March 27-31), Moran will present the results of a grand bourbon beer experiment.
Moran filled five different bourbon and whiskey barrels — Four Roses single barrel, Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey, Evan Williams single barrel, Pappy Van Winkle 20 year and Old Pogue bourbon — with a Belgian-style ale he dubbed “Free Form Jazz Odyssey,” then aged each barrel for six months.
“We were very fortunate to be able to get hold of a Pappy Van Winkle 20 year barrel,” Moran said. “We knew we had to do something fun. We went back and forth on which of our beers to fill it with. But it’s amazing how when you add beer to the creative mix, things can grow out of control. The idea kind of grew and grew until it exploded into this project.”
A staunch but mischievous beer advocate, Moran said he started with this question: “If bourbon were good enough to be beer, what would it be?”
In brewing a beer that would take on the flavors of the barrels, Moran decided the challenge was to do something that would have enough character to be exciting. But he also wanted a beer that would “showcase the barrels, their subtleties and nuances, and be able to reflect the individual bourbon or whiskey.”
“The Jazz Odyssey has the beautiful deep copper color of bourbon” Moran said. “We also tipped our hat to bourbon mashes by adding a bit of corn. It’s the same beer aged for the same amount of time and conditioned the same way, so the only real differences are with the barrels.”
Moran’s tasting notes reveal how various degrees of char and the addition of grains, such as wheat or rye, in the bourbon or whiskey originally aged in each barrel create distinct aromas and flavors in the beer.
He describes the Four Roses barrel as spicy, the Jack Daniels as fruity, the Evan Williams as straight-ahead bourbon, the Pappy Van Winkle as round and smooth, the Pogue as smoky.
“The Pappy barrel we got was filled in 1991,” Moran said. “It’s amazing to think about that barrel sitting there for 20 years. I think about what I was doing in 1991. A lot has changed. That’s almost half my life.”
In addition to the barrel-aged beers, Five Seasons will feature food and cocktail specials each night.
Some of mixologist Ronnie LeClair’s creations include a Bourbon Bacon Flip (Evan Williams Single Barrel, bacon syrup, farm egg, cream soda, lemon and candied bacon), and a Sazerac (Old Pogue, Herbsaint, Peychaud’s bitters, sugar cube and flamed lemon peel).
Bourbon Beer Week, March 27-31. Five Seasons Westside, 1000 Marietta Street NW, Atlanta, 404- 875-3232, www.5seasonsbrewing.com
— Bob Townsend, AJC Drink blog